HOW TO: Hire a Great Web Designer, With Y Combinator’s Garry Tan

This post originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum, where Mashable regularly contributes articles about leveraging social media and technology in small business.

If you’re looking to hire a web designer, you probably have dozens of questions swirling around in your head: How do I really know if this “kid” is as good as he says he is? Will a work-from-home designer slack off and overcharge me? Will my website look awful if I use a cheaper designer from overseas?

Garry Tan knows more than most do about hiring great web design talent. As the designer-in-residence for Y Combinator, a highly influential startup incubator, he’s compiling a directory of the best web design talent around the world, which means he spends a lot of time poring over portfolios, client lists and resumes.

When it comes to finding a phenomenal web designer for a small or new company — especially one with a strong web component — Tan knows how to find the right people at a good price. Here are his insights on how to hire a great web designer.

Mashable: Does the adage, “You get what you pay for” always hold true with web designers? Can you find phenomenal talent that’s less expensive by looking for remote employees or younger designers?

Tan: I think it’s really about risk. If you are willing to take on some project risk, you can reduce cost. A local designer whom you can meet and has a great track record will give you consistent output, and for some, that is worth it on its own.

That being said, you can get remarkable talent from both remote and overseas designers. Eastern Europe seems to be a source of a lot of high quality work. If you have an eye for visual design, you can pick out young designers fresh out of school based on their portfolio. All of these options are great ways to save on cost.

Mashable: For the less technically minded hiring manager, what are the tell-tale signs of a bad web designer? Are there any tell-tale signs of a good one?

Tan: This is a tough one. There’s a reason why people should be managed by people who have done the work before — they have a clear way to evaluate talent and performance. My advice would be to ask a friend or colleague whom you trust to evaluate the output and determine if it comes to fairly qualitative measures of aesthetics, fitting your brand, etc.

That’s why some managers rely so heavily on quantitative measures — if you measure it, you know if it’s working from a business perspective.

Mashable: Is there any particular advantage to having an on-site designer as opposed to one who works remotely?

Tan: There are definite advantages. So much communication happens nonverbally, and being able to whiteboard is tremendously valuable. It significantly helps you and your designer work together to find solutions faster.

Mashable: At what point does a company need to hire a full-time web designer instead of working with contractors or freelancers?

Tan: For startups on the web, design is often a fundamental differentiator. It’s important to have a design leader in the company as early as possible — and he should be given say over schedules, deadlines and product strategy.

Usually, the issue is that the founding team doesn’t have that capability and can’t hire founder-level design talent. But you do your best — freelancers and contractors can get you pretty far. A trusted design firm or good design freelancer can create the brand and set the visual language for a site with a contract at the beginning, and your team can basically use and remix those elements to great effect moving forward.

Mashable: What’s your take on outsourcing work to super-cheap designers in, for example, India?

Tan: I don’t really care where a designer is — it is more important that they do good work, and that shows in their portfolio and communication styles. All the issues with working remotely are magnified, however — be prepared to have calls very early in the morning or late at night.

Mashable: When you come across a web designer with a trendy-looking portfolio and a slew of social media profiles, does that send certain signals to you? If so, are those signals mostly positive, negative or neutral?

Tan: I focus on the portfolio and the work they’ve done. Most everything else related to how much they use social media is not really an indicator.

Mashable: Does a web designer necessarily need to be a cultural fit in order to turn out great work for an organization?

Tan: For contract work, no. For full-time work, yes. Culture fit is at the heart of any successful team. Products are created by teams, and teams are created by the personalities and motivations of their people.

Mashable: Is there a single, most important thing for hiring managers to keep in mind when looking for a great web designer?

Tan: Empathy is the most important trait a great and well-rounded designer will exhibit — an awareness of the experiences of other people.

An eye for visual design is another one, but that’s more of an innate trait — either you have it or you don’t. It’s a mix of creativity and the ability to identify great work. That’s almost unrelated to empathy, and it’s a certain craftsmanship that is necessary but not sufficient. It won’t make or break your product.

Great interaction design and product design is the core that will make or break your product. How it works influences the visceral and functional reactions of your customers or users. The only way a designer can successfully create interactions for other people is via his ability to wipe his own desires and context and replace it with that of one of your users.

Empathy is that editing eye, but for great interaction.

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