Interviewing Your Graphic Designer

Find your diamond in the rough.

It seems as though graphic designers are a dime a dozen these days. Competition is fierce and everyone is vying for their own piece of the proverbial pie. Which for the small business owner looking for someone to do graphic design work, is a blessing and a curse. Having options is always great, however, finding that diamond in the rough—the graphic designer that stands out from the crowd and suits your needs best—takes a bit of research and interviewing.

As a small business owner or solo entrepreneur you need to be able to trust the person that is offering you a service. This trust is not something that comes easy to anyone with their own business. To rely on anyone else to help with something you’ve poured your blood sweat and tears into is a scary and gutsy move. After all you’ve had to take on all the responsibilities that come with being the person in charge. However, being the marketer, accountant, purchaser, salesman, IT specialist, graphic designer and every other part of the business can prove to be too much for most people. Realizing your strengths and shortcomings can help you in deciding where to focus your time and effort most effectively. I understand the things that run through the mind of a business owner when outsourcing anything let alone graphic design. Will the contractor understand your desired intentions? Will they be as attentive and careful in working for your company as you were in building it? Will this be worth the cost? Can I get this somewhere else for less? Can I do most of this myself?

A lot of these questions and more can be answered from your first meeting with a graphic designer, and by checking out their work online. However, having a list of key questions prepared to ask your potential graphic designer will help you with this important decision.

1) How did you become a graphic designer?

The answer to this question should tell you a bit about the educational background of the designer you are interviewing. In Canada, there are schools that are affiliated with the Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC) and/or the Registered Graphic Designers (RGD). Both The GDC and RGD serve as professional governing bodies with their own ethics and goals in elevating the profession of graphic design and advocating its value to society. While not every graphic designer is a member/affiliated with these professional groups, their degree/diploma should come from a partner/affiliated school that offers a recognized graphic design program. Knowing the educational background of your graphic designer is an assurance that their work should be original, professional and warrantied. Self-taught graphic designers can be just as good as those with post-secondary training but may not have all the knowledge necessary to make the same assurances.

2) Where might I have seen some of your work? (Where can I see some of your work?)

The answer to this question will tell you how much experience your designer has outside of school. Most designers will tell you of the projects they were most proud to work on and lead you to view their portfolio online. New graphic designers will likely have a collection of student work to show and rationales to back up their design choices. It is important to note that a graphic designer with real world experience is of great value and will likely cost more, however, if you believe in giving people their professional start you may want to contact a recent grad. You should keep in mind that student work is usually directed by an instructor that guides the creative process the more a student can tell you about their work the more they understand what their designs were meant to accomplish.

This question should also lead into a conversation about recent work and a short look through a graphic design portfolio. If you aren’t impressed with a graphic designer’s work don’t work with them. It is that simple. However, if you feel like you haven’t seen enough work to make a decision feel free to ask to see more work samples. An experienced graphic designer should have a number of pieces that relate to the kind of work you are offering.

Never ask a graphic designer to create a design for you for free in order to come to a final decision in hiring them. While some graphic designers might take you up on the offer this practice is considered to be “spec work” and most professional graphic designers won’t do it. You wouldn’t expect a hairstylist to give you a haircut for free in the off-chance that you might employ them in the future to do your hair–the same goes for graphic designers. You can read more about spec work and how it impacts creative professionals at

3) What is your design process (when starting a new project)?

When you ask this question you are looking for an answer about process that involves listening to your requests, and involving you in the core design decisions while researching and developing concepts for presentation before refining and completing the designs. You want someone that is going to provide viable options in early concept development and further refinement as design decisions are made and feedback is given. Not all design projects require a lengthy process, however, knowing the steps involved in starting a new project will let you know how much care will be taken to assure that you get the designs that work for you. (More on good design process vs. the cost will be discussed in a later post).

4) What are your rates?

It is important to discuss budget and money up front. You are looking for someone that is going to be up front with you on their payment expectations and varying rates of pay. This helps clarify expectations and opens up a dialogue for negotiation. Most graphic designers have an hourly rate based on their years of experience, their capabilities, the quality of their work and the local market. Some graphic designers will even have flat rates for specific projects like logo design and visual identity packages. Some designers will also negotiate lower rates if the amount of work spans a number of weeks of full time work or if a retainer agreement is arranged. You can also expect rates to change based on how the designs are going to be used and whether or not all rights to the designs are required in perpetuity. Don’t be afraid to ask how many rounds of feedback/changes are built into project fees and what is expected if a project requires more changes than estimated.

It is also important to ask if printing will be handled by your graphic designer or if that aspect of the project is up to you to arrange. Graphic design fees are generally for the design only unless printing is expressed as a requirement of the project up front. Most graphic designers will charge a mark-up on arranging the printing, however, they will usually have a printer they trust in mind to assure the print work turns out all right. You are taking a gamble when you leave your graphic designer out of the printing process. Even if you want control of who does your printing it is beneficial to arrange for your designer and printer to communicate directly.

Be prepared to have questions about rates and fees thrown back to you. Specifically the question “What is your budget?” will usually be asked. This question shouldn’t be regarded as a way of probing you for big bucks but a way of gauging your limits and whether your terms would be agreeable for the project in question. If your budget is way off the mark the conversation will change from “what can be done for you” to “what will be done for that price”. If your budget is close to the value of the project it is likely to be accepted. This is usually a good place to finish the interview and either exchange information or let your candidate know what you have decided.

Hopefully by the time your potential graphic designer has answered these questions you have a good feel for their graphic design expertise, ability, aesthetic, process, costs and demeanour. You may want to add a few more questions that relate to your specific project (for example “Are you capable of web design?” or “Have you created any point of purchase displays in the past?”). Above all you need to be able to say “I am confident I can work with this person”. Someone you hire to work for you needs to be someone that is a good “fit”, all other answers to your questions would be moot otherwise. All that said you should be ready to discuss contracts and be well on your way to seeing your ideas brought to life by your chosen graphic designer.