Know Thy Role

all killer.  no filler.

Why graphic designers don’t always make the best web designers & often times, don’t know how to actually develop a custom website.

avoid web frustrationIn addition to our in-house graphic designers who have a niche for digital production, we also work with freelance graphic designers on a regular basis and have the utmost respect for their talents. We love their creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that generally make for really interesting, unique and custom website designs.

If we’re working with a freelance graphic designer or a company’s internal graphic design team, we always seem to have to continually educate them on what can and can’t be done when it comes down to actually turning their designs into a functioning website or a custom WordPress theme. We hear the words “pixel perfect” all the time, but what exactly does that mean?

Yes, we can develop the website “pixel perfect” – no problem; but when we’re provided with a work file at 1,920 pixels wide and 1,000 pixels tall, how will that appear on a user’s monitor that’s set for a resolution either smaller or larger than those parameters? How will that design work on a tablet (portrait & landscape)? How will that design work on a smart phone or another mobile device (portrait & landscape)?  It’s one thing to provide a web developer with an awesome design – it’s something totally different making that design work for the best user experience.

Most of the freelance graphic designers we work with leave the “mobile creative” up to us, giving us creative license to make their design work across all platforms and all orientations.  That’s cool – we have the talents here to do that and from a development standpoint, the user experience trumps design every day of the week; and twice on Sundays.

This talk about being “pixel perfect” brings up a story that I still think about very often.

We’ve been doing this a long time (we’re one of the most established web design & development agencies in Arizona) and the projects that we manage go very smoothly.  I don’t say this to toot our own horn, but that’s the way we roll. We keep our clients informed, we offer 100% of our talents and resources to ensure that our clients are taken care of and constantly informed every step of the way.  Are we perfect? No, but being that we establish a relationship with each of our clients, everyone’s comfortable talking about, and handling any issues that might come up.

Anyway, we were working with a freelance graphic designer who we’ve worked with on several web projects in the past.  Interestingly, those projects always seemed to have hiccups, speed-bumps, and there were always issues with communication, project expectations and overall project scope.

We received the layered Photoshop file of the design that we were to make a custom WordPress theme out of.  We saw some things that were “off”… they didn’t look right.  We went above and beyond cleaning up broken image borders, spaces between the photo and the photo border, sizing of page divider images, etc.  We spent a pretty good amount of time and effort cleaning up the work that the client approved.  Awesome, I thought.  We’re really enhancing a good design and we’re catching things that were missed both by the graphic designer as well as the client. That’s what partners do – they check each other’s work.  During regular phone calls and check-ins, these little “tweaks” were mentioned and not much more was discussed. All good… so I thought.

So, as we’re developing this custom WordPress theme, I get a phone call from this freelance graphic designer.  The issue about being “pixel perfect” comes up.  We talk about the irregularities that we found and fixed, we talk about how we’ve talked about this before.  We’re instructed to (and I quote) “All you need to do is make this “pixel perfect”.  But… but… but…OK.  That’s what we’ll do.  So, we continue to find abnormalities in the design, but now, we’re instructed to make things “pixel perfect”.  That’s what we do.  I definitely don’t want another one of these types of phone calls.  Guess what happens?  Yep, you guessed it. We continue to develop the provided graphic file “pixel perfect”.  Not correcting anything that we see, and then there’s a “major problem”.  What’s that? I ask.  “Well”, I’m told; “You should have known to fix those things you saw”.  Ughh….

So what’s the issue?

The issue comes down to education.

  • Education for freelance graphic designers, who advertise themselves as web designers, but cannot convert their designs into a website.
  • Education on project expectations.  What’s included in the project.  How far can the developer go to correct things without stepping on anyone’s toes?
  • Education on client expectations.  This one always gets me.  With the example below, I later found out that the client never saw the development site!  Seriously… the one who should be more involved than anyone else, never received the development link for review.  (We’ll talk about this in a couple of minutes).
  • Education on expected deliverables from the developer.  When a freelance graphic designer suggests that they know how to “create a custom website”, it’s critical to fully understand the scope of the project and what is expected from the developer.  This often starts with the question “Who is the client?” If the developer is working FOR the freelance graphic designer (as in the case noted above), the graphic designer is the client. Period.  It’s up to that person to act as liaison between the end client and the development team.
  • And finally, and most important: Education for the end user; the client.  The one who’s actually footing the bill for their website to be developed into something that will work for them.  The end user needs to know what questions to ask and knows who is running the show.
    • Is the freelance graphic designer actually the one developing the code?
    • If there are issues, who do I call?
    • Can I talk directly with the developers coding the site to match the design provided?
    • What about support?  Who’s going to be training me on maintaining the website, adding content, changing photos, etc.?
    • What about uploading new images?  What size do they need to be?
    • If there’s custom work to be done? Who’s supporting that?  Do I need to always go through the graphic designer to make changes?
    • If the freelance graphic designer advertises and represents themselves as “website designers”, and they subcontract the work out… does the client have a right to know who’s actually doing the work? (Yes, in my opinion).
      • This brings up a slew of complications.  If we charge the freelance graphic designer one price for web development work; and the graphic designer turns around and charges the client an inflated price… what are we supposed to tell the client when they ask? (It’s happened).
      • How are changes handled? Who approves them? The graphic designer? The client? What happens if the graphic designer approves it, but the client doesn’t?  Is that a change?
      • Who’s authorized to make the changes?
      • When does billing convert to be direct-to-client (if at all)?
      • Besides the obvious ones named above… the biggest challenge professional web developers face when working with an “intermediary”… SCOPE CREEP.  What’s included in the project? What was promised to the client? What was relayed to the development team? Would it shock anyone to know that these things don’t always add up?
        • I’ve heard it all… “I thought that was included”; well… “I need you to cover me on this one”; “I’ll make it up on the next project”; “What am I supposed to tell the client”, etc.

I don’t wanna sound like I’m on a rant, but freelance graphic designers who represent themselves as a web designer need to know (and understand) their core-competence.  Additionally, they need to understand the whole reason they’re making the margin on development teams is to manage their client and the project in general.

Getting back to the topic above, where we talk about client expectations.  This is directly related to the freelance graphic designer / freelance web designer.

If a freelance graphic designer / freelance web designer is outsourcing the development, they need to know how to manage the client & project. From a developer’s standpoint, the freelancer is the client – not the client.  Weird, huh? At the same time, it would really be transparent if the end user / client knew who was doing what, and who’s responsible for what.

Digital EducationSo, what about the freelance graphic / web designer who wants a development company to be the “invisible man”?  That’s cool.  We work with dozens of media/press agencies where that’s exactly the case.  Here’s the difference.  That media/press agency is billing us out at X number of dollars an hour, while we charge them Y number of dollars an hour.  All good there because the steady stream of projects is worth the discount to the web development agency.  But, the reputable media/press agencies who understand this relationship also understand that to earn this margin, they’ll need to put forth some effort.  That effort is with managing their client, acting as triage with any support issues, change requests, etc.  More often than not, they have this covered perfectly and they establish and maintain their relationship with their client while at the same time providing additional “value-add’ services that web agencies provide.  No problem!  We do it every day!

The issue for the client working with a freelance graphic designer or a freelance web designer is a matter of responsibility and ownership.  The client has a single point of contact – their graphic/web designer.  They often times don’t realize that a digital agency is actually the ones doing the work.  The freelancer wants all the upside (making margin), but they don’t want to work for it.  We have solutions for that too – it’s called a referral.

Bottom line?

Freelance graphic designers (freelance web designers) might not always know how to code and develop what they present.  Other graphic designers who want to play “project manager” don’t know how to manage a digital project.  As the end user, the client, the one who’s writing the check… ask the questions. Be informed. Become educated. Don’t be afraid to question why things are taking longer than they should be done, reviewed, or launched. Managing a digital project has an enormous number of moving pieces and more often than not, the task of managing the project should go to the person/firm most qualified to do so.  It’ll save a bunch of headaches along the way, plus… the client will end up being happier! That’s the goal.