Apples to apples. What’s the difference between designers?

Apples to apples. What’s the difference between designers?

Last week, a rather spirited discussion arose after there was an announcement by Chris Brogan saying that he was looking into launching a design contest on 99designs. Well, needless to say, a handful of designers were quick to react and try and educate Mr. Brogan about their surprise and disapproval of such an idea.

After much back and forth, Chris posts the question, “Designers: so besides cost, educate a business person why one beats the other. Blog your answers? I’ll link to a few in my post.” It’s interesting that he would ask this question, because it appears that this isn’t readily apparent to the average business owner.

Well, I am here to help.

In most cases, the average person will probably say price. Of course, that can be a factor, but is that the only difference? Not even close. Graphic designers, like many professions have different levels of skill, experience and talent. Here are some factors to consider when you are ready to hire a professional graphic designer for your next project.


Sure, we could talk about a designer with lots of years under their belt, but what I’m talking about is what kind of experiences does this designer bring to the table. Have they worked with hotels and restaurants? Do they do a lot of work in motorsports? What about children’s clothing? Did they manage the project or were they part of a team? Are they up to speed with current design and marketing trends?

Experience can also have to do with gathering information about you and your project. Be prepared for lots of specific questions about the job. Demographics, psychographics, production requirements, possible usage, competitors and other specifics are all part of sizing up the task at hand. This helps the seasoned designer figure out what will be required to make the whole thing happen and give you a fair price.

A seasoned design background will also provide a well-rounded knowledge of trademark, copyright and other legal matters related to the industry. Naively getting yourself into a lawsuit from having a less experienced or less scrupulous designer ‘acquire’ a piece of artwork from somewhere has been a source of much discussion and controversy with some of the popular crowdsourcing sites. Better to be safe than sorry.


As with anything in the visual communications arena, everyone has their own style. Someone who has a thorough portfolio of bold graphic work with lots of highly produced color images, may not be suitable for a delicate typographic invitation. Do they work in primarily in the online, digital arena? Or are they a print specialist?

Yes, there are those that can jump back and forth between styles, but can they show you the results? Can they speak intelligently about the projects in words and terminology you can understand?


There are many subsets of design that graphic designers can work in. There is letterpress, print, packaging, promotions, publishing, brochures and collateral, trade show design, kiosk design, environmental design, web design, icon design, logo design, interface design, illustration and many others. Not unlike styles, there are some designers that can create beautiful and functional work in several disciplines.

Which one is right for your project? Just because you know a web designer, does not make them a suitable or competent illustrator. You never know, they might know someone who fits the bill.

Experience in various disciplines has the luxury of knowing which one is appropriate for the assignment. It’s not just about mastery of software. Anyone can figure out how to make it appear on the screen. But, will it work in actual production?


Sure, they can design a page, but how do they think? Are they strategic in their approach? Being a thoughtful marketer is a key asset in quality graphic design and communication. Do they think tactically (make a flyer) or can they work with a bigger picture, like building a brand? Knowing what is appropriate for the target market is essential to building a brand and the project’s success.

The client can always ask for a capabilities brochure, but is that what they really need? Is there a better solution for reaching their customers? Having the forethought to bring that issue to light and suggest an alternative is a great advantage. This helps make sure the client’s carefully budgeted design dollars are not wasted.


Although graphic design is a communication field, from a business sense, some designers are better than others. Are they good at follow up? How well do they listen to the client’s needs? Are they thorough in communicating what they need from you to do the job right? Can they easily field your questions and, in a timely manner? Can they give you a timeline and stay on schedule? If not, can they explain why?

Having good communication on the first project can lead to more projects, firmly establish a mutual trust and quite often grows into a long-term business relationship. As the designer learns more about you and your company, the better the work and long term goals. Who knows, you might make a friend.


Being a professional ranges everywhere from how e-mails are worded to what’s included in the design contracts. When a question or situation presents itself, how is it handled? Are they just griping or trying to make it right?

When working with a professional, don’t be surprised to get a formal design contract before starting the job. This makes sure everyone’s expectations are addressed and understood before anything moves forward. They will expect you to sign it and likely ask for a purchase order and a deposit up front. This is not only a binding agreement, but is also a sign of good faith that both parties are serious about doing business together.


This is one of the most important and telling pieces of the puzzle. To the average business person, this may be difficult to discern. Online portfolios and websites are so slick now, it’s hard to tell a rock star from an average Joe anymore. What you can look for is some information about the individual projects themselves. Sometimes the designer has provided a brief project profile on the piece and what the project entailed. Are there any links to the projects? Who else may have been involved?

Additionally, is the work consistent in quality? One thing I’ve always been told about portfolios is that they’re only as good as the worst piece. If that work is still pretty nice, then you’ve probably got a pretty solid designer in your midst.

Is there a range of types of work in there? Meaning, is it all logos, or is there packaging, brochures and other items included? If not, why? Perhaps, this is an indication that they don’t do much work in those other arenas. If you are still interested in working with this person, you could always ask. They just might have some of what you’re looking for.

A word about spec work.

Otherwise known as speculative work, it relates to an age old practice of asking a designer to provide design work up front, in the hopes that if the client likes it, they will pay them for the work. Any professional graphic designer worth his/her salt will likely turn this proposal down and angrily walk away. Without going too far into it, this situation is not at all ethical and demeans the designer. All too often, it is a lure of questionable business people preying on the good nature of very junior or hobbyist designers with little or very limited experience. Most of the time, it does not fare well for either party. At the very least, the designer should be compensated in some form for their efforts.


Pricing has to do with many factors. Yes, you will likely pay more for an experienced designer, but what are you really paying for?

It took me a few seconds to draw it, but it took me 34 years to learn how to draw it in a few seconds.
Paula Scher, principal at Pentagram Design


You will get more efficiencies. Efficiencies in asking the right questions. Efficiencies in proper training. Efficiencies in using more proven marketing tools and techniques. In the end, you will pay to do it right, instead of paying more to do it over.

Of course, there is always more to it than this. I’d love to hear your thoughts.