Know What a Designer Does
Before you even begin talking to a designer about what you want done, it’s important to understand what a designer actually does. Misunderstandings between designers and clients can often be traced back to misconceptions about roles and false expectations.
“Designers and clients should both understand the difference between design and production,” says graphic designer BJ Heinley. “Designing a logo and a business card is different than getting them printed. You hire a designer for her opinion and knowledge in a particular area, and you’re asking her to help you navigate waters that you don’t feel confident wading into alone. You hire production and development people to get something done in the best and most efficient way possible.”
This can get confusing since sometimes the design and production sides of the process are handled by the same person or company. Still, it is important to know which parts of what you’re asking a designer to do are design, and which parts are something else. Boundaries should be set to isolate one aspect from the other.
Think About What You Really Want
In order to accurately and clearly convey what you want to a designer, you really need to think about what it is you need and desire out of whatever it is you’re having designed. Think about what sort of functionality you want your users to get out of the design, what information you need to convey, and what sort of feeling you want to evoke.
“Examples are the easiest way [for clients] to share what they’re looking for,” says freelance web designer David Ronnie. “That doesn’t, however, mean for them to send over a website from a competitor and say ‘I want this,’” he warns. According to Ronnie, you should think about why you like a particular design and how it relates to what you want. Pay special attention to the functionality of the websites you like and what makes you like them — it might even be helpful to show the sites you admire to friends and colleagues and gauge their reactions. What about those sites do people actually like?
“We’re more interested here in why it appeals from a functionality standpoint than […] about the aesthetic. This will help the designer immensely with understanding what the client is really looking for on their website,” says Ronnie.
Heinley likes to employ familiar analogies, like comparing a website to a car, as a way to draw from clients what they’re really looking for. “I’ll often ask questions like: Why are the turn signals where they are? Why is the steering wheel round and not square? Why put the speedometer where it is?” he says. “These real-world examples have parallels on a website: Where is the logo placed on the page and why? Where are a search box and button placed on a page? What type of navigation should or shouldn’t be used? After a few minutes of this, the client is usually clearer on some of the design considerations.”
Try that exercise on your own before speaking with your designer. You’ll find yourself armed with a better understanding of what you actually want.
“Any forethought and planning of content and navigation previous to meeting the designer can help immensely with the company’s job,” counsels Ronnie. Content is an oft-overlooked part of website design, but critical for the majority of sites. The point of a website for most small businesses is to get a message across and facilitate some action: sales, sign ups, attendance, etc. Thought should be paid to what it is you want to sayon your website and what your goal is.
That process “is very much about setting priorities and establishing hierarchies,” says Ronnie. “Make priority lists and figure out what’s most important for your visitors to find. The more thought-out the content and structure is before ever contacting the designer, the better it will be for all parties involved.”
That doesn’t mean you have to write out all of your content before you hire a designer, or even before the designer starts designing, but knowing what you want to say, what your goal is, how you want to say it, and where different types of content fit in, will help the process go smoothly. Also, remember that content can include more than just written words — if you want to utilize video, podcasts, photo galleries, or any other type of rich media on your page, you should have a good idea of what you need before you talk to a designer.
Trust Your Designer, Give Up Control
One of the hardest things for a client to do, but one of the most necessary, is to give up control. That doesn’t mean you won’t get what you want or that you can’t offer feedback, but micromanaging the design process is a terrible idea. You’re hiring a designer because you value her expertise and skill, so trust her to take your initial input and create something that works.
Designer Jesse Thomas says that clients should hand over control along with the list of things they want. “I like to think about my job like a surgeon,” he says. “You don’t come in to the office of a surgeon and say, ‘I want this kind of cut, and I want you to do this many stitches.’ You come in bleeding, and let the man fix you.” Thomas says part of being a great designer is earning trust and being aggressive with clients about handing over control.
Heinley agrees. “It’s often said that you hire a designer to say, ‘No.’” While it’s important for designers to be receptive to feedback and suggestions from their clients, says Heinley, it’s also important for clients to realize that “a designer’s role is to have more experience in the field of design, passionately pursue the best path possible, use informed opinions, and approach the project from a user’s perspective.”
In other words: designers know design, so it’s best to get out of the way and give them freedom to create.
Talk Money and Terms Beforehand
Of course, working with a designer isn’t all talking about form and function, there’s a healthy component of business, as well. So that there are no surprises, the business end should be clearly defined and gotten out of the way before any actual design production takes place, and before any money changes hands.
“There’s nothing worse than getting to the middle or end of a project and finally getting around to discussing payment. Here’s the key: talk about money and deadlines up front. No work should be done until payment prices and terms are agreed upon,” says Heinley, who advises that some sort of contract always be signed, even for small jobs.
It’s also important to realize that design is a difficult endeavor to price. “Due to the nature of exploration and innovation in design, projects sometimes will have unforeseen costs and time,” says Heinley, who often provides clients with a range rather than a fixed price.
Getting everything down on paper before you start will help you avoid headaches later.