I've been a freelance developer for nearly a decade, but have no desire to do web design. Most of the projects I get are maintenance-type projects that require only minor tweaks to existing graphics, or someone coming in with a new design already on hand. However, on rare occasions I get a request to do both programming and design. I've no problem farming out the work to capable designers, but I don't do enough design work to maintain any working relationships with any one particular designer. So what is the best way to shop around for a good designer? I'm willing to pay more to get good quality work (i.e. you won't find me asking on craigslist for free design work "to boost your portfolio").

For designers, what do you expect when a new client contacts you? (what do you expect in terms of information for the project, and what do you expect to be paid for conceptual work? For final design work?)

For developers, what has worked for you in the past?

I once tried this approach:

I'd like to commission some low-res, high-level design ideas from you. Something the represents what you have in mind for the project, but it doesn't have to be a production-ready design (watermarks, copyright, etc. are OK as long as they aren't distracting) . I will pay you US$200 for your time regardless of whether your idea is selected. Feel free to submit more than one idea if you would like. Again, I'm only asking for ideas, not complete designs.

Once I have all of the ideas, I will run all of them by my client and he will choose the one he likes the most. If your idea is selected, I will hire you at a rate of US$1000 for the project (50% up front and the remainder on sign-off). For that price I will expect you to work with me over the next 4 weeks to tweak and finalize the over-all design for the site as well as help me organize information for each of the pages (about 13 pages total) and create a nice visual presentation. The client will be providing most of the copy text; you will be provide the conversion of the final design to HTML (including CSS; I can help with any JavaScript).

It worked fine for the project at hand (the client was willing to pay quite a bit for design services), but I wonder in hind sight if it was too much (or too little). Thoughts?

  • I realize that this can be a pretty subjective question depending on what each individual designer charges and/or the level of their experience. Therefore I'm not looking for specific prices, but rather general information on whether one should expect to pay for comps, how many revisions are typical as part of a contract, how many designers one typically solicits for a given project, etc. Sep 7, 2010 at 3:40

2 Answers 2


I'm lucky in that I met a designer through a previous job and was able to take him with me to another full-time job and recently employ him on larger freelance projects. And, in a previous life I WAS a designer...

To me, number one is a good eye for what's current and a great feel for what the client wants. Yes, this is about as subjective as it can get. But, if you've got a guy who can turn "make it clean" or "give me texture" into a final product that's visually attractive, the work is yours...and the maintenance...and the next job...you get the picture. If you come across someone with the same 10 things repeated over their entire portfolio, move on. There's just too many people spitting out repetitive, glossy, mirrored garbage with huge fonts to waste your time there. This person is putting a face on your work....the client will often put more emphasis on design than the code that makes it all work, so choose carefully.

I ask all my designers to go through design iterations with wireframes, color palettes, a formal design brief and layered, packaged comps. If time gets tight and I trust the designer (there's only one so far) I will also pay him to do cutup and assembly. Layers are important, as that's what you'll have to go back to when the client inevitably changes their mind about something. I've been at firms where an outside designer will contract us to turn a flat image into a website, and it becomes a game of "how much more can we run up his bill" When you're PAYING the bill, it's no longer a fun game.

While my contracting work is largely a solo project, I will always put a hired designer in front of the client. I choose people who can "talk the talk" and will interface well....and it tells my client that I'm bringing an expert who is going to be another stakeholder in the process. A true professional will make you look BETTER. This is just another reason that the people who take the low-ball Craigslist jobs are doing our industry such a disservice.

As for pay, it depends on who I'm working with. For a recent job, I've contracted the designer for wireframes, 3 "flat" concepts and 1 final design with 2 rounds of client revisions. He'll interface with the client during concepting meetings, create the work, defend the work, then revise. Because this is a pretty important site, I'll handle cutup myself. He works hourly, having given me an estimate that I can hold him to. Should we get to a major change order, we've already agreed upon an hourly rate that I'll pass on to the client. Otherwise, I'll tweak accordingly. Because I have a good working relationship and a level of trust built up, he understands that I'm not out to screw him and will cut him in should the contract somehow go south. Putting things in writing...more so for the client...can make things a lot easier both on billing and compensating the designer. On smaller jobs I'll offer a flat rate for all design services and put the pressure on the designer to kick out quick, quality work to maximize their profits. On one HUGE job, I had the designer contract as a separate phase of work directly with the client (again, trust was key)

When looking for a designer, start your search with people who do interactive design as opposed to print. Schools teach Illustrator and InDesign first, which allows pixel perfect rendering....we all know that IE throws that concept out the window. You need someone who understands the box model, gets that gradients over non-repeating patterns can cause UI guys nightmares, and knows why ITF rounded sans isn't available to every browser. More often than not, that's not a print designer. A great place to start is the local branch of IxDA. Then, call local web firms and ask who does their overflow. Or, network with your "competition" to see if they have a common designer that they share (and recommend)

Good luck!

  • Thanks for the info. As an aside, I just recently moved to this area and haven't established any local industry contacts yet, though I'm sure a visit to a local user group or meetup group would solve that. Sep 7, 2010 at 4:38

As a graphic designer + web developer, I don't have this problem personally. But I would think that simply looking at the designer's portfolio and going rate should be enough to make a fair determination.

Sure, it's subjective and most people are not graphic designers, but it doesn't take a professional graphic designer to know what looks good and what is aesthetically disagreeable. You can also ask your client for a list of sites that they like, and try to pick a designer that matches the style of those websites.

You/your client have a fixed budget. So get the best design you can obtain within that budget. Find someone who:

  • has experience doing web design
    • is familiar with basic usability/accessibility guidelines
  • has a graphic design/visual arts background
    • has good color sense
    • has good design sense
  • is familiar with the style of website you need him/her for

I don't think there's an unfair way to select a web designer. There's just wise/unwise ways of selecting one. If you aren't careful, you'll spend too much to get very little return.

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