If you’re coming in later in the game, you may want to read Part 1 of the series.
Ok, so you’ve found a lot of potential web designers out there. Now how do you choose one?
THE THREE WEB JOB SPECIALTIES
It helps to understand that the web design field is like any other: there are specialists for each aspect of the website process. Just as there are doctors who are general practitioners, endocrinologists, surgeons of one specialty or another, pediatricians and so on, so it is in IT and the web field.
Bear in mind, just because someone can fix your computer doesn’t mean they know anything about web design. And vice versa. Also, just because someone is a programmer doesn’t mean they know anything about web languages either.
When it comes to web design, there are 3 types of designers: graphic artists, web designers, and web developers (programmers who handle the non-artsy stuff). There may be some individuals who do a bit of overlap between each, but I would go so far as to say there is no one who is 100% proficient in all areas (and if such a person exists, most people can’t afford them).
Most will want a web designer. Of the 3, they tend to have a fair bit of training in the other 2 fields. Sometimes, there are graphic designers that do beautiful designs and some can make websites, but may lack an understanding of various coding nuances. There are developers who can do wonders with code and databases, but can’t make an attractive site to save their life. To be fair, there can be graphic designers who understand web design, and programmers who do too. Of the three, you’ll find the most overlap between graphic designers and web designers, as a good web designer needs a strong understanding of commercial art.
SO WHAT IS A WEB DESIGNER?
I tend to think of a web designer as a person who can design and code web pages to be attractive to a target audience, usable, accessible, and search engine friendly. These people will have an understanding of web standards and a general understanding of a variety of web subjects; they may even understand marketing and advertising. Your web designer is the person in between graphic designer and programmer but may have enough of an understanding of the other 2 areas to do some tolerable work or to at least be able to communicate and work with the other 2 specialists. Think of them like your family doctor: its who you go to when you need something taken care of and they’ll refer you to a specialist if the situation requires one.
WHAT NOT TO DO
If you are a business owner in search of help with a project, do not start researching web terminology and submitting a list of what you think your web designer should know. I’ve seen lots of job postings on freelance sites where people list what skills and programs they think they need for a project, only to discover that their project does not require those skills. Some find that out later after paying more than they needed to. Most of you aren’t proficient enough with web design to understand what languages are needed for what projects. So don’t go there. The more you throw around terminology out of context, the less attractive of a client you are to some of us (I’ve specifically avoided some projects and employment postings after reading their list of requirements that was basically 5 job specialties in one).
If you just REALLY want to know what they should know, stick with HTML, XHTML and CSS. Then again, if anyone is claiming to be a web designer, that’s a given. Asking your web designer if they know HTML is like asking your mechanic if they can use a wrench.
Understandably, those of you in hiring for a specific in-house web design position must list specific job skills for various legal reasons. That’s a post I’ll cover another day.
WHAT TO DO
When looking at a web designer’s site, what you can look for is terminology such as:
- Web standards
- Accessible or accessibility
- SEO or search engine optimization
- Target demographic
- Cross platform
This is what you need to make a website. Web design is more than a pretty site. Web design is about making a functional, useful marketing tool. Without the criteria listed above, all you have as a pretty picture you paid a bunch of money for.
However, looks DO figure heavily in web design. So examine the site of the web designer. Does the site look professional? Does it look like it is using current design trends or like the older style websites? Check out their portfolio too. Make sure each project links to an existing, functional website so you can see their work in action.
While looking at sites the designer has created in the past…
Are the websites easy to navigate? Can you tell what the website is about at a glance? Are the pages consistent or does the entire layout change as you travel through the site? How quickly do the pages load? Try looking at their sites in more than one browser. At the very least, try them in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. Do the sites look the same in all browsers? Or at least, pretty close? They should look the same or at least look attractive and be fully functional.
Now try getting in touch with some of those website owners. How happy are those website owners with the website that was made for them? Did they like working with the designer? Did the web designer promptly return calls and answer emails? Did the web designer come in on time and on budget? Make sure you call or email several of those web designer’s clients. You never know when you might be talking to one of those difficult people that will never be happy.
Another great way to check up on a web designer: type their name or business name into a search engine and alternately try words such as bad, horrible, scam, suck, terrible, and so on (such as: ABCD12345 Web Design Company sucks). I do this for any business I am doing research on.
Talk to your potential web designer. Hopefully they will at least do a free phone consultation. It’s hard to get all information needed by email. It’s also hard to get a feel for the client, and vice versa, by email too. So ask them questions. Talk to them about some of the items covered in this post. See if it feels like your personalities click. Do you feel comfortable talking to them? Or are they condescending and causing you to feel stupid? Can they provide an answer to most questions on the spot or do they need to look everything up and get back to you later? Do they sound like they are paying attention to your conversation or do they sound distracted?
Website Promotion: Your web designer should know how to create your website using HTML or XHTML structured in such a way to be pleasing to search engines. This is what we mean by SEO. If you want the other part of SEO: managing ad campaigns, marketing, site promotion and so on, your web designer may or may not be able to handle that. It is not a requirement for a good web designer, although some web designers have begun working in that field too. Ad campaigns and other aspects of website promotion (such as analytics) is a whole other job specialty. As a result of this, you can’t tell if your web designer is a good one just by search engine ranking. Conversely, if your web designer guarantees top search engine listings, run away. This isn’t a claim any honest web designer can make. At best, maybe they can get you there for a day or so or an hour. Or, they can do it, but not without you shelling out the big bucks it takes to get there.
Web Design Awards: Your web designer does not have to list awards they have won. This is because there are sites out there offering “awards” that are only a means to increase search engine traffic. Anyone can get that award. So don’t get hung up on whether the designer is “award winning”. If they are claiming to have won awards, look into what kind of award it is.
Web Hosting: Some web designers provide hosting and some do not. This can be both good and bad. Again, get references and do research. Some web designers provide hosting and actually understand the technology and are available for their clients should a problem arise. Some provide hosting and don’t know the first thing about it and are frequently unavailable in case of emergency. It’s just not a given that a designer will be good or bad as a host. However, having a designer who is a host means you don’t have to pass information between them and your web host, or try and get the web host to understand that the web designer is a legitimate point of contact. Having a web designer who hosts can cut down on a few communication headaches.
Local vs. Out-of-Town: One of the great things about web design as a field is that we don’t have to live near our clients. The vast majority of the sites I’ve created have been done for people I’ve never lived in the same state as, much less the same city. However, some prefer to meet with their web designer in person. This is not necessary, but if that is where your comfort zone is, go for it. Bear in mind, you may be limiting your selection of web designers. Some may prefer to deal with web designers in other countries where designers work much more cheaply. Again, this is up to you and isn’t always good or bad. The drawbacks can be communication issues due to language and cultural barriers, and time zones differences.
Education Level: You don’t need a college degree in web design to be good at this. There are many, like me, who began doing this professionally before there were college degrees on the subject. There are others who learned in college who may also be quite good. Some web designers, like myself, may even have college degrees in areas other than web design. Education level and type does not guarantee a quality designer.
Experience: There may be some who learned fast and studied hard and are quite competent after a few years. Or you may prefer an old-timer like me who’s been at it around a decade. Neither is necessarily better than the other.
Feeling overwhelmed now? It’s ok, you’re not alone. The process can be quite mind boggling. Just take a deep breath. Maybe read this post or series another time or two. And start working your way down the list of things to do. Also, feel free to ask me about the web design process.