How to Hire a Web Designer

Susan Villecroze

Today, anyone who wants to provide information, sell something, share information or promote a business knows that a Web presence will help them achieve those goals.

A charity organization may want to promote itself to potential members and volunteers, as well as provide information through newsletters and articles related to its work, so that anyone who’s interested can learn about that organization. A rock climbing center may want to display a map with directions that explain how to get to the center, hints on climbing techniques, tips on where to find good equipment, a photo gallery of the gym with action shots of climbers… Unlike other marketing strategies, a Website has a global reach and can be accessed online 24-7.

If you want a Website, but you’re not a designer or developer, how can you go about getting one? You don’t have the time to learn what it takes to be a Web design guru and you don’t trust that your cousin, who studied computer science, has enough experience to build you a professional Website. So, who can you hire to build your site? With thousands of Web designers and developers out there, ranging from individual freelancers to big Web design agencies, how can you make sure you choose the right help?

What Do You Want?

In order to find help, you need first to figure out what you want. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kinds of information do you want on the site? How big do you think your site will be?
  • Who are your users? Do you know which operating system and browser they are using?
  • Will your site require regular updates? Would you like to make changes yourself?
  • Will you be selling something?
  • Will you need a database to store and retrieve information?
  • Do you want to rely on search engines to send more traffic to your site?
  • When do you need the job done?
  • What is your budget?
The Search Begins

Those who can spot a good Web designer are usually a good Web designer themselves, or will at least have done quite a bit of Web design themselves. But for those who aren’t designers, the choosing of a professional can seem an overwhelming task.

Referrals are a safe bet; although you know you may not be getting the very best Web designer in town, you can usually trust that you won’t get the worst, either. However, if you use referrals and also conduct your own searches, you will have a much better chance of finding a designer who’s right for you. Once you’ve compiled a list of Web designers and/or developers from the sources of your choice, you need to do some serious homework.

What if some of the designers on your list are from out of town? Don’t rule them out if you really like them. If you don’t mind working via email and talking on the phone, you may be quite happy with your choice. There’s always an advantage to meeting in person and onsite visits can be important, especially if there are problems.

There are many things to consider when reviewing your list of potential Web experts. The first, obvious thing to do is to check out their Websites. Browse through the pages and find as much information about them as you can. Ask yourself:

  • Is it easy to find information and to get back to where you started?
  • Do you like the navigation system?
  • Are the pages accessible (no broken links)?
  • Are the pages and overall design consistent?
  • Are there a contact page and site map and can they easily be found?
  • Is there enough relevant information on the site (eg. details about the company including location, what they do, the people, policies, etc.)?
  • Are things aligned properly?
  • Is the text easy to read?
  • Do the pages load fast?
  • Are the pages short, so that it’s not necessary to scroll horizontally, and there’s little or no vertical scrolling?
  • Do links open onto the same page?
  • Is there a portfolio you can view?
  • Does the site discuss the designer’s technical background?
  • Does the site make use of the right colors?
  • Are page titles appropriate and informative?

Hopefully, the answer to all the above questions will be yes. Basically, if you don’t like a Web designer’s site, you probably won’t want them to design your site. Check their portfolio and see if the style is right for you. If you see sites that you really like, make sure the employee/s who built those sites are still employed and can work on your site. What technologies does the designer use? Will this technology work for you and your viewers? Does the team follow Web standards or are they still stuck coding sites like it’s the 90s? Ideally, you want your site to work independent of the user’s operating system and browser.

Has the team created sites for other businesses in your industry? If so, were they able to reflect the business properly? If yes, then this team already knows the needs of your industry and will be more the kind of expert you need than will other Web design generalists who haven’t produced these particular sites. If the site offers testimonials, read them to see what past clients had to say about the work they received. In addition to having technical skills, the designer should be continuing his/her education in order to keep up with the latest technologies and standards.

Beware of companies and individuals who claim to be Web designers and developers but perform mostly graphic design and work in print media. Being able to use Web creation software such as Dreamweaver does not make a Web designer. Your Web designer should, at the very least, be able to help you with Web design and development, Web hosting, graphics creation, database creation, Web content, maintenance and Internet marketing and promotion.

Freelance vs. the Big Web Design Firm

After you evaluate the selected sites, you may need to choose between engaging a freelancer and using a big Web design company. A big Web design company may appear to have a lot of credibility due to its large portfolio, many testimonials, and large collection of experts in all areas of design and development. These experts have to work together to deliver a consistent and successful package for their clients. The size of this kind of organization can make clients feel secure and confident in enlisting in their services.

Freelancers are individuals who can take on all the necessary design and development responsibilities. These kinds of providers often work very closely with others to get the job done, and such close collaboration between fewer people (or in some cases, just one person), means that consistency is easy to achieve. Working alone or in a small group can also generate more motivation and dedication to completing projects in which clients can be guaranteed satisfaction. In this type of arrangement, what you see is what you get: the professional freelancer you meet on the Web will be the Web specialist for your project, and can be held personally accountable. In contrast, in working with a larger company, a perfect stranger may be assigned as your account manager once the sale goes through.

Freelancers may also represent better value for money. With a freelancer, there are rarely any hidden fees, nor many complex contractual details to overcome before the project can begin. Freelancers may also be more readily available to go onsite if required.

Depending on the size and complexity of your site, a big agency may be the right choice. A larger company may be in a position to deliver bigger projects more quickly than can an individual freelancer. An individual freelancer may often need either to subcontract or learn certain skills or technologies in order to get a job done. This can mean extra time and/or cost, and, depending on the freelancer involved, can also result in a less-than-expert product. For this reason, if your project requires the use of a particular language or technology, it’s a good idea to seek out designers who already specialize in that area.

Pricing and Guarantees

To further refine your list of possible designers, you’ll want to make note of their service rates. The prices designers put on their services can vary drastically. Compare rates between designers with similar levels of education, experience and talent. Like most purchases, with Web design, you tend to get what you pay for. If your project is fairly small and straightforward, freelancers may charge less than big agencies. By "small", I mean a site with a few forms and a small database.

Once you’ve narrowed the list, get in touch with the companies or individuals concerned, explain your project, and ask for an exact price quote. Make sure your designer can outline all costings and the work in detail for you. If you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask, and remember: it’s not unreasonable to negotiate a lower price that that quoted if you feel the quote price is not justified.

If possible, also take a look at the supplier’s Web contract. Make sure that the client is protected under this contract, and be sure to check the copyright and payment policies. Make a note of the supplier’s response time, too. You want to work with someone who’s readily available, easy to contact, and who will get back to you promptly.

Look for, and ask about a guarantee of work. Stated policies such as, "If you are not 100% satisfied, we will give you your money back," or "Our rates are competitive but if you find a similar service for less, we will be happy to match it," will give you a clear idea of the designers’ confidence that they can meet your needs. Guarantees are important: there’s nothing worse than paying big bucks for a site you’re embarrassed to show your clients or customers.

Guarantees show potential clients that the company cares about making them happy and is doing its best to ensure your project’s success.

Last Steps: Contact and Check References

When you’ve narrowed your choice down to just a couple of designers, it’s time to contact them and check their references. First, call the providers and ask questions. Are they polite on the phone? Are they good listeners? Were they helpful at all? If they are difficult to talk to and you don’t like the way they treat you, it will be difficult to work with them.

Check each provider’s references by reading any testimonials on the site and perhaps even talking to past clients. Go to their portfolio page, locate the contact information for a couple of clients, and give them a call. If there are no testimonials, ask for references when you call the provider. You are looking to hire, so you have the right to check their work references.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to meet with the designer in person and go through your project ideas. Even at this point, you are not obligated to enlist in their services unless you are perfectly confident they are the right person for the job.

It’s Worth the Work

Follow these steps and you should increase your chances of successfully finding and hiring a Web designer or developer who meets your needs and those of your project. This process may seem like a lot of work, but when you’re spending thousands of dollars, over many years, on your online presence, it pays to do your homework!