What to Look For in a Web Designer or Design Agency

Imagine you’re a business owner or marketing bod and you need to get either a new website or you want a redesign of your current, slightly tired looking site. You need to hire a web designer or design agency. How do you tell the good from the bad?

Web designers range from the top end agencies who have major international corporations in their portfolios down to someone’s neighbour’s kid who made a website for someone once. Chances are you want something in between – not paying over the odds and not getting something held together by sticky tape.

Agency or Freelance Designer

I’d say your first choice is knowing whether to go with an individual or an agency. Traditionally agencies would cost you more as they had an office with bills and marketing costs whereas an individual might be working from their room. Today, with more home working, those lines are a bit more blurred and some very good agencies might be made up of remote workers. An agency brings some reassurance, that if a particular person is on holiday for 3 weeks, off ill or leaves then there’s usually someone else to pick up your work, whereas with an individual you might not have that fallback. By the same token, some designers have very sound fallback plans – working with other designers, passing all relevant access back to the client so it can be picked up by another freelancer. It’s really a case of asking the right questions and making sure you feel adequately covered for what you need.

It’s all about how it looks

Look at what the designers have done previously. Obviously consider if the designs look appealing but look slightly beyond that. Is each design tailored to the content of the site or business it represents or are they trotting out the same template for all their sites? An overuse of templates suggests that they’re bashing out sites as quickly as possible for maximum profit rather than really caring about doing a good job.

Actually, it’s not about how it looks

Looks are one thing but how a site performs for you is much more important. It needs to load quickly and display properly on any device. Some sites have great home page animations or big images which cycle to promote things. Whilst these may look great on a desktop they’re a nightmare on a mobile device without WiFi. If a user has to wait 30 seconds for your page to load and then pinch and zoom to read your page, do you think they’ll hurry back? Fast loading and appropriate sizing for all devices is essential.

Ask about page speed and responsive design. If they don’t seem to know about this, or view it as an extra, run, run fast, far away. Responsive design is not a “nice to have” like it was a few years back, it’s critical. Even if you think you’ll never have any mobile visitors, 1) you’re wrong, by the way, and 2) having a site work on mobile is a key factor in Google’s ranking of search results. If it doesn’t perform well on mobile Google’s search ranking algorithm will lock your site in a dungeon and make it eat nothing but porridge for the rest of its anonymous life. Probably.

Relationships

You also need to consider if you’re looking for a one-off piece of work that’s signed off and shipped or an ongoing relationship where they will keep working on your site. Make sure you find out costs for any future work – new features or pages or tweaks to existing stuff – even if you don’t think you’ll need it. It’ll give you a good idea of how they operate.

UK VAT

This applies to the UK. I’m not sure quite how Value Added Tax or equivalents work in other territories. If you’re a small business, individual, club, etc and not VAT registered yourself it may pay to find a freelance designer who is also not VAT registered as it will save you having to pay an extra 20%. This does imply that they’re working at a lower turnover level but for a smaller project this might be a better fit.

Summary

To bring that all together in a nice to do list, ask about the following:

  • Fallback plans if the designer is not available
  • Use of templates
  • Page loading times, especially on mobile
  • Appearance on different devices
  • Ongoing or future work
  • Are they VAT registered (if relevant)?

Boosting Web Performance

One of the areas of front end development I’ve really got into in the last year or so is performance. It’s always been there in the background (along with SEO and accessibility) but it seems to have a lot more focus in the web community lately.

For a while I’ve been looking at different ways to speed up various sites I work on. This site has given me a perfect guinea pig for trying out some different techniques. Let’s give it a boost! Oooosh!

Static

My first idea for making this site super fast to load was to make all of the pages static. I started off by just making a few pages but soon realised that as things grew and I wanted to make design changes it just wasn’t scalable. It was fast though. If I was building a simple site with only a handful of pages this is the way to go.

Jekyll

To try to get the best of both worlds, static for speed and CMS for convenience, I moved on to using Jekyll, a static site generator. After jumping through a lot of hoops I got it set up. It works really well and if you’re planning to update a site from a single machine I’d say this is the perfect solution.

WordPress

For various reasons I moved back to good old uncle WordPress. It’s so easy to update from anywhere, which means I actually do it, plus I feel that it’s become so big in the web industry (almost its own industry) that I can’t really afford not to know my way around it.

So, my new challenge is to make my WordPress site fast. There are various well renowned caching plugins, e.g. W3 Total Cache, which would effectively turn my PHP into static pages. Unfortunately, these don’t seem to work with my multisite setup so I’ve tried something different.

Cloudflare

I’ve routed my site through Cloudflare. It’s a website fronting service which aims to improve performance and security. They host your site on various servers around the world so you get the benefits of a CDN – fast delivery to far flung parts of the world. They concatenate and minify static files for you – one less job. They also handle security threats and high spikes in traffic so your site doesn’t go down. As if that wasn’t enough, they also serve your files over https – cheaper than SSL hosting and great for SEO.

So far so great. Definitely worth a look on top of whatever other optimisations you’re doing. :)