The web design industry is booming, and it seems like every day there's a new company sprouting up. But how do you know which ones to trust? And once you've found a few companies that seem promising, how do you differentiate between them? What should you be asking for in free consultations?
And how do you know if they're full of %#*$?
Before You Start
Designers can't do everything
First thing you need to know is that designing a website is not the same thing as building one.
Contrary to the way most people imagine website design, the “design” part is only one of many steps in the website-building process. When we say “web design,” we’re usually referring to “web design and development.”
There was a time when a “web designer” could reasonably be expected to handle the entire project, but as websites have grown increasingly complicated, those days have long since disappeared.
So how do you filter out half the options before you even begin? It’s simple. Do you need design alone? Or do you need design and development?
Designers vs Developers
It’s much more common now to work with teams who divide up the labor between designers and developers. To understand their different roles, imagine the web designer as an architect and the developer as the engineer.
One draws up the blueprints, and the other brings them to life. That’s the essential working balance between the two.
It’s still common for web design agencies to omit the “development” keyword in their listings, even if they offer it. So, you should always examine their site first to see if they offer development as well.
Companies that only provide web design services are also referred to as “UI/UX agencies,” “UI designers,” or “UX Researchers.” “UI” is an abbreviation for “User Interface,” and UX stands for “user experience.”
To summarize, let’s review the distinction we’ve just made:
- A web designer makes blueprints of how the site will look.
- A web developer makes the actual website, based on the blueprints.
- A web design company usually does both, but just calls themselves a "web design" company because it's the term most people use. Plus, "Web Design & Development Agency" is just too wordy.
Websites have limits. Web apps don't.
Most of the websites you use on a daily basis are not actually websites at all. Rather, they’re web applications. To those outside the tech community, this may seem a silly distinction. However, make no mistake: there is a significant difference, and you’ll do well to learn it!
- Websites serve “static” content, meaning content that doesn’t change. Blog posts are an excellent example of static content. They're basically just text and photos on simple web pages. They aren't interactive, really.
- Web applications, on the other hand, are capable of sending and receiving data with other websites and platforms. For example, Facebook is a web application, not a website. It can store data about members, process payments, and send instant messages.
In fact, most interactive features that come standard on the modern web are possible only on web applications, not websites. For more examples, take a look at the following list. If you plan on needing any of these features, then you’re not shopping for a website at all, but a web app.
Features that require Web Apps
- User profiles
- Message boards / Forums
- User logins and accounts
- Members-only content
- Ability to upload/download files
These features all require sending, receiving, and storing data in one way or another. They require combining a front-end platform like Webflow or WordPress with a cloud-based back end engine like Google Cloud, AWS, Firebase, or Azure.
Why It Matters
As you compare various agencies and companies, you’ll find yourself browsing through page after page of credentials. Agencies will usually tell you what programs, coding languages, and other tools they can use, but to the average person these terms will seem meaningless.
But if you understand the fundamental theory of what a web app is as opposed to a website, you needn’t concern yourself with whether an agency uses Node.js or Ruby.
Let’s imagine that you’re the founder of a SaaS startup who’s just received a massive seed investment of several million dollars, but you yourself know nothing about software engineering; you would need to know that you aren’t looking for a web designer, but a developer to build your web application.
In other words, knowing the difference will help you filter out agencies that can't give you what you need. Web apps require more technical expertise than standard websites, they take longer to make, and they're usually much more expensive as well.
The search process
Depending on the size and scope of your project, there are several channels you might want to explore, so I'll go over the main ones here and offer some tips on figuring out which ones are worth trying for you.
Google is certainly a fine place to start, provided you’re specific with your search queries. However, you will immediately encounter what I like to call “agency spam,” which consists of the same three buzz phrases repeated ad infinitum:
- “X years of experience”
- “High conversion rates”
Please take all of these with a grain of salt. “Award-winning” is great, but nobody below the Enterprise scale cares, and even the higher echelons of web design clients will–at best–find it a neat bauble.
Years of experience only matter up until about 5, if you ask me, because if you don’t understand how to design a decent layout by then, you never will. Some of the worst web designers I’ve ever met come from the “20 years of experience” club, and some of the best are self-taught amateurs.
As for high conversion rates, those ought to come standard. If an agency boasts that its clients get high conversion rates, you have no way of knowing what “high” actually means, and you certainly have no way of getting proof.
Those are mere grievances, though. Here are some true red flags to look out for.
- Fake Reviews - The telltale signs of a fake review are having extremely short content, vague commentary, and originating from accounts with only 1 review.
- Suspiciously Low Rates - If you find an agency offering $199 web design, you'll get exactly what you pay for, and you'll regret it.
- Blurry Images - If they don’t put effort into their own website, why would they ever put effort into yours?
Webflow CMS (short for “content management system”) is the website-builder we use, and it’s a marvelous platform for content marketing and long-term SEO campaigns. It makes responsive design incredibly simple.
They have a wide range of certified partners called Webflow Experts who are vetted, verified, reputable teams that have to pass a very rigorous application process to gain the status; and as much as I wish they paid me to make these statements, they don’t.
Because Webflow has to manually approve each applicant to this program, it's not likely you'll run into any red flags here. Instead, you'll more likely just have to filter through lots of people who don't quite fit what you're looking for.
However, if you aim to sell subscriptions, memberships, or anything requiring user logins, you should never assume that a Webflow Expert will automatically be qualified for that job, because those features will take your project into web application territory, and Webflow Experts are not necessarily app developers.
Making Webflow work with a web app is absolutely doable, but it's not part of the certification process to be a Webflow expert. So, if that's something you need, just make sure to ask before you hire anyone.
Chances are, you've at least heard of Upwork. It's one of the most popular platforms out there and web design is no exception.
The thing about Upwork, though, is that it's not very friendly for people just starting out. I don't have much experience with it personally, but I know that I was never able to get a contract there, so I'm a bit biased against it.
- Asking for a down payment without a contract - Contracts aren't only for the contractor's benefit. For clients, a good contract will give you guarantees for deliverables and identify in plain language exactly what you're getting. You never want to wind up arguing about what you paid a contractor to do, and not getting a contract is the fastest way to guarantee that.
- Suspiciously low rates - As with Google, you might find suspiciously low rates here, even on contractors who have super high ratings. Is it an automatic "no"? I don't know about that. But usually, low rates in web design indicate that they're using some kind of quantity over quality approach, and that's just not worth the investment.
Dribbble is a great resource for finding web designers, and often, it's a great place to find companies as well.
Although Dribbble is mostly known as a portfolio site where freelancers can post their work, get exposure, and find jobs, agencies (especially young ones) use it all the time, too. It's where Chainlift first got its start, and it's home to some of the best art I've ever seen on the internet.
In addition, Dribbble attracts artists from across countless disciplines. You can go there to find graphic designers, animators, illustrators, video editors, and 3D experts too.
- Plagiarized portfolios - I once signed with a freelancer to redo a logo based on what appeared to be a great-looking portfolio, but when they sent me my first concepts, I realized they had simply recolored work from other creators I’d interviewed for the role. Had I not noticed, I would've been liable for copyright infringement, so make sure you're protected from uncouth behavior in your contract.
- Boilerplate Bids - Dribbble lets users sign up for instant job alerts as soon as someone posts one, so if you create a listing, you'll get responses right away. Pay attention to what they say, though, because if they don't reference anything specific from your job posting, they probably haven't put any real thought into what you need.
How to contact
Send them a message to let them know you’re interested, and if they’re professionals, they’ll take you through the onboarding process from there. If you’re on a portfolio site like Dribbble, simply message them through there. However, I recommend looking for a contact form on their website.
The contact form usually takes you directly to the person worth speaking to. If you just use a generic customer support email, they may have to manually forward you to the intake rep, which just adds extra steps.
As an owner, nothing gets me to pick up my phone faster than seeing "new form submission!" in the subject line. So if you want their attention, that's usually the best way to get it.
The discovery call
Good agencies need to speak to you first before giving you a final quote. Plus, the discovery call is really your chance to interview us. You should come prepared with a list of questions to ask.
I'll go into more detail on what kind of questions you should be asking in another blog post, but here are a few to get you started:
- What's your process?
- How do you communicate with clients?
- What is your availability like?
- Do you have any case studies or examples of similar projects?
- How do you handle revisions?
- What is your policy on changes after the project has begun?
- When can I expect deliverables?
- Who owns the rights to the final product?
These are just some basics to get you started, but they should be enough to get the ball rolling.
Making a deal
After some back and forth, you'll eventually receive a contract. Here, you'll want to make sure to read the document thoroughly and keep an eye out for important protections. I'm not qualified to give legal advice, but you don't need a lawyer to tell you that the clauses I'm about to list are extremely important to get right.
Does it define the project scope clearly in specific, concrete terms?
This check is as much for you as it is for us. It guarantees you get what you're paying for. If the contract stipulates something like, "the client will receive a website," they need to be more specific!
How many pages? On what platform? Using what branding? What features will it have? The answers to these questions should all be in your contract.
Does it clearly define when the website is considered "finished"?
If it simply says that work will continue until "the project is complete," that's not good enough. You need it in writing what exactly the "finished product" is. Is it done when it's published, on your domain, and getting traffic? Or is it done when the template is built, and you have to fill in the content from there?
Or is it something else entirely?
I know it seems too obvious to say, but trust me: you don't want to get stuck with a half-finished website you have no idea what to do with.
Does it define what happens if either party wants to cancel the project?
Cancellation policies vary from agency to agency, but you should at least have some kind of out in the contract. Whether it's a certain number of days before work begins, or a percentage of the total project fee, make sure you're not locked in if things go south.
Does it define who owns the project after it's done?
Do you intend to keep the agency around to maintain the website after launch? Do they own it when it's done and simply let you have access to it, or is it your intellectual property? And most importantly, do you get a login to make edits when you need to?
These are just a few examples, but they should give you an idea of what to look for. If you're ever unsure about something in the contract, don't hesitate to ask for clarification.
The web design industry is, unfortunately, full of scammers and amateurs masquerading as professionals, but don't worry: it's not hard to spot them.
If you see egregious typos, consistently blurry photos, or broken links? Walk away.
If they try to pressure you or get impatient? Walk away.
If they bludgeon you over the head with tech jargon? That's just tacky. Walk away.
A website, no matter how small, is a significant undertaking that'll require you to work very closely with whoever you choose for several weeks, months, or even years. You have every right to be picky! If nothing else, it's gotta be someone you can stand being around that much.
Using the tools you've been given in this article, you should be plenty equipped to navigate the vast and fast-growing world of web design to find the web design company that suits your needs best.
And if you have any questions in the meantime, you can email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.