August 22, 2011

Finding a Designer for Your Startup


You're ready to launch, but one problem: it's ugly as sin. It's not that you didn't try adding some CSS3 rounded corners and drop-shadows wherever you could. But it's not good enough.

You need a designer.

When branding Contactually, we knew that having an elegant design was incredibly important, something that Dave McClure and others keep pushing for. And we're lucky at Contactually. We've been working with some amazing designers for years, so when it came time to improve our appearance and build a killer landing page and site design, we had an effortless process. And we think the final product is really elegant, exactly what we want. Too lazy to click the link? Snapshot to the left.

But how do you get from point A (hideous, hideous site) to point B (sexy, gorgeous application)?


Option 1: Template Design

Even if you know you want a unique design, you should at least spend half an hour on ThemeForest or similar sites. We're huge fanboys of ThemeForest, because whether you just want a landing page or are looking for a skin for your internal application or blog, you can get some really great design for cheap (we're talking ~30 bucks here).

    • Make sure you're getting what you want - if you're looking for a template for your Rails app, but accidentally purchase a Wordpress theme, you're screwed.

    • If you download the right package, it's pretty easy to take the assets (images, css, js) and drop them into the appropriate directory.

    • Then it's just a matter of weaving the HTML provided in with your display code.

Seriously, it takes a few hours and is completely worth the investment. Do this if you're too lazy to do anything else.

Upside: Super cheap, better than your weak design (Firebug is **not** a design tool).
But: With these template sites, there is a lot of good stuff out there, but a lot of ugly stuff still. Send your friends a few options and see what they think. Also, pay attention to the download count. The more times a theme has been downloaded, the greater chance there is of coming across a site... that looks... exactly like yours.

Option 2: Hire a Designer

This is what we always push for whenever possible. I know you're thinking this might be an impossible thing to do, as it involves A) finding a designer, B) talking to a human being, C) paying money, D) judging design, and E) talking to a human being.

Let's walk through this step by step.

Finding a Designer
You're willing to give this whole "custom design" thing a try, but you don't know a single designer. Where do they hang out?

    • Sortfolio. Go to Sortfolio. If you're on a budget, select "3,000 and under". Location doesn't matter. Avoid any promotions for agencies or "We'll design your site for $99" - you're never going to get anything good. Now scroll endlessly, opening up new tabs for designers whose work catches your eye. You've probably looked at landing pages for startups all the time, so you have a vague sense of what you like and don't like. Go with your gut. Look through their portfolio. Anything impressive. I've spent hours on Sortfolio, scrolled through thousands of portfolios, and every time I look, I walk away with maybe a dozen designers who I like.

    • Other Startups I'm shocked this isn't more common a practice. If you see a startup with a good looking design (preferably early stage, unfunded), just ask them via e-mail/twitter. "Hey, love your app, can't wait to use it. By the way, who did your design? It's gorgeous." More often than not, they'll happily refer you to who did it. I recommend going with an early stage company without much money, as they are much more likely to have hired a freelancer.

    • 99 Designs/Crowdspring While I've used this for logo design, I would not recommend using it for full design. Full color design is a bit too intensive for spec work. However, feel free to browse around these galleries, as it is a great place to find some good low-cost designer.

Talking to a Designer
By now you should have the contact information for a few designers you like. Now it's time to contact them. Don't be shy - these are freelance designers, so they are receptive to out-of-the-blue requests. What should you ask them? Something like:

Hey there, I found your work on _______________ and really love it. I'm currently working on a startup, and would love to work with you on implementing a good design for it. I'd love to see some more examples of your work with startups, if you have any. Also, what are your rates, and how do you prefer to work? Do you have availability in the next couple weeks for a small 3-5 page design?

You should hopefully hear back from most of them. While it's nice to hear about their work and how they prefer to work with clients, what really matters is the availability and budget. The better the designer, the more they are oftentimes booked solid, or reserve any free time for repeat clients. Then we get to budget. You'll find that budget varies wildly, and how they charge also. While the terms of budget are completely up to you, I recommend going with a fixed price, fixed scope project. Meaning that for $X, they'll provide Y full color designs, with Z rounds of revisions. For example, you might find that, for $2000, they'll provide five pages of full color designs, with three rounds of revisions.

While it's commonplace to offer to pay your employees and contractors in equity, I would not recommend doing so here. Designers, in this case, provide a specific one-time service, and they work with startups all the time offering this.

Working with a Designer
In order to get the best outcome, you should define clear inputs and deliverables for working with a freelance designer. Don't expect them to just look at your app and "make it look pretty."

I've attached my wireframes (click on the picture to the left). I wireframed out three pages (two landing pages and a blog template) that I wanted. I was using OmniGraffle, other good products are Balsamiq or just Adobe Illustrator. If you give them a scanned page of your scribbles, shame on you.

    • Even before starting the project, come up with a set of wireframes for exactly what you want the designer to do. You really should expect the designer to take your wireframe, and design a skin for it. Of course, you can ask them to tweak the wireframes to make it a bit more usable, if you aren't confident with your wireframes. The more detail in the wireframes, the better: all the buttons, text, etc. Spending hours in Omnigraffle or Balsamiq may be boring, but you want to ensure the designer is getting exactly what they need, you'll regret it otherwise.

    • The wireframes and design should match up one to one. Each page of the wireframe should correspond to one page of design. While you don't need to have a design for every view in your application, you should ensure that the designer is creating a good enough **template** such that you could extend the design to the full application.

    • Provide a few links to other web apps you like, either well known or not. You should consider pointing out what you like and don't like about each web application - in terms of colors, functionality, etc.

Provide all of this to your designer. Within a few days, you'll hopefully get the first round of design back.

Get Feedback - Don't expect to completely love what your designer comes back with first. Design is a conversation. Share the designs with other people in your company, friends, advisors. Get as much feedback as you can. Go back to your designer with specific changes. Of course, you may completely reject what they've done so far, in which case, simply relay that to them. Good designers will accept and appreciate good feedback, and want to ensure they deliver a product everyone is happy with. They should take your rejection in stride, and go back to the drawing board. Depending on your agreement with them, they may ask for an additional fee to help cover the hours, if you've gone past the agreed-upon limit.

When you are completely done, ask them for PSDs of the design. You're done.

Depending on how busy your designer is, and how fast you are in turning around feedback, expect the design process to take two to three weeks.

What Next?
If your developers have enough expertise with front end development, they should be able to handle it. This is often where a design can falter. You really need to stress that the coded design should be a pixel-perfect replica of the PSD source file. Tiny mis-alignments, font changes, and flat-out errors will make your gorgeous design look like a pile of garbage to a well trained eye.

Not confident? There's no shame in hiring a PSD->HTML service to give your developers exactly what they need. First ask the designer. Occasionally a designer will be able to code the HTML themselves for an additional fee, or connect you with someone they've worked with before.

Good luck!

Did I leave anything out? Drop in a comment.