This is a really interesting article from Chris Coyier:
I bet there are a lot of people here reading this who are [designers] who want to be found. They don’t want to be a part of a commodity site and don’t think of their work as a commodity. Word of mouth works pretty well for them, but that feels like a risky foundation for business.
Jeff wants to find you, you want to be found, and I don’t really know how to tell him where to find you.
You would think this would be a solved problem by now. But it’s not. As a freelancer currently looking for work*, I can tell you that the opposite side of this is just as confusing and frustrating.
I think Chris’ example of hiring an electrician is a pretty good one. There are probably thousands of small, independent electricians out there who, like myself, are looking for work. It can be really hard for your small voice to be heard on the Web, no matter what field you’re in. There’s a bit of a flaw to this analogy though: an electrician’s work has a binary result: do you now have electricity, yes or no?
To the non-expert, a designer’s work might feel binary too: do I like how this looks, yes or no? But haven’t we spent our careers (whether they’ve been a few years long or a few decades) fighting against that flawed definition of design? We don’t just “make things pretty”. We’re more than that! We’re visual problem solvers. We make things that work visually, emotionally, and often times subjectively. The project might end up “pretty”, but that wasn’t our real goal.
What if you’re not interested in just hiring an electrician though? What if you’re trying to hire a good electrician?
Good Designer Wanted
All of a sudden, things are a bit different. The results look less binary, don’t they? It’s no longer just about whether or not you have electricity in the place you wanted it. Now there’s a lot of other, more subjective questions: were they courteous? Did they work cleanly and efficiently? Did their work cause other problems you didn’t anticipate? Do you know how to fix these new problems yourself, or do you now need to hire another professional? Was their initial estimate correct, both in time and price? Did you like them?
With a few small changes in vocabulary, you could apply those say questions to the work done by a designer. As soon as you stop looking for someone who can “just do the job”, and realize you’re instead looking for someone who can “do the job *well*”, then your options for how to hire someone change dramatically. You’re left with only one option: ask someone you trust for a recommendation.
In the end that’s what Jeff did. After trying to first find just a designer, and being unsatisfied with the results, he realized he needed a good designer. He turned to a related professional he already trusted, and asked for a recommendation§.
This is how you can have an apparent paradox in the design industry: proud independent designers who scoff at sites and services like Fiverr and 99 Designs, while those same services claim scores of satisfied customers and show continual profits and growth. The clients here are looking for two different things that they’re both calling “design work”. One can be treated as a commodity, the other definitely can’t.
I don’t think there will ever be a site, service, or anything similar to help you find a good designer. There will be things that try to approximate it, but none that succeed to the same degree as the age old stand-by: word of mouth.
*: Seriously, if you need a designer, reach out.
§: Merlin Mann and John Siracusa discussed a similar topic on their podcast Reconcilable Differences, in Episode 20: “Stove Vigilance”. In it, Merlin uses the phrase “trusting your mechanic”. It gets to the heart of these kinds of things: they’re always about trust.