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How to Hire a Web Designer

We often see customers after they have had one or two failed and expensive design launches. As a rule, we can usually see that the problems were built into the hiring or communication process right from the start. We thought we would share some great strategies and tips on how to hire a web design team that will suit your organizational needs.

1. Hire a web designer you can fire and hold accountable

We hope to see the end of relative, friend, neighbor or board member web design soon. Websites are often the single most important investment in a non-brick-and-mortar business and the most valuable marketing tool for those with physical locations. Trusting and investing into a situation where you cannot maintain any leverage or control is not an optimal situation. Particularly thorny is a family, board member or largest donor combination. Ask yourself before being swayed by a personal relationship, what the consequences will be if the relationship ends badly.

2. Too good to be true? It is

A complex website may take 100 hours from first interview to post-launch. With small business taxes at 50%, is it reasonable to pay minimum wage rates? Corners are being cut somewhere, decide if you can tell where, why and if it still works for you. There's a range of pricing for web design services and it's all over the map. This range varies on experience and region. A novice charging $25/hr may take four times as long to execute a project as $100/hr pro. So if spending $100 to get work done, do you want a novice or a pro? And just to create less clarity, there are $100 pros that fail to deliver.

3. Good web designers have good references

A surprising number of companies never check references including those of of the team they are trying to fire. At the very least, read some testimonials and reviews. Asking for references, even if you don't actually call, is a good practice. 

4. Look at their web design portfolio

Examine their portfolio carefully. The examples may be pretty but by checking look at 5-10 of their websites:

  • Does the website work well beyond the first page?
  • Does the navigation layout really create a useful user experience?
  • Does the website provide an intuitive experience?
  • Check the footer to make sure the company actually did the work
  • Check the functionality and features
  • Are there easy and logical calls-to-action?
  • Does the website rank well?

5. Good communication is essential for a web design project

Does the design team understand your vision, mission or other sales objectives? Are they clear on what you need and why? Sometimes our clients have no idea what they need and so we are able to guide them. A good web designer listens, asks questions and gives feedback. Some tips for good communication and results:

  • Know what your website goals are
  • Know hat your unique selling proposition is as a company
  • Know who your audience is

6. Too busy to talk with you?

Hiring a designer is a like any relationship, the best-foot-forward behavior declines from the first meeting. If a designer is too busy to speak to you in the beginning, it won't get any better. Not to say that we don't all have our days where everything is in motion, but get a feel for their schedule, workflow and organizational skills.

7. Cautiously consider a one-person web design shop

Think through this concept carefully and evaluate your long-term needs with your hiring choice. If your website purchase is transactional, then a one-person company can be just fine. If however, your site is complex, may need ongoing development, or handles large volume of sales or traffic then an independent shop may not work. Web designers are busy and in demand. They also take time off and go on vacation. You may need more support than a single person will really be able to manage over the long haul. There are also illnesses, life changes and relocation. All of which is less likely to affect you if you hire a larger firm.  Conversely, many design firms aren't interested in long-term maintenance relationships either. There are many dedicated solo-practitioners and it doesn't mean you shouldn't hire them, just evaluate your needs before making a decision.

8. Own the website, do not rent the website

Recently, a company called because their hosting company/web development team wouldn't return their calls or fix the site. A sad but common complaint in this industry. But of course the caller may have been a difficult client or not paid their bills. But regardless, it turned out that the contract they signed actually gave the web developer the rights to the domain name, the hosting environment and the website infrastructure. In essence, the caller only owned the content. Be sure any contract gives you full custody of all assets once the design firm has been paid in full. Be very mindful of the small print.

9. Custom development vs. open-source PHP

Many people are not sure whether they should implement a custom developed web platform or go with one of the large content management systems (CMS) available like Drupal or Joomla. Here's our pro-Drupal or other open-source advocacy points:

  • With a CMS, an upgrade is always in production with thousands of developers improving the product
  • A CMS offers a large repository of information and resources
  • With a CMS you are not tied to one company's proprietary code
  • Drupal is flexible, scalable and upgradable
  • CMSs have a proven track record of implementation

With custom development you may get the website built to specs in a timely manner within budget but you are frozen in time. There are no free upgrades and improvements provided, you may not be able to move the site, change companies to work with or be able to easily program improvements. It can be a one-time use website.

10. Look for an established business operating 3 to 5 years

Speaking of pros, web design has moved light years beyond working with Dreamweaver. We do not build any websites that are not a CMS. A professional web designer takes into account search engine optimization, social media integration, branding, user interface, information hierarchy and many other elements. If your site is important to your business, make sure they have hit their 10,000 hours. Read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers for the concept.

By hiring a professional, you increase the odds of getting the latest technology so your website can have the most features at the best price.

11. The pitfalls of hiring a part-time web designer

Two issues can arise when hiring a part-time web designer. If they have a full-time web design job, it's challenging to come home at the end of the day and return to the same grind. The second is a time issue. Let's say a web design takes 100 hours, if a person works on the website for 7 hours every weekend, it will still take about 15 weeks to get the site done. If any changes or delays happen, it can take longer. Some of our sites, with steady daily work still take several months to finish. Some small and simple sites may work with a part-timer. Be sure that you can default to the "hold accountable" rule though and set firm milestones.

12. Match your needs to their web design skills

Make sure that you know what your needs are. We notice that clients now take for granted that their wish list is easy and inexpensive. "We want it to work like Facebook" which will cost you about $100k, by the way. But assuming you have some reasonable expectations, look to see if their skill set matches your needs list.

13. 3-4 payments rather than 50/50

One way to help yourself manage a project well is to not have too much cash on the table. We recommend spreading out the payments into monthly installments based upon the complexity and cost. A small site is fine at 50/50. But once the cost reaches the $3k range, three monthly payments might serve a client better.

14. Pay on time

We always like and support our clients that don't starve our company. Just like every business, we need our cash flow. Net 10 is a nice rule of thumb for web design companies.

15. Be a good client

Be patient, be clear, be flexible, be organized and bring some cookies around once in a while. Web designers, like everyone else in the service industry often don't receive the support and acknowledgement that they deserve. Don't be in a hurry. Remember your crisis is not their problem.

We hope these guidelines help you have a better relationship with your new design firm! If we can help you, contact us at susan[at]

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