Choosing the right graphic design agency

what, why & how

Back when I started in web design it felt like everyone was speaking a different language: CSS, PSD, JavaScript, Photoshop, bootstrap, responsive design.  The amount of technical jargon I encountered was overwhelming at times.

However, after many years in this field I finally understand that although knowing the terms is useful, it’s far more important to remember that web design is an experience made by people for other people. 

It’s purely human and it’s all about the web users and their needs.  Using graphic design for your web design is very much an extension of that philosophy. So, let me guide you through the important steps you must take to get the best value for money. This will keep you on track to achieve a fantastic product for the right price.

Who’s this guide for? Anyone looking to find a graphic design agency and wants to know the pitfalls and problems that can occur.

What is graphic design for web design?

Graphic design is the art of projecting ideas with visual and text content.  A graphic designer is the person that shapes the page to match the way you want your business to be viewed by your customer.

The elements a graphic designer focus on are the logo, imagery, animation, colours, text, basically any visual content.  But that’s the technical stuff.  Fundamentally they are there to evoke an emotional response.

Whether you sell a luxury or budget product, are a dynamic new entrant into the market place or a trusted reliable business you need a graphic designer to understand your business and get that emotional response from your customers.

Unfortunately, most SME’s skip this step, relying strictly on their product being cheaper or providing other benefits.

Don’t be one of those companies. It doesn’t cost the earth to design your website and create a brand. You don’t have to create something incredibly expensive but you do need your business to stand for something to a particular group of people. A graphic designer is the best person to help you realise this.

Think about the longevity of your business and then see how many other businesses have succeeded without a strong brand.

My guess is, not that many!

How is graphic design different from web design?

It’s true to say that web design and graphic design overlap. But, graphic designers are more creative at heart and focus more on the visual communication rather than just the nuts and bolts of building a website.

This is actually one of the biggest problems that SME’s face when they are choosing someone to build their website. Do they choose a graphic designer who can properly design a website visually so that it looks more in tune with your branding? Or do they opt for a web designer that understands the technical aspects and will make sure the website works properly?

Why is choosing the right graphic designer important?

If you’re looking to rebrand or start a new business, then choosing a graphic designer first rather than a web designer is best.

A graphic designer will also be able to help with your logo, font and other material that are instrumental in your branding.

Even though you need a website, don’t worry that your graphic designer doesn’t build websites just yet.

Once you have your logo, brochures, stationary and anything else you need from a graphic design perspective, asks your graphic designer to create your home page. Nothing more.

Once the graphic designer has created the home page, you can pass the rest onto a web designer who can make any amendments to polish the website.

Why is this important?

What most companies miss when looking to get great value websites are the steps that agencies go through to create one.

A valued web design agency will use a graphic designer first to create the home page, then move the rest of the work to a web designer.  You must do the same if you want to guarantee a great product.

Why is graphic design so important for a SME?

“A picture is worth a thousand words”

Most SME’s miss the amazing benefits they can receive if they have a strong brand identity. Any future marketing material is so much easier to create if you have already considered the look and feel.

You’ll never have to worry about consistency problems later. Your company will have a clear message and visual representation that will stick in the mind’s eye of your customer.

Remember, people are visual animals.

Graphic design questions that can help

  • What are the best ways to save money?

    The best way to save money is to be prepared. Very often the problem might not even be with the graphic design aspect of your website. But, if you go to a web designer they’ll try to diagnose problems with your design because that’s what they’re good at. To really save some money consult a marketing specialist who can pinpoint the actual problems with your website – it may be the copy, it may not be optimised, it may be the design.

  • Which areas should I be aware of that take the most amount of time?

    Before starting a project, you should think about the two vital elements – budget and timeframe. Usually your time should be divided something like this:

  1. 10% Initial research
  2. 15% Wireframes (sketches of the future website) and Brainstorming
  3. 25% Making Mock-ups and preparing PSD and FrontEnd (polishing the way your website is going to look like after it goes live)
  4. 40% Actual coding / Tech Parts (this is when the programmers do their magic)
  5. 10% Tests and Tweaks
  • What should I do first to make sure I pick the right digital partner?

    The most important step is to decide on a budget. It’s not necessary to pay huge amounts to receive a quality product, but in the same breath, you do get what you pay for.

Another option is to look for aspiring young designers that are charging low prices in order to build a portfolio, just be careful.  Sometimes young designers can make mistakes and you’ll have to wait for them to be corrected.

The easiest way is to find a website you like and contact the designer/agency that made it.  They’ll be glad to discuss the project with you and if they’re too busy or expensive they may refer you to some of their colleagues.

  • What are the main pitfalls and problems?

There can be various problems during the project. The only bulletproof way to find out if a freelancer (or agency) is a good fit for you is to actually work with them.

Fortunately, you can always choose a professional you want to work with and do a little project with them first, like a test run.

For example if you’re worried whether they can really make your website, you can ask them to design a landing page first to test it out.

  • What can I do myself, if any?

If you choose a platform like WordPress and you have some experience (or a passion about learning new things), you or some of your colleagues can be in charge of managing the page once it goes live. Making a website is not a one time thing. It requires regular maintenance and since it’s fairly simple you can do it yourself. If you don’t feel sure that you have what it takes and are lost, you can always hire someone to do it for you. If you choose WordPress you can always find someone that will do it for a fair price.

  • What are the signs that my digital partner is ripping me off?

When receiving an offer from your digital partner always ask for an extended list of the services included and their price. After that go online, search for everything on the list and compare to see if they’re overcharging you.

If they’re charging you too much for one service only, it’s okay to ask them to explain it to you.  It might be something they are famous for. If that’s the case and you value this service, I suggest you accept the offer. In this case, you’ve probably found yourself a real specialist and they’re going to do an excellent job.

The main pitfalls and problems – before you hire a graphic design agency

1

Not getting an understanding of your customers first

One of my first jobs was for a restaurant and it was fair to say that I was pretty excited.

The client wanted me to rebrand his business, which included re-vamping his logo, redesigning the branding, making new menus, creating his Facebook page and building a new website.

He wanted to attract wealthy customers and provided me with a brief using buzzwords such as timeless and classy.

Great, I thought and got to work.  I chose the colours, made the new logo, the menus and everything else.

He was very happy and I was too, until he decided to invite me for the grand re-opening and I found myself in a sports bar!

Everything was blue and red, there were hockey sticks mounted on the walls, a huge pool table in the middle, three huge TVs and several PlayStation rooms. Basketball was playing on the TV and the customers were cheering loudly. I was surprised to say the least.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’d have been equally excited to design the materials with a sports theme. That wasn’t the problem; the problem was the fact that I had created a product that did not serve his customers.

I ultimately felt like I had let the client down. The design I created had little or no relevance to his business. Meaning that the customers he wanted to attract would be disappointed due to the unusual branding.

The moral of this story is to think carefully about who you’re marketing your business to and make sure that you communicate that clearly to the graphic designer.  Do not design your business around what you want it to be, design it around what your customers want it to be.

2

Wanting a website just like your competitors

It’s almost impossible not to look at a competitor and, at least subconsciously, want something similar. I mean why not? If they are making money out of this design and they are in the same field as you, what’s the harm in making something similar?

The problem is that by creating something similar to your competitors, you lose.

In business, the top 3 in your industry take the lion’s share of the profits. By copying another company you’re missing an opportunity to create something unique that will appeal to a specific group in the market place.

There’s no harm in taking inspiration but if you ever feel yourself saying, “Please make it like “x”, stop yourself.

Many graphic design companies have come across this problem before and will provide you with options.  Less reputable graphic design agencies can almost push you to mimic a competitor’s site because they know there’s a much greater chance that you’ll like the finished result. Not to mention it’s much less work for them.

So, don’t fall into that trap and try to create something unique.

3

Wanting something too original

I know it seems a bit strange, but you and your designer should strive to find some middle ground. If a graphic designer creates a really innovative website, chances are your users will be lost in the new interface and design.

Familiarity wins the day.

Remember there is comfort in familiarity and if you go too far the other way you can seriously damage the credibility of your website.

4

Forgetting that we live in a mobile age

Graphic designers are creative people and making something beautiful is always at the forefront of their mind.  However, graphic design has become a little more stagnant due to the constraints that mobile devices have on your design.

It is not uncommon to see companies spend thousands of pounds on a new design only to find out that it doesn’t work well on mobile and desktop.

When looking for a graphic designer always ask how much consideration they make for mobile.  If they’re a mobile first graphic design company then you now you are starting the project with the correct mindset and you shouldn’t have any problems down the line.

5

Not putting usability first

Now, you and your designer made a great website that follows your company branding book to the letter.

It looks great and perfectly reflects your brand – just like your business cards and catalogue. But something that works on paper and print materials may not be suitable for the web.

For example, your company font might look very good on paper, but is too heavy on screen and actually makes the website load slowly. Also, your company colours may not be web friendly. For instance, visually impaired people may not see the contrast well and have trouble reading on that background or they may look weird on different screens.

If your website design isn’t responsive it’ll be almost impossible to be view properly on mobile. Always put usability first, and insist your designer does too, because if you don’t it could turn off users.

Golden Rules – before you hire a graphic design agency

Before you hire a graphic design company you must remember to follow a few golden rules.

1

Always start with choosing a budget and a timeframe

We all want to get started straight away. Slow down. By spending just a couple of weeks initially outlining the budget and the expected timeframe for each element, you’ll save time and headaches later down the line.

If you have all the specific details in front of you, this allows you to research whether you are indeed getting the best deal.  If you have a particularly tight budget companies can save hundreds of pounds using this approach.

2

The user comes first

When you are creating anything for the web you should consider the needs of the user first. Your graphic design agency should have this at the front of their mind.  There is no point designing something pretty if the customer has absolutely no idea what to do or where to go next.

This is also known as UX design which is focused on making the path towards an end goal as clear as possible. This could be a sale or an enquiry.  So, make sure that the design has a clear path towards a specific goal.

3

Good communication is key

It’s my belief that SME’s are not bad communicators, they simply feel uneasy expressing their opinion because they’ve never been involved in building a website before, but don’t be afraid.  Work on communication.

You should be totally honest with your designers and explain everything in detail and the same goes for them too. You should ask them about anything you find difficult to understand. It’s their job to explain it to you and you should never feel awkward for asking.

If you’re working with a freelancer or agency that doesn’t allow you not to be heavily involved in the design of your website, this is a red flag.

Focus on communicating what you want early and gain confidence expressing your opinion otherwise you’re going to have a much more awkward conversation later when you find the graphic design agency/freelancer has created something you don’t like.

4

Have moderate expectations

If you’re paying a modest amount for your web design they please set modest expectations. We all want something for nothing, but graphic design does take time and expense. If you’re not spending much money, then don’t expect top quality results.

5

Always work with a contract

A good contract will not only cement the budget and the timeframe. It will provide you with a blueprint and scope of the project (and after that – lots of contracts have a clause that states what the final product should do and look like). That way you’ll never be unpleasantly surprised.