An almost comprehensive guide to hiring a freelance graphic designer or a small to medium design firm.
What is graphic design?
A quick primer on a description of graphic design from two sources who have articulated it better than I can, one pragmatic, one poetic:
“Graphic design, also known as communication design, is the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content. The form of the communication can be physical or virtual, and may include images, words, or graphic forms. The experience can take place in an instant or over a long period of time. The work can happen at any scale, from the design of a single postage stamp to a national postal signage system, or from a company’s digital avatar to the sprawling and interlinked digital and physical content of an international newspaper. It can also be for any purpose, whether commercial, educational, cultural, or political.”
—Juliette Cezzar, American Institute of Graphic Arts
“Graphic Design is the most ubiquitous of all the arts. It responds to needs at once personal and public, embraces concerns both economic and ergonomic, and is informed by many disciplines including art and architecture, philosophy and ethics, literature and language, science and politics and performance. Graphic design is everywhere, touching everything we do, everything we see, everything we buy: we see it on billboards and in Bibles, on taxi receipts and on websites, on birth certificates and on gift certificates, on the folded instructions inside jars of aspirin and on the thick pages of childrens’ picture books. Graphic design is the boldly directional arrows on street signs and the blurred, frenetic typography on the title sequence to E.R. It is the bright green logo for the New York Jets and the monochromatic front page of The Wall Street Journal. It is hang-tags in clothing stores, postage stamps and food packaging, fascist propaganda posters and brainless junk mail. Graphic design is complex combinations of words and pictures, numbers and charts, photographs and illustrations that, in order to succeed, demand the clear thinking of a particularly thoughtful individual who can orchestrate these elements so that they all add up to something distinctive, or useful, or playful, or surprising, or subversive, or somehow memorable. Graphic design is a popular art and a practical art, an applied art and an ancient art. Simply put, it is the art of visualizing ideas.”
—Jessica Helfand, Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture
Graphic design is not art. The fact that you like a piece of design does not mean it will do the job you want. It is important to look past the aesthetic part of liking or disliking and embrace what works.
Before you go any further.
My first piece of advice is if you just want someone to produce a preexisting idea and are not interested in creative thinking, then tell prospective designers upfront. You will avoid much consternation on both sides and streamline the process of finding a compatible match.
What are the options for graphic design artifacts?
All businesses use graphic design products in some capacity. Logos, forms, brochures, business cards, websites; graphic design it is hard to avoid. Graphic design is one of the costs of doing business. Even if you don’t budget for it, you’ll be paying for it, whether you realize it or not: in lost revenue, in time, missed customer opportunities etc. You cannot run your business without electricity or a phone, the reality is that design is on the same level of necessity. Money spent on design is an investment in your business. The question is not whether you need design, the question it is where you get it.
The options for obtaining these artifacts:
- DIY(including friends and family)
- Generic Materials: Clipart, boilerplate forms, stock photos, etc.
- Do nothing
- Hire a designer
Many small businesses mix and match among these options. You bought a crowdsourced logo or a clipart logo and are using it for a new brochure you made yourself with software you borrowed from a friend.
Unless you have both the skill and the time, hiring a graphic designer is always going to be better that DIYing it. Even if you have the time and skill a fresh perspective will yield better results. Whether you hire a designer or not is your choice to you and you can DIY and piecemeal to get by, but you ignore it at your peril.
Why hire a graphic designer?
You get what you pay for. If you are trying to piece together design on the cheap, that will be obvious to your customers, the same way amateur home remodeling projects don’t quite measure up. Bad impressions and experiences can lose you customers. A graphic designer can do it better, faster, more effectively and consistently across your various projects.
If need more convincing than that, you might avail yourself of the abundance of designers on the internet espousing the virtues of graphic design. In the meantime, we have other ground to cover…
Where to find a graphic designer for your small business.
Hiring a graphic designer takes a little research and is similar to hiring any professional craftsperson. Asking friends and colleagues is always the first and best way to find a graphic designer. If networking is not an option, alternately you can do a google search and find perhaps dozens of designers in your area.
Another option is to consider whether working with a designer remotely. There are no technological obstacles, so it comes down to personal preference. If your comfortable working remotely some general avenues of searching include:
- Portfolio sites: Behance, Logopond
- Resume Sites: Creative Hotlist, Linkedin
- Professional Organizations: AIGA
- Search for “how to hire a graphic designer” (look for advice results)
I would avoid any service or website that forces designers to bid against one another, for example crowdsourcing sites. These types of businesses are built to benefit the middleman at the expense of both the designers and the clients. Crowdsourcing sites are not concerned with your clients or your problems, they only want to please you and cater to your tastes, and are betting you will conflate “liking” the work with the work being good and useful. The truth is design work is not for you, it is meant to appeal to your clients, the people who pay you to do what you do best. The priority is to communicate effectively with them, and a professional designer will do research and develop a plan that will incorporate your clients’ expectations with your preferences.
As I said, in general it is not very different from hiring any professional. You want someone who does good work, is well recommended, has been in business for a while and who you trust and think you will get along with. Look for someone who asks many questions, offers a lot of ideas and pushes back a little bit and doesn’t immediately agree with all of your ideas.
Timing. When to hire a graphic designer?
It is hard to answer this one without bias, because I think you should always consult with a designer. Having a graphic designer on call or retainer is not always realistic though. New and established businesses both need graphic design help. If own an established business, go find someone now. If you are starting a new business, there are two good entry points to start consulting with a designer. The first, when you first decide to start your business. A graphic designers’ insights can save you time and money with many issues including, for example, the name of your business. The second best entry point is when you have everything settled and are confident in your direction and content.
Big List of Recommendations, Cautions and Tips for Selecting a Designer
- Be cautious of designers who offer to do everything. Specialization can be a good thing. A good print designer might not be a good web designer and vice versa. This is also dependent on the size of the firm. A larger firm may indeed be comprehensive enough to meet all your needs, but be wary of a one person shop that can do everything from design, to marketing and social media and everything in between.
- Run away from designers who don’t offer a contract up front. This is a deal breaker. Do not do business without a contract.
- Be wary of pricing that is substantially lower than their competitors.
- Avoid designers that offer one price and/or package deals, you are either going to get an inferior product and experience or will end up paying more than the advertised price. These kind of promotions are a good idea for bringing in business but are incompatible with good design process. Design is not one size fits all.
- Consider carefully a portfolio that has more illustration than graphic design. It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it is useful to distinguish between the two. An illustration may have limited typography and will primarily be an image. A skilled illustrator may not be a skilled graphic designer.
- Question a designer whose work appears excessively focused on trends and/or is all the same style. Are they comfortable with other styles, are they flexible enough for your needs?
- Avoid working with students or friends who do design as a hobby or side job. They may be talented and reliable, but they will often not be able to serve your long term needs and my not be familiar professional practices, copyright and ethical issues. Your best bet and value for money will be an established professional designer with whom you can build a long term relationship. Friends are also more likely to expect leniency with deadlines and details.
- Look for work that relates to your specific needs. Don’t hire a web designer for your 100,000 brochure run.
- Be wary of a designer who offers no alternate ideas or push back when you present your ideas. If they just create whatever you ask, you have a problem.
- A designer offering too many ideas to choose from can be an issue. A competent designer will narrow down the options fairly quickly and focus on one appropriate direction from which you can alter and tweak.
- Designers who ask questions about what colors you like might be a concern. The designer should be the expert on color choice and should be doing research to find what is appropriate for your project.
- It is a big red flag if a graphic designer is not asking many questions.
- Be critical of in-house designers at the place you get your printing or web design done. Make sure they have the same standards, quality and services as a stand alone design firm. It may be worth the cost and inconvenience to hire both a graphic designer and a printer.
- Skills related to graphic design but which a specific designer may not be proficient in: marketing, web design, coding, photography, illustration, copywriting, social media. If one of these skills is a priority ensure your designer is proficient or willing to hire out for that task.
- The level of initial responsiveness returning phone calls and emails can be a future indicator of respect for your time and deadlines.
- Maintaining membership in professional affiliations: is a plus. Not a mandatory but it provides insight into seriousness and professionalism.
- A limited variety of client types may be a concern.
- A degree in graphic design is better than no degree. It is not a guarantee, but it speaks to a level of commitment and a basic level of competence. There are exceptions and amazing self-taught designers, but all else being equal I would choose the designer with formal education.
- Ask about their relationships with vendors. Do they have printers, mailing houses or web developers they work with regularly? This is a good way to get a sense of how established they are and how they function within the community.
- None of these individually are a deal breaker, but if they start to add up you may want to choose another designer.
You found a graphic designer, what now?
You need a contract, for any job, no matter the size. The contract need not be elaborate or filled with legalese, but it is mandatory. A contract protects both you and the designer. Even if someone is doing pro-bono work for you, you need a contract. Did I mention a contract is a good idea?
Items to be considered in a contract:
- Scope of the work: What exactly are you paying for? Make sure it is all explicit, don’t assume anything will be included, unless it is stated in the contract.
- Changes/Alterations: How many and what kinds of changes are included in the estimate.
- Designer/Client responsibilities: what is the client responsible for providing? Photos, copy, who is collaborating with printers etc.
- Contract termination: How can you get out of the contract if your not happy and what do you get and what do you owe? Who and under what circumstance can the contract be terminated? Who gets what, what are the terms?
- Turn around time/deadlines: Whether time is tight or not, a timeframe should be agreed upon.
- Estimate/Payment Terms: A downpayment of up to 50% is common, with the balance due on delivery. Paying in full upfront is not advised.
- Additional Materials: Are items like photography and fonts include in the price or are they add-ons?
- Approvals: How will things be proofed and approved? Email, hard copies, in person etc. Is proofing time built into the schedule?
- Copyright and usage: Who owns what? What are you paying for? Will you own the work outright or are you purchasing limited rights? This part is important. Transferring of rights should be included in the contract.
- Deliverables: What will you get? What kind of files etc. If it is tangible will it be delivered?
Confidentiality: Depending on the scope of the project and the nature of your business this may be an important inclusion.
- Warranties: If issues arise after the agreed upon schedule, how are these kinds of issues handled. Typos for example or image rights disputes.
- Unused sketches: The designer will often retain the right to unused images and ideas. This is fairly standard. Be prepared to spend more if you want all of the work product.
- Portfolio Display Rights: Designer will often want to retain rights to display the work for their own self-promotion.
- Signatures. Don’t forget to sIgn the contract yourself and get a copy signed by all parties.
This may seem like as extensive list, but it does not cover every contingency. The length of the contract is often project dependent. All of these items may not be necessary in all contracts but it is a fair representation of the scope of issues you should be aware of.
Bring any examples of your preferences, but don’t get too attached.
Have a good idea of where you want to go. Where might designs be used beyond the current scope? Consider all the possibilities even if they are not realistic at the moment. Do you hope to get embroidered hats one day, banners? Consider how your business might change as well. A little bit of hopes and dreams can be helpful to avoid issues down the line.
Examples of the types of questions you should be able to answer (and a good designer will ask)
- Who are your customers?
- What customers do you want?
- Who are your competition?
- What are your biggest challenges?
- What are you good at?
- What are you not so good at?
- What are your aspirations?
It is normal that many questions may not seem relevant to your project. It is common practice to get an idea of the bigger picture before getting to specifics.
The product of this meeting is usually a design brief. It may be as casual as a conversation or exchange of emails or an actual formal written document that describes the project. The design brief is not a contract, it is an articulation of the design problems and goals. It is a framework for both sides to reference as the project moves forward.
Last Bits of Advice:
- There is a difference between a quote and estimate. Make sure you are aware of what committing to when signing a contract.
- Make sure you are talking to the designer, sometimes things get lost in translation. Even if it is a firm/agency and your point of contact is a creative director or some other intermediary ask that the designer is involved meetings. It will help avoid miscommunications, can be more efficient and you can hear the designers feedback.
- Proofs are important. Proofread everything. When you are reviewing multiple proofs check everything, not just the changes. Don’t assume anything. The client is responsible for errors they signed off on.
- There is a difference between a designer who understands what you are looking for but has a rationale for nudging you in another direction and one who is misunderstanding your goals.
- When the work is completed make sure you obtain a copyright transfer if applicable.
That was a lot of words and ideas. The amount of information is directly related to the importance of the activity. Graphic design is important to all businesses big and small. In large successful businesses everything is designed, no detail is overlooked. How do they get to a successful state? Do they turn their focus to design once they achieve success or is it integrated from inception? Graphic design is not a benefit of success, design enables success.