Kyle Mueller is the principal and creative director at MUELLER design in Oakland California. With over 12 years of experience working with clients and hiring designers he has cultivated brand vitality for clients such as Wind River, McKesson, Heller Ehrman Attorneys, Nintendo and Boeing.
How to Hire and Work with a Graphic Designer (Part 1)
by Kyle Mueller
Are you planning a brand update or starting a new company? This article is for professionals who have needs for graphic design services, and have not worked in the creative field or with creatives before. It is a primer to help you avoid hiring the wrong person, making the process excruciating and expensive, and ending up with ineffective creative.
Graphic Designers and Why Hiring a Good One is Important
Graphic designers are a crucial ingredient for the success of any business. They are professionals who provide a critical service needed by companies of all sizes and at all stages. They give a face to your company. They develop credibility and a personality for your brand. All industries are crowded with competition, and your company's brand may be what sets you apart and distinguishes your service or product as unique, memorable and desirable.
A seasoned designer will be able to develop effective creative for you in a reasonable amount of time for a fair price. Working with less experienced designers can be tempting for cost savings reasons, and there are good “junior” level designers out there. If you do take this route, be prepared to spend more time managing the process. In some cases, you may actually end up spending more money than you anticipate to make up for the lack of experience. Having work redone or pulling jobs from a printing press because of unforeseen errors can both be costly.
Qualify yourself: Are you ready to let go?
Are you ready to let go of some control? Like anything else, you hire a designer for their expertise and their insight. If your car didn't run, you wouldn't tell your mechanic how to fix it. Your mechanic knows the best way to make your car go. A good designer will help make your business "go," and if you are willing to trust in their expertise, they will likely lead your project in a direction that will benefit you. In most cases, your role in the process of working with a designer should be one of information delivery and oversight.
If you, in fact, have a clear and strong understanding of how your brand should be implemented (logos, color pallets, typography, imagery, layout, etc...) then you are better off hiring a production person. You will save money and a headache. But, beware - there really is more to this design stuff than intuition. A designer with years of experience will be able to apply best practices to avoid common mistakes, and they will have valuable insight about how to effectively communicate your brand message. They will also have resources and experience to make the end product happen faster and, in many cases, more cost effectively than a less experienced designer.
A designer should be able to present you with unique and targeted solutions that you would not come up with yourself, and that is where their value is. You have to be open to these new ideas and be able to think conceptually while evaluating them and deciding on the best solution. And remember, effective brands are unique brands. I have had clients tell me "I want to look like this company.” The problem with this approach is that no one is going to listen when you and your competitors speak with the same voice.
Qualify the designer: Having a computer with graphics software does not make someone a designer, just like having a toolbox does not make someone a mechanic.
There are many kinds of designers specializing in different areas. Companies with multiple design needs (print, web, corporate identity) should not hire 3 different designers to complete their communications system. When not managed correctly, this almost always results in an inconsistent application and interpretation of brand, leaving prospective customers confused. If your company needs a range of materials and you don’t have someone dedicated to championing and managing your brand, you should really be looking at design shops that can manage all of your needs. Some freelance designers will also have all the skills and experience necessary to complete such a package of services, just make sure their portfolio reflects this.
Specific Projects you may Hire Design Help for:
Corporate identity: A designer that is good with web or print design is not necessarily going to be able to create a credible, compelling and memorable logo mark for your company. Remember, this is the foundation for all of your communication and promotional efforts. It has to be versatile and strong enough to support all other elements of your communications package and stand on it's own as well. Look through a prospective designer’s portfolio for logo work, and ask him to elaborate on what part of the process he was responsible for. Junior designers’ portfolios are often padded with work they may have only played a small role in.
Web design: Some people think graphic designers make web sites while others think this is done by more technical types (developers or coders). In most cases, you will need both a creative type and a technical type to develop a successful and effective web site. The creative side develops user interface, helps organizes content, and understands usability issues and behavior. The technical aspect involves taking all the content and creative input from the designer, and making it all work across multiple browsers and platforms, while possibly setting up a database to serve up the web site content.
Occasionally one person can do both. More likely, if you hire a creative, they already work with a firm that can build back-end databases or code in PHP. Unless the creative person you are considering has direct experience or resources for development on the back end of things, you may want to continue looking.
Print materials design: This area is probably the easiest to find creative help for. Business cards, brochures, sales sheets and mailers are all pretty standard fare for most designers. Look through prospective portfolios for strong aesthetic and clear and targeted communication of brand messages. Also, look for signs of original and strategic thinking. If the designer's 3 samples of corporate brochures look similar, then it's likely yours will take on this aesthetic as well. Every company or product has a unique personality, so materials that support and promote it should have a unique visual language to deliver brand messages.
One thing that separates a professional designer from a novice is their knowledge of the printing process. This is true especially if you will be working with spot color (as opposed to process or full color) or custom printing solutions like embossing, die-cutting and metallic inks. There is a learning curve when working with the printing process, and a designer with knowledge of the opportunities and pitfalls is valuable.
Where to Start Looking
The best place to find a creative and professional designer is through contacts you may already have. Ask business associates and friends if they have worked with designers and if they would recommend any.
Making the Right Choice
By this point you have some names and contacts for designers, you have seen their work and you have had some preliminary conversations with them about the project. You should have a good sense of compatibility and their level of interest in your project. If you are on the fence about who to hire, submit an RFP (request for proposal) that outlines your goals and expectations, deadlines, and a complete list of deliverables. You can determine many things from the responses to your RFP and narrow down your selection quickly. You will also get a sense of how professional a designer/firm is (Did they answer all your questions and run a spell check before submitting their proposal?).
Your budget: This is often one of the key decision making factors when choosing a designer. You will likely see a range of prices and processes in the proposals you receive, but don't make the mistake of blindly jumping for the lowest bid. The old cliché "you get what you pay for" often holds true when hiring a designer. Remember, when considering your budget, that hiring a designer is an investment, not an expense. Then, ask yourself these questions:
1. Does the designer's/firm's portfolio reflect their price? Even the least creative among us get a sense of the quality of work in a designer's portfolio. That is the power of good design, it resonates with just about anyone on a very instinctual level. And if you don't get that sense, you should probably keep looking.
2. Who do you want to compete with? This is important. If your goal is to compete on a local level and you don't have plans for growth into other markets, then you will probably be fine hiring the less experienced freelance designer. Just remember that good creative can be a major factor in your company's success, and if you are planning on competing on a higher level, even with small to mid-size regional companies, you will likely be better off hiring the professional, even if they charge a little more.
About the Author
Kyle Mueller is the principal and creative director at MUELLER design in Oakland California. With over 12 years of experience working with clients and hiring designers he has cultivated brand vitality for clients such as Wind River, McKesson, Heller Ehrman Attorneys, Nintendo and Boeing. View his web site at www.muellerdesign.com or contact him via email.