I'm a bit of a hacker. I like to play around in my WordPress site. Sometimes I even alter the HTML. I know, radical. But I'm not a designer. I pay people to do that, and I expect they are going to do things in such a way that makes my life easier. What I have learned this year: You win some, you lose some.
Several years ago I found a designer online who built me two websites on a theme he had designed himself. I was able the hack the hell out of that thing over the years and make it do exactly what I wanted it to do. Almost. When it was time for an overhaul, and some "prettification" I contacted him. To my horror he was out of the design biz.
No worries. I opened my big mouth and soon had several designers pitching me their services. I opted for the one who made my decision easiest, assuming that kind of proactive strategy would transfer over to the actual design of my site. I ignored the one who wanted to talk through my objectives, desires, and needs for the website. Mistake number one.
When the design started trickling in, it was prettier than what I had had before. I was prematurely delighted. When it was finished I didn't ask too many questions because I didn't have the time to immediately do a thorough testing of my site's new and improved functionalities. (Besides, that's what designers are for, right?) Mistake number two.
There were many other mistakes along the way and I am still learning. So far, here are the three most important things I've found that need to be discussed with a designer on the front end.
1 :: Customization of your website
There are a gazillion ready made and easily customizable themes for WordPress, and I'm only addressing WordPress here because that's all I know. But web designers like to customize things. And if you really want it the way you want it, you can't just use a theme off the shelf. But customization adds cost, and more importantly, can cause problesm when it comes time to "update" your theme. Special features that are hard coded into your theme by designers creates a mess when you update and lose that code. And you must update to keep your site secure. Make sure you and your designer are clear on the tradeoffs between having something exactly the way you want and having something almost the way you want, while keeping things simple. Another problem with customization: Stripping out powerful functionality that was embedded in the original theme. Which brings us to our next critical discussion point.
2 :: Responsiveness on all screens
We live in a world of screens. All different kinds. Big, small, mobile. You want your website to look good on all those screens. You, as a layperson assume that the web designer knows this and designs accordingly. You silly, silly you. Not that most designers don't know this, but you cannot assume anything. Most popular themes are built to be responsive so it's actually kind of hard to screw this up. (See customization above.) Make sure you say the words to your designer, out loud: "This site must be responsive." And make sure your agreed upon fee includes testing your completed site on multiple screens.
3 :: Design aesthetic and branding
Techies are not necessarily arty, and artsy folks are not necessarily tech wizards. Couple of issues here. First, you may be working with an outfit who understands this and so outsources the different parts of your website design (the graphic design vs. the tech design) to different subcontractors. This might work well if everyone is on the same page, or it may be an unholy cluster of maddening emails and half-assed work product. Or, you may be working with either a highly technical person or a highly visual person who thinks that the tech or the art is all that is important. Not true. They have to work together. Do not expect a good tech person to also have a great visual aesthetic. Sure, they're out there, but if you are a small business you probably can't afford them. My best advice in this area is to get some help with branding assets (logos, headshots, fonts, colors) before you contract with a web designer. That way you have something to give the designer in terms of look and feel you are going for.
I love WordPress. I love Go Daddy. I love my Mac. These tools empower me to take control of a huge part of my marketing. I realize that not everyone has the patience (or stupidity) to mess around in the HTML like I do sometimes. My recommendation? Keep things as simple as possible, as close to "off the shelf" as you can. Talk to your designer. Never assume they know what they are doing.
And change your passwords. Always, every time, after you've had work done, change those passwords.
What can you add to the discussion? We are all learning and would love to hear your advice for working with website designers!