Hiring a Web Designer: What You Need to Know

Here's a situation that occurs to me pretty regularly during my work: a new client comes to me, tearing their hair out over their website, and cursing their previous web designer. Their site loads painfully slowly, or doesn’t work on mobile devices, or is just littered with small bugs and glitches that are sending their website visitors running for the hills. Alternatively, the site works just fine, but is far too complicated for the client to update themselves, costing them hundreds of dollars each time they want to make the smallest update – oh, and it looks awful, and is driving visitors away in droves.

So, what happened?

Let’s be honest: there are plenty of unscrupulous web designers out there who will maximise their payouts by cutting every corner possible, but often the real problem is that the client didn’t understand the skills required in the first place. The contractor they hired may have done their best, but wasn’t really qualified for the job.

How can you avoid this?

First things first: make sure you understand the difference between a web designer, and a web developer:

  • A web designer is responsible for designing your website pages, including colors, fonts, and graphics. Some web designers have barely any coding knowledge whatsoever and are basically graphic designers who have specialised in designing for the web. They’ll leave the actual building of your site to…
  • A web developer! These are the techie guys who often put the actual look of your site at the bottom of their priority list, but they make damn sure it functions well. A good developer is absolutely vital when building and maintaining your website.

These definitions aren’t exhaustive by any means – for example I sit somewhere in the middle of the two, doing a lot of the designing and developing myself. The important thing is I understand where my limitations are – for specialised design work such as logo design for example, I will refer clients to a branding specialist, or for seriously advanced programming work I’ll bring in a developer so we can make sure the website is error free.

What You Need to Know Before Hiring a Web Designer

01: How complicated is your website?

Is it a simple business information site, with a few pages and a contact form? Then a web designer should be able to build this just fine. Is it a fancy ecommerce website, with a checkout and lots of product options? Then you may need a developer to code and build this. Regardless of who you hire though, there are few more questions you need to ask…

02: What are their skills?

At the very least, your web designer should have an excellent understanding of graphic design principles: typography, color theory, spacing, and so on. Ideally they should also have a basic knowledge of HTML (basically the language that tells website browsers what should be on a given website page) and CSS (the language that pretties things up and tells website browsers what colors and fonts should be used, among other things.) Some web designers may also have a knowledge of Javascript (a programming language frequently used for website animations like slider banners, or fancy scrolling effects – this is by no means all that Javascript is capable of but you get the idea.)The skills your developer needs to have are a little more complicated, since there are so many different programming languages (PHP, C++, Python, our old friend Javascript, to name but a few) out there and becoming an expert in any one of them requires a serious amount of time and effort. Different website platforms use different programming languages, so it’s good to know...

03: What platform is your website built on?

Website platforms, commonly referred to as CMS’s (Content Management Systems) include things like Wordpress, Drupal, Squarespace, Magento, Shopify… the list goes on. If your website is really, really complicated (like say you’re building the next Facebook or AirBnB) you may need a custom CMS built from scratch. Be warned though, if you’re considering this option: not only will a custom CMS be very expensive to build, you will also need to factor in high ongoing developer costs – even small updates will likely require their assistance. Which brings us to our final question...

04: Who is responsible for maintaining and updating the site?

This is an absolutely vital point you need to clarify upfront – some website CMS’s will have their own support teams you can rely on to fix bugs, and they will also make sure your website is kept up to date with the ever-evolving standards of the web (think about how viewing websites on mobile devices wasn’t even a thing about ten years ago!) More often than not though, you’ll need to factor in hiring a developer at least a few times a year to keep your website up to date and to fix any bugs that crop up. And that’s just the big updates – what happens when you want to make changes to text on one of your website pages, or update your website menu? If that’s going to be you, you’ll want to make sure your website designer or developer has explained clearly how you can do this.

There are hundreds of factors that go into building a great website, but armed with these four simple questions you’ll be well on your way to getting the website you need for your business. I’ll be covering some other important topics over the next few weeks, like the differences between some of the major website CMS’s out there and which one is right for your business, so make sure to sign up for updates or follow me on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss a thing.