Are you considering hiring a web designer or agency to help you with your web project? That’s great! But how are you making your decision? Considering there are plenty of options, from freelancer to design house to full service agency, here are a few things to look for when considering who to hire.
What type of web project do you have? The audience or business needs of a marketing campaign, an integration with an e-commerce platform, an internal business application, and a social networking site are all different; therefore, a different design strategy is required.
If a designer only has experience with designing marketing campaigns, they might have a visually stunning portfolio and might have great ideas for your marketing pages. But if you have a business application that needs rethinking, consider whether the designer would add unnecessary embellishment when function and workflow is the priority. Conversely, if they only design internal tools, how can the designer prove to you they can create a flashy marketing site?
Understanding a designer/design team’s speciality or the work they’ve done in the past can help you determine how they might be able to help you. But that shouldn’t be the only gauge; you also need to ask, what is their approach?
When Approach Overrides Portfolios
A designer may show you their work and how it might apply to your project. And, if their expertise is in line with your project, you might see a lot in their portfolio that relates to your project. That’s ok, but I wouldn’t bank on that alone.
This is when a designer’s approach to their work could override what they might have done in the past. To find the trust that they can handle YOUR project regardless of their expertise or portfolio, ask them about their approach to design.
If their approach is to ask you what you “want” and use that to describe what they will do, that is a bigger red flag than a lacking portfolio. If the designer asks you to show them example sites which will function as a template for your designs, that might also be a concern. You can get a decent design this way, but it might not be the RIGHT design, and it might not solve the RIGHT problems.
The key here is that it’s not at all about what you “want” – it’s what you and your users NEED. A great designer might tell you that a design problem is a unique problem to solve, no matter the type of work or design. Regardless of past work, a great designer will seek to understand your problem and your users. They will design and present the best solution for everyone based on those needs because they are designing solutions, not just something that looks good.
Be wary of judging just on portfolios alone. That’s a good start, but remember to ask how the designer’s past projects addressed the users’ needs, and how those projects were successful. Their approach to design is sometimes more important than just what it looked like in the end.
What Set of Skills Do YOU Need?
There are A LOT of titles and specialties in the field of web design today. You’d be hard-pressed to find just a “web designer” anymore. In the past few years, the web industry has divided into expertises like user experience designer, user interface designer , interaction designer, visual designer, graphic designer, information architect, design strategist, and the list goes on. It seems overwhelming, but there is a reason these new fields emerged: projects required a specific type of thinker or designer, and not a master of all.
But don’t worry, you may not need all of those professionals. Your project can dictate the skillset you need. For example, does your web application have a workflow, conversions, user roles, if/thens, etc? If so, you should strongly consider a designer who is thinking through design strategy, usually done through interaction design or information architecture.
Is there little interaction? More promotional material or information? You might need a designer that is stronger in visual design, animation or even videography.
An experienced designer should be able to help you identify what you need as they develop an understanding of your project, and can help guide you through this better. Just don’t assume that one person can do it all.
The Mystical Design Unicorn (or not)
Once you have an idea of the skill sets you might need, consider who has that expertise. If your project is somewhat straightforward, one designer might do the trick, but be clear about expectations. If it’s a complicated project that requires more capabilities, you may consider a team of designers.
The best way to describe this is to explain how design works best for our team.
Most of our projects are redesigns of existing Ruby on Rails applications, and, as such, having a specific designer thinking through design strategy and user workflows is essential to ensure we don’t lose focus of the end goals. With a separate designer focused on visual design, full attention can be given to form, accessibility, cohesion of style, animation, etc. This separation also ensures we can move through the project at a quicker pace, dividing and conquering as opposed to trying to tackle it one at a time.
Some might also argue that a jack of all trades is a master of none. So keep that in mind if you’re assessing a project that has various design needs. It’s a difficult job to try and tackle all of the pieces, and you might walk away with a subpar result if all of the needs of the project aren’t addressed.
Designer and Client
As a client, you should pay for experts. Otherwise, why not handle the work by yourself? Although you’re hiring specialists, your input and collaboration is necessary and you shouldn’t feel like it isn’t wanted.
Some designers might argue that it’s not your input that matters, it’s your users. Some clients might not want to be bothered with how a designer comes up with their designs, just that they deliver.
I find fault with both of these views.
If a designer doesn’t feel your input matters, how do they avoid making decisions that might not be good for your business? Why wouldn’t they want to round out their team to include the one stakeholder that knows the most about the project? You, as a client, may not need to come up with the solutions, but I’d argue your input is just as valuable as the user research the designer is working with.
If you’re a client who doesn’t want to be involved, you might not be the right person to work with the designer. A better role for you might be a stakeholder who sees the end result and is updated on progress. The right person may be the product owner on your side– the “know all” with whom the designers can consult, share ideas, collaborate on designs, and get buy in to continue.
I don’t believe that a designer can be successful without a client consult in this manner, and I would urge for that dynamic to be established.
Designer and Developer
Development is an essential part of the design process. It is important to determine what kind of experience your designer has working with developers. If a freelancer, find out how they have worked with developers (successfully) in the past. What sort of deliverables do they hand over? How do they communicate with the production team before, during, and post production?
If a designer is part of a full service agency, like Planet Argon, find out how the developers are involved in the conversation. Here at PA, we like to make sure a tech lead is involved from the very beginning and consulted through designs to ensure we aren’t designing in a silo.
These open conversations also keep development in the loop with what’s coming up, to ensure they’re not implementing themselves in a corner. During production, our team works closely to oversee any implementation changes and QA the output before it goes to our clients.
We’re not interested in throwing designs over the wall, and as a client, you should avoid that too. That often leads to misunderstood requirements and lost functionality, resulting in broken user experiences that could cost you more time and money down the road.
At the end of the day
No matter what type of designer you decide you need, you should feel that your designer is a partner with you in the project.
You’ll see this in their approach to design: how they are careful to align their solutions to the goals identified. You’ll see this characteristic in the way that they communicate with you and the rest of the team involved, ensuring that ideas are discussed and refined together. At the end of the day, you should feel that you can trust their expertise, because they have shown you that they have a stake in the project’s success, beyond just their role. They should be committed to finding a solution, not just handing over a finished design.