Know What You Need
While this article is mostly about having a little fun, it’s also intended to be a public service message. Web designers vary wildly in skills and experience. If you’re shopping for a web designer or agency, you really need to have a good idea of what you want to accomplish. Otherwise you won’t be able to tell the difference between a good designer and a bad one. Beyond that you want to find a designer who has the skills to help you reach your goals. If you don’t know what you need, find someone you trust that has the expertise or at least the basic knowledge to help you. If you can’t find someone you trust who can advise you, make some calls to a few web designers and/or agencies. The more the better. Try making actual calls vs. sending emails. The way your call is treated and the vibe you get from talking to them matter.
Explain your situation. Busy firms may not be able to spend a lot of time with free consultations but they should be patient enough to give you the broad strokes of the services they provide. You can determine if they would be a good fit for your needs depending on what they say and how they say it. Make sure to find out what they would recommend and get a ballpark estimate of how much it would cost. Giant ballpark ranges are not atypical if there are features and technologies that haven't been finalized.
If you get a lot of the same recommendations and price ranges, then you know you’re on the right track. If things are wildly different, then make calls until you find someone who is willing to talk to you. Also consider taking a step back and hiring a web consultant. Some agencies will do this (including version2) to help you outline the specifications of your project. It doesn’t have to be expensive either. It’s just that some projects have multiple solutions and some time needs to be spent evaluating the options for you.
Types of Web Designers (The Fun Part)
Everyone’s a Web Designer
The problem with choosing a web designer is that web designers come with vastly different skill sets and skill levels. What makes it worse is how wildly different the technology can be. There are tons of languages and frameworks that can be used. Also the definitions of web terms are super broad by necessity. For example, if I type “Hello” into Notepad or TextEdit and then save the file onto a web server, I’ve technically created a website. Not a very good one, but it meets the technical definition of a website. So who will you trust to build your website?
The Kid - “My sister’s neighbor’s nephew makes websites.”
The children may be our future, but do you want your future in the hands of a child?
The Retiree - “Check out my blog on scrapbooking, I also make websites!”
I know it’s tempting. They seem nice and well intentioned. They’ll also build a site for $150, but it won’t be professional and they won’t be professional. They don’t have the experience to address any technical issues and future updates may not happen on weeks when the grandkids are in town. If you’re considering this, please go for a DIY solution instead.
The Graphic/Web Designer - “Dreamweaver is just like Illustrator, right?”
While making pretty layouts on paper is similar to making pretty layouts on screens, there is a mountain of code separating a good design and a good website. I think most graphic designers understand that web design is a different discipline, but trying to explain responsive design to a graphic designer is one of the great pains of my career: “Yes, the page changes size. No, dpi doesn’t matter.”
The Cog - “It’s finished.”
These are true web designers. Unfortunately, they work on an assembly line at a big agency and have to make do with whatever content they are given and the specs from upstairs. Their value is based on productivity, so it's tweak a WordPress template and push it out the door.
The Scripter - “We can fix it with jQuery”
Crazy talented programmers that believe HTML and CSS are just the scaffolding to hold up their true brilliance.
The UI/UX Expert - “Describe the emotional journey of our customer when they see the shopping cart icon.”
Wireframes and marketing speak are their identifying marks. Unless you’re a serious eCommerce retailer, you may never interact with these folks.
The SEO Evangelist - “Blog. Backlink. Repeat.”
They firmly believe that SEO is the only aspect of web design that matters. It's an extreme viewpoint, but in certain circumstances, they aren’t wrong. Just know that you will have to be the one that keeps the design, marketing and user experience up to snuff.
The Developer - “I built it with C++ ten years ago.”
A genius. They can create elegant database queries and bulletproof backends. Front ends usually look like Windows 95…or worse.
The Freelancer - “Whoever built this didn’t know what they were doing.”
The hired gun. Has to be skilled or they wouldn’t be able to make a living doing what they do. Usually has strong opinions on what works and what doesn’t.
The Fullstack Dev - “It will work if we just... [incomprehensible technobabble]”
A rare and usually stressed-out individual. These developers have a detailed understanding of how things work at every stage from the server, to the application layer, to the connected APIs, to the design, to the interaction. Because of their understanding of every layer, these types can make technological leaps. True Fullstack developers are hard to find and expensive.
The Boutiqueist - “No problem. We can do that right??”
A member of a small web development team/agency. This used to be the most common habitat for web developers. While rarer now, you can still find these teams. It’s a small group so you get a bigger skill set than a freelancer but don’t have to worry about the mass-production problems of bad service and being overcharged for cookie-cutter websites either.
The Agency Drone - “I think you’ll be impressed by our business-plus performance package.”
Similar to The Cog. Might know better, but their job is to make sure that every shape of peg that comes through the door fits into their particular hole. Usually a cross between a salesperson and a designer.
Web designers come in all shapes and sizes. Who you choose and how you proceed depends on your budget and what you want to accomplish. Different types of web designers have different skills, priorities, and associated costs. Think about what you need in both the short term and the long term and choose accordingly. Are their priorities helping you or helping themselves?
The Red Flags:
Don’t hire a web developer if it's not their full time job.
Avoid firms who say “We do web design too.”
If you feel you’re being talked into a “package,” get out.
There you have it. Hopefully you’ll find someone who understands your goals and concerns. Your web designer should be able to explain technical options clearly and give you recommendations while letting you make your own choices.