Nominating a Web Design Agency

Choosing a graphic design agency is like choosing a restaurant. Bigger is not necessarily better. If you need something quick and dirty to fill a hole, the golden arches are fine but you wouldn’t take a client there for dinner ;-)

In order to get what you need from your agency, you need access to the real talent behind the scenes – in the same way you need the Michelin Starred chef to prepare your meal.

Graphic design, even on the web, is an art not a science. Good design is not done on an industrial scale, it is about the talent of individuals (in small teams) and how they can channel that to deliver creative and professional artwork that fulfills your brief.

The problem for you is that you cannot specifically "measure" the quality of an agency’s visual design capabilities. You can only look at what they do and see if you like it – not the most scientific of approaches - but what else can you do? In the first instance, you must try to think of it from your client's perspective. Do not ask yourself, "do I like it", instead say, "would my prospective client like it". Then, expand upon the word, "like". A judgement shouldn’t be made on likability. A better word would be "appropriateness". Is this design style "appropriate" for my audience.

The oldest clich̩ in the book is that a picture paints a thousand words but, frankly, it's true. The text in your brochure and on your website will always carry similar positive messaging to that found in the marketing communications of your competitors Рespecially when you sell an intangible service. So, one of your key differentiators will always be not what you say but, rather, how you say it. Tone of voice is critical in delivering your pitch and the tone is set (at least in the first instance) with the subtle visual language used in your design. To finish as we began, with a culinary analogy, "the first bite is with the eye".

What about technical capabilities?

Fortunately, the technical capabilities of an agency are easier to measure than their visual acuity. You can ask about specifics and you should get specific answers (although you need the background knowledge to know what questions to ask and whether the answers are satisfactory).

There are a few key things to check for and they sit in three main categories: Server-level technology, web application technology and client-side technology.

Server environment

  • Is their web server/hosting environment stable and reliable? Can the agency guarantee 99.9% uptime?
  • Are there regular back-ups? What is the restore from back-up lead time?
  • Does your agency have administrative rights to manage the server?
  • Is the server wholly owned by your agency or is a third-party involved. If so, who and where? (Bear in mind that the "where" might be particularly important if you are storing client data).
  • If the designer or agency are not around in the future, how do get control of your site? FYI, this is by the far the most common problem we see with smaller websites built by "a friend's nephew who is good at computers" ;-).

Web application technology

  • What technology will the application tier employ?
  • Will industry standard technology be used that allows you to switch agencies in the future? I.e. will the development techniques be understandable by a third-party should the need arise to move away from the agency who originated the site?
  • Does the agency fully understand the security implications of using this technology?
  • How are application failures monitored and dealt with?

Client-side technology

  • What will the client side technology be?
  • Will it be fully cross-browser compatible?
  • Will it require the use of browser plug-ins?
  • Will it based on an off-the-shelf template that means my site will lack distinctiveness?
  • Will it be W3C compliant and accessible (meeting the requirements of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines and The Equalities Act 2010)?
  • As with the application tier (above), will the technology be portable to another agency?

The bottom line

Before getting into such a detailed line of questioning with your agencies, start with one key question: "Can you show us an HTML5 website that looks beautiful and validates with the W3C online code validation tool and scores a minimum of 80 on Silktide Monitor?". If the agency cannot give you that, they are not the agency for you.


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