Rob Marsh
Filed under Design Process.

How to Work with a Graphic Designer—The Ultimate Guide

For the past 20 years I have worked closely with some of the best designers in the world, creating everything from logo designs to television ads, catalog pages to direct mailers. I’ve worked with them as a collaborator, partner, supervisor, and as a client. So when it comes to the proper care and feeding of designers, I’ve learned a thing or two.

But many people have never worked with a graphic designer before. Others have had a bad experience working with a designer in the past and don’t want to repeat it. We don’t blame you.

Working closely with a great designer can be a rewarding, fun experience. Sometimes it feels more like play, than work. Together you can create something amazing. But to make sure the process goes smoothly, there are a few things you might keep in mind to make sure the experience is a good one.

Here’s our list of “30 Things to Do when Working with a Designer”:

How to Work with a Designer #1. Be Prepared.
Before you even think of hiring a designer, you need to do some work first. Lo
oking for a logo? Then you need to know what your business or product will do. And you need a company name (naming isn’t something most designers do). If you a hiring a designer to create a website or brochure, you should have the copy already written and ready to go. Photos too, if you are providing them. If you have wireframes for your website, even better. The more information you can provide to your designer, the better.

#2. Know Your Target Market.
Before you talk to a designer, you need to know who will be using your product or service. Who is the design supposed to communicate with? Who will make the decision to buy your product? What exactly do you want your customer to do when they see the design? In order to create a design the delivers on your objectives, your designer will need to know about your buyers and what you want them to do.

#3. Know the Message You Want to Communicate.
If you need a logo, you need to share with your designer what you want your customers to think or feel when they see your logo design. For a brochure or website, your designer will need to know what message you are communicating and how you want your customers to feel when they see or read it. Your designer should have a creative brief that will help you determine this.

#4. Choose Your Designer Carefully.
This can be time consuming, but is worth the effort. Make sure you spend as much time as possible seeking out a designer who you admire. Look through lots of design portfolios (like the ones here at You’ll find some other good ones at Logo Lounge, Behance, and Dribble. Invest a few hours looking through the work of lots of designers. This will help you identify the kind of work you like, and it will help you find designers who can do what you need.

#5. Avoid Design Contest Sites.
There are several design sites that promise to deliver dozens or even hundreds of concepts for you to choose from when you post a job on their site. Before you go this route, you need to know that most of the designers who work on these projects don’t get paid for the work they give you. That often means that the designers working on your project don’t have any experience, or they post the same concept to different projects until they sell it (meaning it’s not original), and in some cases they plagiarize work from other designers and post it as their own. Do you really want to take that kind of risk on your project?

#6. Know Who Your Designer Is (If You Aren’t Working One-on-One).
If you are working with a design company or a team of designers, make sure you know who will be working on your project before you hire them. You don’t want to pick a design agency based on the work of the senior partners only to have an intern assigned to your project. If you don’t know who will be working on your project before you start, or if the company changes designers half-way through the process without your input, find another designer.

#7. Talk Directly with Your Designer.
It is critical that you can communicate directly with the designer working on your project—in person, on the phone, or via Skype. Too much nuance is lost in translation if you can’t talk directly whenever needed.

#8. Give Them Reference Materials.
As you and your designer talk about your target customers and what you want to accomplish with your design, be sure to share any reference materials you have with your designer. These may include previous marketing materials, samples of other websites or designs that you like, or anything else that may help the designer understand what you expect from the project.

#9. Don’t Expect Your Designer to Copy Other Work.
Although you should show your designers examples of other work that you like, don’t expect your designer to copy that work. (If they do, fire them and find a new designer). Your designer will use reference materials as a guide to create something similar, but a good designer will change and improve the designs to make them original to you and to better meet your specific needs.

Bad Design Advice: Surprise Me #10. Never Ask to be Surprised.
When giving direction to your designer, don’t say things like, “Surprise me,” or “I’ll know it when I see it.” This is almost always a dead-end and will lead to disappointment. You have to give your designer some direction as to what you want and a few limitations on what you don’t want to see. If you can’t do this, go back to #1 and think about it a bit longer. Even vague direction like, “Nothing cliché, I’d like something very different from my competitor” is better than nothing.

#11. Avoid Vague Feedback Like “Make it Pop!”
Having said that, when you review the work you get from your designer, you’ll want to be as specific as possible about what you like and don’t like. Feedback like “Make it pop!” isn’t very helpful. Same goes for, “I’m not sure, but it just doesn’t’ feel right.” Try something more like, “The headline seems to get lost against that background. Is there a way to make it stand out better so it is more readable?” or “Can we try different colors, these colors don’t feel friendly enough.”

#12. Be Available to Provide Feedback.
Throughout the design process, your designer will be doing research and trying to figure things out. A good designer will think deeply about your project and will undoubtedly have questions about all kinds of thing—your customers, images that might work best, what your competitors are doing, better ways to communicate your ideas, and so on. Make sure you are there to answer questions as soon as possible. Sometimes your designer needs more information before they can explore an idea further or finish up a revision.

#13. Don’t Rush the Process.
Although it often looks easy, design takes time. The designer needs time to try several different directions, figure out which ones work and which ones don’t, then optimize and perfect the best options. This almost always takes a few days and can sometimes be as long as a week or more, depending on the scope of the work being done. If your designer says it will take a few days, don’t push them to deliver it sooner or you may not get their best work.

#14. Insist on Seeing Work in Progress.
While this isn’t always appropriate, and some designers will hate this request, you should ask to see work in progress—especially if the work is complex, like a multi-page website. Make sure you see a comp or two of a home page, before your designer goes to the work of creating the whole site. It is also appropriate to see comps for a logo project to make sure you and your designer are on the same page. Feedback early on in the process will save your designer hours of work down the road.

#15. When You Review, Remember Your Customer.
As you review the initial ideas your designer presents to you, remember who the designs are supposed to appeal to—your customers. Too often business owners give feedback based on their own preferences, rather than what their customers will be looking for. Before you do, take a step back and remember the purpose you are trying to communicate and who it is for (probably not you).

#16. Don’t Make Changes One by One.

When you provide feedback to your designer, it will save you time and money to provide as much as you can at once. Don’t send one revision today, another later this afternoon, and still another tomorrow. Each time your designer needs to make a change, they startup their design software, load your project and the associated images and fonts, and then start addressing your input. Providing all your feedback at once will save your designer a lot of time (and you a lot of money).

#17. Know What You Are Asking For.
If it feels like designers have their own language, it’s because they do: masks, outlines, layers, gradients, PNGs—the list is a long one. We recently heard of a client who asked for a section of his website to be put in Italian. After assuring the designer that is what he wanted, the designer dutifully translated the text to Italian. Upon seeing this, the client was upset: “Why isn’t it slanting like I asked?” He wanted Italics, not Italian (there’s a big difference). When talking with your designer, make sure you know what you are asking for. If you don’t, talk it out with your designer. They are there to help you figure it out.

#18. Trust Your Designer’s Advice.
Almost nobody second-guesses a heart doctor when he suggests you might need a particular test. And you probably don’t tell your accountant that she should fill out your tax documents in a different color or format because you like it better that way. Assuming your designer has a bit of experience under his or her belt, trust that they know what they are doing. They should welcome your feedback, but don’t tell them how to do their job.

How to Work with a Designer: Don't Backseat Drive #19. Don’t Back-Seat Drive.
If you did your homework when searching for the right designer (see #4), then your designer should know what they are doing. Don’t ask to sit over their shoulder while they work on compositions or make revisions. Don’t second-guess design elements without a good reason. Let them do what you hired them to do.

#20. Be Clear about Deadlines and Costs.
If you need something done by Friday, don’t wait until Thursday night to let your designer know. (Also know that there is a difference between final files ready to print and comps ready for a presentation—make sure your designer knows which ones you need.) If you only have a limited budget for your project, tell your designer before you start. They will figure out exactly what they can provide and let you know what they can deliver for your budget.

#21. Meet Your Deadlines.
Obviously you should expect your designer to meet the deadlines they promise. But you need to meet your deadlines too. If your designer needs the text for your website by Wednesday so they can complete the designs by Friday, then make sure they have it on time, so they can finish the work they’ve promised to deliver.

#22. Put Everything in Writing.
Your designer should have a standard design contract that they use to outline what the deliverables are for your project, what it will cost, when you can expect to see them, who owns the final artwork, kill fees, and more. This protects you as much as it protects them. Make sure you put it all down in a signed document.

#23. Don’t Design by Committee.
Because design can be subjective and everyone has a slightly different idea of what they want, trying to make design decisions in a committee is very difficult. And sending feedback to your designer from more than one person often ends up in the designer making a change for one person, then changing it back to make the next person happy. If there is more than one decision maker, make sure they get together to provide feedback to your designer.

#24. Be Prepared to Sell the Designs.
If your job is to work with a designer to come up with something to present to your boss or someone else, then be prepared to help sell the designs you’ve asked your designer to create. Remember to share who the customer is, what the design is supposed to accomplish, and what you and the designer have done so far to create a design that will work. Don’t leave it to your designer to sell the work. As an outsider, they’ll need your help to get approvals.

#25. Don’t Forward Comps without Explanation.
When your designer sends compositions or revisions to you, don’t forward them on to someone else without explaining the process so far and what you’ve done to get the designs to this point. Asking someone who has no understanding of the project to respond to a design is a recipe for rework, revision, and going over budget.

#26. Don’t Expect Quick Turn-Arounds.
If you’re working with a good designer, they no doubt have other clients and projects. Don’t expect them to be able to drop everything to turn around a project for you without notice. If you need this kind of service, talk to them before hand (it will generally require you to pay a retainer). In general, your designer will do everything they can to get your work done as quickly as possible.

#27. Don’t Be a Jerk.
This goes without saying. Your designer is human. They will occasionally make mistakes or not understand your direction. Saying things like, “My eighth grade daughter can do that,” will almost always cause more harm than good. Try to be understanding as you work together. Good designers will do the same for you.

#28. Pay Them Promptly.
When you hire a designer, you are paying for design—which means the payment is due when the design is delivered, not when the site goes live, or when the printed material is mailed, or when you make your first sale. Pay your designer as soon as you receive the final design files.

#29. Don’t Change Your Design Too Soon.
Too many businesses get bored with their designs or logo because they see it so often. They get tired of it long before their customers do and they want to change it. This is good for designers who then get another project (and another paycheck). But it’s not always good for your business. Stick with your designs until they stop working, not until they feel boring.

#30. Enjoy the Process,
Being part of the creative process, solving marketing problems, creating design solutions that work is fun and exciting. We call it work, but in a lot of ways, it’s like play. It’s meant to be enjoyable, so have fun while working with your designer.


Can you think of any advice we missed? Add it in the comments: