Startup Resources
April 23, 2014 by Julia Camenisch

Branding developed? Check. Product perfected? Check. Website ready to launch? Not exactly… For many DIY entrepreneurs, this is one task that requires outside intervention in the form of high-end web design expertise.

Unless you’re an experienced designer yourself, it’s hard to know how to successfully evaluate and hire a web design firm. As with most pursuits in life, one of the quickest ways to get up to speed is to talk to someone who’s done it successfully — multiple times.

To tap into such experience, we recently chatted with Maria Pentkovski, an interactive art director with oDesk. She’s managed multiple web projects, from landing pages to small business websites to full-blown, behemoth sites. She shared these four tips for hiring a professional web design company.

1. Know the scope of your project

The first step in hiring a web design firm is knowing your requirements. All websites are not created equal, and you have to figure out what your ideal website should be. Before investigating design firms, take time to flesh out your website needs.

Who you hire will be based in large part on how complicated your site will be. If you need something small and simple, Pentkovski advises that you look “for someone with hard-core design skills who can make it work. The focus would be more on design, less on technology.” In this case, you could work with a smaller team.

On the other hand, if your site will be a repository for large amounts of content, will be highly interactive, and/or will require specialized apps, it’s probably better to hire a larger team.

Pentkovski notes that you’ll need a team “that has some good designers, as well as a good web developers. [Because of project complexity], you need a team, not a versatile person that can do it all for you.” Who should you have on your team? It’s all about looking for professionals who have the right skills sets.

2. Hire the right skill set

As you start pulling your team together, you’ll quickly encounter “web designers” and “web developers.” To be clear, these terms (and their accompanying skill sets) are not interchangeable — unless you hire a crazily talented web superhero. If you find one of those, Google is probably hot on their tail as well.

Here’s a quick rundown of each position.

  • A web designer will develop the look and flow of the site. According to Pentkovski, “They know how to design the page, but they don’t always know how to build it.” All web designers can provide a webpage design mockup. If you’d prefer to have a more fully fleshed out site, Pentkovski advises looking for a designer with strong experience with HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).
  • Web developers are programmers, primarily focused on the code and mechanics underlying the site design. They often work alongside a designer, bringing the graphical interface to life. Developers can also specialize in various coding languages and skill sets, from web apps to back-end scripting. If you hire a developer, make sure they’re comfortable working with any designers you bring on.

Whether you need a small or large team, you’ll find freelance designers and developers who can meet your specific needs.

3. Look at their experience

Once you’ve determined whether you primarily need a web designer, a developer, or both, dig into the portfolios of potential hires. Whether you decide to employ a firm or an individual, it’s important to make sure the candidate has done work similar to what you need.

If the type of job you’re looking for isn’t featured in their portfolio, but you like what you see, talk to them. See if they’re comfortable doing the type of work you need, and make sure they partner with someone who does have relevant experience.

When looking at portfolios, Pentkovski also recommends checking out actual sites the designer or developer has featured. “You want to be able to test the sites they’ve created, both in your own monitor and on mobile devices, to see how they respond to various screen resolutions. You also want to take a look at the underlying code, if that is important to you.”

If you want to hire a firm, take the extra step of getting input from their clients. “If you are hiring a company of three or more people, look for known brands that they’ve worked with, as well as recommendations from past clients. Ask for case studies to see how they’ve dealt with other companies’ web design needs.”

4. Get to know them

Narrowed your search down to a few candidates? Then it’s time to get to know the web designer or developer better. Good communication is critical, especially if you’re working with a remote team. Do they respond to questions completely? If you’ve asked for case studies or other information, do they provide it in a timely manner?

Find out how they deal with challenges by asking about their experience with other clients. According to Pentkovski, the way they respond to this question is very telling. “Ask about what went well with their past client and what didn’t. If you see that they pin all the blame on the client, that’s an immediate red flag.”

She also recommends trying to do a test project before making a long-term commitment to a particular contractor or agency. “Instead of having them design a whole site for the test project, I’d just have them design a piece of it, such as a banner. I wouldn’t give them specific direction, but instead more strategic direction. Then see where the designer takes it.”

Hiring for web page design can be an intimidating process. If you’ve worked with designers and developers, share your stories about successful (or not-so-successful) hires in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to Upwork a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.