web design

Checklist: How to Choose a Design Agency

As a kind of add-on to another project, we helped a non-profit client select a design and development agency to re-design their website. As part of that work, we assembled an extensive checklist of questions to ask the candidates. With our client's permission, we've reproduced the list here.

Experience

  • For the key people working on your web project, how much experience do they have?
  • Confirm which staff will actually be working on the project.

Subject matter expertise

  • Have they developed other sites for non-profit organizations?
  • Have they developed other sites related to your particular cause?
  • What is their background or experience in search engine optimization?

Aesthetics

  • Do all of the web projects they've recently worked on have a similar aesthetic? That's okay, as long as you like that look and feel.
  • In your initial conversations about the aesthetic you're after, does the agency staff communicate in language that you can understand? Are they able to articulate back to you what you're after?

Technology

  • What technologies (platforms like WordPress or Drupal and development environments like Ruby or PHP) do they have experience with?
  • Do they have expertise in a particular technology? If so, ask them when it's not appropriate to use that technology? You want to avoid an agency where every problem looks like the perfect nail for their hammer.
  • What changes will you be able to make to the site without their aid, or that of another designer? Ask for a demonstration on another site they’ve worked on of how to make those changes.
  • What CRM systems (such as Convio, Democracy in Action and so forth) do their technologies integrate with?
  • What CRM systems have they completed recent integration projects with?
  • What are the staff training implications of the technology choices the agency makes?
  • Can you to talk to a customer for whom they completed an integration project?
  • Have they talked to you about the mobile audience, and how their design will accommodate users on smaller screens?
  • Do they talk about where and how to host your web project? Do they have a relationship with hosting companies?
  • What considerations does the agency give to web accessibility?

Support and Maintenance

  • Do they offer ongoing support?
  • How much does ongoing support cost?
  • What response time do they offer with their support package?
  • Can you talk to one of their customers who have been a longtime user of their support services? You want to talk to somebody for whom the honeymoon period is over.

Budgeting

  • How will billing work?
  • What systems and practices do they have in place to ensure that they don't exceed the agreed-upon budget?
  • What happens if they find they need to exceed the budget?
  • In their proposal, have they accounted for additional costs unrelated to staffing, such as stock photography or software subscriptions?

Process

  • What are the milestones associated with their development process?
  • What are the deliverables associated with each of these milestones?
  • Are they comfortable with hitting the deadline you've identified?
  • Who will be the project manager on the project. Ask if you can have a quick call with this person, to gauge their likability and communication style.
  • How many design revisions are included in the process? That is, how many steps are there between the first draft and the final one.
  • If you need to register a new domain, who will do this?
  • Will the agency have a role in developing the website content? If so, what?
  • Do you have multi-language needs? If so, has the agency worked on other multi-language sites?

Other

  • Do you actually like the people at the agency? You're going to be working with them for months.
  • Who will own the source files (Photoshop files and such) associated with the project after their work is complete?
  • Who will own the copyrights associated with their work on your web project?
  • Have they genuinely attempted to understand your organization's goals for the web project?
  • Do they speak in web marketing lingo, using terms like 'conversions' and 'calls to action'? While it's not hard to fake this, a few probing questions about previous projects should separate the fakers from the experts.
  • Where is the agency located? A few in-person meetings can go a long way.
  • Do they outsource their work? If so, what parts and to whom?
  • Has the agency asked about the demographics of your audience? If many of them are elderly, for example, or in the developing world, then they'll want to factor these issues into their designs.
  • What is their reputation? Ask your colleagues if they've heard of the agency, and what they think of them.

Welcome to Capulet 4.0

We started Capulet back in April, 2003. While living in Ireland, we bought the site address from a domain squatter for about €300, and then paid some Irish folks to mock us up a logo and some business cards. I taxed my meagre design skills, and devised this rather embarrassing website. Hey, what can I tell you? Those were simpler times. Eight years later, you're looking at the fourth version of Capulet.com. We've had Capulet 3.0, powered by Drupal, for nearly five years. I wrote about that redesign on my personal site.

We commissioned our friends at Giant Ant to produce the design. How did we arrive at this particular look and feel? Good question.

We began with thinking about a new wordmark for Capulet. Our old logo felt pretty tired. We'd outgrown it. One of our colleagues said that "it looks like the logo of a part-time, freelance editor of romance novels". That's not far off. To replace it, we were looking for something bold and contemporary. We looked at a variety of options, but this one, with it's clever play on transparency, felt like the right fit. You can see some of Giant Ant's early sketches below (click to enlarge):

EarlyLogoArt

With a decision reached on the logo, we wanted to extend those ideas with a site that reflected the imaginative, risky work that we do when we're at our best. The old site's aesthetic felt a little too corporate and safe for the agency we'd become.

Years ago I read this great manifesto about corporate site design. It contains the simple but powerful idea that companies are mostly just people:

Decide who the Ambassador of your company will be, take a photo of him or her, and put it on the front page of your site to welcome each new visitor personally.

Ever since, we've felt that it's important for site visitors to see who they're hiring, right on the home page of the site.

We presented a bunch of ideas to Giant Ant, and cited a couple of sites as inspiration. After agreeing on wireframe layouts, these are a couple of the first drafts we looked at:

GreyLayout

We liked them, but we were looking for something a little more brazen. We did some more thinking, and introduced an aesthetic that we figured could help make the design more unusual. It's a kind of textured, mid-century look that you can find in the wonderful posters of Olly Moss (don't miss his Star Wars trilogy), and the striking credits sequence in "Catch Me If You Can":

Based on this feedback, Giant Ant produced a great set of second draft ideas. The current website is remarkably close to one variation of those revisions.

We're delighted with the result, and hope you like it, too.