One simple question to assess a graphic designer

There’s an awful lot of crap design online. If you hire others to handle your graphic design needs, the tip I share here may help you avoid the wrong kind of designers.

For years I’ve wondered whether there could be a simple way to help non-designers choose a graphic designer.

Once upon a time it was quite easy.

When I trained as a graphic designer, we didn’t touch a computer for two years. Everything was done paper.

There was a distinctive skill set that a graphic designer needed to be able to operate.

If you couldn’t make sense of a typescale, you had no chance of drafting a spec sheet.

If you couldn’t draft a spec sheet, a typesetter had no chance of creating artwork that matched your design.

The required skills meant the role of graphic designer was self-policing, much like the role of a brain surgeon.

Possessing a hacksaw and a few other dangerously sharp tools doesn’t make you qualified for inter-cranial surgery.

In the modern world though, possessing a copy of Photoshop Elements or an Adobe Creative Cloud account does seem enough for many people to self-qualify as designers.

So how do you go about picking a suitable designer if you don’t know anything about design?

Do they add or remove?

For a long time, the clearest distinction I could identify between a designer who’s studied the discipline and someone who self-identified as a designer was this.

If you gave them a design and asked them to improve it, most untrained designers will try to add something, while most trained designers will try to take something away.

In practice, however, that’s not a great deal of use to you.

More recently I have come up with a method that I think anyone could use to assess the quality of a designer.

How do they answer this question?

The question I suggest asking, “tell me about a piece of design that really impresses you”.

At first glance this seems no more helpful than testing if a designer adds to or removes something from a design.

I think it can be a useful assessment tool though, because the answers should always fall into one of two types.

The first type of response focuses on how something looks or its form.

The second response type focuses on how something works or achieves a specific design goal. How it functions.

Someone who offers a response of the first kind is likely going to pay more attention to creating work for you that they think looks great. In the process, they may pay little attention to the ultimate goal of the design.

Some examples of this kind of response would be saying how they love a particular font, the color scheme or the hero photo used.

Someone who offers a response of the second type is more likely to think about your end goal and creating a solution that will achieve the best results for you.

As I’ve just poured myself a glass of water, mineral water bottles come to mind as an example of the second type of response. They tend to be made of very flimsy plastic, but the design of different shapes and ribbing mean they have a rigidity that feels almost like magic. Most look uninspiring, but that’s less important than the fact they don’t fold in half when we try to pour them.

A quick note to bear in mind, someone could make a response that sounds like the first type, but then qualifies it by focusing on how it makes the think work better. For example they could say they love the font choice. Then qualify that by saying that it’s a bit unconventional, but offers good legibility that will help people with reading problems who are likely to be a significant part of the audience.

Form over function

Design isn’t about what something looks like, it’s about how to it fulfills it job.

If you’re going to pay someone to do design work for you, don’t get caught up in what the work in their portfolio looks like. The form may initially seem important, but it should always be secondary.

It should be much more important to learn how successful their past work was in achieving the goals laid down by their clients.

A simple sales page that achieves conversions of 4% should be much more attractive to you than an achingly beautiful sales page that achieves conversions of 1.5%.

And asking them for a favorite example of design work is one quick and simple way to get an insight into what kind of a designer they are.