Making the leap: how to work with a designer

Recently I had the ultimate pleasure of chatting with Savannah Peterson at Kiwi Landing Pad‘s NZSMJ event in Queenstown, and among all the other wonderful insight she and fellow speakers brought up during the day, was this thought: how does one even work with a Designer? What’s the process, what are the requirements?

Of course, this is something I’d never really considered. After all, I’m stuck working with one every day, aren’t I?

If you’re kicking off a new project and want to hire a designer or developer, here’s some of the things that’ll happen.

1) Let’s talk over coffee.

Or, if coffee isn’t your thing, chances are a Freelancer will meet wherever you like. Some will arrive with a pen and pad. You just know the ideas are going to flow. Your Designer is seeking to understand not just what you’re after, but what problem you’re trying to solve and what the possible outcomes are that you perhaps weren’t even aware of. To get the best out of your Designer, a good approach is to focus on the problems you want to solve rather than just the solution; this will generate a whole lot of creative ideas that may otherwise never see the light of day. Your Designer will help you develop a clear action plan if you need it. You’ll leave the meeting inspired!

2) Let’s talk timeframes and deadlines, requirements and deliverables.

For example, perhaps you’ve established by now that you need a simple WordPress website with a bit of animation on the landing page. From here we’ll decide on the finer details.

Timeframes and deadlines: This is key, but something that gets forgotten all too quickly. Setting a deadline, no matter how tight or loose, will allow the Designer to accurately schedule work. The scheduling part is critical as all work takes a set amount of time, which is where timeframes come in: allowing two hours for design will have a very different result to allowing ten or fifty hours for design. Your Designer will (and should!) want to discuss this before any work starts.

Deliverables: Is this a complete, responsive website on a common CMS? Or is this just the PSD mockups to hand over to a Developer? Does this include branding, or is that supplied by you?

Requirements: These are the things that the Designer needs from you to be able to begin. Sometimes this is a seemingly overwhelming and often tech-heavy list of stuff; don’t be shy about asking for that list if the Designer hasn’t been specific.

That list may look a little like this:

  • Imagery: the photos, illustrations and decorative bits and pieces you use in other media
  • Branding: this could be just your logo if that’s all you have, but Designers will often ask for your Branding Guidelines (often a PDF document) if you have them
  • Fonts: if you haven’t got any that your company commonly uses, this may be a good time to set one. The Designer may pull a face if the answer is ‘Arial’ or ‘Verdana’…this is mainly because these fonts are so super common that it’s impossible to differentiate your presence from any other website, and they don’t add to your brand identity at all; if your designer has experience with typography and branding, this is a good opportunity to get something more unique set for you
  • Content: your Designer is most likely not a copywriter, which means that they’re going to likely be crap at writing the text that appears on your website (or alternative project). This is something that you will need to supply yourself, or hire a copywriter for the task if you’re in need of a wordsmith; designers often use unreadable ‘filler text’ (often ‘Lorem Ipsum‘, nonsense Latin) when this is missing, as a prompt to finish handing over content

PSA: you’ll hear ‘format’ a whole lot. This is in regards to the collateral you supply; the better the resolution and quality, the better the end result will be, and the more flexibility the Designer will have in delivering outstanding results. Once an image is small, you cannot increase its size (changing the scale just makes it blurry and unusable). Once a logo has been flattened into a JPEG (ie: ‘rasterised’), it cannot be converted back into a scalable working file; Designers will often ask for a logo in .eps, .ai, .pdf or .psd format for this reason. If you’ve worked with a creative before, feel free to connect the two and let them deal with the often frustrating technical details.

Ongoing support: It’s not a bad idea to discuss this alongside deliverables. In the case of websites, perhaps you will want to decide the extent your Designer works on the website after the fact. Do you prefer to pay them for each instance at an hourly rate, or do you prefer Service Level Agreements (SLA) with a recurring fee so you are prioritised? If it’s a branding or print job, do you intend on having future work done by this Designer or do you want the working files supplied? Different Designers have different policies in regards to files supplied.

Payment terms: There are two ways Freelancers usually operate here. Expect to either talk about an hourly rate, or a project budget. Most will ask for a 50% deposit up-front and 50% on project completion.

3) Time is getting on, and it’s time for a ‘proof’.

The proofing stage could be a not-quite-finished version of a project for you to ensure it’s heading in the right direction, or a finished version to check for any mistakes before serious money is spent on them. Websites will likely appear on a ‘staging server’ (not the final domain), and print files are usually a watermarked PDF or JPEG.

If it’s an early proof, you’ll want to make sure the ‘look and feel’ is correct. The details may be hazy, or filled with Lorem Ipsum. It’s a good chance to see what’s still outstanding on your end, and what the Designer has left to complete. It’s a progress report.

If it’s a final proof, this is where the microscope comes out. Check contact details first and foremost! Check for outstanding mistakes, ensure you’re 100% happy with it before signing it off. This stage is usually binding. If you need more time to check over it thoroughly, let the Designer know; they will understand. It’s imperative, especially with print, to sort corrections at this point as re-printing is expensive all around.

PSA: proofing is for inhouse eyes only, usually; it’s good practise not to release your proofs into the wild.

4) Project delivery

This is the best part, of course. With the initial concepts approved, work completed and final proofs signed off, your project has either been delivered from the printers or launched on the Internet. You’ll be invoiced for the work done, and hopefully you’ve decided on an action plan for ongoing work if necessary.

Nothing’s quite as satisfying as the smell of freshly printed goods…except possibly watching the spike in activity on Google Analytics on a brand new website.


It’s far more enjoyable to look at this process in the context of your own project. I’m ready for hire – let’s start with a coffee.