All designers are not equal: how to hire the right designer

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With all the buzz on the Web today about the necessity of good design for success, there has been very little discussion about matching the right designer to the right project. The way the word “designer” is used today is a bit ambiguous. It can refer to any one of a broad range of professions. From usability experts, to illustrators, to HTML and CSS specialists, to typographers, to user experience people.

To make matters worse, this confusion about the word “designer” and what it actually means often leads to hiring decisions that set projects up for failure. Hiring the wrong designer for your project can be akin to asking the wrong type of doctor operate on you. You would never ask a foot doctor to do brain surgery. Or, an eye doctor to remove your appendix. But the same kind of thing happens all the time in the design world and nobody blinks.

The truth is there are many different kinds of designers, and each is good at different things. Yes, some designers are generalists and their value lies in their ability to deliver consistently across multiple disciplines, but generalists rarely deliver the highest quality work.

So how do you find the right designer for your project? Especially if you don’t know a lot about design? Where do you start?

paint Recognize Different Designers Work Better In Different Mediums

One of the rookie mistakes you want to avoid when choosing a designer for your website is picking a print designer to do a Web designer’s job. There is a huge difference in the skills necessary to pull off a successful website design and the skills necessary to operate well in print. And the opposite is also true!

Since I primarily do Web design for a living I probably wouldn’t be the best person to design an album cover for your new CD or to create a brochure for your business. Could I do it for you? Absolutely! But again, I wouldn’t be the best choice. There are other people who can do this kind of work in less time and with better results than I can currently offer.

Why is this true? Because the medium that you ask an artist to operate in is just as important as the artist you choose. What do I mean by medium? The medium is the method or materials through which a work of art is presented. As this applies to design we generally use terms like print, web, or motion graphics (Flash).

Why is the medium so important? Because the medium that a designer is working in makes a huge difference in the quality of work that he is able to produce. You wouldn’t ask a sculptor to design a skyscraper, or painter to compose a symphony. All of these people can create beautiful things if you put them in their element, but get it wrong and you won’t get good results.

strength Recognize Designers Have Different Strengths

Along the same lines, the other mistake you want to avoid is selecting a designer that does not have a strong skillset for the types of things that will be necessary to complete your project successfully. Some designers are really good at illustration, use of photos, or color. Some designers are great at branding and logo design. Some at usability or total user experience (UX). Some are amazing at marketing and message.

On the same token, while a designer may be really good at one thing (say illustration), he or she may be terrible at another (say usability).

Why is this? A lot of it is about experience. Some of it, natural gifting. But a huge part of it is related to the designer’s personal passions. Designers tend to do well at the things they enjoy. Or, to enjoy the things that they do well. A good question to ask a potential designer is does your project fall into the category of the things that he or she enjoys? If it does you will probably find them quite knowledgeable about the things that are necessary for your project to be a success.

The last thing you want is to end up paying someone a lot of money to do something that they are not good at. Consider a potential designer’s strengths and weaknesses when matching them up with your project.

Recognize Some Designers Have Different Appeal

Another thing to consider in your search for the right designer for your project is the appeal that their personal style has to your target audience. Some designers are good at tailoring their style to the audience, but others are not. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many designers are very successful at producing a certain look that their clients value. As you are evaluating a designer consider the diversity of his portfolio, or, conversely, the consistency. Is their personal style something that would appeal to your target audience? If the answer is no, move on.

Other Things To Consider

Of course, there are many other things to consider as you look to hire a designer for your own project. How well do they communicate? Do they connect with you personally? How responsible and honest are they? But the points listed above should give you a framework for considering the value that they may be able to deliver in terms of design.

If you can afford it you may want to engage multiple designers. One to work on each of the individual components of the project. For example you could engage one designer to help you develop a good logo and brand for your company (or project), another to work on the marketing and emotional appeal of your website, and another to work on the user experience.

If money is tight, you may want to engage a designer that is more of a generalist rather than a specialist. After all, there are times when it’s just more economical to go to a family doctor instead of a specialist. But know the difference and hire accordingly.

And don’t forget to ask probing questions like the ones mentioned in this article. It is your money, business, and reputation that is on the line.

© 2013 John W. Long