John McWade’s advice for choosing a graphic designer

Posted January 21st @ 5:54 am by Roger C. ParkerPrint

Yesterday, the 51st issue of John McWade’s Before & After Magazine arrived containing an editorial about choosing a graphic designer.

I was so impressed with his editorial that I immediately asked him for permission to reprint his editorial as a guest post, and he agreed.

I’ve known John since my Looking Good in Print days; his articles and Before & After Magazine have been inspiring me–and tens of thousands of others–since the dawn of desktop publishing.

John burst upon the national design scene with a poster he created for Apple Computer that helped define quality desktop publishing design. His poster hung on the wall of my first office, and my offices that followed. (It’s a well-traveled poster.)

John’s designs, examples, and graphic design tutorials reflect a singular and consistent combination of impact and simplicity.

John McWade’s advice about choosing graphic designers

Awhile back, a colleague asked me for help in hiring a “creative services lead” to head up a new project for his business. What should he look for in a designer?

Here are the eight qualities I like:

  1. Passion, vision and self-motivation. Without these, you’ll be dragging a rock. Creativity is inventive, so you need someone who shares your vision. Nothing’s worse than a “what-do-you-want-me-to-do-next?” kind of designer. Well, no, yes there is. One who’s touchy and confusing, too.
  2. Vocabulary. A creative lead should be able to articulate what’s happening and why, in language that you and your staff can understand. If you start hearing vague terms like “pop” and “impact,” make him explain what he means. Listen for, “If we do A and B, we can expect C.” This is not trivial.
  3. Inquisitive intelligence. I love people who are curious about everything and approach life with a sense of wonder. Similarly, I want someone who’s taken the time to learn about my company and whose questions reflect that.
  4. Good conceptual skills. There are many ways to achieve any stated design goal. Conceptual skills find the new and interesting ones. You might articulate a hypothetical situation and ask her to describe three possible directions. The best concepts are often unrecognized at first, so prepare to get out of your box. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable. Go with it.
  5. A portfolio. You’ll know in 15 seconds the designer’s skill level. Compare his work to excellence that you’ve seen, and don’t compromise. If it’s below what you’re seeking, end the interview right there. Politely, please.
  6. Projects. If you see a lot of one-off stuff, no matter how attractive, it won’t tell you much; most designers can do nice, single pieces. Look for complete projects — Web site, print material and stationery, for example — that share a common look and purpose. Such work is more difficult to visualize, organize, and execute.
  7. Real-world experience. The emphasis here is on “real.” Always ask under what conditions a design was achieved. How did the designer interact with the client? What was the role of each? Time frame? Revisions? Budget? Fantastic “portfolio pieces” are less desirable than solid design done under realistic conditions. If you find both, cheer!
  8. Production skills. Your person will need production skills or know how to hire them. Nothing will slow you quicker than not being able to make something happen that you want to happen. Also, someone who understands typography is preferable to someone who can just type. Likewise, someone who understands Web coding is preferable to someone who can just run Dreamweaver.

It goes without saying that personalities must be compatible. Never hire an otherwise perfect candidate assuming that “he’ll change,” or that “you’ll change her.” You can usually feel the vibe right away. Trust it.

Even if you (both) like the vibe, it’s a good idea to establish a trial period. A person can be qualified and compatible, but for one reason or another can’t get the work done. You’re out of rhythm. Your work styles don’t jell. Something was misunderstood. Whatever the case, give yourselves at least a 90-day period in which either of you can terminate employment at will, for no cause at all. This is good for both of you. Creative work comes from love, passion and relationship. It can’t be faked.

Consider hiring and working long distance. Design is perfect for this, what with live chat and e-mail and FTP sites. I’ve worked with designers for 20 years who I’ve yet to meet face to face! If face time is really important, fly in once a month. That said, remember that it’s a slow market, and you may find the perfect someone who’d love to transfer to your area!

If your designer works from home, arrange for a trial period. I had a designer who tried working from home and his productivity plummeted, yet another thrives at home.

There are, of course, exceptions to all of this.

If you appreciate design…

If you want to learn more about graphic design and dealing with graphic designers, I encourage you to explore the numerous resources available on John McWade’s Before & After site. Resources include  a free email newsletter (with 81,000 subscribers),  an active Design Talk blog, dozens of free PDF previews of previous issues, 3 published books, and his 50-issue Before & After Master Collection DVD. A good starting point is his free, 18-page PDF Table of Contents, (no registration required).


  1. Conor Neill
    January 22, 2012

    Great tips, and so true – you won’t get better work than already in the portfolio ;-)

  2. K. Weber
    January 25, 2012

    Thx Roger, for this resource. Great summary on how to choose, which I’m about to do. And I just signed up McWade’s Enewsletter. Cheers

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