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how to choose a (professional) web designer

There are almost as many opinions on the criteria for choosing a Web Designer as there are Designers, but there are some general guidelines that can be offered to assist in this process. A professional designer will cost more than an amateur, but there are very definite advantages to choosing a professional. A key drawback with amateur web hobbyists is that most understand little or nothing about the medium in which they purport to operate while assuring you it's easy to design a professional level site for your business. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when choosing your Web Designer:
  1. Longevity
    How long has the designer been designing websites, and how long have they been located in the area? Web design was not even a recognized professional occupation in the early 1990's, and it was not until the mid-1990's that the Internet began to take off. Add to this that most educational institutions did not offer coursework in web technologies until 2000 or later, and you have some idea of how fast the web has become a part of our culture. Ask your designer how long they have been designing, and how many sites they have worked on. Why? You want your web designer to be experienced, able to handle the issues that come up with all websites from time to time, and know how to deal with those issues and fix them quickly. You also want them to still be in business to complete your site and make sure it's working properly, as well as be there to handle updates when and if you require them. If they have a listing in the phone book, they have a commitment to their business. This means you can be reasonably sure they will be around to take care of your site for you.
  2. Professionalism
    Before you 'hire' a family member, friend, or other amateur to care for your website, find out if they are capable of delivering the kind of site that won't embarrass you or your business. Ask for references, and to see other sites they have designed. Ask if they have coded an entire site themselves, or if they had someone else do the coding. Check for completeness, professionalism, and knowledge beyond the thinking that HTML coding constitutes anything more than web dabbling sufficient to display the family vacation photos. Take the time to find out whether your designer is qualified is before the reputation of your business rides upon it.
  3. Knowledgeable
    If your web designer isn't knowledgeable, they may leave you stuck with technology that doesn't work for a large number of users or for your business. Your designer should also be versed in the requirements and ethical considerations that impact your profession and acceptable ways to present your business on the web. They should also be aware of and knowledgeable in search engine optimization and other online marketing strategies that will help your business to grow.
  4. Accessibility
    A common mistake of amateur designers is to assume that accessibility isn't important. Web sites will not display correctly—and sometimes won't display at all—unless browser compatibility is addressed. This means testing and viewing your site in multiple browsers to make sure that the visual differences as one views the site in each browser are minor and negligible. Amateurs often ignore users such as the visually impaired. But keep in mind that search engine robots are in the class of users who are visually impaired, so it's important that your site be designed with accessibility in mind.
  5. Tools
    What tools does the designer use? If they use "frames" or can only use a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) tool like Front Page and don't know how to hand-code a page, RUN AWAY FAST. None of the WYSIWYG design editors are failsafe, even Adobe Dreamweaver, which is standard for the industry—hand-coding is always a necessity in every site, and the ability to hand-code an entire site lets you know that the designer is serious about their business. WYSIWYG editors can be used to help speed up the coding of a site, saving time and money for the client, but someone who cannot code without using these tools does not know enough to design an effective site. A qualified designer will be able to explain why a using a WYSIWYG tool presents serious drawbacks for businesses who try to use it and can't hand-code.
  6. Graphics
    On the web, looks matter. Good graphical packages cost money the amateur hobbyist isn't willing to spend and isn't trained to use. Have you checked the graphics in different browsers and at different resolutions? Are you using the images legally, making sure you have permission from the copyright holder? A professional designer will insist on this, saving you from possible future embarrassing and expensive legal issues. A copyright violation could result in your hosting provider taking down your site.
  7. Site Architecture
    Just as you would not want an amateur to build your house, leaving you with leaning walls and a house with a weak foundation, so, too you want a site with a good infrastructure. Web amateurs are usually uninformed about the infrastructure requirements necessary to create a sound, robust site. Poorly implemented site architecture can allow information downloads you didn't intend or limit the way your site can grow in the future.
  8. Security Issues
    With the huge amount of press Internet attacks have received, you wouldn't think anyone would seriously consider using an untrained amateur to design for their business. Internet security, and security for your site, is a complex task that cannot be ignored. The amateur may tell you there are no security issues that need to be addressed on your site. Don't believe it. While no one can guarantee your site is completely secure, a professional developer will take many more steps to implement elements that will help protect your site.
  9. Can Your Clients Trust You?
    The amateur does not usually have measures in place to back-up your data, protect your confidential information, or maintain your visitors' privacy, even if your privacy policy claims it. How do you explain to your client that their confidential information was swiped off your web designer's computer as a college prank? How can you expect potential clients to take your business seriously if you don't take it seriously enough to use a professional?
  10. Cost
    There is a wildly varying difference in what is the best price to pay for a website. An amateur may charge less, but you'll see it reflected in your site. If you are serious about your web site's success then your choice should not be based on price alone. You should also compare professionals: If you find one designer charging $500 and the other is charging $1,000, find out why there is such a big price difference. Ask each of them how they determined their price and what you are getting for your money. A lot of companies will offer incredibly low prices for a website but often there is a catch, like having to use their Hosting Server for a year or more, or else they are pumping out template style sites where only the main images change from one site to another, or they are coding the site using the kind of tools mentioned earlier and do not know how to hand-code. Sometimes the difference in cost has to do with the amount of overhead; higher overhead must be covered with higher prices.
  11. Personal Compatibility
    Last, but not least, make sure your Web Designer is compatible with your style and personality. You will be working with this person closely for anywhere from a month to several months (to years if the relationship works out well). True professionals are easier to work with due to their professionalism—a professional is far less likely to balk at a request even when they disagree with the client, although they may advise against the client's choice. Amateurs quite often walk out on the job and leave you in the lurch, with only a  partially-completed site and your deposit money wasted.
Take your time choosing the best designer for you. Make sure they are what they say they are and can do the job you expect them to do, and you should have a good experience with the design process and a website that does what it should and represents your business well when the job is done.