10 things to do before you hire a graphic designer

Or, how to discover if you have the stomach to commission creative work.


Anyone who has had to hire a graphic designer more than once (or more than one) has been disappointed. At some point you will get results you’re less than stoked on. I’m lucky that I’ve never had to hire a straight up stranger in a pinch to design a major project BUT I have been the designer that disappointed someone. While I’m happy to take the blame for things I did wrong like being late, poor communication or causing typos, there’s a trend I see in the disappointed people — I was the first or second designer they had worked with and they had no idea what to expect or their expectations were based on one experience that went dreamily. I’ve got ideas on how to not get caught in this situation in the future but here’s some strategies for not being disappointed by the process *in general* for those of you who might need to hire a designer (especially if you have limited experience with designers):

  1. Find a project to have designed.
    Look at your calendar and find something to commission a designer to create a card for. It should be small and it should be kind of funny that you’re even making a card for it. This project should not be something important like your 50th anniversary card. Some ideas: birthday card for a friend; belated Moving announcement; a Thank You card; surprise I Think You’re Great note for someone.
  2. Establish a budget.
    It should be at least $50 and more like $100. It needs to be just enough that it will hurt if you’re not happy with the results. You need some skin in the game. This is critical for understanding how graphic design goes down in the real world. If you routinely commission design at some point you will spend $1000 or $10,000, be disappointed with the outcome and it won’t be the designer’s fault. Its just how things work out. But you’ll never get good design if you’re afraid to pay for it. So $75. Its like buying a couple premium pizzas that weren’t amazing because the chef’s dog ran away and she had an off-night.
  3. Find a designer.
    You should look for a student. Why? Because your $75 won’t get laughed at or shrugged off and you should find an acceptable candidate. I would use the careers office at a college with a design department but you could go the Craig’s List route (just don’t be surprised by the whiny responses to your posting about “How much professional design should cost blah blah blah”). Do NOT use a freelancer site or outsourcing venue, you want to meet with the designer.
    Make your project sound like its easy money (since all projects sound like easy money until you have to do them): “I’m a marketing manager with kind of a silly personal project: looking for a designer to make a one-off emailable Thank You card to give to a friend. I’d like to meet for 15 mintues to hear about your process (I can come to [fill-in-the-blank-school]). I think its a 1-day project but you’d have 2 weeks to get it done. Budget: $75. Deliverable: 800 px wide jpg. To apply just send a short letter of interest and a link to your portfolio.” Just make it sound easy to work with you.
  4. Review designers.
    Find 2–3 designers in the bunch whose work you like. Please note: you do not have to LOVE their work. Just like it. I mean, its just a $75 project, chill out, OK? If you can’t imagine your card in the style of at least 2 things they’ve made then its not a good fit. This is precisely why we didn’t ask for resumés above. You don’t want to get tricked into thinking something is good because of fancy names. Go with your gut.
  5. Interview the designers.
    Ask them about the projects from their website that you liked. Find out about their process. What exactly is it that they do when they design? Does it sound like they kind of just screw around and hope for the best? How do they get unstuck? Do they actually have a process? If their process doesn’t give you some faith in them then bounce. I mean, politely thank them for their time. For the ones that you like give them some details about your project so that you don’t have to have a kick-off meeting later. Let them know that you’d like 2 options with 1 set of follow-up revisions to the direction you choose.
  6. Pick a designer.
    Let the designer know quickly that you want to work with them (everyone values fast communication) and set up a follow-up meeting for the next week.
  7. Approve a design.
    When you meet with the designer, force yourself to pick a design even if you don’t love them. Remember that this is a piece of communications and not art so get objective: Are they clear? Do they look like some effort has been put into them? Would you be happy if your friend sent this to you? What does it say about the sender?
    Allow yourself a simple request for a revision — color, a typeface or more visual contrast — but don’t get carried away. Remember that you hired this designer for a reason and you have faith in their abilities.
  8. Pay them quickly and use the design.
    Send it to your friend. Even if its not 100% wanted use it. Nothing in your life is 100% percent what you want. Not your house, not your car, not your kids. When it comes to creative projects what matters is putting aside perfectionism and shipping. So ship.
  9. Get feedback.
    Show the design to people. Ask them what they think. If they suggest revisions that you agree with then maybe when its time for a bigger project loop them in to look at early drafts. If all they do is undermine your confidence and make you wish you had done something totally different then you’ve established a couple of things: first, don’t show this person anything, and secondly, you don’t have the confidence to stick to your guns and therefor don’t have the stomach to commission design yet. Go back to Step 1.
  10. Review the process.
    Are you bitter about having to pay them? Are you overly attached to the fact that it doesn’t look like what you had in mind when you first imagined the project? Guess what? You need to go back to Step 1 before you go hiring a web designer.

Are you happy with what you got? Try to figure out why. Was it the process? The thinking behind the work? The way it looks? Or the way it was sold to you? These are all legitimate reasons for liking something but if you can distill it down to 1 or 2 then you know what you need from a designer and what kind of designer you need. Now you can commission a banner for your kids birthday.