What to Look For When Hiring Web Design and Development

by | Jul 5, 2006 | Marketing

The web design and development industry can be difficult for businesses to navigate, with options ranging from your cousin looking for iTunes cash to multi-million-dollar agencies like Avenue A | Razorfish. This guide will help you to understand your options, and to know what to look for when hiring a web designer or developer for your new website.

General Considerations

Agency or Freelancer?

One of the first choices you’ll have to make is whether to hire an individual or an agency.

A typical agency will have measures in place to ensure timeliness, quality, consistency, etc., and will be able to better recuperate from inevitable project problems (e.g. the designer is hit by a bus). They can also assign multiple people to a project in order to reduce timelines. Because of this increased value, however, you shouldn’t be surprised when agency estimates come out higher than a freelancer’s bid on the same project.

Which course you take depends primarily on how much risk you’re willing to assume in order to keep the prices low. If you’re on a tight budget, you might need to give up some of the “agency comfort factor” and go with a freelancer.

Pricing and fees

Setting a budget for a web project can be very difficult, especially given the wide range of talent and experience that can be found on the market. If you describe the same project to a hundred different individuals and agencies, you might get bids ranging from $500 to $5,000.

A few important things to remember when seeking bids for a web project:

  • Paying by the hour may be riskier (since the project may extend beyond the estimate, and possibly beyond your budget), but it can also save you money in the long run because you’re only paying for the work that is performed. If you need the comfort of a pre-defined budget, though, ask for a firm project-level bid rather than an hourly estimate.
  • No two web designers/developers ever have the exact same thing in mind when bidding on a project. You may describe the project the same way to them, but each one assumes a different level of effort involved in it. You may actually be getting a better deal in the long run with the $5,000 bid than with the $500 one.
  • Web designers and developers are notoriously bad at estimating projects, which is due largely to the complex nature of the work, as well as the degree to which different clients affect project timelines. Whatever number they give you, assume that the final cost may be half again that much.
  • For hourly rates, a good rule of thumb is “more than a mechanic, less than a lawyer.”
  • Try approaching the project from the other direction: Tell them what your budget is, and ask them what they can provide for that amount. This eliminates the “budget dance,” and gives you a much better idea of what you’re getting for your money.
  • Your website is an investment, not merely an expense. The more you put into it, the more (hypothetically, at least) you should get out of it. If it’s a tool to generate business, don’t be afraid to put some real money into it.


Possibly the most important thing to look for is a firm that takes its work seriously. The web can make it hard to tell the difference between someone’s part-time gig and a large-scale agency, but there are a number of clues that can help you know that the person or company you’re thinking of hiring is dedicated to the work. Here are some simple things to look for:

  • Willingness to meet in person
  • Proactive communication (you don’t have to chase them down)
  • Writing and speaking in plain English
  • Examples of past work
  • Office space
  • Business cards
  • General helpfulness
  • References
  • Phone number
  • Mailing address
  • Detailed contract/proposal
  • Realistic deadlines

Evaluating a Web Designer

The term “designer” is used loosely in the web industry, and can mean anything from a formally-educated graphic designer with a comprehensive understanding of layout, typography, and color to a part-time geek who occasionally uses clip art.

There’s more to design than picking colors and fonts. A well-educated and talented web designer can give you a professional-looking website, but can also engage your target audience through visual clues, direct the reader’s eye around the page strategically through color and layout, improve readability and comprehension through effective typography, and can organize the page for optimal emphasis based on your business needs.

It’s therefore important to ensure that your designer genuinely knows what he’s doing. Though a proper designer can be relatively expensive ($90-100/hr isn’t uncommon for an established pro), you’ll receive significantly more value per dollar in the long run.

Key characteristics to look for when searching for a designer:

  • Keeps up-to-date on information architecture and user experience design research
  • Has an understanding of branding and corporate identity
  • Has used readable, attractive fonts in past designs
  • Offers a portfolio with examples of widely-varying site designs
  • Shows creativity by designing sites in fresh, unexpected ways
  • Doesn’t use cookie-cutter templates
  • Performs a reasonable amount of pre-design research
  • Shows great attention to detail

Evaluating a Web Developer

A “developer” is the individual who takes an approved site design (usually delivered as a Photoshop PSD file) and creates the actual HTML pages for the site. This is a painstaking and highly technical process, and the decisions made during the site development may affect the success of your site for the remainder of its time online.

In some cases (particularly with freelancers), the designer and developer may be the same person. However, it can be difficult for any one person to become particularly effective at both visual design and technical developement. With a few notable exceptions, freelancers tend to be much stronger at one or the other discipline. It’s usually wise to hire either a separate designer and developer, or to use an agency that offers strong talent in both areas.

Key characteristics to look for when evaluating a developer:

  • Codes HTML by hand rather than using a WYSIWYG editor such as Dreamweaver or FrontPage.
  • Uses valid, standards-compliant HTML code (you can check this by visiting http://validator.w3.org/)
  • Uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) for layout instead of tables
  • Keeps up to date on search engine optimization trends and research
  • Creates HTML code that is consistent and compatable across all major web browsers
  • Ensures that the site is accessible to users with disabilities

Putting It All Together

Once you’ve got the right individual(s) or web agency on board to make your web project a reality, it’s time to actually get the project rolling. Here are some tips to keep you sane during this chaotic period.

  • Hire people who know what they’re doing, then let them do it; try not to micro-manage or override their design/development choices.
  • When you need to be firm, be firm. Don’t let them be sloppy or provide poor results.
  • Remember that design is a creative endeavor, and inspiration can take time. Make sure that designers don’t forget about your project, but give them some time to come up with the right idea.
  • Keep in mind that scope, timeline, and budget are intertwined. When you change one (e.g., by asking for additional features, or requesting it to be done a week early), it affects the others.
  • Related to the point above, you can’t have a project that is fast, cheap, and good. You can pick two, but the third one will suffer. It’s possible to get a high-quality website in a hurry, but it will be expensive.
  • Web projects often exceed the estimated budget and timeline, usually because the scope or direction changes over the course of the project. Do your best to prevent it, but try to roll with it if it does happen.
  • Check in regularly for status updates. Web designers/developers are typically juggling multiple projects at any given time, and these requests for updates encourage them to make your project a priority.
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