I usually write advice for designers based on my career experiences and horror stories but I thought it was time for an article for design clients to make their design needs a bit easier and more efficient.
Dealing with creatives is not as easy as it sounds. The difference in those who think with the rights side of their brain (the “creative side”) as opposed to the left (the “business side”), takes some training and understanding for the best results on projects. There are people who have a balance between grey matter hemispheres but it’s rare that the client and creative vendor both have such a balance. Here are some handy tips to make the twains successfully meet.
Finding Candidates For Your Project
You might need a first web site for your business or just want to update your existing one with some new technology, want to establish or freshen your brand or create some paper or digital marketing material. Whatever you need, there are great design studios or freelancers available to deliver your needs.
For the sake of this example, let’s say you need a new web site. How do you find a competent vendor for the development and design?
- Ask a professional friend with a great web site who they used. Word of mouth and recommendations are the best and safest way to find great talent.
- Google similar businesses as yours and look at their web sites. Is the site well designed? Is the functionality and navigation top notch? If so, scroll to the bottom of the page and see if there’s a link to the designer or design firm that created the site.
- Google “web designer, yourtown, yourstate” and then look at their web site. Call the clients of web sites they’ve designed for a reference. If you use someone local, you help your local economy, are able to meet with them face-to-face and they are available for site updates and will become a loyal vendor.
- If you want cheap and simple, can do without a creative brief that tailors the site design perfectly to your brand or business and are willing to take a chance on the design, try a site like 99designs.com or designcontest.com. They are not the best avenues but they are cheap and usually provide a generic solution you can use. The downside is you will not get the service you may need for uploading or debugging your site or the expertise a local designer or firm will provide. With contest sites or bidding sites such as eLance or oDesk it’s caveat emptor.
- Your niece or nephew goes to art school and you think they will give you an acceptable site for free or $50. FORGET IT! If you want a crappy looking site that will make your business look crappy, then go right ahead but if they screw up and something really goes wrong, do you want every relative in the world calling you to scream about how you hurt little Chris’ feelings or spend some awkward family holiday dinners sitting next to little Suzie and her sharp, pointy goth jewelry?
How Much Should You Pay?
As with any business expenditure, be prepared to pay for quality. If you hire an electrician to wire the power for your office and they quote $7,000 do you really want to chance a beating when you tell them “$200 is all (you’re) willing to spend” or go out and find someone who will actually do $7,000 worth of work for $200? If so, keep lots of fire extinguishers handy and insure your expensive computer equipment for when power surges blow out the processors.
This is not to say you shouldn’t shop around. Perhaps a competent electrician with a good reputation can wire your office for $5,000. Well, you just saved $2,000 and will have piece of mind that you won’t die a fiery death. The same goes for any professional service. A friend of mine was so excited to have bought all of her office phones on a New York City Street for a quarter of what she would have to pay in a store. It would have been a coup if the phones actually had any wiring inside them.
Shop around for a designer but make sure they are wired inside. It’s better to have a reliable source in case there is a problem with your site as a reliable designer will solve the problem right away, saving you income if you depend heavily on your site, rather than trying to go through contest or bidding site channels to get in touch with the person two continents away, in another time zone, to solve the problem… after negotiating another fee and creating the paperwork and contract through that site. Time lost and time is money.
Naturally, the bigger the design firm, the higher the cost. True, there MAY be higher service and abilities (a firm can write content, develop, design, program and come up with branding and a marketing plan… but so can a freelancer in many cases). A freelancer, in many cases, may be freshly out of a big design firm and has the experience to give you whatever you need. Check their résumé to see what other clients they have serviced. Talk to them about how they work and what they see for your own needs. As with any service provider, referral or not, shop around. Most importantly, you should feel a comfortable bond with your creative provider. Trust, communication and transparency are the utmost in your relationship.
When price comes in, do some math yourself. Have you set a budget that’s too low for a professional job? If a project translates to paying $10 an hour to your vendor, it’s too low. Keep in mind you are not hiring someone to come into your place of business and move boxes, staff the counter or shuffle papers. Designers have their own business expenses that include office space (even if it’s a home-based business), computers, computer and software upgrades, electricity, insurance, etc., just like any business. As with the aforementioned example of the electrician, a vendor who quotes $7,000 and then agrees to half that amount is most probably going to cut corners. Expect designers to do the same. The old adage, “you get what you pay for” has survived because it’s true.
Different designers have varying contracts and pay schedules. It’s common to pay 30% to 50% upfront for your project. This is the money used for material, salaries and overhead while your project is being designed. There will most probably be what is called “milestone payments.” Milestones are the points in the project where approvals are needed from you, the client to proceed to the next step in the project. Before the next step is taken, a percentage towards the fee will be expected to be paid before the designer or firm will proceed to the next step. For example, a project may be split with 30% up front, 20% at the first milestone, 20% at the next milestone and 30% when the project is finished and your site goes live.
It’s not an odd way of doing business if you compare it to other business models. Your phone company, insurance agent or internet provider will most probably ask for a payment up front and your attorney will definitely ask for a retainer against future services. Design services are no different. You get what you pay for. You stop paying and the work stops. Delays will, in the end, cost you money for lost business.
This is one big sore point I have heard from many vendors and clients. A milestone payment is missed and the designer doesn’t want to stop the progress as the project is balanced against deadlines for other projects, which can cause the designer money for delivering late to other clients and a client feels that a late payment to the designer will just be a week or two. Personally, I’ve worked for small businesses and the largest corporations. A large corporation can have a check cut in 48 hours and a small business either has a checkbook sitting in a drawer or can call their accountant and have a check within two days. Ideally, the designer or firm should give the client notice that a milestone payment will be due within seven days even if it is listed on the contract with all deadlines.
Transparency in the work process is a touchy point for both sides. A competent designer or firm will keep the client apprised of each step of the project. Sometimes just for “hand holding” although daily reposts with attached jpegs may be too much and drive the project price up.
At a talk about design transparency, the firm’s account manager spoke about keeping the client in the loop as much as possible. Such a working method makes sure there are no changes that pop up unexpectedly or confusion about instructions and process. Even in the best of worlds, these can occur from time to time.
At that talk, a freelance designer raised the question of what he labeled, “enigmatic wizardry.” It’s not a term known by any professional and he was asked to explain. He thought it was best to keep a mysterious shroud around the design process. Basically, the client hands over the money and is presented the final project. ALAKAZAM! The magic of design. Nothing could be further from the truth or reality of how the design business should run. It was the first time I had ever heard that odd process mentioned, so chances are, no other designer will have that way of doing business in their head.
As the client, you have the right to ask questions. Call the account manager or the freelancer and ask those questions. Professionals will be happy to fill you in completely. If you are a happy client, it means you will be back for further site updates, collateral material. It’s important to remember that web technology changes quickly and a strong relationship between a business and vendor is essential to keep your web presence up to date and functioning using that technology.
If the project progresses properly, the designer and client will create a creative brief that outlines the client’s “wish list” for what kind of site, expectations of function and brand building should be achieved. Milestones will include a sketch stage with color palette choices, a wireframe of the entire site and/or a site map of how viewers will navigate the site. Site content of images will be chosen, content written and all facts finalized before the stage of final design ever takes place. Transparency should keep all parties on track but sometimes the client will want changes.
Changes can be as simple as wanting a different color for the background and as impossible as the client seeing another site and wanting to mimic that design. Sometimes it’s just a relative or friend who has decided they are a design genius and negatively critiques the proposed design. As the client, it is up to you to decide on the course of action and accept the consequences. Making changes after a milestone has been approved means extra time and extra money. There’s no way around that and you shouldn’t expect anything to the contrary. Consider if your desire to make changes is merely due to your own insecurity, other people’s egos or you made a mistake and didn’t speak up during milestone approvals. If you’re building a house and decide you want to change the layout after the foundation has been poured, you can understand the need for more time and more money. Although a web site is digital and not concrete and wood changes are still work that needs to be done and someone pays for that. If the fault is yours, then you pay. If the designer makes a mistake, you can bloody well count on them taking the hit.
If everyone is open and honest and the process is all-inclusive, there should be no reason for changes down the line. One thing to watch for is the subjectivity of “design-by-committee.”
Design can be subjective. One person likes red, the next likes blue. One has a childhood trauma about clowns and the next wants prancing glitter unicorns on everything in the world. Put that all together and you have one strange web site. While you may decide that all of your employees should have a say in the web site design, act as the boss and make the final decisions as to what YOU want to see for YOUR business. It is possible to distill opinions into a sound direction but it is also important to recognize the expertise of the designer or firm you have hired. They will not just try to saddle you with the easiest way out. If they do their job correctly and provide you with what you NEED to be successful, then you will want to use them in the future. If you don’t succeed, then the designer or firm must create another client relationship, instead of retaining a growing bond with you and your future needs.
It is respect for each other, along with great service and communication that will lead to great and profitable relationships for both parties. THAT is a sound business principle everyone can agree upon.
Technology Marches On
If you haven’t noticed, the web changes at least every year. What you probably don’t know is why. Programming languages evolve, apps are introduced and technological links between computers, phones and digital pads keep evolving. It’s just like your own cell phone. It seems to be obsolete a week after you buy it. Well, the reason you get the phone for free, with a two-year activation is because the phone IS obsolete and the phone company wants you to buy the newest phone with the newest technology while you are trapped into a long contract.
A designer doesn’t have the same devious plan for your web site, in fact, technology advances excites creative geeks and you will be urged to use the latest technology. Consider the advantages of that technology for several reasons.
- You will not have to update your site as quickly as using technology that is a year or more older.
- You site will function better with changing browsers and apps for mobile web as well.
- Your SEO will be improved.
- Your consumer experience will be increased and it will lead to greater sales.
- You’ll eventually need to catch up with technology again and you’ll have a trust for the designer’s knowledge of web technology.
As mentioned before, if you have any questions about your site or what this technology can do for you, just ask. Your designer or design firm wants to help you and wants you to be happy. If they didn’t, I suppose they would be a branch of the government… like the Motor Vehicles Department.