Finding a Designer: a Practical Guide

I recently had to cancel my engagement with a startup when I realized that the quantity of work involved was too big, and I would not be able to fit it in my schedule. Rather than leave them hanging, I decided to help them recruit another designer.

This made me realize how hard it can be to find the right hire, especially if you’re not a designer yourself. So here’s a small guide on finding and hiring the right person, written from a designer’s point of view.

NOTE: Since writing this article, I’ve launched Folyo, a service that helps companies find designers.

The three types of designers

First of all, it helps to establish what type of designer you’re looking for. Are you searching for a freelancer, an agency, or for an in-house designer? They all have their pros and cons.

  • A freelancer will be much cheaper than an agency, but can generally not do it all
  • On the other hand, an agency will have the manpower to both design and code your site, and maybe help you with the copy-writing on top of that.
  • And hiring a designer as full time staff is a big expense, but an employee’s hourly rate ends up being much lower than a contractor’s. There’s also the added benefit that by being part of your company, your designer will (hopefully) feel more invested in your success and produce better work.

However, I assume that for most people reading this, hiring an agency or a full-time employee is simply too costly, so I’ll focus on working with freelancers instead.

Where should I look?

So where do you actually find all those designers? A couple years ago the answer would have been a lot longer, but these days you can pretty much sum it up in one word: Dribbble.

Dribbble is a social network where designers can share 400px by 300px crops of whatever they’re working on. It has quickly become the number one community for the world’s top designers, especially for icon, web and user interface designers (the small format lends itself well to showcasing icons and details of a mockup).

Like twitter, Dribbble has a follower system, so looking at a particular designer’s number of followers is a good way to gauge how well known he is.

Just be aware that not all designers on Dribbble are freelancers, and many good designers are booked several weeks in advance. So you might have to contact several designers before you find a good fit.

What about 99designs ?

AcornSlippersOnline.com uses 99designs, why not you?

Many designers will tell you that 99designs is spec work, and spec work is evil. I won’t get into the whole spec work debate, so let’s just look at it from a practical point of view. Although you can find great work on 99designs, you won’t find the best designers there. Great designers usually have no trouble finding work, and thus have no incentive to risk working for free.

So be conscious that by using 99designs, you’re making the decision to restrict yourself to the lower end of the market. Which can be a great move, or a very bad idea. It all depends on your goals and the nature of your project.

And please don’t overlook the host of other practical problems that occur with that type of crowdsourcing site.

Any other options?

One of the best design job boards

Sites like elegant.ly and builditwith.me or even Authentic Jobs aim to connect designers and startups. The problem is that most good designers don’t need to look for work, so they will never even see your job posting, much less answer it. This is why I still think actively approaching someone is the best strategy.

Also, don’t forget that you might not even need a designer at all. You could do it yourself, or use one of the tons of high quality templates and themes out there. This might seem weird coming from a designer, but I’m actually in favor of trying to do as much as possible yourself, if only because this will help you understand the problem better and will help you a lot if you eventually hire a designer.

How much should I pay?

The biggest issue on people’s mind is usually the price. This can be hard to answer, because designer rates can vary drastically according to skill, experience, and location. Wages can start as low as $10 an hour for designers living in poorer countries, all the way to $250 an hour for a big design agency.

Generally speaking, if you’re paying less than $40/hour, don’t expect exceptional work. For most projects, I think $60-$90/hour is a good range. Obviously, the more a project’s success hinges on design, the more you should invest in it.

And don’t forget that you’re not just paying for a Photoshop mock-up: you’re also paying for the designer’s years of experience. Alice might charge a much higher rate than Bob, but even though they both produce work of similar visual quality, maybe Alice used her experience to fix the product’s core design flaws while Bob just took the wireframe and made it look nice.

How do I pick the right person?

But all this doesn’t address the question of actually picking one specific designer. How do you know if they’re any good, and even if they are, how do you know if they’re the right person for this particular job?

Well, there’s actually a pretty simple rule of thumb. When looking at a designer’s past projects, ask yourself: “Would I want my project to look like this?“.

This may sound stupidly obvious, but it actually helps you avoid one of the biggest pitfalls in choosing a designer: picking one with the wrong skills.

The right skills for the job

Too often, people succumb to the wow factor when seeing a designer’s work, and don’t actually stop to ask themselves if that style is the right fit for their project. Don’t assume that just because a designer creates gorgeous icons, he’ll be able to produce a great logo or a slick user interface. That would be like assuming that just because a programmer is a PHP guru, they can also develop Rails applications.

The best designers can be pretty flexible and adapt their style to a project, but unless you’re ready to pay top dollar to hire them, you’d better remember this rule: what you see (in their portfolio) is what you get (for your project).

How many designers will I need?

This raises the point that you might actually end up needing more than one designer. If you’re building a web app that also has a companion mobile app, you might very well hire different designers for your logo, site, icon, and mobile app UI.

Each of them requires very specific skills and knowledge that are rarely found in the same person. In my opinion, this is actually to your advantage. Sure, it might be a little more expensive than having a single person do all the work, but it’s worth it for the extra ideas you’ll get.

Different designers will have different suggestions of how to improve your brand or your site, and compared to understanding someone else’s code, building on someone else’s design is much easier (provided it’s good, of course!).

So what, now?

OK, let’s assume that you found the perfect designer: they’re cheap, they’re available, and they have the right skills on top of that. You’ve contacted them, and they’ve agreed to work on your project. How do you actually start working with them?

This could be a topic for a whole other blog post, but in any case here’s some advice. My personal philosophy is that you should always design from the inside out: find the core of the project, the single most important piece, and design it first. The rest of the pieces will then naturally fall into place around it. For a site, this is usually the home, for a web app it’s the dashboard, for a mobile app the home screen, etc.

However, this approach is not always possible. So another tactic is to start off with a smaller sub-project: design a single widget, a landing page, etc. This can be a great way to evaluate someone’s skills and see if you like working with them.

Conclusion

I realize how hard it can be to hire someone in a field different from yours, especially if you’re investing your own money, so I hope this guide made the whole process clearer.

If you still feel a little bit lost, and need some suggestions on where to look or some advice on who to pick, shoot me a message and I’ll do my best to help you out!

About Me

I'm Sacha Greif, a web designer freelancing out of Paris, France. You can check out my portfolio, and of course you should follow me on Twitter.

56 Responses to “Finding a Designer: a Practical Guide”

  • Cedarblock

    I appreciate your words, but your site is awful. The serif font is distracting, and the green on green side bars are awful. Plus your grid is lopsided and weak. Your icons have no clear meaning. However I do like your logotype for attackofdesign. Though the brand itself is weak.

    I do wish I had better things to say, it’s only in light of your design ‘knowledge’ that I had to call out the obvious.

    7 Jun 11:38 pm
    Reply
    • Sacha

      I guess this is a case of “to each his own”… A lot of people have told me they like the look of this site. Although I’d be curious to know why you think the brand is weak, and what are some examples of blog design that you enjoy better than this one?

      7 Jun 11:59 pm
    • Neemus

      @Cedarblock. What an obnoxious way to state your case. I can’t see past that to whether your points have any merit or not :(

      10 Jun 12:35 am
    • audreyr

      I agree with @Neemus. You wrote a thoughtful, well-written piece here. People shouldn’t be so mean to designers. @Cedarblock is just being a jerk here.

      10 Jun 9:28 pm
    • polkunus

      I have to agree with Cedarblock to some extent, but he came off as a such a pretentious jerk, shoving the word “awful” down your throat.

      11 Jun 2:27 am
    • Wesley W cox

      @Cedarblock What world do you live in? Do you enjoy alienating yourself by being a punk? Who are you Marty Neumeier? You should watch your tone with people. Lame comment at the wrong place.

      17 Jul 7:05 pm
  • Javier

    Nice write-up! Definitely some things in there for designers to note. I’m glad that I fit within your range of “reasonable design rates” :)

    FYI, I, for one, have no problems with your site/brand… Don’t know why Cedarblock has such a huge stick in his bum.

    7 Jun 11:47 pm
    Reply
    • Sacha

      Thanks for the support! But don’t worry, if you want to become a good designer you have to learn how to take criticism, so I appreciate Cedarblock giving his opinion even though it’s negative.

      8 Jun 12:01 am
  • Mogden

    I’m not a designer but I like the look of your site as well. It’s easy to read, and it’s different in a fun way.

    8 Jun 12:05 am
    Reply
  • Stephen Kistner

    Thanks for the article! I’ve read others before about choosing a designer, but this one is by far the best. With regard to your site, I personally like the style of it, and your attention to detail and texturing is superb; however, I agree that some icons are a bit ambiguous, and there should be some text along with them clarify what they are.

    8 Jun 12:54 am
    Reply
    • Sacha

      Thanks! The ambiguous icons are a personal choice: they’re really bad for usability, but I like the way they look without text… Since this is my blog, I thought I could afford to take that risk.

      9 Jun 1:39 am
  • aditya menon

    CedarBlock’s non response to your questions says it all. He just wanted a place to dump his crabby mood. Your site = awesome!

    The article is great. I laughed pretty hard when I read that SpecWatch article you linked to. It’s sad that Crowdsourcing, instead of opening up a whole new world of possibilities, has fallen prey to unscrupulous people looking to make a quick buck. I’m actually glad I never tried to get on those sites and win work – it would have been impossible if my competition was given to behaving like that.

    8 Jun 2:56 am
    Reply
  • David

    As a designer looking for work this was a great article. I had visited Dribble before hadn’t realized it’s full potential. Thanks!

    8 Jun 6:56 am
    Reply
  • Dave

    The design and user experience of a site is often a make or break experience. Users, company hires and investors are heavily swayed not only by how neat a site looks, but how well thought out it is. Simply put, if your site is bad on the experience or design front, it makes it look like your team can’t execute, which is about the worst thing you can say about a startup.

    Finding the right people to do this is incredibly hard. Agencies generally are way out of the startup budget and can have stifling timelines, freelancers are not full time or necessarily committed to your product and hiring full time is a very lengthy process. One of the most core competencies to a startup is an industry-wide bottle neck.

    8 Jun 5:15 pm
    Reply
    • Sacha

      I agree, and in fact I am currently brainstorming ideas of how to solve that problem with other designers, developers, and startup founders.

      I’m not sure at all that we’ll come up with something better than what currently exists, but it can’t hurt to try!

      9 Jun 1:42 am
  • Rana

    When ever I read your post, it seems to me I’m in-front of a talking mirror.

    VERY HAPPY READ! Keep it up!

    10 Jun 9:49 am
    Reply
  • ADub

    What are your thoughts on eLance? My boss always has me finding designers here.

    10 Jun 9:58 pm
    Reply
    • Sacha

      I don’t have much experience with eLance yet, sorry…

      11 Jun 5:15 am
  • Syed

    eLance is not much different from other freelancer sites – its a hit and miss but most of the times ‘miss’. Guru.com is a bit better but bids are much higher as well.

    13 Jun 8:26 pm
    Reply
  • Harry

    This post was forwarded to me by a designer friend. As someone who’s just launched a start-up with a website that badly needs design work, I really appreciate this guide. The whole process is much clearer to me now. Thank you!

    20 Jun 4:18 am
    Reply
  • Mervin

    I am just curious if you have any views on how an designer who is just getting involved in the field should look for work,most of the requirements seem to be people with significant experience and that’s a big deterrent

    30 Jun 11:11 pm
    Reply
    • Sacha

      For most designers starting out, the problem is usually not lack of experience, but lack of skills. You simply need to get better.

      Redesign existing sites, follow tutorials, copy other designer’s work… you need to do whatever it takes to improve.

      Once you’ve got real skills, you’ll find that clients come much easier.

      1 Jul 4:24 pm
  • Jim Rudnick

    Rand of seomoz suggested on Twitter that this piece was definitely worth the click & read…

    And he was right! Great piece here! and the Dribble link out is spot-on too!

    :-)

    Jim

    17 Jul 7:26 pm
    Reply
  • T-J

    I’ve being using a lot of these arguments when giving advises to friends when they are looking for pros for their projects. Always thought of making a similar page to help people out. Well no need now as I can just link to this article :)

    18 Jul 5:54 am
    Reply
  • Troy Martz

    Sacha, another approach would be to visit all the design showcases out on the web. There are literally hundreds of them. Just do a Google search for “HTML5 showcases,” or “CSS galleries.”

    My Tip:

    Try to find a design that blows you away, and see if it’s from a designer that hasn’t established a huge body of work. There are a lot of talented designers coming out of school, or just getting started. Chances are that they might be less expensive, and would relish the opportunity to build their portfolios. It’s a win / win…

    18 Jul 7:59 am
    Reply
    • Sacha

      That’s a good suggestion as well, but the problem is that it’s often hard to know who is behind a website. And for corporate websites, most of the time you’ll find out that the design was done in-house so you can’t hire that designer anyway…

      18 Jul 8:25 am
  • Troy Martz

    Sacha, true… I guess a better clarification would be to explore the designer’s website (if listed), and get a feel for the company… Is it a one-man / one-woman outfit? Do they have a light portfolio? If so, they may be a perfect fit.

    It would definitely take some investigation, but I find so many of these designs are actually the designer’s own portfolio sites. To me, that’s an excellent insight into their creativity/skill set, as well as a rough gauge as to whether or not they meet your specific needs.

    It might take some snooping around, but if you seek, you may just find…

    18 Jul 9:21 am
    Reply
    • Sacha

      Just one caveat, I feel like you need to be careful when judging a designer’s skill based on their portfolio’s design (of course, you can still judge it based on their portfolio’s content).

      A designer can have a great-looking portfolio, but that doesn’t mean they work well with clients or have enough experience.

      And a flashy style will lend itself well to creating a very impressive portfolio, but for an actual project you might need someone with a completely different style.

      18 Jul 9:33 am
  • Donna McMaster

    Love your site design; it feels soft and comfortable and easy to read. And the advice is good; will share it with my clients (I’m a web developer, not so much a designer.) Thanks for the pointer to Dribble.

    20 Jul 7:47 pm
    Reply
  • Bryn Adler

    Great article! I love that you address the need to really match the designer’s aesthetic to what works for you and your brand. It’s all well and good to look at his or her portfolio and say “Wow, that’s innovative and modern, I like it” and something entirely different to address “But is this right for my company? My brand?”

    We’ve tried to address this end of choosing a designer in our blog post on five characteristics to seek when choosing an agency, here: http://blog.raincastle.com/post.cfm/five-characteristics-to-seek-when-choosing-an-agency.

    Also, create tip on Dribble. It’s definitely a site I will be exploring more!

    22 Jul 4:04 pm
    Reply
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  • Jennifer Nicholas

    Love you design! Its sleek and easy to read. I’m a freelance web developer and got to know many new things from this article :)

    27 Oct 4:48 pm
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  • Andrea Shillington

    Hi there,
    Great article, thanks for sharing. I thought I’d introduce another solution for getting matched up with the right designer. http://www.brandsforthepeople.com is matches startups with the right designers that meet the clients budget, skills and industry requirements.
    We have a curated community so all of our designers are interviewed before they join the community.
    Check it out!
    Thanks,
    Andrea

    23 Oct 4:58 pm
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