The ultimate guide to choosing the right graphic designer for your brand.
So you’ve decided you need a graphic designer to help you with your brand, but you don’t know where to start.
You’ve heard all the horror stories of designers flaking out on people, charging crazy prices for average work, and breakdowns in communication - and you definitely don’t want any of those things.
How do you find someone who’s qualified to do the job for you? More importantly - who you can trust to take care of your brand and business, and respect it like they would their own?
Buckle up (or sit down with a coffee and a snack and a pen) because this guide and accompanying planning worksheet is gonna help you figure out what you need, narrow down a pool of potential candidates, and vet them thoroughly to find your ideal partner in design.
Grab your planning worksheet here, so you can follow along with my step by step guide to find yourself the right designer.
All right, friend. Let’s dig in.
First up, you’ve got to figure out if you really need a designer - and if so, what you need from them.
There are a few things that can influence whether or not you’re ready to take that leap and bring a designer on board, especially for branding work. Generally they fit into a few categories:
- How solid you are on your business details and your brand messaging.
- What stage of business you’re in.
- Your budget.
- What you need done.
These are all things I keep in mind when I assess prospective clients, and I weigh up their answers to each category both separately and together. Some of these categories make it more obvious than others if you’re ready or not. Let’s take a look at them a little closer.
Business Details and Brand Messaging.
To me, this is probably the most important, giant red flag flapping in the wind to alert you to the fact that you might not need a designer right now. If you are not certain on the details of your business such as:
- Your business name / slogan and/or tagline if you have one.
- What you do / make / sell / help people with.
- A general idea of where you want to take your business in the next year or so.
Or your brand messaging, like:
- A vision for where you want to be, both with your business and life around your business.
- Who your audience or community is, and how you want to reach them.
- The values you hold in business and in your personal life and how you can express them through your work.
- The voice you use to communicate with your people and how you make it authentic to you.
You might not be ready to hire out your branding just yet. Unless the designer you have in mind is also a branding or business coach / consultant / strategist, and they can help you figure it out.
Why is it important to be solid on this stuff? If you jump straight to brand visuals before you get those things downpat, you could be setting yourself up for a really bad time. A few things that commonly happen when you jump to design before you’ve figured out the details:
- You don’t love the work your designer is coming up with, but you can’t tell if it’s their work or if your ideas aren’t working.
- You like the work your designer comes up with at first, but then you start doubting your decisions and have that nagging feeling to change things all the time.
- You drive your designer crazy requesting changes because you decided you don’t like your business name, or you’ve decided you need to be bright and out there rather than classic and understated.
- You end up dropping a lot of money on a project that will be of little or no use to you once you really figure out the details and your messaging.
If you’re suddenly realising that you’re not certain about this stuff, and you don’t know where to start - my program, Brand Message Bootcamp is the right place for you. It’s only $49 and you’ll get access to five lessons covering all of your brand messaging.
If you’re cool with that stuff and still feeling like you need a designer right now, keep on reading.
Where your business is at.
Most people want to start their businesses off right. They want to put everything out there looking perfect and polished. I know that was me when I started. Lucky for me, I’m a designer. But not everyone is, and not everyone has the skills to design for themselves right away. It can be a huge point of stress trying to figure out how you’ll get things looking the way you imagine.
I usually (this isn’t hard and fast, so use your own discretion) recommend that people who are just starting out and testing the waters with their business hold off on hiring a designer for a little while. Instead, you can either learn a few skills to DIY, or take advantage of pre-made templates that are easily available for purchase online.
The details and brand messages we spoke about in the previous section take time to build and solidify. Holding off hiring someone gives you time to get to know your business - allowing you the space to experiment with changes, work out what feels right, and start to build a little bit of personality around what you do.
You might feel like you know your brand message now, but our messages change over time, and you’ll likely see them change rapidly in the first six months to a year. I know I did! When you’re getting started, the work you do is far more important than having a perfect design - as long as things are clean and functional, you’ll be fine for the time being.
If you’ve been in business for a while and your brand message has stabilised, you’re far less likely to make a big time / money investment only to completely change your mind in the near future. You might also find that as you really establish yourself in business, you have less and less time to be messing around with branding and graphics yourself. If this is you, you’re more likely to need someone to cover it for you - you’re ready to hire that designer.
Again - it’s ok to use your own discretion here. Maybe you’re starting out but you’re dead certain of what you want. Maybe you’ve been in it for a while but you’re pivoting and need some time to figure it out. Be honest with yourself and know that’s it’s ok to be wherever you are.
If budget is something that you’re really stressing about and you don’t know how you’re going to come up with the money to hire the designer you want, you’re probably not ready yet. It shouldn’t be stressful or frightening to work with the right person at the right time. There are so many more beneficial things to spend your money on when you’re just getting started, like a Squarespace account, an email marketing software, scheduling software, online course software, etc.
It can be tempting to go for low budget design options like fiverr or other similar sites - and you’re welcome to do so, but it’s important to be aware of a few things:
- Many designers offering low budget logos, or other brand related materials churn out similar, generic designs for many people, and you can’t guarantee that yours will be any different to someone else’s - even when you’re paying for a custom design.
- They probably won’t take the time to get to know you, your business, or the direction you want to take your brand in, and won’t bring any of that to the design.
- You might not get the flexibility you need when the files are handed over - they might not give you the editable source files, and any future customisation might be difficult.
There’s always a chance that you’ll find a great designer on fiverr or a similar who will give you quality, flexibility and will take all of your thoughts and ideas into account for a really low price, but you’re taking a pretty big risk to find one. If your budget is tight, you might be better off choosing a set of premade templates from somewhere like Creative Market that you think are closest to the feel and atmosphere you want your brand to have, and hold off on a custom design until later. Using a template will be quicker, easy for you to implement, and requires none of the time spent on back and forth with a designer you barely know.
I like to think that you’re ready to make a bigger investment when it’s a little bit scary, but you know you’ve got the cash to comfortably cover it. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice something else to cover it, and you shouldn’t be stretching it to make each payment. Worrying about paying your designer can really ruin the experience for both of you, so it’s important to consider whether you’re ready to make that financial commitment before you jump in and hire somebody.
What you need done.
This is a more practical category that I like to look at once I have an answer for all the others. If you only need something small like a single logo, maybe it makes more sense for you to do it yourself or find a template online. If it’s a bigger, like a full brand redesign, it might be right to hire a designer to take care of it all. If it’s in the middle, you could go either way.
If you’re not sure how big or small your job is, reach out to any designers you know and like and ask - I’m more than happy to answer questions about the scope of projects, and most of my designers I know will be too.
This category generally bounces off the previous three - if you only need a logo, you’re on a tight budget, you’re just starting out and getting acquainted with your business, it’s probably best to hold off and look into some pre-made designs or try out the DIY approach. If you’ve been at it for a while and have the budget, the size of the job might not matter - like I mentioned earlier, you might not have the time yourself to mess with templates or DIY, and therefore hiring out might be the sensible route for you.
Think about what you need done in relation to where you’re at and you’ll find it easier to decide whether it’s the right time to get that designer on board.
Assessing different designers and narrowing down your options.
It’s reasonably likely that if you’ve been thinking about hiring a designer, you probably know of a few that you might consider candidates for the job. You might even be friends with some. So how do you decide who might work well with you and who to pass on?
You’ll need to work out a couple of things on your end:
- What you need done - yes, again. This time we’re getting specific.
- What kind of design styles you like.
- The time, budget, quality venn diagram.
But before we jump into breaking those down - a quick note to those of you who don’t know of any designers. If you have no idea where to find a great designer, here are a few things you can do (that aren’t trawling through your local yellow pages because it’s 2018) to get the ball rolling and find some:
- Ask in online business facebook groups if anyone knows of a good designer to help you with X, Y or Z.
- Search through instagram tags and follow accounts of designers you like.
- Search for branding or brand boards on pinterest and click through to the websites of the designers who posted them.
If you’ve done all of that and still can’t find anyone you like, leave me a comment and I’ll recommend a few ;) For those of you who have some people in mind, let’s start sorting them.
What you need done.
This time, we’re taking a few steps further than figuring out whether you’ve got a big or small job. To help you narrow down you pool of designers, you’ll need to know what you want done, and see if the designers you like actually offer these services.
If you need a logo, fonts, colour palettes, some social media graphics and a PDF template, you’ll need to know if all of those things are covered by the people you’re considering hiring. Many graphic and brand designers I know package their services up, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the work with me pages of your chosen people and see if their offers include the things you need done. They can also act as a jumping off point for you if you’re unsure of what you need, so it’s definitely worth researching.
Here’s an example of my standard service package inclusions:
Some designers (like me!) also provide the option to make changes to their standard packages, so if there’s something missing off your list, it’s always worth emailing them to see if they’ll provide a custom quote to include or remove things for you.
Design styles + what you like.
When looking at different designers and the styles of design they’re best at, it’s important to consider both designs you like, and designs that fit with your personality, brand and business direction. If you only consider designs you like, you might end up with something that doesn’t make sense for your business. And similarly, if you only consider designs that make sense for your business direction, you might lose out on letting your personality shine through.
It’s a good idea to do a bit of Pinterest research while considering people for the job. Create a board full of designs you like, and images that inspire you. If you find a designer whose work is similar to the designs you like best, it might make them a strong candidate. You can also take that Pinterest board to any potential designers and ask them if they can create something similar for you.
The time, budget, quality venn diagram.
Hopefully you’re familiar with venn diagrams, cause I’m about to drop one on you.
You might have seen this somewhere before on the internet. Most of the time, you’ll see it accompanied by “Pick two.”
I don’t necessarily believe you can only have two. We all have different needs, and if you put the work in to find the right person, you can definitely plan to have the right balance of each. So it’s important to be honest about your requirements and plan around them accordingly.
Time and timelines are different for everybody. Some people need things done urgently, some people don’t have a lot of time to be super involved with the work being done, and some people are happy to let it take as long as it takes. If you’re after something urgent, keep in mind that many designers have queues and waitlists in place. You might not be able to start working with your favourite designer right away. So if you’re even contemplating working with someone, it’s a good idea to reach out and see if there will be a place available for you at your preferred time. If they don’t have an opening when you need it, you’ll have to decide whether you feel you can wait, or whether to take them off your list.
It’s important to nail down a budget or price range. This will help you tremendously in narrowing down your designer pool as some of them will probably be out of reach for you. That doesn’t mean you don’t deserve or won’t get awesome work from somebody. It usually just means that particular designer does great work and is in really high demand. Take a look at the prices of some of the designers you’d like to work with, and figure out which ones you can comfortably afford. That becomes your price range, and another measure to narrow down your pool by. If anyone is out of reach, cross them off your list.
Quality can be a tricky one to assess, because none of us are going to say we want something low quality. Our quality assessment is usually influenced by our time and budget requirements. I like to think about it like this: if the low to high quality is sitting on a 1-10 scale, you probably don’t want anything less than a five - medium quality. To me, medium quality means it’s ok and it does the job. High quality is super detailed, finessed, and tailored to your specific needs. If you have a lower budget, you might (not always, but might) have to settle for a 7 rather than a 9 or a 10. If you need something done really quickly and you just need it to do the job, maybe even a 5 or 6 is an ok standard for you. Not everything has to be perfect all the time, and it’s important to consider when certain standards are reasonable for you.
Vetting prospective designers and choosing the right one for you.
Now that you’ve got a small, curated list of designers, it’s time to pick one. But you’re not just going to pick one at random - you’re going to vet them all, seriously and individually. There are a few more things you can look at - I like to call them the Three P’s - to help you determine your final choice, and there's a section in your worksheets for you to take notes on them:
- Procedures and Policies
Portfolio + Testimonials
First, you’ll want to take a look at their portfolios - most designers have a dedicated portfolio on their site, but some post their work to places like Instagram, so make sure to take a look around.
You’re looking to see who’s portfolio best matches the design styles you researched when narrowing down your candidates. It doesn’t have to match as a whole - even if they have one or two projects you think are exactly like what you’d imagined, that’s a pretty strong indication that that designer has the experience and capability to give you what you want.
You’ll also want to check out some testimonials if you can. It’s always reassuring to read about the experiences others have had working with them, and you can get an idea of the process from the perspective of someone who’s gone through it. If you’re on the fence, you could even reach out to some of the testimonial-givers and get their real time take on working with that particular designer. A conversation about the behind the scenes might give you the answers you need.
Once you’ve assessed their portfolios, you’re going to have to get personal. If you haven’t already reached out, now’s the time to get in touch, tell them you’re looking interested in their design package and get to know them a little. Most designers usually offer some kind of discovery call where you can get to know each other and decide whether you’ll be a good working partnership. If they don’t necessarily state anywhere that they offer a call, definitely ask if you could schedule one. It’s invaluable to get face to face with someone where you can really measure how well you connect.
On that call, the designer will probably have some questions for you - don’t forget, you’re vetting each other. They’ll want to know the stuff you’ve already prepared through this guide - what you need done, timelines, design preferences, budget, and a bit about your business. The thing you really should be paying attention to here is personality and the overall vibe you get from them.
It’s far easier to work with someone you get along with. Don’t get me wrong - you don’t have to come off the call as best friends, or even be friends with your designer, but you do want to make sure they have a personality that you can gel with, and that you get good vibes from them as a person. Communication is such a huge part of working with a designer and you don’t want to choose someone you struggle to communicate with.
If there’s anything about them or speaking with them that makes you feel uncomfortable, it could be a red flag that you’re not going to have the easiest time talking with them or getting your ideas across throughout the design process. It’s not game over, but it’s something to consider.
Procedures and Policies.
It’s important to know that your designer’s preferred way of working doesn’t just work for them - it has to work for you too. I provide a welcome packet to all my prospective clients, but I also welcome questions at any time. Feel free to ask your potential designer (either on your call or via email) what the process will look like, how you’ll communicate, and if there’s anything different or new that you’ll have to consider or learn.
Don’t be scared if a designer says they have some kind of project management system you have to sign up for or use - they’ve likely made it as easy as possible for you to use, and will be happy to walk you through it. But for example - if they only do client work on Wednesdays, but you’re not available to give feedback on Wednesdays or Thursdays and you think that will complicate or prolong the project, maybe that’s a mark against them.
You’ll also want to know about their policies and design contracts before you go all in. If they don't have decent policies or don't want to use a contract: RUN. Contracts are important and protect both of you, so if they're too wishy-washy about setting boundaries, that's a red flag.
For those doing the right thing and giving you examples of their policies and contracts, it’s always important to read them carefully and ask about anything you’re unsure of before you give the go ahead or sign anything - if something doesn’t sound right to you, definitely ask them for clarification before abandoning them as a potential candidate, because it could just be a misunderstanding. But if anything really doesn’t sit right with you, don’t ignore that feeling. It’s possible they’re just not the right fit for you, and that’s ok.
What to expect when working with a designer.
Now that you’ve chosen your designer, here are a few tips that might help you when it comes time to start your project.
Give honest and detailed feedback.
Designers are professionals, and you’re in a professional working relationship with them. You’re not going to hurt their feelings if you don’t like something, and neither of you will benefit from you lying or hiding the truth about how you feel. Most designers will appreciate your honesty - I can attest to the fact that we just want to make you happy and give you exactly what you want.
It’s also important to give detailed feedback where you can. “I don’t like it,” doesn’t help me fix it or make you like it more. Most designers need to know what you like and don’t like about a particular design to move it closer to being right for you.
Descriptors like shapes, colours, and overall feelings can help your designer figure out how to get your design right. Take this for example:
I don’t like that shade of blue, maybe we could try a warmer blue? I also think the round shape makes it too soft. Could we try and make it a little bolder? I don’t think it stands out enough. The font is perfect!
Detailed feedback like this help the designer understand which parts you like, and which parts need further tweaking. Design can be very trial and error, so try not to go in expecting that you’ll get the perfect design right away every time. Don’t forget your adjectives!
Don’t expect perfection right away.
On that note of expectations, it’s important not to expect amazing, exactly what you wanted, polished work right from the beginning. We live in a time and place where people share everything on social media, curated perfectly for the public. Most people only shown their completed, carefully presented work on social media. So if you’re not familiar with how design processes work, you open yourself up to being a little disappointed by the first drafts of your project.
It’s important to remember that these are first round drafts - they’re the designers best educated guess of what you want and like, and it’s not the end point. It’s a jumping off point. Don’t start to stress if the first iterations don’t look like what you think. Like I mentioned before, your designer wants you to love it, and they’re prepared to make whatever changes necessary to ensure that that happens. Talk it over, let them make changes, and hold out until you see that final result.
Have you got a designer in mind now?
If you’ve been through this guide and worksheet, here’s hoping you’ve narrowed down your potentials to a final choice of designer, or at the very least, are getting close!
Choosing a designer that you’ll work well with and who fits your needs is a very personal process, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Follow the steps, and you should have a pretty solid starting point.
If you have any questions about any stage of choosing the right designer, feel free to leave them in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my very best to answer them for you.
Don’t forget, there’s a pretty epic worksheet to go with this guide, so if you only read over this post, grab that one here and start figuring out who to hire.