How to pick a great designer

How do you know if a designer is any good? And how do you know if they're the right person for your project? Here's a short guide to help you find out.

Visuals

"You shouldn’t worry about experience, or what school [a designer] went to, but you should be very impressed with his portfolio. Otherwise, I would keep looking." Aaron Patzer, Mint.com How not to recruit for a startup Recognizing good visual design can be tricky for non-designers, but there are a few key elements to look for. Does the text have enough breathing room? Is the page laid out on a grid? Do the visuals match the content's message?

After browsing a couple site galleries, you should start having a better feel for what constitutes a good design.

In the end, it's mostly about trusting your instincts and going "wow!" when you see somebody's work.

To-do

  • Ask another designer to help you evaluate the designer's work
  • Look for someone who pays attention to small details
  • Compare their work with other well-designed sites

Structure

"My first filters are information priority, information organization, intuitiveness, and clarity of copy" Jason Putorti, Votizen How to Interview a Designer Good designers establish a strong visual hierarchy. The most important things on a page should pop out. After all, design is not just making things pretty, it’s also making them work well.

A great way to evalute a design is to check it against each of the design principles.

To-do

  • Look for clear call to actions that tell the user what to do next
  • Look for a strong information hierarchy throughout the page

Insight

"[Designers should have] a rational, thoughtful design process that balances business needs with user needs— and empathy with those users." Jason Putorti, Votizen How to Interview a Designer Design is not just about the "how", but also about the "why". It's important that a designer be able to justify every design decisions they make, and be aware of these decisions' consequences for users.

This is a hard skill to quantify, but is very important especially for sites or apps with lots of interactions.

To-do

  • Read previous projects' case studies
  • Ask the designer to analyze your current design
  • Ask them to justify their choices for a previous design

Style

"I cannot stress this enough: designers don’t morph their style to match yours." Jason Cohen, A Smart Bear How to get quality freelance graphics design work on a budget Style is often overlooked when picking a designer, and that can often lead to trouble down the road. Sure, some designers will be happy to adapt their style to match your project, but you shouldn't count on it.

So if what you need is a glossy, gradient-heavy iPhone-style mobile app, don't hire someone who specializes in minimalist typographical layouts, no matter how beautiful their work looks.

Instead, pick someone whose current style is already a good fit for your needs. If you find yourself wishing you could just take their previous work and stick your logo on it, you're on the right track.

To-do

  • Make sure the designer works in the right field (i.e. print, web, mobile, etc.)
  • Ask yourself which style (i.e. retro, grunge, minimalist, etc. ) the designer's work evokes
  • Think of a few adjectives that describe their work and see if they apply to your project

Communication

"[Good writing] is extremely important. A cover letter will help you determine this, but also look for the copy in the designs." Ryan Singer, 37Signals Good communication is very important for any project, and even more so when working remotely.

Just like in romantic relationships, most problems in a work relationship can usually be traced back to a lack of communication.

And since interfaces are mostly text, it's absolutely vital for user interface designers to have a good grasp of language.

To-do

  • Evaluate the copy inside the designs
  • Check out the designer's blog
  • See if they ask a lot of questions about your project

Education & Experience

"Get references! There are great designers out there that are terrible to work with and miss deadlines." Sheel Mohnot, FeeFighters Sheel Mohnot's tips on picking a designer Past experience is not a fail-safe indicator of design skills: after all, some newcomers have outstanding talent – and you'll have no trouble finding experienced people that still suck.

And a lot of designers are autodidacts anyway, so you don't want to discard someone just because they didn't go to design school.

Of course, that doesn't mean having a degree is not a plus. Education and experience are things you want to consider, if only to get a feel for a designer's background.

To-do

  • Ask if they've worked on similar projects in the past.
  • Ask for references from past employers
  • Check if their portfolio is filled with real client work, or mostly personal projects

Passion

"Have you designed projects in your spare time? Have you lead projects before? Both big plusses for me." Daniel Burka, Milk How do you choose/hire a good web designer? It's always nicer to collaborate with someone who's passionate about their work, and luckily most designers are.

You want someone who's not afraid to take risks and come up with ideas by themselves, and who really cares about the work they take on.

To-do

  • Find out if they've launched personal projects.
  • Find out their motivations for taking on past client projects.

Personality

"Are you a cool person to work with? This sort of thing can come out in a personal interview but it can also come through blog entries, [or] tweets." Mike Davidson, Newsvine How to properly apply for a design position Working with a designer is often a long-term commitment, so you don't want to hire someone if you don't get along with them.

Although working mainly through email or project management software can be convenient, it won't bring you the same personal contact as a real-life or even Skype interview.

At least for the first contact, getting some face-to-face time in is worth it.

To-do

  • Read what they're saying on Twitter.
  • Make time for an interview on Skype or in real life

Evaluation

"We generally just try lots of people. […] Paying for a couple hours of work is the easiest way to see how they work in practice." Steve Huffman, Hipmunk Nobody said you had to take the big leap right away. Why not start out small, by hiring the designer for a couple hours to work on a side project?

But don't make the mistake of asking the designer to work for free: if you expect them to do their best, it's only fair to compensate them for their time.

To-do

  • Have the designer do a 2-hour redesign of your homepage.
  • Hire him for a smaller project (blog theme, slides, banner, etc.)

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