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Hiring a Web Designer: Advice from Award-Winning Sites

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We spoke to Inc. Web Award winners to learn how they chose designers for their exceptional sites. Maggie Smith spent three months researching what she wanted to do with her Web site before she hired the designer she met through a networking group. Surfing the Net and reviewing other sites enabled her to present her designer with a list of 25 sites she liked the look of -- graphics, type, icons, design, visual appeal -- and 25 she liked the functionality of. "Designers know Web design, but not your industry," said Smith, whose company ArtSource (1999 Inc. Web Award winner, Design) supplies artwork for corporate settings. The industry is traditionally tied to paper catalogs, and she expected having a hard time transitioning customers to Web sales. "I know how my customers want to buy. Virtually no one uses credit cards," she said. ArtSource.com doesn't take online payments or list prices online. Smith couldn't have relied on a designer to make that decision.


"Define your business in a solid sentence and present that to your designer," recommends Raymond K. Lemire. In 1995, when he launched his mail order and online pasta business Flying Noodle (2000 Inc. Web Award winner, 2nd place, Marketing), he called everyone he knew and asked them to recommend designers. "I wanted someone who understood selling; it's a selling site," he said. When he met with the designer, he brought instructions -- to make using the site as easy as using a print catalog.

He also wanted a designer with a sense of humor, and believes that personal rapport is very important. "Who you choose to put together your site depends on how you like to work. We wanted someone who could create a site that was fun, whimsical, and not take it too seriously." A couple of final words from Lemire: No matter how big or small your budget is, save room for redesign work because it's bound to happen.


The best way to find a designer is to marry one, joked Tom Carr and his wife and partner Elizabeth Gray Carr. In 1996, the then full-time information services manager at a local bank armed himself with books on Web design and spent his weekends designing the real estate site callelizabeth.com (2000 Inc. Web Award winner, 1st place, Marketing). Carr also looked at other sites and culled lessons from WebPagesThatSuck.com. He determined what he didn't want -- flash and animation -- and what he did want -- virtual tours and an unlimited number of pictures. Understanding the user base of home-sellers and buyers was critical. Carr knew they weren't necessarily Web savvy, and pictured them as passing through this site -- maybe once -- at a particular period of time in their lives. This helped him create the right site to meet his customers' and the business's needs.


"I needed a lot of work done and needed to give it to somebody I could trust." That was the bottom line for Brad Luebker, director of marketing for software company Ives Development Inc. So he hired one of the first graphic designers he'd ever worked with to do a visual redesign of the site, teamstudio.com (2000 Inc. Web Award winner, 2nd place, Customer Service). The redesign was done about two years ago when it was determined the company wanted a brighter, more open and friendlier look for the site than it had originally. The back end of the site, including the navigation, was done by another company, and again, Luebker knew what he wanted -- based on employee and customer comments -- before he brought in that team.


Six weeks after Charley Biggs, COO of ecamps.com (1999 Inc. Web Award winner, Design and Return on Investment), hired a large design firm, he realized it was not a good fit. Neither the work nor the communication was terrific, and he said a lot of money got wasted. So he stopped the work and put the word out that he was looking for someone who wanted to take a break from their full-time job to do something on their own. He contracted with an individual with a background in engineering to do the site programming. "We had a good idea of what we wanted and he came up with a lot of good things on his own," Biggs said. The pros of working with an individual contractor, says Biggs, is that they had access to him 24 hours a day and had more control over costs.


The experiences of these Inc. Web Awards winners can be summarized with this checklist:

Do Your Homework

  • Surf the Internet and look at sites both in and out of your industry.
  • Note what you like and don't like in terms of the look and functionality of other sites.
  • Online go to WebPagesThatSuck.com, "Where you can learn good design by looking at bad design."

Know Your Industry

  • Define your business in one solid sentence and present that to your designer.
  • Understand how your business will translate to the Web.
  • Know how your customer base operates.
  • Look at your competition to see what they're doing on the Web, and determine if you'd do it the same or differently.

Network to Get Recommendations

  • Work with someone you trust.
  • Assess your designer's experience.
  • Make sure you can communicate well with the designer.
  • Phone references and ask about timelines. What did the designer do well and not so well? Did the designer stick to the plan?
  • Look for someone whose personality reflects the type of site you'd like to present.

Copyright © 2001 inc.com LLC

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