These 8 Tricks to Selecting a Design Partner Will Amaze You

Most people have never hired a designer in their lives. They will live good, fulfilling, happy lives. They will throw birthday parties for their children, they will mow their lawn, they will upgrade their car at a reasonable pace, and they will grow old and happy surrounded by people they love, knowing they’ve lived a good life.

And then there will be people who have to hire a designer at some point in their lives. Maybe just once. Maybe on a regular basis. This article is for them. Because I want them to be able to do all of the things in that first paragraph. I want them to be happy. I want to give them the tools to choose a designer well. And still get home in time to inflate the bouncy house for Tristan’s birthday party this Saturday.

Selecting a design partner is a pain in the ass. Designers can be difficult. And the process is a mystery. And let’s face it, designers do a crappy job of explaining it. But for those who have to do it, getting it right can mean the difference between their organization doing well and going under. I want to help you do it well.

For the record, I am a designer. I run a design studio. I have a motive in explaining how the process works. The more at ease people are with hiring a designer, the easier it is for a designer to get hired. Namely me.

1. Don’t hire artists. Or creatives. Hire designers.

Chances are if you’re looking to hire a designer you have a goal that you’re trying to accomplish. Which means you need someone who understands goals. Here are some good goals:

  • I just started a company/organization/campaign and I need a website.
  • I want to sell more pants/sprockets/subscriptions than my competitors.
  • I run a restaurant and my site is in Flash.

These are business goals. And you should hire someone who understands business goals, how to evaluate possible solutions and then measure the results. A good designer will listen to what you are trying to accomplish, reflect it back to you, and then research the landscape, as well as the constraints on the table, and then offer solutions that meet your goals. They’ll do this in a way that reflects your understanding of your own business.

A designer should never make you feel stupid for not understanding their craft. A large part of their craft is figuring out how to communicate with you about your business.

This isn’t an opportunity for anyone to express themselves, or reinvent the wheel, unless reinventing the wheel helps you sell sprockets.

2. Don’t just google “design studio”

Remember that time you threw out your back and found a doctor on Yelp and they turned out to be a quack? And it set you back a few grand and prolonged your misery? And then your friend Alice recommended a doctor that took good care of her when she threw out her back?

Chances are you know someone, somewhere, who’s hired a designer at some point. Put some feelers out. There’ll be a friend of a friend who had a good experience with someone. (And possibly a bad experience. Keep a list of those, too.) That will at least give you some pre-vetted people to talk to, as well as some background about what these people are like to work with. That doesn’t mean the same designer will be right for you, but it gives you a place to start. And designers are a tight bunch. If your friend’s designer isn’t right for you, they’ll probably know someone who is.

For the record, most of the work we take on at Mule comes in through referrals. And we love our clients, so when one of them recommends us, we want to take good care of their friends, too.

3. Don’t look for your design in their portfolio

Once you find yourself some designers to look at, you’re gonna look at some portfolios. Portfolios are useful because you get to see some of their previous work, and who they’ve done it for. They’re also useful for pointing to something and asking, “What were you solving there?”

And that’s where it stops.

The design you are looking for is not in the portfolio. Their portfolio is a record of problems they’ve solved for other people, with those other people’s constraints, and those other people’s budgets. And it reflects those other people’s brands. But hiring a designer is like hiring a tailor. You look at their previous work to see the quality of their work, to inspect the stitching, and you study the posture previous clients, but you’re not here to grab one off the rack. Those are all datapoints to help you decide if you’re going to let them take your measurements.

4. Don’t sign a contract for past performance

When you’re interviewing designers, you’re going to get two types of people: Those who can’t stop talking about themselves and their prior achievements, and those who sit and listen to you describe what you need and then reflect it back to you. Hire the latter. Look for people who ask you good questions about your goals and your audience, people who want to know more about your company workflow, people who actually seem interested in helping you, rather than selling themselves.

True, both groups are trying to sell themselves. But the ones who are asking questions about you have already started working. Their natural curiosity is their best selling point. And they value solving the problem more than getting another customer notch in their belt.

5. Tell them your budget

This is a financial transaction. You’re paying money to get something of value in exchange. Don’t get weird about it. Let’s go back to the tailor for a second. You can get a suit for $200 and you can get a suit for $2000. And many points in between. But if you tell your tailor you have $500 for the suit, he’ll still make you a quality suit, but he’ll move down to the less expensive fabrics, and maybe forgo the vest. (Also, don’t buy a $200 suit.)

Your budget is one of the most important constraints you have.

Knowing it up front means that a designer can factor it in when suggesting possible solutions. And if you don’t know your budget, it’s because someone is withholding it from you. There’s always a budget.

6. Make sure this is someone you can spend 3 months to a year with

Depending on the size of your project and the complexity of your organization, you’re going to spend a lot of time with these people. In cramped quarters. And in the darkest reaches of your basement going over content matrices. They will find out things about you that not even your mother knows. There’ll be frustration and pain, interspersed with moments of clarity and joy.

Obviously, you want to hire someone who’s good at what they do. But equally important is working with people who actually make you feel at ease, have your back, and want to have a drink with you at the end of the day.

They’re also more likely to be honest with you, which is important because…

7. Don’t hire anyone who’s afraid to argue with you

People get testy during projects. And ultimately you want to be working with someone who has your best interests in mind and is looking out for the project goals. Even if it means pissing you off once in a while. Your designer’s goal should be your success, not your happiness. So don’t work with anyone who just automatically bends to all of your whims and wishes.

Think of it this way, you’ve got ideas you want to try. The designer doesn’t think they’re going to work, but they don’t want to argue with you so they do them anyway. Your site launches and fails. So you call the designer into your office and you tell them the project failed at which point he tells you:

“Yeah, I thought it might because some of those things you asked me to do were not so great.”

“So why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to argue with you!”

So yeah, get someone who’s willing to argue with you. It might save your company.

8. Don’t think of design as an investment

For years, people thought of design as something nice to have, but not yet crucial to what they did on the web. They didn’t view design as the underlying system of a product or process that started at the product’s conception. They saw design as a luxury. Like investing in art or Star Wars figures that you never took out of the packaging. Like if you held onto it long enough, design would appreciate.

Designers, in turn, tripped over themselves to write essays on design’s ROI (return on investment). These were dark times. We were selling design as a cost of doing business. A sunk cost. A necessary evil. I’m here to tell you a better story: design is a profit center. You’ll make more money from your website than the designer ever will.

So when you’re looking for a design partner, don’t think about how much you’re going to spend — think of how much you’re going to make!