How to Choose – And Hire – a Web Designer

by Cynthia Laluna · 32 comments

As you scour the internet for a web designer, you realize it can be quite intimidating…

You know that a professional web designer is the best way to perfect your branding, increase your conversion rates, and garner attention, but how do you know if your designer is qualified and charges a fair rate for the work?

Keep reading for some key items to consider when choosing and hiring a web designer.

Make Sure You Ask The Right Questions

How do you evaluate a web designer?

Chances are, you’ll stumble on a designer’s site, check out the portfolio, and decide whether you like the work visually. While this is often a good start, there are other things you should consider, so ask yourself:

  • “Does the designer have experience working with websites with similar functionality to mine?”
  • “Does the designer often create a clean and intuitive navigation?”
  • “Are the websites in the designer’s portfolio still using the design?”
  • “Does the designer need to do branding work? If so, are they experienced with branding?”
  • “Does the designer need to work on your conversion rates? If so, are they qualified?”
  • “Does the designer offer testimonials/referrals that are easy to get in touch with?”

Remember, when asking these questions, think about what you want your website to accomplish—because an effective website is more than just a pretty picture.

For example, if you want to generate qualified leads, does the designer have experience with that? Or, if you’re using WordPress or Drupal, does the designer have demonstrated experience with those platforms? Don’t just take their word for it—if you don’t see matching projects in the portfolio, ask for links and referrals.

Once you’ve settled on a designer, how else can you ensure a successful project?

Communicate With Your Prospective Designer Effectively

When you approach a prospective designer, it’s your job to describe what you want, and trust me, there’s no such thing as too much information!

What kind of information should you give your designer?

Well, if there are a few websites you absolutely love, you should provide them as examples. On the other hand, if there are some colors that give you a rash, you should tell them that too – but keep in mind that just because you don’t like orange does not mean it’s not the best color to use to get users to do what you want them to do. You’re not decorating your living room—you’re creating (hopefully) a revenue-generating portal.

In general, here’s a list of some key information you should give each prospective designer so they can give you an accurate price quote and determine whether they can complete your job:

  • What’s your budget? Whatever it is, state it up front. You need to make sure you’re both on the same page.
  • What feeling do you wish your design to convey? This helps the designer choose art, typography, and site architecture with that aim in mind.
  • What’s the main objective of your website? Do you want more sales? Subscribers? Traffic?
  • What special functionality do you need? Are you trying to sell products in an online store? Do you need special contact/prospect screening forms?
  • What happens after your site is launched? Do you need your designer to stick around for potential updates? Do they offer a maintenance program?
  • What are examples of websites you like? Tell your designer what you like about each one.

While this list isn’t exhaustive, this is the type of thinking and communication that flushes out the true marketing partners—which your designer should be, if they’re charging a decent rate—from the order-takers. Sometimes what you think you want isn’t necessarily what you need, and a good designer will be willing to push back when necessary and offer the benefit of her experience.

Warning: Don’t Say These 3 Phrases to Your Potential Designer

When you find a designer you like, you should treat them and their work with respect. After all, you want them to take your project and do a great job, right?

It’s easy to come across as disrespectful if you don’t give some thought to your inquiry, and designers have to look out for clients who may be “problem children” before taking them on. The interview is a two-way process.

While most designers can roll with the punches, here are some phrases you should try to avoid:

“This ought to be simple” or “I’d code it myself if I only had the time.”

First and foremost, you’re hiring a designer for their expertise, and assuming your project is simple conveys, “I’m not really willing to pay your rates for this project”. Instead, tell the designer what you’re looking for and let them decide on the complexity.

“I’m poor, without any money, so can you design my site for free?”

Remember, designers create websites for a living. If you’re low on funds, you should consider checking out a theme framework like Thesis because it gives you “point and click design controls” for $87. You can always hire a designer to create something for your framework once you’re more flush. Most designers also don’t mind answering emails asking them how best to position yourself for a custom design in the future, either—at least I don’t.

“I want a website. How much will that set me back?”

While this might seem like a great opening, it can sometimes be a red flag. “I want a website” is not nearly enough information, and can be an indicator that you’re not a great communicator yourself. Creating a website isn’t a one size fits all approach, which is why rates vary greatly. Plus a designer also needs to know if your requirements are in their wheelhouse; if not, they should be willing and able to provide a referral to a studio that specializes in the work you need.

Now that you know how to find a qualified designer, and communicate effectively with them…

Is your prospective designer right for you?

Only you know the answer to this question, and listening to your intuition, making sure there is a good personality match, and checking references already puts you ahead of the game.

Professional website designs can represent a significant investment, so, before choosing any designer, you should do some research. If you’re working with Thesis specifically, you can start with the Thesis Theme Designer Directory.

The Bottom Line

In summary: Communicate, communicate, communicate—both verbally and visually—and don’t hesitate to ask questions and demand the same level of communication. If you don’t feel right about the match, don’t hesitate to move on until you find a designer that feels right. Getting in a rush now can cost time and money in the long run.

About the Author: Cynthia LaLuna is the founder and Creative Director of Rowboat Media, an Atlanta-based digital marketing and web design agency serving small businesses and professionals. Click here if you're looking for a web designer.

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{ 32 comments }

Chris Johnson

Another question to ask is “do I get to keep the deliverables.” I am astonished at how many sites I come across that jerk their clients around at the end of the business relationship. (All business relationships end in divorce or probate). They want to “own” the logo, and assert they do.

It’s one way to keep a client, but no way to get referrals.

Derek

That’s a good point. When you’re looking for a designer, make sure you own your work and can use it however you like. Good stuff Chris!

Adam Baird

In this same vein, its important that you always read through the contract thoroughly. That way, you know exactly what you own, what the deliverables, completion date, payment structures, etc. are and you will avoid a TON of confusion, headaches, and ugly divorces.

JC

Great article.

You really hit the nail on the head with a few of these points. I just hope enough people looking for professional web design actually read this.

So many people think this web design stuff is easy. While the actual design/implementation part is fairly easy, getting the customer to actually convey what they really want seems to be the most difficult part.

Sometimes I feel like I’m pulling teeth just to get all their content and ideas they want so I can put them into action.

Derek

Hey JC, now you know where you can send clients when they’re not asking you the right questions :-D

JC

No crap. Bookmarked this and believe I will link it up in my design brief PDF when I send ‘er over!

//* hai to moderator! *//
Could we prettttty please get a subscribe to comments ticker? That would be most splendid.

Sarah

Thanks for the great post, Cynthia! In a couple weeks, I’m going to be doing a presentation for a group of preschool owners who don’t yet have websites, and I want to lead them down the exact right path. It’s articles like this that help me to provide them with the best guidance for getting started and working effectively with designers.

Adam Baird

Right on the money Cynthia! The stuff about communication is a huge problem, but it goes both ways. I’ve gained several clients specifically as a result of a designer that went missing.

One thing I would add is that its important that, as a client, you trust your designer. If you can’t trust the individual/company, don’t hire them. Do your research, check references, portfolio, etc, and make an informed decision. Then, let your designer do their job! I can tell you that my best work is done when I’m given free reign!

Cynthia LaLuna

Thanks for all the great comments!

@Chris – you’re right – I provide PSDs to paid clients upon request (but only after they’ve paid, of course). We grant them perpetual license to their designs as a matter of course.

@JC – I feel you on the content and ideas – many clients don’t understand why a big custom project can take up to 6 weeks. I tell them, “it COULD happen in 3 weeks – but trust me, with communication delays in waiting to hear back from you, getting collateral together, etc. – it will take 6.”

I have to remind myself that while design is OUR business, we’re really a side project for the business owners who have hired us. Sometimes we have to be like buzzy bees to keep their attention and keep a project moving forward, even to the point of discomfort. Naggy nagarellas.

@Sarah – much appreciated! It’s great to know that the experiences I share are – sometimes at least – valuable to others. :-D

Derek

I never understood that… when someone hires a designer, and then leaves them on the line for weeks without contacting them. I mean, they paid for a designer, and they don’t follow up with them. Always confused me.

Cynthia LaLuna

@Derek, that’s the single biggest issue we have with both scheduling and cash flow – disappearing clients. You’d think the sizable deposit would be a motivator, but…we’ve just had to go with the flow. Sometimes it means a few weeks with no launches, and other weeks with 10. After which adult beverages must be applied liberally.

Adam Baird

and/or baked goods ;)

Cynthia LaLuna

Gluten free, dude. Which reminds me, I’ve got some gluten-free sorghum beer in the fridge that it is my civic duty to try…

Bret Phillips

Great article.

This should be a sticky post at the top of the internet!

Bret

Cynthia LaLuna

Awww, thanks!

Bret Phillips

You are welcome.

I really like that you mention it’s a two way interview when first talking with a potential client.

Sure they are looking for the right designer or developer, but as we know from our end being service based, finding the right client can mean saving a lot of time, money, and headaches.

Maybe the next post in the series can be directed at designers and developers…How to Choose The Right Client.

Cynthia LaLuna

@Bret – Ms. Naomi Niles just published a Designer Guide on that very thing, and it includes a workbook for figuring out WHO your ideal client is: http://www.guidesfordesigners.com/filter-attract/

I love her Designer Guides – highly recommended.

Thomas Griffin

That’s the exact topic of an eBook that I am working on now – “The Designer-Client Relationship”.

It will be free, so I will be sure to toss you a copy when it is complete. :)

Thomas Griffin

OMG I love you!

I want to send every client that I get to this post so that they can be informed on how crucial it is that BOTH client and designer have responsibilities to assume in the process. Too many clients assume that we already know everything about what they want and need without giving us enough information to make those assumptions.

Pricing is always an issue, and I always encourage clients to scour the Internet for other prices. I also remind them that they get what they pay for. ;-) Besides, it generally weeds out the clients that I don’t want. If they aren’t willing to pay for quality work, they are more than likely a less than desirable client.

One last thing that I would mention is that your expertise should be riddled throughout your own website. Better yet, your website should act as an active portfolio of your work. Quality and competent design improves the trust factor between clients and designers. If your own website looks like crap, what kind of message does that send to future clients?

Awesome post, Cynthia!

Cynthia LaLuna

I agree, Thomas. You own website is, by default, item #1 in your portfolio. If a prospective client doesn’t hold it to the same standard…they’re missing the point.

Kev

Oh yes, the “we’ve left it till the last minute, can you do it in 3 weeks” line! These days I’m tempted to agree to stupid deadlines because after long experience I KNOW it will be the client that delays it. I find that the bigger the client, the greater the likelihood of long delays so I now focus my business as far as possible on small business owners.

Great article, Cynthia. I especially liked the bit about “what not to say to your designer”. And most especially the “I only want a simple (aka dirt cheap) website” or “I’d code it myself (yeh right)”. In my experience, designing and coding a “simple” website is a real challenge if they mean simple in terms of easy to use and minimalist. A challenge for which the designer/developer gets no credit! Oh well, that’s our lot I suppose. If I wanted to provoke admiring gasps from friends and family, I’d be a landscape designer.

The other day, I created a design I was REALLY happy with for a new client. You know how it is, it just slipped into place right at the end of a long day. I ran into the house (I work in a shed in the garden) and brought the design up on screen for my wife to see. “That’s nice dear” she said. “NICE!” I said. “NICE? It’s bloody genius!”

Fortunately, the client “loved it” (their words) – a small business owner. Made my day.

Cheers,

Kev

Cynthia LaLuna

OK – the part about the landscape designer – THAT was genius. We were showing a blood-sweat-tears project to the in-laws the other day and merely got puzzled expressions and polite murmurs. Self-esteem really has to come from within!

Also – you’re right – the more simple the design looks, the harder it is, and most of the time, the more design hours go into it. The developers love it, but designers sweat blood – when you’re going minimalist, EACH element becomes SO important – it doesn’t have a bunch of buddies to lean on.

Adam Baird

I feel your pain Kev…my wife is my biggest critic.

Joanna G

Great point about website design being a side project for our clients. Never thought about it like that before, but so true. Love the 3 phrases…great post!

Cynthia LaLuna

Thanks Joanna – I have to remind myself of that daily – especially with my lawyer clients – sometimes they’re in trial for a week and barely get to eat. It’s hard on the the ego to realize we’re just not as important to our clients as they are to us, even though the final product is, of course, of utmost importance. Again – that self-esteem from within thing.

Lance Pederson

Cynthia,

Great post!

Having just had you develop a website for us I can attest that you practice what you preach and I ended up having a great experience working with you because of it.

I also knew what was expected of me and knew that you knew what I expected of you.

I’ll also admit that I ultimately chose you over others because you demonstrated to me via your website that you ran a tight ship (pun intended).

Lance Pederson
Fairway America, LLC

Cynthia LaLuna

Thanks Lance! As I said to you earlier, you are a model of perfect client communication. Your project was a complex one, and you stepped up to the plate by providing the answers and collateral needed for success.

The fact that you invested in a professional photographer also told me you were serious about a quality final product.

Eric Weidner

2 other issue that clients don’t consider:

1. Ownership of software and ongoing licenses. This obviously isn’t an issue with WordPress & Thesis, but proprietary software licenses can add up or chain a client to a design/development shop.

2. Ongoing maintenance and support. Once the site is launched, does the web shop offer free bug-fixes for a specified period of time? Also, what are the costs of ongoing edits and tweaks, and will the team be available? In the real world, bugs happen, and small edits need to be made post-launch, after the client has lived with the site for a while. A small monthly maintenance fee can be seen as an “insurance policy” so you always have someone available to help out.

Thanks for the super-helpful post!

Cheers, Eric Weidner

Cynthia LaLuna

x1,000 on the maintenance program – and you have to be responsive as well. I have had dozens of clients say their former webmaster charged high fees for small changes – and that’s when you could FIND them. A reasonably-priced maintenance plan with your designer is definitely the way to avoid these situations.

Jezra Kaye

Great article — and I can tell you that Cynthia practices what she preaches. I hired her following a referral from one of her satisfied customers, and we started off with a very clear, very specific conversation in which I qualified her as a vendor by asking to see other sites she’d designed, and she qualified me by as a client by asking about my concept for the site, what materials I planned to bring over from a previous brand, what elements would be “legacy” and which could she fool with, etc. The price she named was right in line; we struck a deal and I’ve never looked back. Now I recommend her with confidence to my own speaker coaching clients who are trying to upgrade their professional brands with better websites. I think this is what’s called a “righteous circle,” or, more prosaically, a win-win.

Cynthia LaLuna

Thanks, Jezra! I can’t tell you how honored I am that two of my clients have posted such complimentary comments about Rowboat Media’s process. Like Lance (above), you were also an example of exemplary communication yourself.

kb

I find that the more you are exposed to great developers the learning curve decreases. You learn more about the process and more about what you abilities are and what they are not. I think it is worth every penny in the long run.