So you need to know how to choose a website designer.
But here’s the problem.
“It depends” is both the most correct and the most unhelpful answer.
There have never been more choices in the website design industry than now. But paradoxically, all those choices make actually choosing more difficult than ever.
The secret to choosing wisely is to understand exactly what you need rather than attempting to sort & filter all the choices on offer.
Like any other large purchase… a house, car, appliance, etc – ditch the idea of a “best” – and instead, write out your exact needs, requirements, and goals. The best option for you will usually self-select itself.
In other words, choose a website designer through elimination based your goals rather than searching out the one right fit.
With that concept in mind, here’s how to walk through the process of elimination to choose the right website designer for your project.
How do you need your website to function?
Are you looking to build a “brochure site” – a place with your basic information and contact information?
Or are you looking to build something with certain functionality?
This step is critical because it decides what type of web designer or developer or agency you’ll need to hire.
Back-end technology involves databases, scripts, and APIs – and generally making sure the computers are all talking to each other correctly.
Now – you’ll likely hire someone who is an expert in one, is knowledgeable in another, and is familiar with the third. If you hire an agency, then they’ll have all three.
Additionally, many designers / developers / agencies will work with certain platforms that already have core functionality built-in. When they work with these platforms, it will speed up the process and lower the costs…but also means that the client (you) needs to have some familiarity with what tools they are using.
But the main thing you need to think about is how much functionality does your site need? This will determine what type of website designer you’ll need, and how to discuss their process.
Think about a new fashion brand. Are you more focused on developing content or retailing clothes? Do you need to manage inventory? Do you want to build a community? How do you want to integrate your social presence?
A web designer could build a self-hosted WordPress website to handle the content and then add-in ecommerce with an ecommerce plugin, but it might be harder to manage inventory & social integration. They could also build an online store with Shopify to focus on ecommerce & social, but might hamstring your big content plans.
Think about a new non-profit website. Do you have expertise to manage & maintain the website? Do you need donation abilities or portal logins? Do you need to integrate with certain profiles?
A web designer could build a self-hosted WordPress website that could easily integrate donations and would be cheap upfront, but it would be harder to maintain long-term without someone who can train on the platform. They could also use a hosted website builder like Wix or WordPress.com that might have fewer upfront capabilities, but would be much easier to maintain in-house over the long-term.
Now – the designer that you choose should be flexible but also knowledgeable. It’s better to trust someone that you trust…but also verify that they deeply understand your needs.
How do you want your website to look and feel?
Unless you’ve had to design something for a client, it’s hard to understand how difficult it is to translate a vague idea in someone else’s brain into a tangible creation.
Sure, there are bad designers out there, but usually, the more specific you are about your design needs, the better product you’ll get.
Draw out something – anything – to show even the most basic direction you’d like to go.
Collect websites that you like – and note what you like about them. Here’s a bunch of example round-ups that I’ve written.
Write out your frustrations with existing designs.
Additionally, keep in mind that it’s possible to develop some design assets yourself and let a web designer translate those existing assets into a website design.
For example, I’ve had clients use a photographer and bring in a web designer to build a site layout around their amazing professional images.
I’ve also turned to Fiverr to get a color scheme, logo, or graphic design elements created that I could then implement.
Some clients even use automated design generators like Tailor Brands to create a look that a web developer can plug & play into a theme or template.
Once you have all your specifics down – you can use it to choose the right web designer.
Think about a restaurant website. An established restaurant will likely already have quite a bit of design assets in its physical location. Between logos, fonts, colors, ambience, etc – a web designer should already have a good bit to work off. Hiring a designer will be less about getting the design right and more about the layout, navigation, and design asset conversion right.
Think about a brand-new yoga studio. A startup might need a website design that can translate offline and throughout social media. Here, the owner will need to make a choice about developing a logo & brand feel separately (via a specialist graphic designer or logo contractor or AI brand software) or letting the website designer drive the look of the business.
What role does your website serve in your business?
Some of this will go back to your design and technology needs, but it’s especially pressing to consider before you define your budget & scope.
Think about how your business gets customers and how you do your marketing.
How will/does your website drive leads/sales? Is it something that your referrals & salespeople will offer as a brochure…or will your website need to drive new leads from online visitors?
Will it need to integrate with any business processes such as inventory or bookkeeping or order-taking? Do you want to move your business processes to the website via marketing/sales automation?
Are there any existing software providers that you want to integrate with your website now or in the future?
Think about a local property management. An accounting firm could do well with a “brochure website” that simply funnels people to the phone and in-person consults. A nice brochure website (i.e., a website that simple provides information) might do fine. But what if the firm wants to add in client tools, secure portals, content marketing, direct listings, etc? Those features would require a website that can expand and develop over time. It might be worth developing a self-hosted website with a designer on retainer.
Think about a new jewelry business. A jewelry business might do business exclusively on Etsy, and want a blog to connect with customers. It might be easy to get a custom theme on a hosted platform like WordPress.com. However, it also might be a better choice to go a different direction at the beginning to integrate Etsy or lay the foundation for a non-Etsy online store.
How much money and time do you have to spend right now?
And “as cheap as possible” is not an answer – if this is your thinking, you should not be looking for a custom website designer. You should look for alternative options.
Your website is an investment, not a cost. If you approach it the same way you’d approach bulk-buying office pens…then you’re not going to get the result you want.
Now – I understand the desire to get the biggest return for your investment. But remember that it’s usually better to maximize your return rather than minimize your investment.
What type of designer do you want? And how do you find them?
The bad news is that most good website designers are not super-easy to find.
The good news is that your competitors don’t know that. If you put in a bit of work to find the right website designers – you’ll have a much better range of choices.
Now – you could always do a Google Search. But I promise that you will likely be disappointed. Here are some better places to look.
Local web designers are usually horrendous at marketing their services. But many clients want a local designer that they can talk to in person.
Your approach will depend on your metro area, of course, but here’s where I’d look.
WordPress is an incredibly versatile content management system. It’s not ideal for every site, but it’s like 4 door SUV / Sedan of the Internet. It’ll probably do the job for you.
Now – the issue is that basically anybody can call themselves a “WordPress developer” – even if they really don’t know how the software works at its core.
It’s important to do #1 and #2 – because you’ll need to know if you are hiring a designer / developer who works with WordPress as their software of choice vs. someone who actually develops websites with WordPress.
Here’s where I’d look –
One side note about WordPress designers – since they’ll likely use certain themes/theme frameworks – you’ll be able to negotiate a bit more on scope and do more with DIY.
Now there are plenty of other software options out there – especially “hosted options” like Squarespace, Weebly, Shopify, Wix, Bigcommerce, etc.
The key here is to understand the technology and what exactly you are buying (ie, you are paying more for a custom design over functionality since the hosted option bundles lots of functionality in with your hosting).
Lean heavily on the services’ support forums and Experts Exchange to find prospective designers. Also, Fiverr usually has a huge selection of people offering platform specific gigs.
The great thing about web design is that you can work with a global talent pool if you want. There are challenges to working remotely but a lot of upside if you can do it well.
Again, for this search, I’d recommend relying more on internal platforms over random searches. Here’s a few examples.
99designs is a good option for contest-run design only competitions. I’ve implemented designs that my clients have bought through them.
Dribbble is the big hangout for designers doing cutting edge work.
Fiverr is a surprisingly good platform if you are willing to try a few gigs before committing to a single designer. I’ve used them for several side projects.
Upwork is also good if you are willing to do a test project with several designers before choosing.
Tailor Brands is an AI-powered self-service platform that will develop a logo and entire branding setup for less than $100.
You’ll also find that vendors on ThemeForest will do custom work in addition to other marketplaces like CreativeMarket.
The point here is that a bit more effort into searching for good designers will give you much better options than general googling.
Now if you’re thinking “ok – I just need a simple, straightforward website, not a roundabout search” – then you’ll want to look into some Alternative Options.
Now that you have a few website designers to choose from, the next step is to send out a proposal.
The better your proposal, the better your options will be.
Think about how you would like to be approached if you were a web designer.
Would you prefer a vague email asking how much a website costs? Or would you prefer a detailed description of a the project along with a ballpark budget range?
However the designer communicates upfront is how the project will progress. Communication never improves over a project – it only degrades. Look for a high benchmark to start.
Tangible expectations in writing help everyone in every engagement.
At this point, you should be able to choose a website designer.
The next step is to request a contract and a project plan from the designer that you want to work with.
A written contract helps *everyone* in the project. The contract should spell out “deliverables”, costs, responsibilities, intellectual property rights, and an adjudicating body.
A project plan helps *everyone* understand expectations, responsibilities, and timelines. This does not have to be complicated. It should communicate clearly though who is responsible for what and when.
Lastly, for the designers that you did not choose, be sure to send a polite decline. Even if it’s as simple as “Thank you for providing this information. We have decided to work with another company. We will keep your company in mind for future project & referrals.” You’ll save the everyone needless follow-ups.
A good website designer cannot help a bad client.
Choosing a website designer does not have to be a daunting process full of frustration and unknowns.
It does require that you clearly understand what you want, when you want it, and to clearly communicate your expectations.
If you are trying to find a good website designer – follow the process and you’ll be set!
Now – if you have read this post and found it useful…but…
You’re thinking “I just need a website! It’s 2020 – I just need a simple, affordable, quick standard website – not a complicated purchase with contracts and whatnot”
I hear you. I have friends who have been there. And there are options out there – but it’s not a quality custom website designer.
Here’s some options –
Many design options (including the ones below) require you to coordinate your branding, even if you are able to purchase assets like a logo or social media photos. But that leaves a lot up to you.
There is one company that focuses on completely automated branding – Tailor Brands. I’ve begun using them for my side projects. They AI and machine learning to create a whole range of design assets & guidelines.
They also have a bundled website builder or you can use them to complement #1 through #3. Check out Tailor Brands here.
Other website builders also bundle a logo designer with their software. Wix has a template driven logo designer as does Shopify.
There are companies that specialize in businesses with a budget and no design or technical expertise. They provide hosting and pre-made templates all for a single monthly subscription. You might not get all the functionality that you want…but you will get a secure, fast, good looking website.
To find the right website one, take my website builder quiz or see my recommendations here.
I also have an online store builder quiz for quick recommendations.
WordPress is a the most popular, most supported, and most versatile “content management system” on the Internet. It’s free community supported software that you install on a hosting account (ie, you rent part of a server from a hosting company). The software has a learning curve, but you’ll have 100% control and 100% of your options open. You’ll also be able to call in specific experts on specific problems.
This option is a blend of #1 and #2 – if you want full control over your site with unlimited options for the future…but don’t want the learning curve of setting up a design yourself, then you can sometimes purchase website design services from a hosting company. They are usually able to provide these services much cheaper than an independent website designer since you’re also using their hosting services.
For these projects, I recommend InMotion Hosting – they have great support and are the hosting company for this website.