What You Pay For When You're Hiring a Designer

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Bartek Białek

Oct 12, 2015 • 14 min read

So you need something designed. You think you might want to hire a designer but are hesitant and unsure.

The experience of hiring designers is a little bit different to that of buying software, services or hiring, say, programmers. You look for a close, personal fit with a designer because the creative process you will share can require a special kind of mutual trust, intimacy and sensitivity. This is not necessarily easy to find between people who have never met before. It’s also a process It’s a process that can be overshadowed by big questions (e.g. what can you expect for the money you spend), and some deep misconceptions (such as thinking designers are wizards). Let’s demystify some things about hiring designers.

So let’s demystify some things about hiring designers.

Why hire a designer at all?

Because you need one! You or your company has come across a problem that can’t be solved, or you simply want a fresh look at certain things. Hiring an expert, instead of adopting a do-it-yourself approach, is probably better for your business anyway.

The true value of a design expert comes from two things, their craft and their soft skills.

Designers have skills and experience. They know all sorts of techniques and resources that will help solve your problem (like the designers who know how to paint amazing pictures or can design an app experience far beyond a clean UI and fine information architecture) - they have outstanding professional skills.

Each designer has a unique personality. A mix of personal experience, curiosity, values and the environment they live in. This set of soft skills that can make a designer a perfect match for your project or company. A designer with a certain background can give your designs an interesting twist of flavour.

Your doubts and how to address them

Now let’s go through a set of questions you might worry about, but may lack the opportunity or courage to ask directly.

Do your paperwork - research and literal paperwork. Buy yourself peace of mind.

I don’t know what I will get for my money

The contract seems obscure, you don’t know what you’ll get. Does designing mean a working prototype?

I’ll spare you the “never sign anything you’re not sure of” advice. You should always know what will be done and what deliverables you agree on getting done. There are many ways to contract and track design work. Lump sum, monthly payments or time/material. For each type, there are tools out there to help you sustain transparency and safety. Both sides should know the difference between designing and building. Your side should do your research and know what you want. I mean really know - write it down, discuss internally, take a breather and only after having done so - go look for outside help.

Why pay for something you can do yourself?

It’s often possible, but inadvisable. You should be proactive and contribute when you chose to work with a designer, but there’s a difference between substitution and support. Much like with a dentist - you can use some string and your car to pull out a tooth, but it’s much less painful if you just go to a specialist. Both sides stay focused on their task and that’s always a good thing.

Wondering if there’s a reason that design is such a hype word?

Design is often obvious - I don’t want to pay for obvious things

Often the outcome of a work of design may look obvious. In reality - the best solution is only obvious once it has been found. Designing is making certain that your solution will work best in the environment for which it’s designed. Decisions made out of the blue will end up being right about as often as any other guess will be right. You spend your money to limit risks and increase your chances to succeed.

Design work will cost much more than the value it brings to the project.

I believe this comes down to your business analysis and to the designers persuading you that their work will, in fact, bring you desired value. There is no sane formula for predicting profits from design work. The truth is that more and more companies invest in design nowadays, simply because it’s profitable. They can’t be wrong, can they? I believe you should always consider your needs individually, in your own context and situation.

Distinguish results from outcomes. The outcomes of your designer’s work should be clear from your very first meetings.

I fear to hire a designer because I can’t predict the outcome of their work.

People who hire designers are often somehow responsible for results of their work, either to the company or investors. The problem is that the effects of good design work are often measurable, but it’s hard to define a recipe for success. Often, only time will tell. Nonetheless, a clearly specified contract is a good place to start. I’d also suggest working with people that seem like a good fit for you. If you state your expectations clearly, the designer you hire will help you fulfill them. Good communication and preparation (for example, scoping sessions) will help you outline outcomes early on.

What if I hire an artist who takes no feedback or critique. How much can I contribute to the final design?

You should be informed about what kind of feedback you are expected to give. You should also agree at the beginning of a project on what kind of contribution you will have to the project. If you hire an artist and give them carte blanche - do so and don’t be surprised when they do what they like. You have to have clear goals and state them explicitly in your communication & contract. You are pretty much in control on this one.

Expect and ask for proper guidance from you designer

I feel lost - I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to express my needs or give critique and feedback.

Sometimes minor things or details about the project may occur to you as the only ones you can discuss on an equal footing with the designer. Alternatively, you might be in tune with your own creative process, so talking/working with a designer might seem like a very natural thing to do. Then, the reality of everyday work hits and it turns out that our expectations and language differ, making expressing ourselves difficult. I believe it's the designer’s job to educate inexperienced or lost clients about the purpose, meaning and flow of the creative process. If you don’t understand what’s going on or what will happen, you should always ask and expect an answer.

I can’t track progress.

Do you fear that the designer will work slowly and you will end up paying more for “wrong failed designs” than for time spent on your project? The more information you give, the greater the chance that things will head in the right direction from the very beginning. Get to know your designer’s creative process and its timing. Most things regarding the design process are measurable. Believe me, every experienced designer can give rough estimates, at the very least. And yes, prepare yourself to pay for failed attempts to solve your problems.

Which designer?

There’s a designer for almost every market profession. If you want to create value for your customers/audience - the outcome of your designer’s work should help you achieve that. In order to do so, you must tackle obstacles and solve problems that arise from the limited resources that you have.

It may be useful to know to what kind of design specialist best fits your needs. You can expect neat personas and customer journeys from a UX specialist or a beautiful interface from a UI designer. Many misunderstandings may arise when you come with the wrong task to the wrong kind of specialist.

This is not how you solve (most) problems! Use research instead of an axe!

What is this “problem to solve”?

I’ve described design as all-round problem solving, so let me explain what hides behind this statement. For example - Jack opening a closed door… or maybe hiring a visual designer to create a poster.

The problem is not how to design a cool, informative and effective poster. You don’t solve it by hiring the designer with the coolest posters you can afford. Your problem is how to communicate an effective message to your desired audience. The poster and its parameters are just a means to this end. Don’t be surprised if your designer asks you if a poster is truly what you need to solve your problem.

This is not how designers seek creativity/inspiration

How designers work

It’s safe to say that each has their own working flow / style. Managers rarely know how the “creative process” works. One can argue whether or not a formalized creative process even exists. But to let managers understand what’s happens in the design industry, designers formalized the creative process as something more visceral - something that can be shown on a chart. It’s the designers trying to help you understand their process, whatever it may be. Every designer or project has the right to have a unique approach to the problem, or “creative process”. You have a right to know what will happen next and what’s on your designer’s mind. You have a right to know what will happen for the money you pay.

The workflow might different in each case, but for most common situations it can be duplicated and categorized. Depending on how deep the knowledge of your product is, and on what stage of the product cycle the designer comes in at, you’ll find yourself in somewhere in the process described below. This process that can be divided into more general stages like:

  • research - deep, profound understanding of the problem to solve
  • discovery - gathering resources to solve the problem
  • ideation / problem solving
  • solution generation - feedback loop (doesn’t concern artists)

Don't forget that your input is required at all stages.

This workflow, in various guises and mutations, is common to most creative processes that you can buy. You get to know what to do, find ways to do it, do it, check if it works or not, and iterate. Designers like to jump between those phases from time to time, so don’t be surprised if you catch one doing it red-handed. It’s normal, that’s the way our minds work, and that’s the way creativity can work sometimes.

As designers, we observe that clients have a tendency to rush into the ideation and solution generation phases, to jump right on out there without proper research. When things are done this way, the cycle can be badly crippled and often produces poor outcomes. Research and discovery are foundations for later success, and skipping them will always entail certain problems.

Can that smile lie? What’s nice isn’t always well designed. Trust me!

Design vs style and aesthetic

There can be a big difference between beautiful design and good design.It’s best to have both, but a strong bias towards aesthetics can be dangerous in some cases. Especially when you - the client - associate good design with looking good. It’s easier for us to judge and understand how something looks, rather than how it works. We all want our products to be aesthetically pleasing, but when it is the only common ground between you and your designer, be careful not to overlook other, more important aspects of the product. The truth that you may not want to hear is that well-designed things serve their purpose whether or not they are perceived as aesthetically pleasant (Salesforce, anyone?). Bear this in mind


Creativity is a state of body & mind. Creativity spans all stages of any definition of a “design process”. It is crucial, yet it cannot be scheduled. What you can do, however, is help to create a safe environment where the creativity of both you and your designer has a chance to bloom.

About those wizards

Designers are not wizards. Their unique skills have solid foundations in the real world. Just as in many other jobs, their soft skills can be as important as their technical ones. Common misconceptions come from not understanding what it means to be a designer, what it takes to design something, and what the very design process looks like. If you’re willing to understand design and take it for what it really is - there is nothing to fear! All you need is trust and to have faith in your own choices. Don’t overthink, don’t hesitate, always ask questions and make sure you find designers with skills and personalities that will suit your needs. Work together and create something amazing.

Stay tuned - next time we will address some of your fears and talk about what to expect from a designer. Has it ever happened to you that a designer failed to call you back or delivered their work on a napkin...?

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Bartek Białek

Product Design Director at Netguru
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