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Being a graphic design client is a challenge – I know from experience because I too have been on the client’s end of design. Clients feel trepidation about the quality of work and general work ethic of the designer when hiring for the first time. “Will they understand my needs? Are they going to deliver outstanding work AND meet the deadline? How committed are they to seeing this project to a successful end?” are the questions that plague the client’s mind from the moment they shake hands on a design proposal. A seasoned client who has been working with designers for a while will have already developed a nose for sniffing out erratic and underperforming creatives, but for someone who is just dipping their toes in the water, vetting designers might seem daunting. Here are five red flags to keep an eye out for when hiring designers.
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1. Lack of real portfolio
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Eye candy case studies and mockups of made-up brands and projects the designer created in university do not count. A real portfolio demonstrates real-life experience with live brands and projects, which the designer brought to a successful end through hard work and dedication, patience, and thoughtful communication. In theory, a made-up case study could also show design skills and talent, but it wouldn’t guarantee that the creative understands how to communicate, problem-solve, handle feedback and understand the function of design. A made-up logo or product packaging could look pretty on screen, but it might not work in the real world.
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Stay away from designers who cannot show at least three to five case studies of live projects, ideally a dozen. Bonus points if the real case studies come from the industry you are in. To help you distinguish between real-world product shots in the portfolio and made-up mockups, here is an example from a recent rebranding and packaging project that I did for a nut butter brand. On the left you have a product mockup generated in Adobe PS (left) vs an actual photo of the real product on the right: 
2. No references from clients
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Ideally, the designer would be able to show positive references and testimonials from happy clients – the more, the better. If these positive references back up real-life case studies of projects for live brands, so much the better. A lack of such proof means the designer is either inexperienced and hasn’t had the time to collect positive feedback or is a pain to work with. Either way, you would want to steer clear. Ask the designer you are vetting for LinkedIn reviews and make sure you contact the clients who left them, asking for a first-hand description of how the project went.
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3. Lack of project management skills
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A big warning sign is when the designer does not appear to have a well-defined process for their design services. They don’t ask key questions about your brand and end goals, establish a clear timeframe, or set clear expectations about the deliverables. Formalities are also not taken care of – you don’t see an official proposal, contract, invoice, or transfer of copyrights document.
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A goal-driven graphic designer will guide the client through a seamless design process. They will make sure that the scope of work and timeframe is clear from the onset and they will get on an exploratory call and ask all the right questions. You will be given regular progress updates and all deadlines will be met without fail. Experienced designers understand that they have the burden of taking the lead and not expecting the client to know what information to give or even what type of design service they need. It is our job as design experts to project manage and do it well.
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4. Sub-par communication
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Pay close attention to whether the designer seems engaged in the initial conversation and see if they are responsive during working hours. Are they good listeners and do they ask questions and show interest in your brand? Do they feel open and present or closed off during the phone call or in-person meeting?
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Communication is the oil in the engine of a successful project. Without good communication, you get sub-par results even if the designer is a creative genius. Good design is functional and solves real-world problems. To solve the problem, the designer needs to collaborate with the client and communicate at a high level.
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5. Poor emotional control
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Just like with romantic relationships, it is essential to test for emotional maturity when looking for a viable design partner. Unfortunately, we designers have developed a bad rep for ourselves as being petulant and emotional. The Achilles’ heel of most creatives is that they can’t handle criticism well, which is also the first challenge a designer needs to overcome in order to grow. They need to come to terms with the reality that design is not art but visual problem-solving and they need to learn how to stay humble and learn from negative feedback. Personal preferences about favorite colors, design techniques and fonts should be set aside in the interest of delivering design that works in real life.
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To test if the candidate is mature enough to handle criticism, make a fuss about a certain color the designer used in a favourite project in their portfolio. Say that you don’t like it and think another color would be more appropriate and see how they react to your observation. If they stay calm and rationally explain to you the thought process behind their choice of color, then they have mastered emotional control and have learned to handle criticism.

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