Six (minimally self-serving) tips for choosing a designer

Hiring a designer is a tricky process. You’ve got to pick someone, sometimes out of nowhere, pay him a bunch of money as a deposit, and hope that he comes up with something you love. Chances are good that whatever you need designed is something you care a great deal about (especially if you’re a startup or have a stake in the success of the product/company/website), so you really want to make sure to get it right. But how do you go about finding a designer that’s going to be a good fit for you?

I’ve never felt the need to hire a designer, what with being one myself, but I’ve certainly been hired by lots of people who are looking, and I’ve also heard all sorts of nightmare-designer stories from my clients. (Yep, for every client from hell, there’s also a designer from hell.)

Here’s what I’d do!

1. Look at his portfolio!

Above and beyond anything else, this will give you an idea of what you might be able to get from a designer. Obviously, your results will vary (you, as the client, are an integral part of the design process), but you’ll be able to get a feel for a designer’s style and abilities from his portfolio. If a designer doesn’t have a portfolio—well, quite frankly, this shouldn’t even be possible. If you’re looking to hire a designer who doesn’t have a portfolio or a website, there’s something amiss.

2. Ask around.

Ask your friends for recommendations. Most good designers subsist almost entirely on word-of-mouth, and with good reason! If you know people who’ve hired a designer, chances are they’ll be happy to refer you so long as they had a good experience. You can also check the bottom of websites whose design you really like—most of the time, there’ll be a link to its designer in its footer, and you can go from there.

3. Ask questions.

And lots of them! Does he write his code by hand? Does he follow W3C standards? How long has he been in business? The more questions you ask, the more comfortable you’ll feel when it’s time to start working. This will also give you the opportunity to see how your designer communicates, so make sure that if you plan on doing most of your communications during the project via email, you are asking questions over email. If you’ve found a great designer who can’t communicate, you will run into problems down the road.

4. Find out about his process.

Every designer follows a slightly different process, but for best results, you’ll want someone who will give you a lot of input into the process. Ideally, a designer should start by asking you some questions about your marketing aims and aesthetic preferences. Then, they’ll provide you with a few different mockup options. You’ll then go through a few stages of back-and-forth feedback-and-revision cycles, until you land on a fine-tuned result that’s exactly what you’re looking for. This process assures you a custom result—which is why you’re hiring a designer instead of buying a template, right?

5. Be prepared for it to cost a lot, or for them to be booked.

Sometimes good designers are cheap, but, for the most part, as with everything, you tend to get what you pay for. Design takes time and expertise. Good designers are in demand, which means they’ll either be booked solid constantly, or they’ll need to charge more. While a cheap quote may seem great in the beginning, it generally means that you’ll get less attention and more corners will be cut. If you don’t care if your website works in all browsers or isn’t search engine friendly, perhaps that’s a good thing, but if you want a quality result, expect to pay more.

6. Do some sleuthing.

Check professional qualifications—memberships in design organizations like the GDC are great, especially when they involve a portfolio review, so you’re guaranteed a certain level of professional quality and ethical service. Google your chosen designer to see what comes up. Try his business name, as well. Search Twitter. Creep his Facebook page. You can learn all sorts of things about someone from the internet, and it’s best to do a little research beforehand. Ideally, you won’t find anything fishy, but if you do—ask.

7. Super bonus tip!

Hire me! I’ve been working like a fiend all week, I’ve got a couple of projects coming to a close, and I think it’s about time for some new, exciting projects. Also, you already know I’m a great designer.