Freelance designers have the potential to be an incredible asset for your project. But they can also be a curse. I would know: I've spent my fair share of time on both sides of the collab.
There have been literal match-made-in-heaven projects, where the designer grasps the vision perfectly and runs with it. On the flip side, I've spent many hours on frustrating communication and revision requests, only to walk away with a design that's subpar at best.
Between struggling through the communication barrier (because designers speak their own language), onboarding a new freelancer, and trying to communicate your vision, you might find yourself wondering whether the end result will be worth the effort.
I have good news: the outcome of collaborating with a freelance designer on your project doesn't have to be left up to the Fates. Here are a few things you can do to improve your work with freelance designers and increase the chances of project success.
1. Clarify your design project goals before hiring
As a designer, I quickly learned that there was a difference between design iterations and a phenomenon best described as shiny object syndrome.
Design iterations are a series of design tweaks and improvements that move toward a well-defined goal.
Shiny object syndrome is when you're neck-deep in a project, ready to wrap up, when a client, who approved the design layout one day, emails frantically the next, with five new layout ideas and a completely new angle for their website. (Based on a true story.)
I wish I could say that it's a rare occurrence, but shiny object syndrome hits hard when you're paying for something and haven't identified exactly what you want to accomplish and why. So take the time to define your design needs and expectations ahead of time. How? By writing a design brief.
How to write a design brief that communicates your vision
The design brief is a summary of the project specs and vision. Its purpose is two-fold:
Internally, it serves as a tool to help your team avoid crossed lines and unrealistic expectations for the duration of the design project.
Externally, it serves as the primary resource for the freelance designer.
I've seen design briefs that fall on two extremes: overly detailed and of objectionable length, or so short that they lacked necessary details. In either case, not helpful.
As a general rule, you'll want to give the designer information on your company, so they understand its brand personality, niche, and customers, as well as the practical requirements of the project at hand.
Here's the basic list of elements that I request for my freelance design briefs:
Company profile: Your business name, products, industry/niche, and unique selling point.
Target audience: Who are your marketing personas or ideal customers?
Competitor information: List a few of your top competitors, as well as how you would like to stand out from them.
Project overview and scope: What deliverables (tangible and intangible) do you need?
Project goals: What do you hope to achieve with this project?
Timeline / deadlines: How soon do you need the design to be fully completed?
Design requirements: Brand colors, typography, image dimensions, file formats required, and so on.
Treat the design brief like infallible scripture for the duration of the project. It will keep you and your designer on the same page.
2. Have a design resource file ready to go
Once your design brief is written and ready, it's time to do a final sweep of your design resources.
Your company logo files, brand photography, and icon sets should all be organized neatly in a cloud folder, to make it easy for your freelance designer to access whatever design assets they need throughout the project.
Do you have multiple versions of your logo? Old icon sets that you're phasing out? This is your chance to run an inventory to ensure that your designer isn't going to inadvertently use outdated graphics on your designs.
So what do you include in your design resource file? Ask your designer. Literally, ask them: "What design files do you need from us to make this job a success?" Logos (vector and raster versions), a list of brand colors, and typography files are all standard, but they might have other requests as well, especially depending on the type of designer it is. A marketing designer who's creating social media graphics will have a different set of requirements than a UX designer that you've hired to help clean up your website flow.
3. Agree on decision-makers
If there are multiple team members who will be reviewing the designs, you need to have a clear understanding of who will make the final call when questions come up. There are two points of contact that you should decide on ahead of time:
Someone to make the call/decision on any given design
Someone to communicate with the designer throughout the project
This could be the same person, but depending on how your team is structured, it's ok if they're different. While there might be some projects that call for multi-person design meetings, having a designated point of contact will help the designer gain quick clarity on their follow-up questions and know when they can move forward with a new iteration.
4. Value the designer's process
There's a long list of requirements that you'll communicate with your designer: deadlines, fonts, color choices, icon sets, and layout requirements, just to name a few. But the end result comes down to your designer's ability to combine industry expertise and their own creative magic.
Which is why it's important to work with freelancers who can communicate what this creative process will look like for your project—and that you both honor this process.
Kayla Fields, the designer behind Indibloom, a boutique design and marketing studio, likes to emphasize the importance of working with designers who can lead the project from start to finish: "Look for somebody that has a really clear outlined process. Somebody that lets you know from the beginning what's going to happen and when."
While you might be tempted to want to skip steps and get straight to the end, adhering to the process will ultimately give you higher-quality results.
5. Give feedback that moves the needle
Prep yourself for the simple fact that you and your designer do not speak the same language.
While it wouldn't hurt to be able to express your design needs in terms of values and hues (and know the difference between PPI and DPI), it's more important to know how—and when—to give clear and actionable feedback.
For example: you get a design back, and it's not only off-brand, but it also hits you in all the wrong places. Is it the wording? The colors? You don't know, but you hate it.
So what do you do? Take time to assess the image. Talk to a team member, if possible. Compare the design with others that are more what you're going for. Then run a check down the visual elements and write down your thoughts on each individual element using the following framework:
Mood/emotion: What emotion is it giving you as a whole? What do you want it to convey?
Elements: Are the photos, icons, and illustrations helping to convey the message? Are they distracting or too subtle?
Typography: Is the copy written correctly? Are the words easy to read at a glance? Are they too big or too small in proportion to the rest of the design?
Layout: Is it pleasing to the eye? Is it too busy or too minimal?
Colors: Are the brand colors used appropriately? Is there a color you'd rather see less of in the design, or one that you'd like to bring to the forefront more?
You still might not be able to pinpoint what you don't like about the design. But taking the time to analyze your own perception is important and will help you and your freelance designer find a better solution.
One last tip: If you find yourself struggling to communicate mood and brand vibe to your designer, try creating a Pinterest board (or Dropbox folder) of stock photos and marketing graphics that feel aligned with your company's brand. When I've done this as a client, it's helped the designer to get a better feel of what I wanted, especially when I wasn't exactly sure what words to use to describe my vision.
Design maintenance: What to do when your project ends
Design needs aren't static, so what happens when the project ends? Many designers offer retainer packages, so you might go that route and call on them for 10 design hours a month, for example. Others might prefer to simply work on a per-project basis, so you'll want to check in with them about their availability if needs come up.
And if you find a designer you really enjoy working with, make the effort to refer them to your business network. It's a great way to ensure their continued success and presence in the world of design.