Design shapes perception and perception is not only reality but the foundation of your brand. Making the decision to invest in professional design for your business is making a decision to put your best foot forward, actively shape perception, and show up in the world as professional, authoritative, credible, valuable, and trustworthy.
While investing in professional design is a no-brainer for savvy businesses who want to accelerate their success and increase sales, making the decision to hire a professional designer can be wrought with stress, worry, and frustration if you don’t know what to ask when interviewing a designer or what to watch out for when signing a contract.
Bourn Creative celebrated its 12 year anniversary this past summer, and for 12 years straight, I have heard horror story after horror story from business owners who signed contracts without understanding the terms, didn’t receive the files they should have, ran into problems and delays, and encountered challenges that caused them to walk away with nothing or a design they didn’t like.
Each and every time I hear these stories, it breaks my heart a little bit because these situations can be avoided with a little due diligence up front.
Listed below are eight red flags to watch out for when hiring a designer. If you encounter any of these situations, say no thanks and move on.
No Ownership Of Work
When hiring a designer to complete work on your behalf, be sure to read the contract terms and conditions before you sign it. Often designers include a clause that states they retain ownership and copyright of the designed work and license it to you for a specific use. This allows them to continue to collect new fees for additional future usage and control how you get to use the work you paid for.
If you do not retain full ownership and copyright of the final work produced and approved, especially on elements like your company logo, say no thanks and move on.
Incomplete File Collections
Inexperienced designers are notorious for only providing the final, press-ready files for print projects, the final PDFs of online documents, or the easy to use JPG images of a logo — the exact files you need to complete the immediate goal. But…
- What happens when you need to make changes down the road and don’t have any of the editable, original files?
- What happens when you want to blow up your logo for a billboard or want to have it embroidered on a shirt and don’t have the right files?
- What happens when you ask the original designer for the right files and they either no longer have them or you can’t get ahold of them at all?
Be sure that the contract you sign includes the receipt of all files associated with the final approved product, including the native, editable files and all linked files. If dealing with a logo, be sure you receive at minimum, a vector EPS file. If they are unwilling to provide all files, say no thanks and move on.
No Estimate Of Cost
Any designer or developer around the world should be able to provide you with an accurate estimate of cost for your project. Because, if the scope of work is unclear and they can’t, a paid discovery project (consulting) should be proposed to identify and develop the scope of work to be estimated.
With a clear scope of work almost every project can be estimated accurately. I say almost, because when dealing with development work, there are somethings that must be done by the hour, but even in those cases, a ballpark number of hours should be provided and a “not to exceed” figure should be established.
If a designer can’t give you an accurate estimate of cost, that means they either don’t understand the full scope of work, lack experience in this area of work, or can’t do the full scope of work and plan to outsource it but don’t yet know who they will outsource it to. In any case, this is the time to say no thanks and move on.
A Drastically Different Estimate Of Cost
Similarly, if you’re gathering multiple estimates for a project and one is drastically different than the others, you need to dig in deeper and find out why.
If one estimate is much lower, you need to figure out:
- If they are missing something critical about the project, if they truly understand the scope of work, or if their approach differs from the others.
- If they simply don’t value their time as much as other providers or don’t have as much overhead.
- If they are underbidding the project because they don’t have experience in this area and want to use your project as a learning experience.
- If they are underbidding the project to win your business, yet plan on making up the difference (and more) in change orders and additional fees later in the project — yes, this happens with unscrupulous service providers.
If one estimate is much higher, you need to figure out:
- If they have more experience than the other providers, if there something they see or understand about the project that the others are missing, or if they have a more detailed process.
- If they simply value their time more than the other providers or have more overhead or a larger team of people to dedicate to it.
- If they are accurately estimating the project in a firm, fair, and friendly way, or inflating the cost because they think you can pay more.
When assessing and comparing the estimates gathered, evaluate all discrepancies and don’t always go for the lowest or highest. Listen to your gut and if something feels off, say no thanks and move on.
Guarantees Of Success
No designer on the planet can guarantee success because they can’t control the actions of strangers, they can’t control your preferences and input, they can’t control the marketing and sales, and they can’t control the context in which a prospect interacts with your brand.
Maybe, just maybe, if you’re hiring a full service agency to manage everything from concept and design through implementation, marketing, and sales, they can give you a guarantee, but that’s in an extreme circumstance.
If a designer guarantees you a specific amount of website traffic without controlling the online marketing, a specific amount of leads without controlling the entire lead generation process, or a specific amount of new sales or new clients, there’s a high likelihood that they’re saying whatever they think you need to hear to make the sale. In this case, say no thanks and move on.
The only time you should take a guarantee of results seriously is when your investment is directly tied to the results and paid after the results have been achieved.
The Focus Is On Design
If you’re interviewing a designer for a new project and their questions are all about design — colors, typefaces, style preferences, imagery, etc. — say no thanks and move on.
Confused? Let me explain.
I know it may seem like a designer should be asking about design, but that’s actually not the case and a red flag that you’re speaking with a very inexperienced designer. What the designer should be asking you about is your business — your why, your objectives, your ideal clients, your desired conversion and results, etc. — because moving your business forward and achieving your goals is the most important factor and what makes a project a success.
A designer first has to understand what the project is, why it is important, what it must achieve, who it must resonate and connect with, and what action it must compel. If they then believe they can help you and you become a client, only then should they dig into design specifics.
Inability To Communicate A Timeline
Many potential clients ask for project timelines during our sales calls. They are often looking for specific dates of milestone completions and an exact date of when the project will be finished. Unfortunately, we can’t give prospects date specific timelines because they have not yet approved a specific scope of work, signed a contract, or reserved space in our calendar.
What we can do however, is:
- On the sales call, provide a general project timeline based on an average project with a similar scope of work.
- In the client agreement or contract, provide a detailed (but not date specific) project timeline that communicates how long each phase of the project will take.
If the designer you’re interviewing can’t give you even a general timeline before signing the contract, say no thanks and move on.
No Documented Systems Or Processes
Ask a lot of questions when interviewing a designer for a new project. In fact, the bigger the project, the more questions you should ask. More specifically, ask about their systems and processes. Just a few items to ask about include:
- What is your design process.
- How do you handle revisions and what happens if I need more revisions than what is allotted in the contract.
- How missed deadlines are handled — missed by me or by you.
- What happens if I need to change or add to the scope of work?
- How do you manage the final transfer of files and ownership?
- How do you work with a team — copywriters, photographers, developers, and project managers?
- How will communication happen during the project? Can I email you, call you, meet in person?
If the designer you’re interviewing has trouble answering these questions or doesn’t have solid, confident answers, it may mean that they don’t have systems and processes in place to ensure that your project goes smoothly and are flying by the seat of their pants — and that’s when things begin to fall through the cracks.
With no systems or processes in place, it’s best to say no thanks and move on.
The Right Partnership Is A Win-Win
Please don’t let these red flags scare you. For every horror story heard about a designer, there are 10 more overwhelmingly positive stories.
When you ask the right questions up front, understand the terms of your contract and how the project will flow, and are on the same page with the designer you hire, and you find a designer who gets you, your brand, your audience, and your goals, the partnership is a win-win. You finally get a creative partner who supports you and puts your needs first and they get a client who is enjoyable to work with.