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How Do You Choose a Web Designer?
by William Szczepanek

Article 16: October 1, 2008

With so many people and companies in the Web design and development business, how do you find a reliable Web designer?  You can use the Internet and Google for your search and get hundreds of solutions in your immediate area.  You can use the Yellow Pages and find mostly larger companies.

Do you know someone who designs websites?  Many people do.  Now, I don’t mean social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook, or other commercial sites that allow you to create websites by filling in the blanks, even though these sites are becoming more powerful and do provide a method of getting a rudimentary site up quickly and easily.  I mean people who have taken it upon themselves to create a site and were successful in getting the site online, and then have hung up their shingle and call themselves a Web designer or Web developer.  It seems like everyone is a Web designer today.  Where did they all come from and why are they out there? And, how does someone select a reliable Web designer to work on a project for them?

Some people, particularly small business owners, are reluctant to contact a large Web development company because they fear dealing with these companies about issues that they know little of.  Instead, they often go to a friend who they feel they can trust, and are often disappointed with the results.  Their sites ultimately need additional work, but no one is interested in maintaining someone else’s code.

I can understand that certain professionals will try to diversify their service offerings by combining their primary talent with Web design.  In fact, multiple talents are necessary to be successful in Web design.  Two essential areas that are required are graphic design and programming. There are many artists who have picked up HTML and other programming language books and taught themselves to do Web design.  Some of them do quite well.  These two areas are left and right brain areas though, and most people have trouble mastering these areas without getting a headache in the process.

Other areas where I have seen diversification include newspapers and magazines that now offer Web design services.  Marketing companies now also offer Web design services. There are many real estate agents who think they are great at Web design. As I mentioned, a combination of talents is almost always necessary. How about landscaping and Web design, or auto mechanics and Web design? With doctors having more trouble making ends meet and avoiding lawsuits, maybe we’ll see heart surgery and Web design. There is an ever growing Web design pie out there, and there are tens of thousands of web designers vying for a piece. Even technology companies like Microsoft and HP are into the Web design business at various levels trying to get their share.

Has Web design become a talent that everyone needs to master to survive in the Information Age? We can reflect upon occupations like telephone operator.  A hundred years ago it was thought that dialing the phone was too complex of a task for the untrained to master.  About fifty years ago we had service station attendants who pumped gas because it was thought to be too dangerous for the everyday customer. About twenty years ago the secretary or administrative assistant handled all typing tasks with skills that the untrained would not be able to perform in an efficient manner. Today most everyone uses their own word processor.

Other jobs are rapidly becoming extinct such as those of office administrators, factory workers, stock clerks, mail clerks, computer operators, and even telemarketers, now replaced by even more obnoxious computer-recorded messages. Over the past few years the weekly number of unemployed has sometimes declined, while the number of newly-created, lower wage jobs has increase slightly. Why? More people have given up looking for jobs and have become self-employed, many becoming Web designers. Will Web designers eventually become extinct? Probably.

Along divergent lines there has been a reduction in the number of IT jobs in the US.  Many of these jobs were lost due to offshoring. Even more were lost because companies moved to third party software solutions rather than using in-house custom development people.  Many of those who have lost their jobs have picked up Web development as an entrepreneurial endeavor because some of the skills they possess are transferable.  All of this has led to a glut of Web designers, making it impossible for many of them to succeed due to both intense competition from within the US and from places outside the US, like India, where development firms have spread like a wildfire in the wind, offering design services for 20% of the price someone needs to charge to make ends meet in the US.

Now, I know certain people who are proud of the talents they possess in assorted areas.  They have occasionally fixed a car, but would not think of becoming an auto mechanic.  They have painted their house, but would not become a house painter. Why do so many people think the can be competitive in the Web design industry?  One reason is that people of all ages have become more Internet savvy and want to be where the action is. With gas prices increasing steadily it may be that everyone is preparing to sit at their computer and make their fortune from home.  Many baby boomers who haven’t saved a penny are now stating that they will need to work longer. Their employers may have a different idea. The kitchen table is fast becoming their new office. All of these efforts are reflective of what has made America great in the past, but the payoff is not yet in sight for the majority.

Now, let’s get back to our question at hand. How, with a surplus of designers and developers out there, can you find a reputable Web design company at a reasonable cost?  The competition has driven prices down on the low end.  The established and experienced Web design companies still charge big bucks and earn their pay.  However, there are now many others who have gotten into this industry who are actually very good at what they do and can deliver a very good product or service at prices that are much more affordable than that of the big firms.  These are the ideal choices for small to mid-sized businesses that can get Web services from people who have the time and flexibility to work on their projects without competing projects contending for their time.  They can provide services faster, better and for less cost than the larger companies because of low overhead. These very small start-ups may have niches that they can serve very well because of prior experience in certain industries or talents in specific areas.
There are bargains to be had by those looking for Web design services, but don’t expect to get it cheap or for nothing.  Cheap comes from those who are desperate.  They will say they will do anything, but what they want is your money. Small companies who say they can do anything, any size, big or small ― can’t.

 So, how can you tell if someone can do the job if they do not have a big portfolio and references?  They must be interviewed.

There is a saying that for someone with a hammer everything looks like a nail. But, if your need is to pound a nail, then finding someone who is good with a hammer is usually the best solution. If someone admits they can’t or won’t do a certain aspect of a job, you are more inclined to believe them when they say they can do another aspect.  If you don’t need heavy duty programming, then an artist-turned-web-designer may be able to do a great job.  If your needs are programmatic variability or database knowledge and not gorgeous graphics, then Joe programmer may be able to do a good job for you.  If your need is for effective communication, then a content writer-turned-web-designer can be good.  Having specialists working on each section of a web site can produce incredibly good results if managed properly.  Having multiple people or companies working on a project is a very common and acceptable solution where you have the best people working on each part of a job for little or no more cost.

Getting references from a Web designer is also important, though you need to be careful that your project goals are similar to those of the referrer.  Also, it is helpful to work with a designer who understands your business needs. They often can make specific recommendations about page structure, language and navigation that can help you in the long run. Again, some Web designers/developers are better at certain types of work.

The Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_design can help to explain various areas of Web design and Web development which are often considered separately. It can also help in generating questions for hiring a potential Web designer to see where they stand on various issues of standards and compliancy.

Ultimately, how will all of this shake out? At present there are more Web designers than individuals that need Web design.  So, many unsuccessful Web designers will ultimately look for other work over time and the number of Web designers will fall when the layoff and unemployment issues are less of a problem.

 Eventually companies will also realize that there are hidden costs in having Web design done offshore such as:

Over time, businesses in the USA will finally understand that cheaper isn’t necessarily better, whether it be an approach to a solution or a person to do a job. Everyone knows you get what you pay for. Now, the real question is whether or not they will realize it in time.

Everyone is not a Web designer.  It just seems that way right now. Careful analysis is required to find the one that is right for you.