How to choose the right web designer

How to choose the right web designer post image - ghosts chasing Pac-Man

If you’re a small business owner, you probably don’t have time to learn about web design. And all the technical stuff you’ve been told probably sounds like it makes sense. But how do you know who to trust? What do you look for in a portfolio? Should you work with an agency or a freelancer? Choosing a web designer isn’t easy.

Make sure you’re being offered all the services required to be successful.

A professional web design/development project involves 3 main phases, and no matter who you’re dealing with, all 3 bases need to be covered.

  1. Content strategy and development
    The navigation, information architecture, and copy that communicates with your potential customers; social media consulting; and search engine optimization (SEO).
  2. Graphical user interface (GUI) design
    The visual layout, set-up, style and overall user experience (UX) of your website.
  3. Interface development and programming
    The technology of how your website works and functions, including content management.

How these 3 phases are tackled and completed will depend on the person or people you’re working with. A reputable agency will have experienced team members filling the 3 independent roles. Often the GUI designer and developer/programmer is the same person, but more and more I’m seeing the roles divided, with GUI design being created by someone with a user experience and artistic background, and the programming being done by someone with problem-solving and engineering skills. Content strategy and development is largely the job of professionals with information architecture, writing and editorial skills.

In the case of a freelancer, you’re more likely to come across the designer/developer hybrid, but some partnerships and collaboratives divide the two roles. In either case, he/she or they will likely need to recruit help for the content strategy and development portion of the project.

Check the portfolio.

All agencies and freelancers should have an online portfolio. Check it out. See if there’s anything you like. Look for a business similar to yours, and see what was done for them. Visit the actual websites and note what’s good and what’s bad, what works and what doesn’t. Try to look at the portfolio pieces not as a business owner, but as a potential customer.

Websites should be built for the customers, not for the business owners.

Pay attention to the designs. Are the portfolio pieces all similar? Or are they unique? There’s nothing wrong with re-purposing a good design that works, especially for low-budget projects, but you’ll want an interface design that showcases your content effectively. Content planning and development comes first, and design comes second. Trying to smash and squeeze your content into a predetermined design or template is not a good approach.

Talk to past clients, not just “references.”

Ask for current and recent references, ones from projects completed in the last year or two. BUT DON’T STOP THERE. Contact some of the other businesses in the designer’s portfolio – the ones that weren’t provided as references.

If the agency or freelancer disgruntled 7 of the last 10 clients, and only gave you the 3 good references, you’ll want to know.

Whenever someone hands out references, they’re obviously sharing ones that’ll provide positive feedback. But you should dig deeper. And be sure to ask past clients about the process.

  • Was the agency or freelancer easy to work with?
  • Did they explain things to you in terms you could understand?
  • Did the project take longer than anticipated?
  • Did the budget change part-way through the project?
  • Did the agency or freelancer do a good job of testing and bug-fixing?
  • What was the response when they had follow-up questions, after the new site launched?

It’s really important to work with someone you can get along with, someone who’s patient and not condescending, someone you trust.

Find out WHO will be working on your project.

(This applies more so when you’re considering an agency.) Ask if the team members that worked on projects you liked, will be the same ones working on your website. Some agencies have high turnover rates. Some hire and lay-off based on sales performance. Just because something nice was built in the past, doesn’t mean the agency is still capable.

Remember: People build websites, not agencies.

Zero in on a few portfolio pieces you really like, talk to those business owners about who they dealt with at the agency, and make sure you’re going to get the same or better treatment.

Budget considerations

Find out how projects are quoted, whether by the number of hours required, or by the level of complication and functionality. Be sure you’re not being charged for meetings and telephone calls (unless you’ve got an internal “design by committee” situation going on, and you’re wasting everyone’s time). And ask for a detailed breakdown of tasks involved and associated costs. Then compare proposals and budgets. Don’t be shy about asking questions or asking for justification.

You get what you pay for. Figure out your maximum budget beforehand, and then look for the best bang for your buck.

Any agency or freelancer worth hiring is going to pay themselves a healthy salary. Just like in any other business, whether you’re buying products or services, you get what you pay for. And your website isn’t something you should cheap-out on.

Green lights

If the agency or freelancer you’re considering meets most or all the criteria on this list, you might be on the right track:

  • An honest, jargon-free proposal
    Both agencies and freelancers should be providing you with a formal project proposal. This proposal should be informative and transparent. It should speak to exactly what the agency or freelancer intends to do, how they intend to do it, and what impact it’ll have on your website after launch. A good proposal should be educational and it should inspire trust.
  • The capacity to help develop your web content and write your web copy
    The web isn’t new any more. Merely having a website won’t cut it, and users are no longer impressed by technical tricks and features. Content is King, and web users are looking for honest, authentic information, written in a engaging, compelling tone. You don’t need to be overly concerned with “content creation,” a super-active blog, and all that jazz. But you will need help developing the content of your website: the information architecture, intuitive navigation, accurate meta data, concise web- and mobile-friendly copy. Progressive web agencies employ content strategists and content developers; high-calibre freelance web developers seek outside content help. Important: Content strategy and development is not marketing, and it’s not the job of a marketing “expert” or a “marketing copywriter.” Traditional marketing is jargon-spinning and has no place on the web. It’s ineffective and it can hurt your reputation.
  • A networking approach to social media
    Effective social media is about networking and conversation. The agency or freelancer you’re considering doesn’t have to be active in every social network, but some conversational activity in at least one of them is a good indication of their understanding of social, and how important it can be to your business.
  • An open-source content management system (CMS) option
    If the agency or freelancer you’re considering is planning to use an open-source CMS, like WordPress, then it’s much more likely you’ll be able to get technical help down the road if the relationship with your original designer sours. Proprietary content management systems (CMSs developed by the agency or freelancer you’ve hired) can be complicated for future programmers to work with, maybe because they were built by amateurs, or by highly-educated engineers. BUT BEWARE, not all open-source CMS options are good ones. WordPress is complicated but relatively user-friendly. CMS options like Drupal and Joomla, on the other hand, are messy, non-intuitive, and a general nightmare to work with.

Red flags

If the agency or freelancer you’re considering raises any of the following red flags, that’ll be your cue to look elsewhere:

  • A proposal that reads like a marketing brochure
    A web project proposal should explain the actual work that’s going to happen, and the technology involved, in plain language that you’re able to understand. Web development isn’t rocket science. It’s a skill, for sure, but just like anything else, it can be explained to non-experts. A fluffy proposal that talks vaguely about winning awards, “business savvy” and “marketing expertise” should be tossed on the trash. And if someone is hiding behind marketing jargon or techno-babble, then that’s likely the same approach they’ll take in dealing with you in real life.
  • Proposing an excessive number of pages for your new site
    I once observed a small agency repeatedly trying to increase the page counts for websites, in an effort to inflate the budgets. The agency was struggling, and the rationale was that more pages meant more time which meant more money. And the combination of agency rates and a radically underpaid staff meant unfair profits for the company. Not to mention the dishonesty and complete disservice to the clients.

    More pages DOES NOT equal better SEO – that’s completely wrong. If anyone tells you that, walk away.

    Your website should contain only the pages required to effectively communicate your offering to potential customers. No more, no less. You’ll certainly need product/service-related pages, and some companies require location-based pages, but if the agency or developer you’re considering comes to you proposing a 100-page website, ask for justification.

  • “You don’t need a mobile-friendly site.” OR “We’ll have to design a separate mobile-friendly site.”
    Both statements could not be further from the truth. You DO need a mobile-friendly website. With the mobile share of web traffic predicted to reach 50% by 2014, it would be foolish to build a new site that isn’t mobile friendly. Anyone telling you this is doing so because they lack the capabilities. And anyone telling you that you need a separate site for mobile is trying to ding you for 2 projects instead of one. Find someone who can build you a “responsive” website that will work on all devices.
  • “We leave the content up to you, because you’re the subject matter expert.”
    True, you’re the subject matter expert. But you may not be a writer, and it’s unlikely that you have web content strategy experience. You’ll need to provide the ideas and substance that will make up your web content, but someone will need to help turn those ideas and business offerings into compelling, jargon-free copy. Getting a user to read, click, buy or contact you via the website is 100% based on an authentic content strategy.
  • “We leave the content up to you, to save you money.”
    This is an excuse, either because they don’t understand the importance of content (that’s scary), or because they don’t want content work to cut into the profit, and they’re banking on you not being on the ball. Yes, adding another skill set and service to the web design package will increase costs, but what good is a website if it doesn’t speak to the user in a compelling way, if it doesn’t generate leads and encourage visitors to become customers? Some smaller agencies, and newbie developers, claim that help with content is something their clients can’t afford and don’t want to pay for. But building a website without professional attention being paid to content, is like putting up a billboard in the middle of nowhere. No one will see it, no one will read it, and no new business will come from it.
  • Back-links, keywords and other “black hat” SEO strategies
    Automated back-linking strategies, “peppering” keywords into the pages of your new site… these are “black hat” attempts to trick search algorithms, and Google punishes the offenders. Any agency or freelancer that talks about these non-authentic tactics of boosting SEO is years out of date and does not deserve your business.
  • Social media done wrong
    If the agency or freelancer’s approach to social networking is blasting out self-serving content, if there’s any talk about “automating” your tweets and Facebook posts, or mention of apps to help you gain likes and followers, then you’re talking to the wrong people. Social media is a form of networking, and it has to be authentic and honest in order to be effective.

Agency or freelance?

This is a tricky one to answer. There are stereotypical pros and cons to both. The generic “agency or freelance” article written by an agency will talk about agencies offering brick-and-mortar customer service, and freelancers being unreliable. The generic “agency or freelance” article written by a freelancer will talk about freelancers doing high-calibre work for more reasonable prices, and agencies inflating their budgets to pay satellite staff. The truth is, you can have a good or bad experience with either. Some agencies offer reasonable prices, and some are bad at customer service. Some freelancers do sub-par work, and some are the most reliable people you’ll ever work with. In the end, the decision you make should be based on your instincts after meeting the people you’ll be working with.


The best advice I can give you: Don’t cheap out. Your website is important, it’s your company’s face in the world, and you get what you pay for. Know your budget beforehand and find out what each agency and freelancer can provide for that amount. Talk with past clients, seriously consider referrals from friends and colleagues, and trust your instincts.

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