How to Hire a Designer

Design Staffing: When to Hire, When to Contract, and When to Bring in an Agency

Your new exciting new project needs more hands on deck. Will you hire or bring in outside help? Here’s a quick run down on your options and what to expect.

Your company has a huge opportunity to corner the market. In other words, you have a huge project coming up. That’s exciting! But also maybe a little scary. Maybe it’s something extensive, high-profile, or recurring — or maybe it’s just critical to your success.

As you’ve diligently been reviewing and revising your roadmap, you’ve realized you cannot do this with only the team you have. So how will you get the help you need to bring the project in on time and on budget?

Typically, when you need significant product design and UX help you have three choices:

  1. You can hire a full-time designer.
  2. You can contract a freelancer to work with your team.
  3. You can outsource the project to an agency.

I’m frequently asked, “Which solution is right for us?” The answer is that it depends — on your needs and on the challenges you are facing.

Let’s go through each of these options (plus a surprise fourth option) and look at the factors that determine the best choice for you.


Hiring a Full-Time Designer

Your first option is to bring the expertise in-house. There are lasting benefits to making this investment if you see a long-term need for it, but bringing in a new hire takes the most internal effort and your roadmap may not establish a need for a permanent solution.

To make this work — assuming you have the budget — you must have the leadership in place to manage the hire, as well as an existing product development process in place to plug the designer into. You also need the engineering bandwidth to support full-time work. I cannot stress these points enough.

The benefits you can expect when you hire a full-time designer:

  • An always-available design brain and resource
  • Expertise and knowledge that will grow over time
  • A person who takes a deeper ownership of the work
  • A lot of small questions/challenges answered through “over the cubicle wall” conversation
  • A fun, cool, smart person to grab a beer with

Challenges to consider:

  • It will often take longer to justify, find, hire, and onboard a permanent employee.
  • Hiring requires infrastructure you may not be ready for.
  • Growth and skill development for a new employee requires nurturing and ramp-up time.
  • Will you have work for the employee when this project is complete?
  • A full-time employee with benefits can be more expensive.

The bottom line: Hiring is a long-term commitment. If you aren’t sure if you need an in-house designer then you probably don’t.


Contracting a Freelance Designer

Your second option is to bring in a freelance designer to work with your team on a contract basis. To make this work effectively you will need to get your ducks in a row.

That means establishing a defined set of design requirements, and a complete scope, including budget and timing. You will need a clear product development process to plug the designer into, and someone to orient and be a point of contact and liaison with the designer. You will also usually expect to assume ownership of the design when the scope of work is complete.

The benefits you can expect when you contract a freelance designer:

  • Flexible allocation of the designer’s effort
  • A focused resource that will get right to work on the project
  • A cost-effective path to market
  • A specific skill set when you need it — not more than you need

Challenges to consider:

  • An inconsistent process can create accountability risks.
  • You will need to manage and work collaboratively with the designer as an extension of your team.

The bottom line: Working with a freelancer can get you out of a tough spot with a smaller budget investment, but this is not a silver bullet that you set and forget.


Outsource to a Design Agency

Another common option when embarking on a new project is to outsource the project to a design agency. Here you are bringing on not just a designer, but a self-sufficient team that typically includes project management, content writing, and often front-end engineering.

This makes your job easier, but it also relinquishes some direct control. You will need to define your business goals, but you’re going to conform to the agency’s product development process. They may write code, but they aren’t going to change their specific way of approaching it just to align with your own engineering team.

The benefits you can expect when you outsource to a design agency:

  • Project planning and a reliable, defined process
  • A large list of past clients that can provide references
  • A range of services beyond just design — possibly including developers, brand strategists, and marketing
  • Access to a broad range of experts
  • Name recognition (hey, it can matter)

Challenges to consider:

  • Working with an agency can result in a less flexible process — and can be especially awkward if you have team members whose job descriptions overlap the agency scope of work.
  • You sacrifice direct control over each step of the process.
  • Costs will generally be much higher than with a freelancer.

The bottom line: Most agencies are worth the money you pay — if your team is looking for a finished product regardless of the process that gets you there. That said, be careful to vet an agency’s work and don’t fall for a dog and pony show.


Collaborate With Nonfiction

Did we say three options? Actually there is a fourth option. Us. We don’t quite fit into any of the categories above — instead we’re the perfect blend. Our consulting services provide more direction than a freelancer and we work more independently. Yet we work more collaboratively and are not as disruptive to your product engineering process as a large agency would be. In fact, we’re well practiced at tailoring our process to dovetail nicely with your Agile development team.

Before you work with us you will want to define your business goals and the scope of the project, in regards to budget and timing. Plus, you should know who you’ll nominate to be your point of contact with us. We’ll help you from there to get your project from concept to launch.

The benefits you can expect when you collaborate with Nonfiction:

  • Project planning and process you can rely on
  • Flexible allocation of work
  • A cost-effective path to market
  • Collaborative planning and value to augment your in-house expertise
  • A specific skill set when you need it — not more than you need
  • Access to our network of experts and specialists

Challenges to consider:

  • We’ll hang our hat on the quality of our UX/UI design because it’s the service we devote ourselves to — but our specialization may not be what your team needs right now.

The bottom line: We’re pretty awesome. You should give us a shout.


Making the Decision

Ultimately, it’s your choice which solution is best for you. Whiteboard out a list of your goals and the things blocking you from achieving them. Weigh that against the pros and cons of each option we talked about above.

If you’re still feeling unsure, reach out — a conversation with us will help you better evaluate your options. In the meantime, we leave you with this one last piece of advice:

Whatever you do, be sure to do your homework before you choose. Ask lots of questions. Your project depends on making a decision with the best interests of your team in mind.