How to Pick a Good Designer
How do you judge the quality of a designer? They don’t have a typical résumé like a sales rep. I’m sure there’s more to it than “ooh, I like this website”.
What a beautiful and potentially self-serving question.
There are several things you can look at to determine the quality of a designer. What you actually want is enough information to decide if they are a good fit for your needs.
- Work type
- Price Structure
What kind of work do you need? Graphic design, print design, web design, logo design, web development, illustration, or typesetting? All these are separate skill sets that may or may not be found in a single individual. Here is the rundown of each skill set:
- Graphic design is a term that is used to describe “print design,” or it can also used as an all-inclusive term for all types of design (web, print, etc.). You’ll need to ask some questions or look at a portfolio to get a clear idea of what that means for your candidate.
- Print design refers to pieces that are printed—brochures, kit folders, business cards, stationery, etc.
- Logo design refers to — you guessed it — designing business logos.
- Web design is designing the look of websites. This doesn’t mean the person is also building the website, but it could. Ask who is doing the programming to find out.
- Web development generally means web design and programming. However, web development is a broad term that includes all types of web-based items such as database work, interface development, software development, etc. You should ask for more details about what this means to your potential designer.
- Illustration is creating graphics to “illustrate” your work. This could be a painted cover for your brochure, icons for your website, or a pie chart for your kit folder. Illustration is artwork that will be used in a final piece as opposed to being art you hang on the wall. The goal is some form of reproduction. This is an important distinction because art that looks good on your wall might not look good in a brochure or vice versa.
- Typesetting or layout design are production level terms used most often by printing companies. A typesetter’s primary job is making changes to existing files, and doing layout of items to get them successfully to press. A typesetter understands how to create a press-ready file that won’t cause issues during the production process. Typesetters may be talented designers, but it is not part of the job description.
Find out a little bit about your potential’s background. Ask questions or read about them.
- Did they go to school for design? School doesn’t mean you’ll get a great designer. But, if they have a college degree you know they’ve at least been trained to take someone else’s crap for an extended amount of time. This can mean they are good on teams and taking constructive criticism. No one needs a designer that takes critiques personally.
- Are they full-time freelancers? Or do they keep a regular job? Lots of designers keep full-time jobs and do freelance work on the side. But because freelancing isn’t their primary job, your project probably isn’t going be at the the top of their list. It doesn’t mean they won’t be timely — but be clear about your deadlines and make sure they can meet them. If they have a normal 9-to-5 job you most likely won’t be able to contact them during your normal working hours. Make sure that isn’t a problem for you.
- How many years have they been designing? The longer they’ve been designing, the more experience they’ve had working with clients, learning to communicate, and understanding/interpreting what a client wants. Generally, a designer with more experience is going to “get” what you need quicker than one that is new. This could make a difference if you are paying by the hour for meetings and revisions.
- What types of projects have they worked on? If you have a web project, don’t go to someone who only has print design experience, etc.
Look at a designers portfolio. This is where you can really see if they are a good fit.
- Style: All designers have a style. Do you like their work? Or do you think it is all ugly? It makes sense you won’t like every design they do since each project is different and their portfolio should show a variety of work. A designer should be putting their favorite pieces in their portfolio. So, if you don’t like anything you see — they might not be a good fit for you.
- Work: Looking at the types of work (web, print, logo, etc.) will tell you what types of work they are comfortable with. If you see 100 print designs and only 2 logo designs, you can be certain they haven’t had a lot of successful logo jobs yet. If they do web design and don’t have a good working website, this is a red flag.
- New designers: A special note about new designers. If your designer is fresh out of school or just starting out they will probably have a portfolio full of sample work — meaning work that was developed specifically for a portfolio and no client was actually involved. Many times this work is done as a group project and may not be a reflection of their talent. Ask questions and find out what they were responsible for on the project. You know that one guy in your group paper assignment in high-school that didn’t pull his weight? Don’t hire that guy.
- Website: Check out their website if they have one. Look at their projects, clients, and background. How comfortable do you feel with what you are seeing?
- Referrals: Did you get referred to them by a friend who is a client? Can your friend tell you something about working with them?
- Clients: Look at their portfolio and consider calling some of their clients and ask about working with them. Do they have a client list posted? Can they give you a list of references?
You can tell a lot about a designer by interacting with them before the project ever starts.
- How easy were they to get in touch with? Are they responsive to email and telephone calls? Is one method of communication better for you and will that be a good fit for you?
- If you had to leave a message, did they have a clear answering machine message or was it garbled with dogs and kids screaming in the background?
- Did they return your phone call or email in a timely manner… or did they call you back two weeks later drunk with a pocket full of excuses? (Yes. This actually happened to me with an electrician I was trying to hire. Spoiler alert: I didn’t hire him.)
- Were they pleasant?
- Did they complain about their existing clients? (This can be a huge warning sign.)
- Did you feel like they were listening to you, or did you feel rushed?
- Were they clear about deadlines, costs, scheduling, and “what happens next?”
- How was the communication? Would you enjoy working with this person?
- Do they meet their own deadlines? If they say they will get you a quote, or call you, or send you information by a particular time — did they do it?
- Did you get a written estimate? Was it on a bar napkin? Was it a bar you like? (Joking.)
We all want to know how much it will cost. It’s an important question! Your costs are going to vary based on the experience level of your designer and the job you ask them to do.
Spell it out in an estimate
What will the designer be doing for you? Will your designer handle everything from soup-to-nuts? Aside from the “design” part, you may need other items related to the project.
- Will your designer be producing press-ready production files for you to send to your printer?
- Will your designer handle the printing?
- Who will buy your domain name?
- Where will you host your new website?
- Who will be installing your new website?
Designers fall into two categories of pricing: flat-rate and hourly-rate.
The designer tells you their hourly rate. They may also tell you an estimate of how many hours they think it will take to do the job (i.e. 2-3 hours).
Generally, I am not a fan of hourly rates. They aren’t a reliable judge of what you are going to get for your money.
- Hourly rates can be stressful: Every time a client interacts with you they have this mental picture in their head of a meter running. Are you charging them for an email, the phone call, etc. I believe it causes clients to rush through their interactions and creates bad communication. Designers can feel rushed as well trying by to keep within budget, and you might not get their best work. All of this can equate to an unsuccessful project.
- Hourly rates can shake trust. Clients worry the designer is padding their time. Designers don’t like having to defend their time. Design takes time; it’s a process. It is rare that you sit down and get it right the first time. A logo development job might take 5 hours the first time to get a logo. But, recreating that same exact logo might take 30 minutes once you remove the sketching and developing from the equation. And, who knows—maybe the designer really is padding their time.
- You can’t compare apples-to-apples with an hourly rate. At first, you may think you’d want a designer that works for a $25 an hour over one that costs $100. But would you rather hire a $100 an hour designer that can do your job in one hour, or a $25 an hour designer that can (maybe) do the job in four times the span because they aren’t sure what they’re doing? The monetary cost is possibly the same, but one designer most likely has the experience to know what you want, and to get it done quickly. The other one is a gamble that can very well end up costing you a lot more.
The designer gives you a flat-rate price for work.
I like flat-rate pricing for my own projects. My feeling is that I am selling you a product, not hours. Over the years, I have learned to judge very accurately how much a job is going take and what a fair price is for that work.
- The designer talks to you about your project, gets the details, and gives you a price based on the amount of work. You know ahead of time the actual cost of the finished project.
- If you aren’t familiar with the way the designer works, get your estimate in writing so you can see a list of the work that will be performed. Make sure your job expectations are spelled out.
- If the job scope changes or you’ve added to the project, a new estimate should be provided or additional costs discussed.
- Surprises in billing are bad for everyone. You don’t want a surprise bill — and I don’t want to have to explain it.
Ask your designer when you can expect a proof and how long revisions will take. They will need to schedule your project. Does the time-frame seem reasonable to you and meet your schedule? Or did you need the project yesterday, and can they offer a rush fee to get it done sooner?
When planning your project, don’t forget to consider the part outside the design part. For example:
- Delivery time. Is it electronic delivery or does something need to be mailed?
- Printing-time. Estimate 5-10 working days to get your job printed.
- Launching a website can require a few additional days of planning.
By now, you should have a pretty good idea of how to size-up your potentials. If you keep in mind your time-frame, budget, project complexity, and ask your questions, you’ll be well armed.