How to Choose a Graphic Designer

7 signs that will tell you if a designer is qualified

Posted on: September 22nd, 2011 by Shaun Hensher 12 Comments


Finding a good graphic designer is not as easy as it might sound. There are a large number of people out there offering graphic design services, and the quality ranges dramatically from “oh-god-why-did-you-bother” to “holy-crap-on-a-stick-that’s-amazing”.

So how do you separate the pros from the folks who should probably just take up a different profession? There are a number of things that point to a graphic designer’s qualifications.

Education: Graphic design is actually a rather complicated profession. There are really only two ways one can develop the skills they need to become qualified: 1) by going to college or university and 2) by extended apprenticeship with a seasoned guru. In my opinion, nothing else will do. I would be extremely cautious of using a designer that does not have a formal education in graphic design.

Experience: While there are plenty of young designers with superhuman amounts of talent and skill, experience is still a very important consideration. We’re like fine cheese. We get better with age. At least until we get old and moldy (unless you like that sort of thing).

Portfolio: A good graphic designer will have a portfolio stuffed to the brim with quality work. Look for work that shows creativity, organization, and attention to detail. Be wary that a small number of less scrupulous designers might put others’ work in their portfolio, but this doesn’t happen very often. Look for designers that have experience with the type of project you need done. Need a book cover designed? Hire a book cover designer. Need a logo designed? Hire a logo designer. Of course lots of graphic designers have experience in many areas, so it’s possible to find a single designer who can meet all of your visual communications needs.

Professional associations: In Ontario, we are lucky enough to have the R.G.D. accreditation. It is a standards-based certification that is earned only through an examination and portfolio review process and only after accumulating a combined education and work experience of at least 7 years. Believe me when I say it is not an easy process. You can be sure that if you see the letters R.G.D. behind a designers name, they are held to the highest standard of ethics and skill. If you don’t live in Ontario, then there other other associations that, while not necessarily standards-based, do point to a designer’s dedication and industry involvement. Some of these are, GDC (Canada), SDGQ (Quebec), AIGA (US), ICOGRADA, AGDA (Australia), and CSD (UK). Many other countries have their own version as well.

Testimonials: While you can’t necessarily trust that testimonials have been written authentically, chances are that they are genuine, and they can help you get an idea of what a designer is like to work with.

Contracts: Many qualified designers will ask you to sign a contract for any large project. A good contract protects both the designer and yourself, and is clear about the expectations of both sides.

Personality: It may seem strange that this should be important, but it really is. Quality design requires close interaction between you and the designer. A good designer will be someone who communicates well, is responsive, and is humble enough to accept that, once in a while, the client is right. I suppose it’s hard to gauge this, but a brief phone call or an e-mail exchange can give you some clues.

So there you have it. Hopefully this information will help you choose the right designer for your next project. Of course, good design costs money, so be prepared to have a budget set aside. For more information on what a good designer costs, check out this article on graphic design pricing.

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12 Responses

  1. Lisa Winand says:

    Very nice article, thank you! This should be required reading for all prospective clients.

  2. Short and sweet and very informative, you have a great writing style, keep up the good work

  3. Very well written …focused and informative.

  4. sheila says:

    I love the intro “oh-god-why-did-you-bother” to “holy-crap-on-a-stick-that’s-amazing” :). I see some of the work that these “designers” do and I just cringe and feel bad for them…and then a little mad that potential clients see that and think that’s all that’s out there. Tsk tsk. Thanks for the article, more ammo to educate clients with!

  5. Lani says:

    “…if you see the letters R.G.D. behind a designers name, they are held to the highest standard of ethics and skill. ”

    Not necessarily true that all RGDs are your best designers. I worked with someone with an RGD, he couldn’t even design a proper store flyer! He knocked off designs from other designers. If you’ve seen his work, it was quite sad. What made the whole situation even more pathetic was that he was super arrogant. So having an RGD beside anyone’s name doesn’t mean anything. A designer’s portfolio should speak for itself.

    • To a certain extent, you are right that a designer’s portfolio should speak for itself. Unfortunately, not everyone has the eye of a designer, and won’t necessarily be able to spot potential warning signs in a graphic designer’s portfolio. Certainly though, the portfolio is the first thing you should look at.

      Frankly, I’m surprised you had a negative experience with an RGD. Every RGD I’ve met has been a skilled and highly ethical individual. It’s hard to imagine an unskilled designer being able to slip through the rather difficult examination process. Given that the R.G.D. designation is still the only standards-based, government legislated accreditation available for graphic designers (at least in this part of the world), I stand behind my endorsement of any RGD member (be advised though, provisional RGD is not the same as RGD). Hopefully your experience hasn’t soured you to working with one of us in the future.

  6. No Name says:

    Exactly right blog. I would agree that these are the precise points for choosing the best graphic designer.

  7. Audrey Ross | coconut grove luxury homes says:

    This post is really important. The work of graphic designer has a very crucial to play for websites and blogs. The professional ones charge more but their works are perfect. The next time I need one I’ll certainly keep these points in mind.

  8. John says:

    Thank you for your post. I also enjoyed the one on design pricing. I’m a purely backend developer and it’s usually designers who come to me in need of IT assistance. Here’s the funny thing…There are more people who can recognize good graphic design in websites then good software engineering in web/mobile software. I find that irritating at times. It’s like my team could spend months working on a medical simulation software, really nailing down all the mathematical equations that govern the well being of a patient suffering from a medical disorder….but if the UI and graphic doesn’t look “pretty”, some people just dismiss the software as “I don’t get it…it took you maybe a day to create this?”

    I get frustrated when people do not “look beneath the surface”. Actually, I suppose this could be said of logo design as well. You were saying how some people think a simple and clean logo can be made in 1-2 hours jus tbecause they don’t see the process of how it came to be.

    I often tell my clients, it takes a lot of work to achieve simplicity. Look at e=mc^2, it took MANY YEARS for einstein to arrive at these 6 simple characters. Same concept applies for design and IT…so much happens to arrive at simplicity, brevity and beauty.

    • John I think you and I are more alike than most people realize. We’re two sides of the same coin. One cannot work without the other. In fact, a coin is not adequate to describe it. It’s more like an icosahedron with many facets, from concept dev to copywriting to design to dev to marketing etc etc etc.
      That’s why it’s so important to champion quality in every aspect of a project. If you do amazing design without good programming, do a genius application with a bad GUI, or have a brilliant marketing campaign for a crummy product, you might as well be whistling in the wind. If anything is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right, from start to finish.
      When I’m asked “how long did it take to come up with that”? I’m fond of answering “my whole life”.

  9. Joan Vonnegut
    Twitter:
    says:

    A good designer stays on top of all the details of your project and makes the best use of your time and money.
    Joan Vonnegut recently posted..Three of the Best Family-Friendly Miami Luxury Condos this 2012My Profile

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