The first big choice for most brands and entrepreneurs who need a new business website created and published is a big one: freelancer or agency?
There are pros and cons to each choice, and different ways to approach the website design experience as a client to ensure you get the best results.
The biggest considerations for most clients include the overall cost or budget, the quality of the work performed, access to and communication with the designer, and overall responsiveness and reliability.
In this article, we’ll look at each type of provider in terms of those four criteria. Then we’ll discuss ways you can get the best work possible out of each type of provider.
Before we explore the various strengths and challenges of working with each type of design services provider, let’s first get clear on what we mean by each term.
A freelance web designer is a self-employed professional who works for themselves, not for a separate company or business. They may hold themselves out as a business, and even adopt a business name, but they work by and for themselves. As a general rule, it’s much simpler and less expensive to launch a business as a freelancer than as a more formal entity (as an agency usually does).
An agency, by way of contrast, is more like what most of us think of when we consider a marketing firm or a physician’s office: multiple professionals working on one “project” from individual angles, whose combined work produces a single result. Where a freelancer handles the entire project (or may occasionally outsource discrete tasks), the agency works as a team to complete the project in phases or parts.
As a general rule, freelance designers enjoy lower overhead. Many freelancers work from home or in a coworking setup with low rent. Most don’t hire assistants or other full-time employees, preferring to do most of the administrative management tasks themselves or occasionally outsourcing to other independent contractors.
As a result, freelancers can pass those cost savings on to their clients through lower hourly and project fees. You can get a good quality website for less money—or so the theory goes. Of course, as with anything, exceptions do exist and you might find a great deal from an agency, or receive your highest quote from a freelancer.
The best way to address price uncertainty is to seek quotes and proposals from three to five well-reviewed designers, including both freelancers and agencies. Make sure you evaluate each quote on an “apples to apples” basis; if a freelancer’s quote doesn’t include copywriting but the agency’s higher quote does, it’s important to take that scope difference into consideration.
To be sure, there are insanely talented designers in both groups, as freelancers and as agency employees or owners. There are also unskilled and inexperienced designers who work in both contexts.
Really, the only way to be sure of the quality you can expect from your web designer is to first check the portfolio, and then ask for references. Speak to former clients whose sites you can also examine. Ask them what the working experience was like and how they’d evaluate the provider on these other criteria as well, while you’re at it!
Freelance designers are your one point of contact for your web design project. That’s both an advantage and a potential drawback. On the plus side, you have a single person who is responsible for your project and can answer your questions, rather than being passed around to various staff members every time you call or email with a new question.
On the other hand, freelancers who don’t manage their time exceptionally well often get pulled in a number of different directions, depending on the number of clients and projects they’re juggling at any one time. This can result in delay in getting back to you and even in long periods of “radio silence” if your freelancer is struggling to meet deadlines.
For agencies, the equation is almost precisely reversed. You can usually get some kind of response back quickly, but you may be dealing with a new person each time you inquire. Additionally, the agency structure means you’ll almost certainly have different people handling specific tasks on your site—e.g., one person for the mockup and general design, someone else for the coding, yet a third for the copy, and so on.
When we mention “responsiveness,” we’re not talking strictly about the frequency of communication but rather the quality of the messaging. In other words, we’re looking at how well the provider answers your questions and delivers on your stated needs.
Reliability in our context means trustworthiness. You feel confident you can hand them the keys to your server, so to speak, and they won’t screw things up, break key functionality, install malware or use invalid code. It also means they won’t vanish overnight after having taken your hard-earned money.
With freelance designers, your website project is in the hands and total control of a single person. That’s important to keep in mind, because sometimes freelance-driven projects can lag as that one individual attempts to corral all the moving parts and deliver the site to the client. To combat this tendency, propose a schedule that specifies milestones for your site development, with each milestone tied to partial payments.
In addition, you’ll want to define the scope of your work with precision. Is copy included? Will the freelancer provide images or do you have to acquire licenses? Write out exactly what the freelance designer agrees to do in as much detail as you can, to avoid problems and disputes later on.
With an agency team, your biggest concern will be establishing a single point of contact, if possible. Picking one person on the agency team who will be your single source of information and assistance helps simplify and streamline communications. That person, in turn, can then seek input from their colleagues, and sum it up in a reply to you.
Another issue with agency-led projects is to define as precisely as possible what you want from your site in terms of function, content and appearance. Agency projects can take on a life of their own as they spin through several different functions and employees, so it’s important for you to communicate clearly what you need upfront. If deliverables seem to be getting too far afield from what you want, speak up sooner rather than later!
Finally, make certain that you have a firm and final fee quote, as well as a clear understanding of what circumstances might trigger additional fees. Agency projects do tend to cost more than the same work scope under a freelance agreement, so it’s important to be sure fees are clearly spelled out in your contract.
Whether you hire a freelancer or a top web design agency, it’s crucial that you feel comfortable working with the designer or team members that will be assigned to your project. If a provider won’t get on the telephone or meet you face to face and put you at ease, that’s a red flag that you might want to keep shopping.
And if you’re ready to get your own website project started, give Keen to Design a call or drop us a line. We’d be happy to discuss your new site with you and see if we’re the right team for the job.