The old saying, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is certainly true when it comes to your brand. The pressure to make a great impression makes it incredibly important that each of your design touch points looks and feels remarkable to a first-time visitor. Maybe your company’s creative team is 20 people deep. Or maybe you've been relying on some do-it-yourself design tips and tricks. Either way, hiring a freelance designer for certain projects can be an efficient, effective, and impactful way to create beautifully branded work.
On the other hand, if not handled properly, working with a freelance designer can be fraught with miscommunication, misaligned objectives and working styles, or a finished project that doesn’t fit the rest of your brand narrative. Below we’ve outlined the key considerations you should be making when hiring and working with a freelance designer to ensure you end up with a beautiful finished product and a great working relationship you can leverage for many years to come.
Get All Your Ducks in a Row
First things first: Even before you start evaluating potential designers, it’s imperative that you create a brief roadmap or overview of the project. This not only facilitates better conversations with potential designers, but it also helps you align your internal team around expectations for the project. Moreover, this exercise saves you money; every phone call or email you exchange with the designer on the project once you start constitutes billable hours, so taking the time to create an in-depth overview of the task initially can save money and energy for your company. This overview should include the following:
1) Anticipating Timing
Most companies think about timing in terms of the final product, but it’s actually equally helpful for designers to understand when you expect to see first drafts, how long you anticipate internal feedback channels taking, and when you expect to have all final deliverables in hand. By outlining all of your key milestones in one document, you not only set clear expectations about the required availability for the designer, but you also get a better sense of how much time, energy, and effort is required to get the project done.
2) Defining Deliverable Details
In addition to timing, your designer will want to know (if applicable) the dimensions or sizing for the final deliverable, what file format(s) you expect, and how you want them to be delivered (email, file sharing service, sent to printer, etc). If you’re not sure about sizing or file format, present use cases (for example, we plan to use this on our company Facebook Page or we want to use the graphic in these three locations). Providing detail (and if possible, examples) to the designer will help him or her guide your decision on what the final deliverables will and should look like.
3) Outlining Budget Parameters
Know the maximum amount of money you have to devote to the project and be honest about what it will buy you in terms of resources. $1,000 won’t buy you an interactive website, but it could buy you a very simple brochure, so make sure your expectations are aligned with reasonable output from a designer before reaching out, and be up front about your budget parameters when discussing the project with potential partners.
4) Compiling Existing Assets
Take the time to pull all of the assets you have in house that could contribute to the final product. Typically, this asset pool includes relevant logo versions and a brand and/or written style guide (if applicable), as well as any “landmines”-- creative executions that haven’t worked out, rub your executive team the wrong way, or have simply been agreed upon as missteps in the past. Often, it’s as helpful for designers to understand what you don’t want along with what you do, so creating a clear, easy to access resource from which the designer can get a clear picture of what works and doesn’t work for your brand will help focus his or her energy on what has already been proven to work for your company.
Identify the Right Designer for Your Needs
Everyone wants a talented designer who is easy to work with, inexpensive, prompt, and accepting of feedback, but where do you find designers for your freelance project, particularly when time is of the essence?
First and foremost, start with your network. Send an email to other marketers or post a message to LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter sharing specifics about what you're looking for (web design, PowerPoint decks, print graphics, etc.) and by when, so they can make any personal recommendations based on their own experiences. In addition to tapping your personal and professional network, there are sites available to locate designers based on their portfolios and areas of interest, including Behance and Elance, among others. In fact, HubSpot’s Services Marketplace also offers a wide variety of designers from partner companies and agencies (all of which are HubSpot-approved) that you can sort through here.
Regardless of how you source designers (through your network or through an existing resource for matching companies with freelancers), put some significant thought into how you identify the right designer for your project needs. Here are some considerations to make:
1) Screen for Fit, Not Flash
There’s no question that you should love the look and feel of a designer’s creative portfolio before hiring him or her, but it’s also critical that you screen for fit. For example, if you love that a designer’s portfolio is chock full of edgy web design, he or she may not be the best fit for a very traditional PowerPoint deck to share with your board of directors. Request design examples that fall within the specific parameters of the project you’re hiring for, so you’ll see just how well the designer can tackle projects that align with your specific needs.
2) Consider Location
Great designers exist in every corner of the world, and sometimes, having a designer in another time zone can be an advantage (for example, if you are in meetings all day on the East Coast, being able to provide feedback late in the day and still give a West Coast designer time to address changes during working hours can be helpful) -- but it can also be paralyzing. Carefully consider when, how often, and how you wish to communicate with your designer on an ongoing basis, and decide whether someone working remotely and/or in a different time zone will work for the project.
3) Gauge Anticipated Working Hours
Regardless of location, make sure you get a sense of when your designer is available and willing to work. Some freelance designers have full-time day jobs, while others intentionally freelance so they can work in the evening or early morning to intersect with childcare, hobbies, or other previous work engagements. To that end, asking about what a designer’s regular schedule looks like and what their other commitments are during the window of time for your project is critical to a solid working foundation, and it can help you weed out designers whose current schedules don’t line up with your needs.
Interview the Finalists
Once you have a good list of individuals who fit your talent, geographic, and time requirements, schedule a short phone call, in-person interview, or Skype discussion to get a feel for what the designer is like. Doing so can help you understand how the designer takes feedback, and whether your personalities are a good match to tackle the project together. It also gives the designer time to ask questions of you live that may or may not make sense over email. During your interview, be sure to ask how they like to receive comments (over email, by phone, in person, or a combination) and what type of feedback is most helpful for their design process. I typically email feedback so the designer has a punch list of items he or she can reference as needed, but will offer to follow up with a phone call to answer any questions that don’t make sense or require additional explanation.
Cross Your T's and Dot Your I's
Once you’ve found a designer whose budget, experience, expertise, and schedule align with your needs, the next step is the details, which can make or break the success of the arrangement. Here, we have outlined the bare minimum you’ll need for a positive working partnership, along with some recommended additions to consider if time and money allow:
1) Agree on Payment and Rights
Some freelance projects are constructed on a project basis, while others are designated as hourly so the designer will send an invoice for all hours worked at the conclusion of the project based on an agreed-upon rate. Regardless of expectation, make sure you get the agreed-upon rate and payment structure on paper before getting started, since doing so will protect both entities and also allow for conversation if there is a misunderstanding. If your company has a standard contract structure, use that as a base; if not, keep the overview simple and straightforward and indicate clearly what you expect to pay the designer and on what terms.
Equally as important for working with designers is rights to the draft and end products. Your company should have sole ownership of the final design assets, but you may be able to garner goodwill or a discount if you agree to serve as a reference or allow the final work to be posted to their portfolio site to garner additional business moving forward. Stumped for where to start? The American Institute of Graphic Artists provides a free to use template to help jumpstart the agreement process.
2) Get Documentation Set Up Early
Ask your finance or operations team what documents on top of the contract agreement they will need to process payment. Typically this includes an invoice and a 1099 form for tax purposes, along with budget approval from your team to process the request. Identifying those roadblocks early will put your designer at ease that he or she will be paid reasonably quickly upon conclusion of the project, and will help facilitate an easy back-end process for your colleagues in finance and accounting once the project is complete.
Create a Partner in Design
Although you’re working with a freelance designer as opposed to hiring someone in-house, respect is critical to a successful design project. After all, there’s a reason you chose to contract out the work, whether it’s time, skill, budget, or just the need to push the envelope creatively. Make it clear to the designer off the bat that you respect their work and opinion, and make sure you find a constructive but direct means to provide feedback throughout the process. If you bring the designer into meetings with your team, ensure that you introduce them as an expert in the space and arm the designer with the context he or she needs to thrive in the meeting. If it’s just the two of you communicating one on one, find ways to encourage the designer’s work, whether by noting elements you like or expressing admiration for how they handle feedback to get the project back on track. Far too many companies treat designers like a vendor, and doing so doesn’t help the creative process or your working relationship with a designer moving forward.
Similarly, when sharing feedback with the designer you’ve chosen, be honest, direct, and considerate. Typically, people go to extremes in providing feedback: they are either too afraid of offending the designer or too forceful and thus deemed inconsiderate or disrespectful. The “best” clients combine macro-level feedback (such as “this is the general look and feel we were looking for, great job capturing what we shared in the brief”) with specific, tactical feedback (e.g. "the stock image on slide 2 doesn’t reflect the audience we are targeting -- I’d prefer to use the image of students I sent you yesterday").
“The best designer/client relationships are those that come from a place of mutual understanding," says Keith Frankel, manager of HubSpot’s creative and design group. "The better a client is at treating their designers as highly-trained authorities, rather than just vendors, the better the working relationship and the quality of the final deliverable will be. To this end, clients should focus on giving feedback that deals with needs, requirements, or high-level themes, rather than small-level tactical demands. Clients who say what they need rather than demand what they want will find the most success.”
If the project ends successfully and you end up with a beautifully branded piece, reach out to the designer to thank him or her for their hard work, and consider giving them an endorsement on LinkedIn to help them solicit additional business down the line. Doing so not only demonstrates mutual respect, but it can also help them land future freelance design opportunities as a result of your referrals. If you want to go the extra mile, allowing the designer to use the final product in his or her portfolio can add to their body of work and increase the likelihood that they attract similar projects moving forward.
Thomas J. Watson, Jr. once said “good design is good business,” and never was this truer than when engaging with freelance designers. An exceptional engagement is defined by both the expertise and commitment of the designer and the effective communication and expectation on the part of a client. A disconnect between your company and your designer can end with an inflated budget, a terrible end product, or both. As freelance designer Rolando Salazar, whom I have the pleasure of work with concurred:
"An ideal client-designer relationship consists of an open dialogue throughout the design process. Managing client expectations, agreed creative direction, and clear feedback creates not only a successful relationship but also a successful design."
As a result, creating a roadmap, producing a simple working agreement, providing effective feedback, and treating the designer as a partner in your project are critical to achieving joint success. Not only will the designer thank you, but your customers will too because creating beautifully designed first impressions is truly marketing people love.
Originally published Apr 9, 2013 9:00:00 AM, updated June 27 2019