How to Hire a Web Designer for the First Time

Design, but simple.

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For non-designers, it can be hard to determine when a designer is good. Each sends in a portfolio, but how can you confidently pick the right one for your team?

We’ve talked about where to find designers. Now we need to discuss how to pick the right one (or two). And who better to ask than Sacha Greif, the founder of Folyo.

Sacha Greif
Founder of Folyo

I would say the most effective way is to narrow down what you need first, and only then hire a designer. For example, maybe you can save on part of your design budget by using a pre-made homepage template, which will let you invest more resources in a premium designer for your brand and logo.

Hold up. Sacha Greif is a designer.

Did a designer just say that instead of hiring a designer, you should use a template?

In fact, he did. Let me explain why this makes sense.

Here’s how you approach building a new startup. First, focus on the problem you’re solving. The idea you have in mind right now for a particular product might not be the best way of solving the problem.

Say you’re looking to eliminate the problems of balcony gardening. You have this idea for an app that sends the user reminders to water his or her plants. You decide you need a UI designer.

But after rigorous testing and validation, the customers tell you that they’d prefer a more hands-off approach. The solution to this would be a “set-and-forget” self-watering system, which will require a product designer.

I’ve written about different types of designers before, so if you’re not familiar with the terms, click here.

The point is, before you know exactly what your startup or business needs, it’s pointless to search for designers (unless they’re your co-founders, of course!).

But once you’re past this stage, you’ll need to start dealing with all those job applications that start rolling in. So how do you sift through it all?

hire a web designer, startup

Find a Good Fit for Your Team

Jordan Julien

Talent is contextual to the team and the environment in which it operates. The best /…/ professional for one team could be the worst /…/ professional for a different team.

Picking just the right type of person for your team isn’t something you can fully rationalise. Surely, some of it is obvious, such as if they’re football fans like the rest of your team. But for the most part, you’re going to have to rely on your gut to make the right decision.

Ask the candidates to explain their process. How did they collaborate with their coworkers at the last job? Have them take you through an example project they worked on in the past. Pay close attention to their soft skills.

Questions you can also ask:

  • What was the last conference you attended?
  • Which design-type blogs do you frequent?
  • What was the best link you’ve found on the web this month?
  • Describe your biggest professional failure.
  • What gets you out of bed in the morning wanting to do this type of job?

Another thing to note is to make sure whether the designer you’re considering is actually reliable. Are they going to deliver on time or constantly miss deadlines?

The only way you can make sure of that (well, sort of) is by checking with the people they have worked with before. Call them up, ask questions.

designer, colors, hire a web designer

Avoid Artists

I know plenty of designers who treat their work as pieces of art. I know the type, because I used to be one of them. It’s an ego thing. But ego doesn’t have a place in business – it can only cause bad decisions.

So be careful when a candidate is too proud of their graphic design awards. This type of hire may be a great snatch with plenty of vanity value for larger companies, but not for a startup. Your designers must be devoted to building the company, not their portfolio.

test, hire a web designer

Test Them

When I was still working as a designer, I always hated the test projects that some companies sent out to “feel up” the candidates. This type of spec work is as despicable as crowd-sourced design.

If you’re paying shit, you’re going to get shit.

So I’m not suggesting that. Instead of sending out large test projects that will take up hours of designers’ time, think of a way to test their skills and thinking on a smaller scale.

An example would be picking a screen out of a popular app, such as Uber’s, and asking the candidate how they would improve it. Or you could describe the prerequisites of your website and have them scribble out a wireframe for it. Anything that takes less than 15 minutes is something that any candidate should be comfortable with.

But who says you need to decide right away? Test a couple of candidates with a small paid project such as designing banners. This will help you get the feeling of how they work.

evaluation, hire a web designer

Get Help Evaluating Portfolios

As a design layperson, it will be hard to evaluate the portfolios that come into your inbox. This is where you should bring in your designer friend to help you in exchange for a cup of coffee. If you don’t have a designer friend, hiring a senior designer for a couple of hours may turn out to be a great investment.

Besides a professional opinion, you’ll want to pay attention to:

  • How the designs stack up against inspiration websites.
  • Whether the designs have strong calls-to-action or if they’re all over the place.
  • Look for case studies written by the particular designer. If there isn’t one, have the designer walk you through one of the projects.

Here’s a great guide you should run the portfolios by.

Designers, especially the experienced ones, normally have a specific style. When you hire them, expect a similar general “feel” of the work they will be doing for you.

Jason Cohen
Founder of Smart Bear Software

Designers don’t morph their style to match yours; they don’t deviate from their own style.

data, hire a web designer

Seek Out the Data-Driven

In lean startups, being data-driven is the only way to save money and avoid guessing. If you can find a designer who is devoted to creating their designs based on hard facts, stick with them.

It will save you, the team, and the designer plenty of time on minor factors like the colours and layout if all these decisions are supported by hard facts.

This is another opportunity to test the prospective designers with a sample project.

Drew Davidson says that the candidates who suggest user testing on their own initiative or start asking questions, rather than “a laundry list of specific changes,” are more likely to be user-centered.

To Recap

You’ll want to get some help sorting through the portfolios, since a designer’s portfolio is usually the first impression you’ll get from a candidate. But portfolios shouldn’t be the only thing you base your opinion on. Ask questions, have a conversation, and pay attention to the designer’s work process and ethics.

But most of all, know exactly who you’re hiring.

Design, but simple.

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