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Hiring a Graphic Designer? First Ask These Eight Questions

by Elaine Marquis  |  
September 12, 2013

During my career as a marketer, I have worked with a range of graphic designers and have designed numerous graphics pieces. Since I have worn the graphic design hat before, I understand the perspective of a graphic designer.

I also understand the perspective of a marketer: quickly generate quality work that produces results and increases revenue.

If you are hiring a graphic designer to help with your marketing efforts, whether it be a freelancer or a full-fledged agency, be sure to ask the following eight interview questions.

1. Does the designer have experience with YOUR needs?

Define what your goals are, and be sure the designer has experience in that area. Do you need a website design, a logo, a trade show booth, or perhaps a complete brand identity you’ll use for years to come? You don’t want a designer using your account for experimentation, such as trying to figure out the best way a graphic design translates into website code.

2. Does the designer have a portfolio?

Every graphic designer has a portfolio of his or her work, and you should be sure to see it. The portfolio should include samples of the type of work for which you are hiring. I once had a potential freelancer come to the office to interview with no portfolio because since I had told her I was in a rush to move my project forward. You can’t hire someone until you see capabilities and style.

3. Can the designer work in your timeframe?

Some designers will submit drafts of work to you within a day or two---or even overnight if the work is minimal. Others will put you in queue and require several days or a week before showing you drafts or edits. Ask the potential designer if he or she can work in your timeframe, and also take note of how responsive the designer is to your emails, phone calls, and request for a proposal during your initial talks. If the designer has no sense of urgency during the interview process, there will be even less timeliness if hired. Most marketers are under tight deadlines and need projects completed yesterday, so it is ideal to work with a designer who is cognizant of that.

4. Can the designer work within your budget?

Graphic design fees range greatly, from $25 per hour for a recent graduate to $200 per hour for a high-end design agency. Can the designer work within your budget? Does the designer invoice by project or by the hour? I personally prefer a mid-level designer with experience who bills by the project. In this case, I know that I am retaining an experienced professional, and I have an estimated cost in hand, before the project begins.

5. Does the designer understand you’re running a business?

The artwork (and designer) should contribute to the goal of selling your product or service. Some designers may get caught up in the beauty of a piece and forget that it needs to achieve a business goal. Is your potential designer used to working with corporate clients?

6. Does the designer plan to use royalty-free art or custom art?

There are different types of licensing for the photography or illustrations your designer plans to use. Some notable royalty-free images are available for as little as $10 per image, whereas a suite of beautiful custom art can garner a price tag of thousands of dollars. Several years ago, I saw a company receive an unexpected invoice for $50,000 worth of custom illustrations since they had assumed the artwork was part of the graphic designer’s fees and not an additional cost. Does your designer use royalty-free art or custom art, and what will the cost be?

7. Which programs does the designer use?

Your designer should use industry-standard programs, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign, just to name a few. This means you can easily take the files to another graphic designer if you and your original designer part ways. It also demonstrates that the designer is up to date and follows industry best practices.

8. Is the designer willing to hand over the source files?

This is something I ask out of habit, but some marketing departments feel their designer will balk at the request. (Indeed, your designer will prefer to keep possession of the files.) Source files are original, layered files the designer creates before packaging up the files into jpegs, PDFs, or whatever the end format requires. If you have the files in possession, it means you can have an in-house resource edit the files or even move to another graphic designer in the future. Tell your designer you’d like the source files after each project or perhaps monthly, so it becomes a habit.

As an additional point, you as the customer should gather samples of work that you appeals to you. Once you’ve hired your designer, share these examples with your designer. I recall once starting a $150,000 web site redesign, and an executive telling me the design should be “understated but elegant.” Showing examples of what you find compelling is much more effective than just describing it.

Most graphic designers are passionate about what they do and intend to provide the best work they can at a fair price. However, asking these eight interview questions up front will help ensure you hire a skilled designer who understands your business goals, budgets, and challenges.

Do you have anecdotes or questions regarding graphic designers that you would like to share? Post your comments below so that the rest of the community can learn from your experiences or give input.

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Elaine Marquis is an online marketer specializing in technology and B2B. She's senior online marketer for the Corporate Education Group and social media strategist for the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) Greater Boston Chapter.

LinkedIn: Elaine (Viscosi) Marquis

Twitter: @elaine_marquis

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  • by Chris DiAlfredi Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    Hi Elaine,

    I am also a former full-time graphic designer who wears the marketing hat. I understand CMYK and the 'Four P's" of marketing equally. Thanks for a great article about working with designers.

    Number 5 is critically important for the success of any marketer/designer relationship. I'm often disappointed when I meet fellow designers who can spit out design school rhetoric but fail to comprehend the functional purposes of their work.

    Number 8 is a tough subject that I can see both sides of, but I believe that the value of the native design files far exceeds the fee structures of a typical design project. By simply handing over the working production files, the designer relegates him or herself as nothing more than a 'machine operator' and the files become just a commodity. Unfortunately, the value graphic designers has plummeted steadily since the late '80's, when the computer revolution began and 'desktop publishing' came into existence. Graphic design used to be somewhat mysterious, and therefore, valuable. Today, more people are accustomed to Microsoft Office and other software that provides some level of insight into how commercial art might be produced and our fast-food culture now expects design to be a transactional business that competes on price.

    Asking designers to hand over their native files is akin to asking any other professional to hand over their hard earned research and behind-the-scenes work. Imagine going to a five-star restaurant and paying for an amazing, five-course meal. The meal was relatively expensive, but you paid for the experience of the end result. Do you think it would be appropriate to send a note back with the maître d' to the chef that you want him or her to hand over the secret recipes before you leave? For no extra charge? That would mean that you could take the recipes to any other restaurant, which would negate that value of that particular restaurant.

    Since we're both experienced with graphic design and marketing, I'd really like to hear your thoughts on this. Have a great day!

  • by Erica Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    I think requesting source files is unreasonable. The designer needs to protect their work. Handing over source files opens the door to non-designers trying to re-use the design work for new purposes with clumsy edits, or hiring someone cheaper to copy the work for future iterations. All of the reasons I can think of that a customer would NEED access to a source file boil down to "I want to use the design for more than it's original purpose without PAYING more."

  • by Andromeda Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    Regarding #8, it's not about if the designer is "willing" to hand over source files, it's whether you're willing to pay for the source files. Freelance designers generally own the copyright to their mechanical files and you own the final product from those source files. The reason is to prevent exactly what you've stated here - using their work/files to create other projects, for which the designer won't be compensated. If you want the source files, be prepared to pay extra for them. And, make sure usage rights are spelled out in the contract. More info here:

  • by Janice Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    Great post! These are all excellent questions, but I especially like #5. The designer needs to really understand marketing, because that's what it's all about. Often when I interview students for internships, I recommend that they take a marketing course before graduation. Thanks for posting.

  • by John Edgar Lacher Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    I need a logo.

    Excellent article. Thank you for posting.

  • by Elaine Marquis Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    It is interesting that there is disagreement regarding #8 (asking your designer to provide the source files). It is something I have always done and have never encountered an issue, although in some instances an additional fee is requested. I have also returned to the same designers time and again, despite the fact that I have the native files on hand.

    Having the source files allows the client to make minor edits to the files, so design budgets can be spent on larger projects rather minutiae. It also allows the client to create low-end pieces in-house with a matching look-and-feel, again saving graphic design budgets for larger and more interesting projects. Lastly, it does indeed allow the client to part ways with a designer if needed.

    As for #5, I am glad you all agree that it is important. Some talented designers create beautiful work but forget that it must serve a business purpose.

  • by José lozano Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    Hi there.
    Really had a great time reading your article, I also Was a full time graphic designer a long time ago, I reached the "creative director" position on an inhouse advertising department in a pharmaceutical and ended up as a marketer a few years later, now Im a full time product manager for a multinational on the pharma Industry and thougt this Was rare, but I can se you and several others commenting this article pased trough the same situation and Its wonderfull not to feel so "lonely" sort of speking.
    Great article, congrats!

  • by Elaine Marquis Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    John, I just sent you the name of a suggested freelancer via LinkedIn, in case you want to move forward with a logo design.

  • by Mike Goode Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    #8 is an interesting point. When they are requested, we do indeed supply 'open' files, although never our super-complicated layered working files. This would, as someone mentioned, be the same as the chef at your favourite restaurant giving his 'secret' recipe away.

    I see no business value in us letting less experienced designers or agencies see how we have achieved the effects and techniques I have learned in over 30+ years as a graphic designer. This experience and knowledge is a large part of the value of my agency... and is exactly what our clients value.

    If a client ever insisted on having these complex layered files, then they wouldn't remain a client for too much longer! A working relationship is a two way thing... it is NOT a one-way street as #8 implies.

    Incidentally, the layered files we do supply (when relevant) are usually 'dumbed down' versions ~ which is all another agency/printer/developer would require to perform a basic amend or edit. We most certainly are not unreasonable in this respect.

    One last point that nobody has mentioned... fonts! I have spent a small fortune in building a font library. I'd like to know why I am expected to hand these over... said without even mentioning the legal and ethical aspects!

  • by Deana Monahan Thu Sep 12, 2013 via blog

    Great post! As a marketer who is also a freelance graphic designer, I find the comments on #8 interesting. I, too, can see both sides of the argument, but I have no problem handing over my working files. And as a marketer, always ask for them. I think the key is that this requirement needs to be discussed up front and included in the cost. For example, if I have created an ad for a client, I don't expect (though I admit, I'd like) the client to hire me every time they need to resize the ad for a different publication. That often gets cost-prohibitive for the client. Likewise, there is no way I'm letting my company pay an agency or designer their minimum rate for what I know takes only a few minutes when I can do the work myself. If I were to have an entirely new ad created, I go back to the designer; likewise my clients come back to me. Clear expectations are what's key in this situation.

  • by Elaine Marquis Fri Sep 13, 2013 via blog

    Well said, Deana.

  • by Elaine Marquis Fri Sep 13, 2013 via blog

    Interesting points, Mike. I have never had an issue, and agree that the client/agency relationship is a two-way street. As for fonts, my company generally purchases whatever fonts a designer is using.

  • by Alfred Ingram Fri Sep 13, 2013 via blog

    Please ad a ninth question, the inverse of question 5. Do you understand that the designer is running a business, too. Even if it means those source files cost extra or that you need to pay on just as timely a basis as you desire the work to be done. That work pays for housing, transportation, past and continuing education, utilities, just like you.

  • by Loretta Sat Sep 14, 2013 via blog

    I design e-learning which often involves complex graphics. Occassionally original artwork. I had a course ruined because the artist/graphical designer went missing and we needed to update the content. The money spent on graphical design was a fraction of the time and effort involved elsewhere. Now I negotiate for source files up front. If I don't get them, at a reasonable price, I move on. I know it sounds harsh but course content needs updated and often that involves the graphical elements.

  • by Elaine Marquis Mon Sep 16, 2013 via blog

    I understand your point of view, Loretta.

  • by Narelle Redman Tue Sep 17, 2013 via blog

    Very interesting conversation regarding question #8. I own promotional product company and we need to have original files so they can be used on our clients products. It is sometimes very frustrating trying to create a campaign for a client when they have not been given the files. Please remember that not all logos are just placed on paper products, sometimes your client may like to have their logo on a pen!

  • by Lynn Fink Thu Sep 19, 2013 via blog

    Very informative blog. Indeed, these questions are very helpful when looking for the right graphic designer. Some graphic designers may be good but if they cannot provide for your needs then they won't be of much use after all.

  • by Elaine Marquis Thu Sep 19, 2013 via blog

    Thanks for the comments, Narelle and Lynn.

  • by Aaron Wed Sep 25, 2013 via blog

    Great article Elaine and love the comments. I have used a number of agencies and freelancers over the years and have never once been told "no" when I ask for the source files. All of that deep technical design skills that the freelancer has are exactly why we hire a freelancer--we do not have that skill on the team. But if we are building a complex graphic to use in a PPT deck or on the website, or in an eBook, things will change. If we need to adjust wording I don't want to take the time to go back and forth on a simple text change. If we need to adjust the more technical aspects of the art we go back to the freelancer.

    As others have commented, the best relationships are based on mutual trust and extend over time, and companies.


  • by Elaine Marquis Wed Sep 25, 2013 via blog

    Agreed, Aaron. I find it is time-consuming and not cost-effective to have external designers make simple text edits.

  • by Kerry Thu Oct 3, 2013 via blog

    Do you let software engineers take source code with them when they leave? Why let designers take source files?

  • by Elaine Marquis Fri Oct 4, 2013 via blog

    Lol. Kerry, I never thought of that analogy. You just gave me a chuckle! Indeed, software developers are usually in work-for-hire situations.

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