What to Look for When You’re Hiring a Designer

Guest article! Designer/consultant Heather Gardner-Madras, who’s built up quite the fan club in the progressive online community, has put together a list of things to think about when you’re hiring a designer for your next project. As someone who’s been on both sides of the designer/client relationship many times over the last decade, I’ll vouch for how important these considerations are — working through them in advance can save immense amounts of time, money and grief.

Hiring Designers: A Really Basic, By No Means All-Inclusive But Handy Nonetheless, Quick List

If you want to do a quality online campaign or website, you’ll need to find a great designer to craft the user experience, create the site’s look and feel and maybe even implement the site for you. You may also need coordinated materials in print or other additional work. The good news is there are many wonderful designers and design firms to choose from based on your needs. Talented creatives doing fantastic work are not in short supply.

Where to Look

  • Peer networks and word of mouth. Ask your colleagues and post to trusted email lists for suggestions from others in your position. You might also ask your favorite vendors for their recommendations.
  • Sites (or projects) you like. Look for credits or contact the owner or organization to find out who did the work.
  • Resource lists from trusted associations. Try members of great organizations like NTEN, TechSoup, AIGA and Idealist.
  • Online portfolio & guild sites. Look for sites that offer good search tools and online portfolios and resumes. You should be able to contact the designer/firm directly without any fees or intermediaries. One easy-to-search site with quality options is CreativeHotlist.
  • One place that will produce tons of interest but typically much lower quality is posting an ad on Craigslist or other classifieds. If you are seeking a graphics intern rather than a professional designer or firm, you might want to try this, but otherwise it’s likely to be more of a headache than a help.

What to Look For

Of course, finding a good fit can be something else entirely. Highly successful creative relationships are tricky in any field, and design itself can be a very subjective area. Remember, someone who is not right for you might just be a “really good designer” for someone else. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you make the best choice.

  • Knowing what you need. Really crucial to a good fit. Make sure you are clear on what you are looking for from this hire. Do you just want some aesthetic touches and graphics, or are you looking for IA, strategy and/or implementation? Freelance designers and design firms offer a lots of different skills and approaches to projects and you want to be sure you are talking about the same thing. Knowing your budget helps narrow the field, too.
  • Reputation, references and word of mouth. Ask around in your network, talk to former clients and check references. If a project in the designer’s portfolio seems too good to be true, double-check his or her role on the project with the client directly.
  • An appropriate aesthetic for the client and project type. Some designers specialize in a particular style — if that’s what you are looking for, start there. Otherwise, check for versatility and appropriateness in the portfolio.
  • Quality skills and experience with the media being generated (web, print, video, Flash, installations, etc.). Someone savvy can save you loads of time and money. Not only can they advise you on what’s feasible, but they may even be able to give you ideas for options you didn’t even know existed. Make sure the designer you choose is well versed in the technical implementation of their designs — they should know how easily their web design will fit into your chosen content management system, for example.
  • Experience with and a “big picture” understanding of the project type. Is it a foundation info portal? A hot issue-based campaign? Have they done this type of project before, and do they understand the audience, tech and client type? Or, will you need to guide their vision?
  • Compatible work and communication styles. This can be the key to getting beyond just-getting-something-done and doing something special. Are you looking for a partner in creation who self-manages or someone who will follow very specific directions? How will they work with the rest of the project team? An experienced design firm will have the ability to help you define the best approach to project process as well.
  • Professionalism, integrity and honesty. Trust and good communication can’t be overstated. Will your design choice be up front with you about potential pitfalls? Will they let you know when they’ll miss deadlines, with suggestions about how to get back on track? Discussing possible issues in advance can be a good way to get a feel for how comfortable you will be working things out when snags do occur.

Working Well Together

If you select your creative partner based on these criteria, the details and next steps for your project should be easy to work out together. There are many useful articles online about getting the most out of this type of creative relationship — here’s one that’s particularly useful for knowing what to look for and expect before, during and after hiring a designer.

Thanks, Heather.


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Thanks, Heather, for the plug for NTEN! We love your work, and are very happy that you are part of the NTEN community. And this is a great article!



  • […] Guest article! Tia Sumler, an old friend and the web guru at civilrights.org, has plumbed the depths and scaled the heights of her experiences with online projects and put together a list of things that you just might ought to do when you’re starting out on a new web project. This piece, like Heather Gardner-Madras’s recent article on choosing designers, can save you a ridiculous amount of time, money and grief (you have been warned). […]