Hiring a graphic designer or web designer can elevate the reputation and perception of your brand but finding the right designer can be tricky.
Design shapes perception and perception is not only reality but the foundation of a brand. Making the decision to invest in visual design and hire a professional designer is making the decision to put your best foot forward, build the reputation you desire, actively shape perception, and show up as authoritative, credible, valuable, and trustworthy.
While investing in professional design is a no-brainer for savvy freelancers who want to accelerate success and increase sales, the process of hiring a graphic designer or web designer can be stressful and frustrating — especially if you don’t know what to ask when interviewing a designer or what to watch out for when signing a contract.
I began my career as a graphic designer in 1998, quit my last full-time job to begin freelancing in 2005, and just a few years later built a creative agency serving clients around the world.
Throughout my career, I have heard horror story after horror story from designers who had terrible clients and from business owners who had terrible experiences working with a designer. These business owners signed contracts without understanding the terms, didn’t receive the files they should have, ran into problems and delays, and encountered challenges that caused them to walk away with nothing or end up with design they didn’t like.
Client services isn’t an easy business to be in.
Unfortunately, the low barrier to entry means that there are a lot of freelancers taking advantage of the gig economy that are untrained and inexperienced. While hiring professional service providers can feel risky, with the right amount of due diligence, you can find reliable creative partners who make you and your business a priority and give you their very best.
Find The Right Design Partner
My goal is to help you find the right design partner.
Listed below are eight red flags to watch out for when interviewing and hiring graphic designers and web designers. Encountering any of these red flags should be considered a reason to take a step back and either reconsider the partnership or move on.
Unclear Estimate Of Cost
If you have a clear scope of work, any designer should be able to provide an accurate estimate of cost for your project. When the scope of work is unclear, expect them to suggest a paid discovery project (consulting) to identify and document the scope of work and requirements to be estimated.
If you can’t get you an accurate design estimate or cost proposal, that means the designer:
- Doesn’t understand the full scope of work and lacks experience in this area
- Can’t do the full scope of work and plans to outsource it but doesn’t yet know who they will outsource the work to
Drastically Different Fees
Similarly, if you interview multiple graphic designers or web designers, compare the design proposals, and find one is radically different than the others, you need to find out why.
If one estimate is much lower, figure out:
- Are they are missing something critical about the project? Is there something about the scope of work they don’t understand or are they proposing a different solution?
- Do they simply place less value on their time or don’t have as many overhead expenses as other designers? A freelancer can often charge less than an agency because they have far fewer expenses.
- Are they are underbidding the project because they don’t have experience in this particular area and want to use your project as a learning experience? Or, are they underbidding the project simply because they really want to work with you, find the project interesting, and would love to add it to their portfolio?
If one estimate is much higher, figure out:
- Do they have more experience than the other providers? Is there something they see or understand about the project that the others are missing? Do they have a more in-depth, detailed process?
- Do they simply value their time more than the other providers or have more overhead expenses or a larger project team?
- Are they proposing a different solution or process that requires more time and resources? Or, is the cost being inflated because they think you can pay more.
When assessing and comparing the estimates gathered, evaluate all discrepancies and don’t always go for the lowest or highest. Listen to your gut and if something feels off, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Inability to Define A Timeline
Most clients want a timeline for their project, but without a scope of work approved, a contract in place, and time reserved in their schedule, a designer may not be able to give you a timeline with specific dates. While this isn’t necessarily a red flag, what should be of concern is an inability to provide a general timeline for the project.
An inexperienced designer may not know how long something will take and will struggle to provide a detailed (but not date-specific) timeline.
An experienced designer will have a client management system they follow and a general idea of how long projects will take. They should be able to reference timeframes for similar projects and provide a general timeline for your project. For example, for a website project, onboarding typically takes a week, design takes two weeks, development takes four weeks, etc.
No Documented Systems Or Processes
To weed out those that are flying by the seat of their pants and making it up as they go, ask each potential design partner you interview about their systems and processes — and the larger your project is, the more questions you should ask.
A few items to ask about include:
- What is your design process?
- What is the revision process like? When and how do I get to provide feedback?
- What happens if I need more revisions than what is allotted in the contract?
- How are missed deadlines handled?
- What happens if I need to change or add to the scope of work?
- How do you manage the final transfer of files?
- Who owns the work produced under this contract?
- What does your team look like? Do you outsource work?
- How will communication happen? Can I email you, call you, meet in person?
If a designer has trouble answering these questions, it may mean that they don’t have solid systems and processes in place to ensure your project goes smoothly and nothing falls through the cracks.
Guarantees Of Success
No designer can guarantee any specific level of success because they can’t control the actions of strangers, your preferences and input, the marketing and sales efforts behind a campaign, and or the context in which a prospect interacts with your brand. If that’s the type of guarantee you’re looking for, working with a full-service agency partner who manages every part of the funnel from start to finish is the best approach — and even then, you may not get a guarantee.
If a designer guarantees a specific amount of website traffic, conversions, leads, subscribers, or new clients and customers without involvement and participation in your brand’s funnel development and digital marketing efforts, ask how they plan on backing up that guarantee.
Unfortunately, there are people who will say anything and make false guarantees to get you to part with your money. Designers with integrity, however, will be honest about what type of results you can expect and what will affect those results.
Design-Focused Sales Conversation
When speaking with a potential design partner, pay attention to what questions they ask. Are their questions about your business and brand, vision, clients/customers, and objectives? Or, are their questions about design: colors, typefaces, style preferences, and imagery? If it’s the latter option, move on.
- An inexperienced designer focuses on superficial design elements, asking about specific design-related items and your personal preferences.
- An experienced designer focuses on the business objectives and audience for the item being designed. They know that for a project to be a success, they first must understand why it is needed, how it will be used, who it must resonate and connect with, what action it must drive, and what result it must produce.
Remember, every item designed has a purpose and that purpose must come before the visual design and “making it pretty.”
No Ownership Of Work
When hiring a designer to create visual design assets for your brand, be sure to read the contract terms and conditions carefully. Look for a clause that states something like, “The designer retains ownership and copyright of the designed work and only licenses it to you for a specific use. Any use of the design work beyond this one use case will require permission from the designer” because this also means future fees.
Make sure the contract specifies that you will own the rights to all final produced assets. For items like a “>company logo and identity package, this should be non-negotiable.
Incomplete File Collections
Inexperienced designers are notorious for only providing the exact files needed to complete your immediate needs: the final, press-ready files for print projects, the final PDFs of an ebook, or the flat JPG files for a logo. But…
- What happens when you need to make changes and don’t have any of the editable, original files?
- What happens when you want to use your logo on a billboard or want to embroider it on a shirt and don’t have the right files?
- What happens when you ask the original designer for the right files and they either no longer have them or you can’t get ahold of them at all?
The design contract should specify exactly what files you will receive when the project is approved and completed.
Only sign the contract if it states that you will receive the original, editable native design files and all associated/linked assets. For example, a final logo package should include a vector EPS, SVG, and PDF; a transparent PNG, a JPG, and a TIF — in various color formats, black, and reversed.
The Right Design Partnership Is A Win-Win
Don’t let these red flags scare you.
For every horror story heard about a designer, there are at least 10 more overwhelmingly positive stories of designers who have become indispensable to their clients and creative partnerships that have spanned decades.
When you do due diligence and ask the right questions upfront, you ensure that:
- The contract terms and conditions are understood
- The project process and timeline is clear
- All parties involved are on the same page
The goal is to find the right designer — to establish a partnership with a creative professional who gets you, your brand, and your audience, and understands your big vision and goals. When you can do that, you’ll have a design partner you can trust to do what’s best for your brand and the designer will have a great client they enjoy working with. It’s a win-win.