12 Warning Signs to Look for When You Hire a Web Designer

Vicky Shoub
February 28, 2019
8 minute read

Looking to hire a web designer? Then you need to look out for these warning signs.

We’ve all heard the horror stories. A promising designer who fails to deliver. Another with an impressive but plagiarized portfolio. And one with a fat stack of references but no results.

Hiring web designers can be a minefield, especially for inexperienced employers. You can’t always tell a great designer from a merely average one. And it can be even harder to tell real skills in a puffed up resume.

What steps can you take to spot great talent? Are there any warning signs you should look for when you hire a web designer?

I’ll share some answers in this post and help you zero in on the ideal candidates.

Sign #1: They don’t have a portfolio

If you see a web designer in your resume pool without a portfolio, hit the “discard” button immediately. This is a major red flag.

To understand why, you have to first understand the role a portfolio plays in any creative field – including web design.

As MIT notes, a portfolio is a “visual representation of your work, complementing your resume”. They’re standard in any field where work can be organized into projects – architecture, computer science, graphic design, and even creative writing.

While portfolios are meant to showcase skills, it also serves as a “record of growth”. As a designer’s skills improve, so does the portfolio. You can trace the trajectory of this growth through the portfolio.

An example of a web design portfolio on Dribbble

Portfolios are particularly important in web design since most designers tend to be self-taught. Since it’s not always possible to filter by education, employers have to rely on other metrics to shortlist candidates.

Hence the focus on portfolios.

A designer without a portfolio is telling you two things:

  • The designer doesn’t care enough about her work to create a portfolio
  • The designer doesn’t have enough skills to produce a portfolio

Either of these cases is a massive red flag.

Sign #2: They don’t have a website (or have a bad one)

A web designer without a website is like a mechanic who doesn’t have a car.

It’s not a sure sign of a lack of skills, but as far as red flags go, it’s a pretty big one.

Even worse than a missing website is a bad one. If the designer’s site looks like it was built in FrontPage circa 2001, it’s better to look elsewhere.

Their inspiration should be Amazon circa 2019, not 1994

For most creative fields, a website acts as an information placeholder. You visit it to learn more about a candidate beyond the resume.

But for web designers, the website is as much a showcase of their skills as it is a place to learn more about them. Web design, after all, is an “interactive” skill. It’s not enough for a design to exist on (digital) paper. The designer should also be capable of bringing it to life.

This is where a missing or bad website becomes a big warning sign. A designer who can’t be bothered to invest in his own site is a designer you don’t really want on your team.

Sign #3: They don’t have an online presence

Of course, not every designer you hire – full-time or freelance – needs to have a thriving presence across Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

But a designer with a curiously sparse online presence can be a red flag, especially if they’re missing from major design channels.

Web design is a rapidly evolving field. The standards and aesthetics that were dominant four years ago are barely used today. Designers who care about their craft are always looking to pick up the latest trends.

And the place to learn about these trends is usually on major design-focused communities.

Do a quick Google search for your shortlisted candidates. Ignore a missing presence on personal social channels – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. There has been a flight away from these channels anyway.

Instead, look for them on design communities and professional channels, especially Behance, Dribbble, and LinkedIn. Bonus points if they’re also present on platforms like HackerNews, ProductHunt, and DesignerNews.

If they have published tutorials, articles, or thought pieces on design-focused blogs, then even better.

Sign #4: They mention outdated technologies

This can be hard to spot for an inexperienced recruiter but it is vital to land the right candidates.

Essentially, you want to filter out any resumes that focus exclusively on older technologies, especially those that have been eclipsed by better alternatives.

For instance, eight years ago, jQuery was used in nearly every project. But today, many jQuery features are supported directly within JavaScript. You don’t really need the jQuery framework unless you have very specific requirements.

This Google Trends graph shows how different frontend frameworks have fared in popularity over the years

So if you find a resume that mentions nothing beyond jQuery, look elsewhere.

The rule applies to design tools as well. If they mention using non-standard tools (say, CorelDraw instead of Illustrator), it can be a red flag.

Great web designers always keep themselves up-to-date with the latest trends. Over-reliance on outdated tools and technologies is a sign of a designer who has stopped learning.

Sign #5: They don’t ask anything about you

Great design isn’t just about making things look pretty; it is also about making things functional.

As MIT’s TechnologyReview notes, great companies like Apple have a “human-centered” development process. This process places people – users, customers, intermediaries – at the heart of any design.

A good designer will extensively research a website’s intended audience and will make sites that work for them. A website meant for 6-year-olds will take a very different shape than one meant for 60-year-olds.

Thus, when a designer seems willing to take on a project without ever asking about your business and its customers, consider it as a warning sign. It shows that the designer isn’t interested in delivering something usable. Rather, he wants to make something look good (if even that) and call it a day.

Keep this in mind when you hire a web designer. The more questions they ask, the better.

Sign #6: They specialize in “everything”

A big red flag, especially when hiring freelancers or agencies, is web designers who profess to have no specialty.

Rather, they claim to know “everything” – web, graphic, logo, branding, etc.

Unless you’re dealing with a large agency that has access to a huge talent pool, it is impossible for one designer or small agency to know everything.

The design field has become more fragmented and specialized than ever. It can take years to develop expertise in a narrow web design field (say, “responsive web design”). So when someone claims to be “all-in-one”, take those claims with a large dollop of salt.

Some of the different fields in design, mapped (Image credit: Lara Lee)

More often than not, claiming to be one-stop-shop is a way to lure in inexperienced clients. Such clients don’t really understand the design process well and go with anyone who promises easy solutions. The service eventually subcontracts your work to cheap freelancers, resulting in shoddy final designs.

Instead of looking for all-in-one solutions, focus on hiring domain experts. If you need web design, hire a web designer. If you need a logo, hire a brand identity expert.

Sign #7: Their communication is drastically inconsistent

Businesses who have worked with a lot of web design agencies and freelancers would know this:

You start talking to a web design consultant. They seem bright, eager, and charismatic. You sign a contract, pay the initial deposit, and wait for delivery.

Then the communication stops. Whenever you do get an email, it has none of the clarity and charisma of the earlier communication. Heck, sometimes they even get your name wrong.

What’s happening in these cases is the design consultant subcontracting your work to cheap freelancers. These freelancers are usually located in non-English speaking countries and don’t have the knowledge and skill promised by the consultant originally.

Not only is this unethical, but it also results in poor design output.

So if you see a sharp change in the designer’s communication post-contract, consider it as a warning sign. It could mean that the designer is busy or overworked. But mostly, it means that they’ve offloaded your work to a cheap contractor.

Sign #8: They use templates

Templates and stock graphics are an epidemic in the web design industry. Designers will often borrow a template produced by a well-known design house, slap on their client’s logo, and call it a day.

Of course, some templates have their place. Businesses looking for cheap and quick work can use customized templates to get projects off the ground. And in many cases, it’s better to use professionally made stock graphics than create something from scratch, especially if the designer doesn’t have expertise in illustrations/graphic design.

The problem starts when web designers try to pass-off templates as their own original work. That should be a red flag for any employer.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell templates from original work, especially if you don’t have extensive experience in the design field. Try to ask the designer categorically whether a design in their portfolio is original or inspired.

Then evaluate them on the strength of their original work only.

Sign #9: They use plagiarized material

Plagiarization is a huge red flag and should automatically send the resume to the trash can.

Unfortunately, it is also extremely common among designers.

An easy way to figure out if they’ve plagiarized their portfolio is to do a quick reverse image search for it. Simply right-click on an image and select “Search Google for image” (in Chrome).

Look at all the results that show up. If they’re from the same author, you can rest assured that the material is original.

However, if it shows up under multiple author names, you have sufficient reason to be suspicious. If multiple projects in the portfolio show up under different authors, then you should straight up ask the designer about it.

Results from the same author are an indicator that the design is original

Plagiarization is a huge problem in the industry and employers need to be careful when they hire a web designer.

Sign #10: They promise “extras” for free (or a fee)

Web designers targeting small businesses frequently have marketing pitches where they promise lots of stuff for “free”. Sometimes, they might offer upgraded versions of these things for a small price.

Usually, this includes stuff like:

  • Free/paid web hosting
  • “Free” listing in search engines
  • Content, either for free or for a price
  • SEO

While designers use this to justify their inflated price, understand that none of this actually costs a lot. And even when it does, it’s far better to get them from a domain expert than a designer.

For instance, web design consultants will frequently offer to list your website in search engines. But there is really no need to get your site listed; all the major search engines – Google, Bing, Yahoo – index websites automatically.

Dismiss this as a marketing gimmick and hire a web designer who focuses on her core skills instead.

Sign #11: They don’t understand SEO

Web designers shouldn’t handle SEO campaigns. This is a marketing skill that’s vast enough and complicated enough that you should hire dedicated experts for it.

At the same time, a web designer’s SEO knowledge is vital for your search engine rankings. From the site speed to the underlying HTML and structure, everything will have an impact on where you should up in Google.

This is why you should steer clear of web designers who don’t understand SEO. If they can’t make a site load fast, your rankings will suffer. If they don’t know where and when to use headings tags, you won’t reach your full SEO potential.

If your designer doesn’t understand this graph, consider it a warning sign (Image source: Pingdom)

So when you hire a web designer, make sure that they understand on-page SEO and site speed.

For your actual SEO campaigns, get help from experts.

Sign #12: They’re too cheap

When you find a designer that’s cheap, it can feel like a triumphant moment. Maybe you just got lucky and found a great deal – particularly when you’re hiring a freelancer.

But usually, cheap designers are cheap for a reason. They either lack the knowledge, experience, or communication skills to deliver the project on time. Often, they’re located in foreign locations where it can be difficult to verify their references and resume.

Generally, steer clear of designers who sell themselves only on price. While price is certainly important, good design work isn’t cheap. Anyone who focuses on the price is doing so because they don’t have the skills to charge a higher rate.

In some unfortunate cases, low cost coupled with demands for a large upfront deposit can even be a scam.

So if you find someone who is suspiciously cheap, treat it as a red flag. They might not be all that they chalk up to be.

The best way to ensure you hire a great web designer is to look in the right spots. Instead of searching on freelance platforms and Google, post your requirements on Workamajobs. Thanks to our large network of creatives, we’ll help you find the perfect designer in no time.

Click here to sign-up and post your job in just 5 minutes.

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