Questions to ask before hiring a designer

You need some good design and you need it yesterday. You’re interviewing prospective freelance designers for the job, but how can you accurately gauge their skill set, style and experience without knowing much about graphic design yourself? Ironically, the less you know, the more you need to hire someone who knows a lot. So what are the best questions to ask a designer before committing to working with them?

In this article, we’ll walk you through the right questions to ask designers during the interview process, and, more importantly, will give you some solid reasoning for each one. It’s essential to know why you’re asking what you’re asking. Whether you interview prospective designers over the phone, via email or in person, the questions you want to ask them remain the same.

There are many questions to ask, but we narrowed down the most essential topics from the general to the specific. First, let’s go over some basics.

What to ask before hiring a designer: standard questions

If this is your first time interviewing a freelancer or if you want some more detailed advice, let’s run over the standard questions to ask before hiring a designer. Think of these as “round 1” questions, you’ll find a set of “round 2” questions for your finalists below.

First, you want to make sure their availability and location meet your requirements. If you found them by browsing portfolios or using a designer search tool, they may not be open for work right away—so inquiring into their availability for new projects is essential—and a nice ice-breaker, too.

99designs find a designer search tool screenshot

Find a Designer search tool

A lot of freelance designers work remotely, but you may not know it unless you ask. If working with someone in person or over the phone is important to you, mention that early on so you don’t waste their time—or yours.

Likewise, you want to make sure you can fit them into your budget. Designer rates vary by thousands, so discuss compensation as soon as possible to avoid dead ends.

Also consider whether they have experience in the kind of design work you need. The world’s greatest website designer may know zero to zilch about designing logos, so make sure your candidates are actually qualified to do what you’re asking.

If you’d like to know more, read this comprehensive beginner’s guide to finding and hiring a graphic designer.

When you’re ready, move on to these more advanced questions for designers who have made the first cut.

What to ask before hiring a designer: 9 deep-digging questions

Below you’ll find not only questions to ask prospective designers, but also the reasoning behind them. This includes some context that non-designers may not be familiar with, as well as what to look for in the responses you receive.

This inquiry begins with broader, big-picture questions and then moves into more detailed and nuanced questions. Feel free to follow the order of our questions or rearrange them in a way more comfortable to you.

1. Can you walk me through your portfolio?

Anyone with experience in hiring a designer will tell you the designer’s portfolio is your most valuable resource, aside from the designer themselves. If the designer has advanced this far in your hiring process, chances are strong that you’re already familiar with their portfolio. However, seeing it through their eyes, while they provide background, lets you understand it on a whole new level.

Screenshot of 99designs designer profile

Designer profile for Angela Cuellar via 99designs by Vista.

First of all, ask which of their works they’re most proud of and why. This gives you insight into their priorities, whether they value commercial success, client satisfaction or creative artistry. This helps you find a freelancer more in line with the overall goals of the company. You should also see if their favorite work corresponds with your own to gauge how well your stylistic goals match.

On top of that, ask them to clarify their duties on each project. Design is highly collaborative, so the aspect you like most—maybe the color scheme or a mascot design—could have actually been handled by someone else. Learning about a designer’s shared duties could possibly even open some doors for you that you hadn’t considered before. If your interviewee frequently does typography, maybe you could add a customized font for your brand to the project.

2. How do you approach a new project?

Let’s state this clearly: good design is about solving problems. The problem could be something a bit broad, like needing a friendlier image, or something more black-and-white, like meeting a sales quota. Either way, hiring the right graphic designer can help you solve these problems.

Every new designer should understand the client’s needs—the problem that needs solving—before putting a pen to paper. Look for designers who answer this question by referring to finding solutions: researching user data, speaking with the team, looking through archives of older design work, etc. Each designer has their own process for solving problems, but what you’re really looking for is whether or not they have a solid process in place.

3. What is your usual timeframe for a project like this?

Rooster clock illustration

Art design by Marrieta via 99designs by Vista.

This question is a bit obvious but worth mentioning. After explaining the details of your project and your aspirations for it, ask for an estimate of how long it will take. This is just a precaution to make sure this designer can produce work that fits into your greater timeframe.

Just as important as this question is its follow-up: what do you do when a project takes longer than expected? Things don’t always go as planned, so it’s good to clarify what you can expect if a deadline is missed. The designer may charge for extra time or completely revise their original pricing. It’s best to iron out any issues before they arise.

4. Can you explain your design process?

A designer’s process is a lot like their own personal Coca-Cola formula. They may be reluctant to share it, but when they do you’ll understand a little more about what makes them special and how they stack up against other designers.

While you can’t accurately judge a designer by the source of their creativity, you can and should evaluate how they incorporate business goals and work with the client. There are no right or wrong answers, but use their responses to help you understand if they’ll fit your own company’s culture (or your unique design needs). If you run a tight ship and they’re footloose and fancy-free, that may cause friction down the line.

For questions like these, it’s good to keep it vague and have the designer fill in the blanks. What a designer chooses to share can be equally as telling as what they actually say. As a general interview tip, resist the temptation to elaborate on the question unless the interviewee specifically requests it. A few seconds of awkward silence can lead to new revelations the designer would not have shared otherwise.

5. What qualities do you look for in a client?

Another direct way to evaluate compatibility is to see it from their perspective. Asking them what qualities they like—and dislike—in employers can also bring out glaring incongruencies before they become problems.

Again, there are no wrong answers and you’re judging how well they’ll work with you instead of what kind of designer they are. In particular, ask if they have any deal-breakers or objections, whether with the working process, your management style or even logistical concerns, such as the method payments are received.

6. How do you prefer to collaborate with other team members?

Just as you want to foresee how well the designer will get along with you, you want to judge how well they’ll work with the other team members (if applicable, of course—some design projects are solitary gigs).

Women collaborating at a computer

via Pexel

For this question, you may want to have your developers, copywriters or project managers present to weigh in or at least share with them the designer’s answers afterward. Your other team members also have their own distinct processes for getting their jobs done, and you want your team to work together as efficiently as possible.

This question merits diving deeper with follow-ups. For one thing, you should ask for real-life examples of handoffs and direct collaboration. This gives you more concrete answers about how they work with others to get around vague or generic responses.

It’s also worth asking how they resolve disputes and differences in taste or opinion. You know the members of your team, so you can draw your own conclusions about how they’ll avoid or overcome friction.

7. How do you handle conflict with a client?

Last, in the series of questions about conflict resolution, you’ll want to see how well they accept criticism or disagreement from the client (that’s you!).

This question may seem straightforward—and the specifics of their answer should influence your decision—but there’s more nuance to it. This question determines whether or not the designer will defend their decisions when under fire.

You’re essentially looking for a designer who will stand by their choices and explain their work to non-designers. However, you’re also looking for someone respectful and professional who aims to satisfy the client. It’s a delicate middle ground between the two and you need to pick apart the designer’s answer to see precisely where they fall on the spectrum.

8. What brands or design projects do you admire most?

book cover design for The Ticket

Book cover design by B&J via 99designs by Vista.

This can be an illuminating question, but make sure you word it so it’s relevant to your project. If you’re hiring a freelancer to design a book cover, ask them which book covers they admire most.

This question should give you insight into the designer’s character: their stylistic preferences, artistic priorities and comprehension of their own trade. It’s a good way to get clear-cut answers to see if your tastes align.

For this question, you also want to pay attention to how they describe their favorites. Do they use technical jargon and go into the particular aspects of the design, or do they just say it “looks good” and leave it at that? You don’t have to understand the design talk yourself—it only matters if they understand it.

9. What do you think makes a good designer?

On the heels of the last question, you want to dive deeper into their character by asking a more open-ended question. Like some others on this list, you want to keep it vague and let the interviewee choose how to answer it.

Directly, this question reveals the designer’s priorities and motivations. Moreover, it can reveal something about their strengths and weaknesses—sometimes people choose their own traits that they’re most proud of, other times people choose the traits they lack but are working towards.

Indirectly, this question exhibits how well they understand the graphic design profession as a whole. More experienced and skilled designers will have more to say on this topic than rookies or weekenders. As before, pay attention to how well they use design terms, regardless of whether you personally can follow along.

Bonus question: what else do you think I should know about you as a designer or about the way you work?

illustration of designer at work

Illustration by felipe_charria via 99designs by Vista.

It’s always good to end the interview by giving the designer a chance to volunteer anything. This could be something they’ve been trying to bring up the whole interview but never found the chance, or it could be something they thought of after the fact and wanted to add to the dialogue.

Like other open-ended questions, you’ll learn more if you hand over control to the designer. Pay attention to what topics they choose to talk about as much as what they actually say.

If the designer has nothing else to add, that’s okay, too. It’s best to give them the opportunity either way. If you do end up hiring them, it starts your collaboration off on the right foot.

Find and hire a graphic designer today

Now that you know what to ask before hiring a designer, are you ready to actually go out and hire one? Browsing and discovering designers can be a tedious and exhaustive process if you don’t know where to look, but there are tools that make it easy for you, like using one of VistaPrint’s design services, 99designs by Vista.

If you’re not quite sure what kind of design you want, you can also commission a design contest and have designers compete over your project. In a design contest, you describe your project in a brief and then designers from all over the world create original samples based on what you wrote. You can see before you buy and it lets you choose based on the designs more than the designer. Start your design contest right here.

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Author: Matt Ellis