If you're not part of the visual arts world, working with graphic designers can feel like trying to communicate in a foreign country. Even if you know a few of the right words, you're bound to get mixed results.
But hiring the right designer and managing them well is crucial for success in any graphic design project, from a small poster to a massive ad campaign.
Which is why we've put together this guide to finding, choosing, communicating with, and getting great results from graphic designers. Whether you're an experienced contract pro or getting ready to hire your first designer, you'll find information that will help improve your relationships and projects here.
Let's start at the very beginning of the hiring process.
Where To Find Graphic Designers
Unless you already have a graphic designer on standby, you'll need to find some potential freelancers. From those potential contract graphic designers, you'll find the best one for your needs and start working.
But where can you find and hire high-quality graphic designers? There are lots of options, but three methods stand out as the most common. You'll probably choose one of these three:
1. Hire a design agency
When you hire a design agency, you can be confident that you'll get a great result. Agency designers often have years of experience—and if you're looking for someone who's worked with prestigious clients, a prestigious agency is the way to go.
Here are some of the benefits of working with a designer from an agency:
High quality is almost guaranteed
Designers are more likely to be experienced
Account managers make sure the communication process goes smoothly
Fees are often decided ahead of time, limiting negotiation
Most expensive option
Many agencies are booked several months out
Not dealing directly with a designer at a large agency can slow communication
Finding an agency is simple. All you need to do is search for "graphic design agency," "logo design agency," "animation agency," or whatever type of project you're working on. You'll find both local and national results.
Working with local agencies is nice because it's easier to work with the designer in person. While that's certainly not necessary, many people prefer it. And because there are agencies all over, that likely won't be a problem.
And, of course, don't forget referrals. If some of your contacts have worked with agencies in the past, ask them how it went! If they have good things to say about a particular agency, it's probably a good choice to work with.
2. Post on a freelance marketplace
Marketplaces like DesignerHire, Toptal, Hired, Gigster, Fiverr, and Upwork give you access to thousands of freelancers. Just post your job and the bids come to you. Or you can browse listed designers and reach out to one.
These marketplaces are popular for some compelling reasons:
Huge number of available designers
Some platforms match you with the best freelancer for your task
Possibility for good deals on beginning and experienced freelancers
Freelancers come to you
Many platforms include project management tools
You can easily try out designers before committing to longer-term projects
Built-in payment systems keep everything secure
Quality not always guaranteed
Difficult to tell very experienced designers from beginners
Percentage of fees paid to the platform
There are lots of freelance marketplaces out there, so you can definitely find one that works for you and your project. They often include different bidding processes (or concierge services that match you with the best freelancer for your job).
If this sounds like a good option for you, try a platform and see how you like it. Complete a project or two to get a feel for it. If it works well, keep using it! If not, try another one. There's definitely one out there that will work well for you.
3. Post on Job Boards
Freelance and full-time job boards can be good ways to get the attention of a designer, too. There are tons of job boards, ranging from very general (like Indeed and Monster) to highly specific (including Behance and the AIGA boards). But, like the other methods of finding designers, they have pros and cons.
Here are some of the advantages:
Exposure to designers specifically looking for work
Very wide reach on popular boards
Can be expensive for popular boards
Sorting through dozens or hundreds of applications takes a lot of time
Waiting for the right person can take a long time
Each of these three methods has advantages and disadvantages. The right choice depends on your needs, including how much you're willing to spend and how quickly you need to find someone. You can also try multiple methods to see which works best for you.
How To Choose A Designer
After posting on a job board or freelance marketplace, you'll have a long list of designers that want to help you with your project. But how do you decide on the right one to hire?
Many factors go into choosing the right designer. But in the end, it comes down to a simple question: Will this designer provide work you love for a price you can afford?
To find the answer, you'll have to go through four steps.
1. Know What You Want
This is an important step, but it's easily overlooked. The more you know when you go into this process, the better.
For example, if you have a large budget and you're willing to pay top dollar for pro-level results, you can safely ignore designers that are just getting started. You're looking for experience and proven results.
On the other hand, if you have a shoestring budget, you'll be looking for raw talent without much experience, because you'll be able to get a better deal. Starting out with a very small budget is a sure way to get subpar results, but sometimes you have to make compromises.
Think of it this way. If you can afford to pay someone $1,000 for a website design, you'll be wasting your time if you reach out to a Fortune-500-level freelance designer. It would be great if they would design your site. But they won't. That's just how it is. So focus your time and effort on the type of designer that will work for your job.
Similarly, think about the kind of person you want to work with. Do you want a designer that will take what you've suggested and deliver on it exactly? Or are you open to a more free-flowing, artistic approach? Sometimes you can get great results by working with a designer who puts their own spin on things. But if you're in a hurry, that might not be feasible.
Think about these things before you reach out to designers, and you'll save yourself a ton of time over the course of the project.
2. Browse Portfolios
There's one tool that will help you more than almost anything else: portfolios. If a designer has done some great work that looks like what you're envisioning for your project, your search is probably over. It's just a matter of getting in touch, narrowing down the particulars of the project, and agreeing on a fee.
Of course, it's not always that easy. If you have something unique in mind, it's hard to find a designer with a portfolio that shows something similar. Instead, you'll have to consider a few questions about each designer:
Does their general style match up with what you have in mind?
Have they completed projects of widely varying types and styles?
Does their portfolio include projects for clients like you (individuals, corporations, small businesses, the same industry, etc.)?
If you can answer "yes" to all of these questions, there's a good chance this designer will be a good fit for your project. If any of those questions get a no, you'll have a decision to make. For example, if a designer only has posters in their portfolio, but you need a website, they might not be the best choice. But if they've done a lot of websites, just not for companies like yours, it might be worth getting in touch.
After browsing through some portfolios (how many depends largely on how specific your needs are), it's time to get in touch with those designers and ask a few questions.
3. Get Estimates
Now that you have a shortlist of designers, start getting details. Put together all of the requirements for your project and send it off to the designers you found in step 1 to get a quote on what they'd charge you to complete it.
This step is crucial. Your project summary needs to be as accurate and as detailed as possible. The more detail you provide, the more accurate the designers' estimates will be. If you initially tell a designer that you need one thing but change your mind in the middle or end up wanting something else, your designer won't be happy—and that means you probably won't be, either.
Here's an example. Let's say you're hiring someone to design a brochure. Here are things you need to know:
Your target audience
The final dimensions of the printed brochure
How many panels the brochure is
The color palette
How much text will be in the brochure
Whether you'll be providing any stock photography or other creative
The review and edit-requesting process
How many revisions you'll expect
Whether the designer will work remotely or in house
Your approximate budget (though whether you share this is up to you)
That's a lot of things to know, and it might require spending some time to figure it all out. You may be tempted to go to a designer first and have them help you iron out the details. Sometimes this works, but it's better to have as many details as possible.
Send that information to designers and ask for a quote. The more detailed your specs, the more accurate the quotes you'll get.
4. (Optional) Ask for Referrals
Depending on the scope of your project, you may want to ask for referrals in addition to browsing a designer's portfolio. This is more common with larger projects, like an entire ad campaign or a significant website.
It's also best to do this once you've whittled down your shortlist of designers to a handful, because checking references takes time and effort.
Your best bet here is to keep things simple. If the designer puts you in touch with a previous client or two, ask about the scope of the project and the general experience in working with the designer. Did they communicate often and clearly? Did they hit their deadlines? Was the quality of the work satisfactory?
If everything sounds good, it's time to make your hire. Get as many details as possible into a contract, send it over, and get a signature.
How To Communicate With Designers
Once you've specced your project, put out a request for a designer, gotten applications, and signed a contract, you might think the hard work is done. But I hate to break it to you—you're just getting started.
To get the best result from working with a designer, you need to be good at communication. And not just communication in general, but communication specific to working with freelancers and designers.
Here are a few things to keep in mind.
1. Set clear expectations
When you're working with a full-time designer, you build up a solid relationship. They get a feeling for what you like, what you don't like, and how you ask for things.
You don't get any of that when you're working with a freelancer. So you have to communicate your expectations as clearly as possible. That means going a lot further than "a website that looks professional and matches our brand."
In your initial discussions (and especially in your contract), you need to lay out exactly what you expect. It might seem like overkill or like you're speaking to a child. But it's better to include unnecessary details than it is to miss out on something important and have to pay for the job twice.
This includes what you're expecting for the design itself. It can be hard to articulate what you're looking for, but it's worth taking the time to figure out how to do it.
One of the best resources you can use is samples of the kind of design you're looking for. You might show your designer a competitor's banner ad, for example, and say that you like the color palette, but not the font. Or show the designer a book cover and say that you like the style of the title, but not the background image.
It can be hard to get past descriptions like "I like how this one feels," but that's not helpful to a designer. And if you're giving them nebulous feedback and instructions, you'll get nebulous results.
If you have no idea how to describe what you're looking for, don't worry too much. As you work with more designers and complete more design projects, you'll learn the language that designers use. But if you're in this situation, make sure to hire an experienced designer who can work with you to scope out what you need.
2. Establish a schedule and workflow
When do you expect a first draft? How long will it take you to get revision requests back to your designer? How much time will they have to complete those requests and get a revised version back to you?
The answers to these questions are very important. You might think that a designer would expect to deliver a draft as quickly as possible. But they probably have lots of other projects going on and they could have conflicting priorities. So be very clear about the schedule of work.
To make this easier, you can use a communication or project management tool. Trello is a great example; it's free, easy to use, almost everyone has an account, and it makes organizing, and scheduling your tasks easy.
Of course, you can use another tool, if you'd like. Just make sure that it shows everyone involved what the next steps in the project are, when they need to be done, and who's responsible for moving it along. Online freelance marketplaces often include tools that make this process easier.
If you can use that system to share documents, even better—then there's no chance of losing emails, mislabeling files, or otherwise getting things mixed up.
3. Provide details when asking for revisions
Like establishing expectations, this is a crucial part of almost every design project. It's possible that the designer will knock it out of the park on the first try. But it's much more likely that you'll have to go back and forth a few times on revisions.
Again, detail is key here. If you don't like how something looks, tell your designer
1. What you don't like
2. What you recommend as a fix
There are countless horror stories of clients giving extremely unclear (or no) feedback to designers and then continuing to be unsatisfied when the designer makes changes that don't incorporate that feedback. If you want some great examples of how not to give feedback, check out Clients From Hell.
Remember that you should have an agreement in place on how many revisions the designer will make and what the process for approval is.
As with most of the points here, the most important thing is to be specific. Provide details. Make sure the designer has the information they need to update the piece to your liking.
4. Best Practice: Communicate in writing
Everyone has their preferred communication style. Some people only work with others in person. Others prefer the phone or video calls. Many people rely on email almost exclusively.
Whatever you're most comfortable with is fine. But you should also communicate everything in writing. If you have a phone call where you explain three things you'd like changed, for example, you should follow up with the designer via email to reiterate those things.
This serves two functions. First, it ensures that the designer has all the information they need to complete the project. Not everyone can remember everything they hear over the phone. Having it in their inbox helps a lot.
Second, it gives you a record of what you've communicated. Now, if your designer says "you didn't tell me that," you can point to the email where you did, in fact, tell them that.
Of course, you won't be able to get everything in writing. But when you can, it's worth doing.
Designers Are People, Too
When it comes down to it, working with graphic designers is like working with anyone else. They need information to do their jobs well. They make mistakes. They have misunderstandings. These things happen.
If you're not sure how to work with your designer, just imagine what you'd want from a client. Clear, consistent communication. Reasonable and detailed expectations. Market rates for a job well done. Polite feedback.
With these things, your relationship with a designer—whether freelance, contract, or in-house—will be a good one.