How to Choose a Designer RyanC 19 Jun 2006

59 comments Latest by Mike

When building web apps, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is who will do the design work. Your app is likely to fail if the design and usability are poor.

For the new web app we’re building we’ve chosen Jason Santa Maria and we couldn’t be happier. I thought it would be helpful to share how we made that choice.

Here are the steps we took:

  1. We created a shortlist of three designers that we knew were talented.
  2. We sent an email asking if they were available and if they’d be interested in working with us.
  3. All three said they’d be happy to work with us and had time in their schedule (which is lucky)
  4. We sent out an email to all three of the designers with a basic brief and a request for a price quote. We asked them to base the quote on one month of work (based on our experience with our first web app).
  5. We got back quotes that ranged from $5,000 - $14,000

Read on to see how we made the choice.

Making the Hard Choice

So we had three quotes from three very talented and capable designers. How did we choose who to work with?

Firstly, let’s make it clear what we didn’t choose on. We didn’t choose based on price (Jason’s quote was in the middle). We didn’t choose based on location (Jason lives across the Atlantic Ocean). So what did we base our decision on? We chose Jason based on the following four things:

  1. Enthusiasm: He made it clear to us that he would work very hard on the project
  2. Experience: He has a very good grasp of simplicity and usability
  3. Flexibility: He has a wide range of styles (look at the difference between his personal site and A List Apart)
  4. Speed: He already understands Web Standards and Accessibility
  5. Trust: He is very friendly and easy to work with, and we felt we could trust him

The Deciding Factor

The fact we felt we could trust Jason was the deciding factor. He made the effort to spend time with us and really got to know us. He communicated that he was very interested in the project and would put everything he had into it. Because of this, it wasn’t risky to choose him as the designer. We knew what we were getting.

So what’s the lesson for designers? Meeting your potential clients in person and getting to know them can be the deciding factor that gets you the job. Getting out there and making those connections is paramount and if you do, you’ll never be short of work

Ryan Carson is a Director at Carson Systems and is currently live-blogging the building of their second web app at Bare Naked App.

59 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Ryan Allen 19 Jun 06

Interesting perspective. I daresay that when pitching clients a lot of people put more effort into the proposal and the quote (gulp) than the personal aspects. I know I certainly do!

Cheers for the post. I dig your business-type articles. Lots of things to ponder for the little companies doing big things.

Richard 19 Jun 06

Ummm…

“We didnít choose based on location (Jason lives across the Atlantic Ocean)”

“So whatís the lesson for designers? Meeting your potential clients in person and getting to know them can be the deciding factor that gets you the job”

look 19 Jun 06

that’s nice, but how do you choose a programmer when you are not one yourself?

Ryan Carson 19 Jun 06

Hey Richard,

We hung out with Jason at SXSW. Sorry for the confusion.

- Ryan

Rida Al Barazi 19 Jun 06

What a great choice.. JSM is one of the best in the community, seeing his other works is more than enough to work with him.

Good luck guys, looking forward to see this new app with Jason’s desing of it.

Brice Dunwoodie 19 Jun 06

Thanks for an on-point post. We’ve worked with and along side many designers and programmers over the years and if there’s one thing that stands out as being a top characteristic, its enthusiasm. It is also one of the few things you can realistically size-up prior to working with a person.

matt 19 Jun 06

“Your app is likely to fail if the design and usability are poor.”

eBay refutes that rule, surely?

Bastiaan Terhorst 19 Jun 06

For a minute there I though JSM was going to be designing the next 37Signals web app :)

Ryan Carson 19 Jun 06

eBay refutes that rule, surely?

I said likely to fail. If you get the idea just right, at the right time, you can get away with poor design. This should never be the goal though!

Anonymous Coward 19 Jun 06

Whilst I agree with the end goal, I still think that your generalisation is far too harsh. :)

matt 19 Jun 06

Oops, that was me.

Damian 19 Jun 06

Ryan, good article but I hate to point out one thing.

I believe that Jason lives in Philly, which unless it’s split off the continental US is on the Atlantic but not across :)

reid 19 Jun 06

@look: you choose a programmer the same way: who can you talk to? who “gets” your idea? and, of the people who get it, who can bring a little extra that makes your idea really shine? when you choose someone, only commit to a little work at a time. they should be able to produce something useable. if they can’t, if you chose wrong, you haven’t blown your entire budget. the right choice of a designer or a programmer (and, on smaller projects, let’s face it: the programmer will be the designer) will make or break a project, so choose well.

Tony 19 Jun 06

@Damian,
Ryan is in the UK.

Tony 19 Jun 06

@Damian,
Ryan is in the UK.

Peter Cooper 19 Jun 06

I wouldn’t say eBay has a ‘bad’ design. Just because something isn’t glossy and Web 2.0-ized doesn’t mean it’s necessarily ‘bad’. It’s like comparing an S-class Mercedes and a Honda Civic. One might look more flashy than the other and may even have better fundamentals, but the other is still a good design on its own merit.

Jeremiah 19 Jun 06

“3. Flexibility: He has a wide range of styles (look at the difference between his personal site and A List Apart)”

On both sites, I see large Georgia headers on a tan/orange/black color scheme with an underlying old world feel. Where’s the wide range?

Dan 19 Jun 06

“On both sites, I see large Georgia headers on a tan/orange/black color scheme with an underlying old world feel. Whereís the wide range?”

Gotta agree with that. They could very well be two sections to the same site. Same exact style and color scheme.

jeroen 19 Jun 06

Uh.. his site says he lives in Philadelphia.

jeroen 19 Jun 06

Woops.. Forget the last post.

Jeff 19 Jun 06

I know someone in the Boston area who is an AMAZING Flash developer and knows how to write proposals and can sweet-talk a potential client. Then when he gets the job, he slacks, delivers late, delivers less.

Every client that hires him *thinks* they know what they’re getting.

His site is amazing. 10 of his previous clients’ sites are amazing.

100 of his previous clients’ sites are horrible.

But he racks ‘em up because he can ace the 5-point list you guys presented in the article.

The truth is that *reputation* and word-of-mouth is the key to knowing what you’re getting.

Mike McDerment 19 Jun 06

It never ceases to amaze me how PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS are behind 99% of what goes on on the internet…even blogging relationships (i.e. who you link to on your blog, talk about, etc)…

This post is a nice example of that…Ryan, given the Carson workshops, I’m guessing you know the with 37Signals pretty well…and here you are blogging…

Increasingly people think they are best buddies of people they meet on the net, by email, etc…I continue to find that when push comes to shove, face to face relationships DRIVE decisions. This is a fine example of that, and a useful reminder for anyone running a business. Thanks for sharing.

Gordon 19 Jun 06

Sheesh. What is with the nit-picking?

The main point is why they chose Jason, NOT the exact details of where he lives…

Interesting post, I’ll be using it in reverse to try and get me some more jobs.

Jason Santa Maria 19 Jun 06

On the flipside, meeting the Carsons in person gave me a great idea of what I could expect when working with them. That in turn made me more excited to work on their project. From my perspective, I like to think I’m picking clients in some cases. Getting to talk to someone outside of a work environment can give you a lot of clues as to their demeanor and personality.

It’s like that old business tale about how watching the way your boss treats a waiter will tell you a lot about them. Meeting Gill and Ryan at SXSW showed me how passionate and knowledgeable they were. Well, until Gill punched that waiter.

Mike Rundle 19 Jun 06

…I’m never serving you or Ryan food again! ;)

Don Schenck 19 Jun 06

Congratulations to all involved.

Of course, I’m forced to hate Jason because I am the world’s worst designer. THE worst. How you designer-types can pull a gorgeous design out of thin air just mystifies me and makes me sick. ARGH!

And I’m terribly jealous.

Jason Santa Maria 19 Jun 06

Thin air?! I wish! It’s hard work :D

Don Schenck 19 Jun 06

Okay, RUB IT IN! Sheesh!

(I’ll meet you at The White Dog Cafe and you can explain it all to me …)

ceejayoz 19 Jun 06

We didnít choose based on price (Jasonís quote was in the middle).

Maybe you didn’t, but the fact that his is in the middle doesn’t by itself mean you didn’t choose on price. Seems that every time I hear of a situation where there’s a high, middle, and low bidder, the middle bidder gets it.

Ken Rossi : CivilNetizen.com 19 Jun 06

I’m thoroughly impressed .. I had to look twice but there has not been one negative comment….

Igor M. 19 Jun 06

Most important things is … do not choose a web designer by how good of a salesman he is. This is a mistake many companies make. They choose an employee on how well he/she is able to sell themselves and it’s a mistake, UNLESS the position is in sales.

If I am hiring a doctor, I can not allow my self to say … “I’ll choose this one because he sounded better”, well, what if it’s all just talk? What if this guy is just good at talking and selling himself?

Keep this in mind next time you interview someone for a position other than sales!

Igor M. 19 Jun 06

Most important things is … do not choose a web designer by how good of a salesman he is. This is a mistake many companies make. They choose an employee on how well he/she is able to sell themselves and it’s a mistake, UNLESS the position is in sales.

If I am hiring a doctor, I can not allow my self to say … “I’ll choose this one because he sounded better”, well, what if it’s all just talk? What if this guy is just good at talking and selling himself?

Keep this in mind next time you interview someone for a position other than sales!

Damian 19 Jun 06

I stand corrected…

Jason congrats on landing the gig!

Just another example that what goes on outside of the panels at SXSW is almost as valuable, if not more so than what you get from panels.

Des Traynor 19 Jun 06

Jason wrote: “Thin air?! I wish! Itís hard work :D”

I’m sure it is. I think what pisses the likes of Don and myself off is that in 60 seconds *good* designers can produce something that we can’t produce in 2 hours.

My saving grace is that I see some of the programming that designers do realise they are just as horrid as my attempts at design.

Des Traynor 19 Jun 06

Jason wrote: “Thin air?! I wish! Itís hard work :D”

I’m sure it is. I think what pisses the likes of Don and myself off is that in 60 seconds *good* designers can produce something that we can’t produce in 2 hours.

My saving grace is that I see some of the programming that designers do realise they are just as horrid as my attempts at design.

Jason Santa Maria 19 Jun 06

“My saving grace is that I see some of the programming that designers do realise they are just as horrid as my attempts at design.”

*Jason takes down personal site*

Des Traynor 19 Jun 06

Haha, the operative word there is some :).

There are people who can do both (programming and aesthetic design) proficiently, but they are few and far between in my experience. There are however, many people who have the ability to do one well, and extremely under-estimate the importance of the other.

gmb 19 Jun 06

Thereís definitely a 37’s coolness factor in play with your ability to get a quality designer. I’ve had trouble getting folks to return initial e-mail inquiries (step 2). You’d be surprised how many designers out there are simply not responding to potential clients.

gmb 19 Jun 06

or a Carsons coolness factor.

Wilson Miner 19 Jun 06

@Geof: I wouldn’t say I was getting down on myself about being a hybrid - I was just having a hard time finding a way to explain it without sounding wishy-washy. I was a little about moving cross-country and not having a job lined up, but that’s over now!

Baeck 19 Jun 06

The impressions that Jason and the Carsons were able to form of one another in person are a great illustration of why I believe travel and face-to-face meetings are still 100% necessary in business today. Email, IM, conference calls, and video conferencing all have their place, but people cannot establish true working relationships in those types of settings. There will never be a replacement for getting out there and “pressing the flesh.”

Geof Harries 19 Jun 06

Wilson - I see that, at Apple, nonetheless. Great news. My apologies if I was putting words in your mouth.

Bill Dotson 19 Jun 06

The post is great. So many times, people will choose for these ultra-complex reasons or they do not balance the portfolio and creativity with the personal relationship.

Ryan Carson 19 Jun 06

The impressions that Jason and the Carsons were able to form of one another in person are a great illustration of why I believe travel and face-to-face meetings are still 100% necessary in business today.

Amen to that. Nothing beats having a couple beers with a potential client.

Stephen 19 Jun 06

“Meeting your potential clients in person and getting to know them can be the deciding factor that gets you the job” - So where do you draw the line between “getting to know them” and practicing that much maligned toxicity mentioned in the past?

Tony 19 Jun 06

I think you are confusing the act of meeting someone (as in “hi, nice to meet you”) and formal meetings (with agenda, etc.).

SH 19 Jun 06

Mr. Carson, do you have your own website? I’m assuming you do, considering you linked back to yourself neatly at the end of yourpost, and I’m assuming this kind of rant or direction or whatever you want to call it would be more appropriate if published *there* and not on the website of your *friends*. I understand you were invited to guest post at SvN with several others way back when Campfire was being developed and 37s didn’t have the time to keep content fresh over here, but my God, that was like 6 months ago.

What in the world kind of etiquette do you subscribe to that justifies this kind of shameless self cross-promotion? Did 37S just FORGET to disable your posting abilities? Or do you ask, ever, if it’s still okay for you to be writing things here?

I’m just really put off by going to a 37S weblog and reading something written by someone who really has nothing to do with 37S beyond being a casual acquaintance and business associate. Especially when it’s simply not warranted anymore since, as I recall, the whole guest poster thing expired months ago.

And Mr. Carson, if you don’t have your own space on the web to post your thoughts and redirect links to yourself, I’d be happy to offer you a nice Vox invite.

AnnF 19 Jun 06

“I think what pisses the likes of Don and myself off is that in 60 seconds *good* designers can produce something that we canít produce in 2 hours.”

It only seems like it takes a good designer 60 seconds. What it takes is 60 seconds plus 10, 20, 30 years of experience.

Congratulations, Jason!

Peter 20 Jun 06

Are you SURE you didn’t buy at least in part based on price? In my experience, most people like to take a middle bid. Lowest is too much of a risk for an important project, and why pay top dollar when the others can do a good job!

I’ve seen people take the lowest or highest bid, but I find people who are otherwise undecided tend to look for a number somewhere in the middle - just like Jasons!

Not saying he isn’t a great designer or that the other factors weren’t real drivers, although it’s often hard to tell why we really make decisions. Usually we decide in the first minute or two (5 seconds in the case of an interview) and then just discuss rationalizations for making the decision we immidiately felt that we wanted to make!

Best Wishes,
Peter

Peter 20 Jun 06

Are you SURE you didn’t buy at least in part based on price? In my experience, most people like to take a middle bid. Lowest is too much of a risk for an important project, and why pay top dollar when the others can do a good job!

I’ve seen people take the lowest or highest bid, but I find people who are otherwise undecided tend to look for a number somewhere in the middle - just like Jasons!

Not saying he isn’t a great designer or that the other factors weren’t real drivers, although it’s often hard to tell why we really make decisions. Usually we decide in the first minute or two (5 seconds in the case of an interview) and then just discuss rationalizations for making the decision we immediately felt that we wanted to make!

Best Wishes,
Peter

daniellynch daniellynch 20 Jun 06

What a strange process: hire a friend. I’m still in shock.

Tom Greenhaw 20 Jun 06

Nice job stripping the process down to the essentials…

These concepts apply to selecting any service and therefore selling any service.

1. Identify those who need what you have
2. Build trust
3. Communicate clearly and completely
4. Execute excellently on time
5. Follow up and support

Money is a factor, but a lessor factor. Other aspects of cost considerations including risk, performance and value are a more accurate measurement than dollars when selecting from a variety of options.

Mario 20 Jun 06

@gmb: I’d answer. I promise. That’s how nice I am.

Des Traynor 20 Jun 06

@ AnnF

“It only seems like it takes a good designer 60 seconds. What it takes is 60 seconds plus 10, 20, 30 years of experience.”

Yeah, that’s certainly true. Its certainly a field where you can show your ability in a very short amount of time.

Egghead 20 Jun 06

Man, there used to be a lot of noise here, and before that a lot of signal, now there’s just radio silence.

Mario 21 Jun 06

@Daniel: You should seriously consider starting a new interview blog. You’ll be blacklisted from the industry, sure, but I would read it, and smile, and laugh — until you interviewed me. At which point I’d write you hate mail, while also secretly smiling because it would mean I had “made it” because I was being mocked on Daniel Lynch’s interviews. I would then, of course, double my hourly rate.

So seriously, start the damn interview website. Like, now. I need to get famous.

Mario 21 Jun 06

Oh! it could be called “Lynched”!

I’m tired.

Mike 21 Jun 06

Egghead, I agree. This post is a few days old now and not much action at the SvN blogosphere.

Rumor is that 37s is finalizing negotiations to sell itself to Yahoo or mabe Google or maybe MS. You heard it here first.

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