So, your business is taking off, and now it’s time to make things official with a logo—great! Unless that business happens to be a design studio, you’ve probably already figured out that it’s best to leave this to a professional, so you are now trying to find a logo designer to create that perfect image that embodies the brand and values of your company.

Geometric fox logo
Fox logo by adisign09

You’re in luck: it’s never been easier to find and hire a graphic designer online.

But—yep, there’s a but—for anyone who’s done it before, you know it’s not as simple as scrolling through an Instagram feed and double-tapping your favorites.

As irony would have it, it’s exactly the abundance of online graphic designers, portfolios and design styles that poses a challenge. It can be a headache to filter through the noise and find the perfect one for you. Especially to the design-untrained eye, the nuances and differences can be easily lost. It’s a little bit like being at a perfume store: after smelling the first few scents, your nose is pretty much out of order.

But don’t fret: we’re here to help. There’s certainly a smart way to go about choosing a logo designer. (Hint: the trick is to be structured in your process, and to count on your gut—sometimes.)

Before you look at designer portfolios

coffee cup
Grab a cup, or two (or three) and let’s start! Cup design by Loveshugah.

Before diving right into portfolios, start off by collecting and writing down your thoughts. It may sound pedantic but I promise it pays off to do so upfront, before you lose track of your goal due to having too many options (first world problem, I know!) These notes will be your equivalent of the fresh coffee beans at a perfume store—very handy when you need to reset your overloaded senses and refocus on what you need to achieve.

Start with the logistical questions:

  • What’s your goal? Just one simple sentence about what you’re trying to achieve will do.
  • What is the budget (and be honest)? You’ll inevitably run across designs that make your heart flutter but are beyond your price range, so it’s good to be clear on this upfront before letting yourself get too enamored.
  • What’s the desired timeline? Are there any time constraints? This will help as you look through the portfolios where the designers will explain how long the process took for similar projects.

For example you can say “I want to hire a logo designer to design my coffee app logo. My budget is in the $450-$550 range and I need this in three weeks before my pitch competition.” Excellent.

Next, the user and design questions:

  • Who is your audience or client, and what are they like? How old are they, where do they live, what do they do for fun? (*cough* user persona *cough*)
  • What feelings do you want them to have when interacting with your brand?

In response, feel free to jot down a list of qualities, descriptions, and looks and feels. Specificity is your friend here. It’s okay to fine-tune this as you get more inspiration, but it’s very helpful to have this list to look back on if (or when) you get overwhelmed and momentarily forget what you’re looking for in the first place.

99designs provides a fun and easy to understand format to structure your thoughts around the questions above. This exercise is among a series of other insightful tasks or questions that 99designs uses to assess the design style that you’re after—for this one, all you need is pen and paper.

Write down these qualities in the opposite sides of a spectrum, then put 5 dots in the middle:

brand traits 99designs

So, in which of those 5 dots does your brand fall for each spectrum? More likely than not, you will gravitate towards one side than the other, and if it’s all over the place that’s fine too—it will probably make for an exciting design project!

Two very different approaches to a financial company brand. Investment firm logo by KVA for Ankona Capital
Finance logo by ROCKER. for CENTsational Finance

This exercise is helpful not only to keep you organized, but also to keep you user-focused. Typically, your personal brand is not the same as our business’ brand. The exception is if you’re a celebrity launching a business around your own brand (you’re probably not), or if you generally are a good representation of your user persona. Otherwise, while your gut can help, make sure it’s not helping too much, and that your design choices are serving your business’ brand before they are appealing to you personally.

How to evaluate a designer’s portfolio

So now that you have your notes upfront, let’s go into the fun part: looking at portfolios.

When you evaluate the portfolio, you will want to consider both the “absolute” and “relative” elements. The absolute ones have to do with the skills, experience and professionalism level. The relative ones have to do with how well the designer’s style aligns with your brand, and a certain je-ne-sais-quois that captures your (and your persona’s) imagination.

A portfolio contains the visual work and the story around it—both are hugely important.

How it looks

In terms of the visuals, start with how the overall portfolio looks. Is there one cohesive theme and feel to the work? And how unique is each piece?

I find that the best design portfolios strike a balance between the two: while a distinct point of view comes across throughout the whole portfolio, each piece of work is typically done for a different client, so it should also exhibit some range. If the work is too homogenous, it may be an indication that the designer’s skills are a bit narrow.

As you look through each piece, it helps to have the right vocabulary to describe the design elements:

  • Color: warm or cool? Do they clash? (Pro tip: check out our article on logo color meaning.)
  • Line: thin and elegant or bold and playful?
  • Texture: flat and modern or three-dimensional and more elaborate?
  • Shape: basic triangle or square (clean) or unique and more elaborate? If more than 1 shape, how do they interact?
  • Space: does it have room to breathe (typically a good thing) or is it compact?
  • Typography: classic (the ever-present Helvetica) or more exciting? Do the different font families play well together?
Gaga Vastard design portfolio
gaga vastard’s portfolio on 99designs

As an exercise, consider the portfolio snapshot above from gaga vastard’s 99desginer profile. Take a moment to observe and describe your thoughts using the words and categories above. I bet that you’re quickly finding out that it’s actually quite common sense once you have the right vocabulary. You’re probably already recognizing a tight designer viewpoint and what this designer’s “space of comfort” looks like: they thrive in B&W and use color sparsely, their design is modern, sophisticated, uncluttered (one may say minimalistic), giving the logos plenty of space to breathe, and favoring organic, innovative shapes. Note also the differences—that is, the range: the designer seems comfortable with both flat and three-dimensional shapes, they play with different lines from paper-thin to bold according to the topic, and they are well adept at typography that fits right with the visual logo.

As you consider different portfolios, you’ll get better at quickly translating the images into words. It really boils down to two steps: first, describe what you see—maybe just with the first 5 words that come to mind; certainly don’t feel like you have to hyper-analyze each portfolio— and second, compare that with what you wrote down in the spectrum of desired design styles and feels. For example, if you described your brand as professional, carefully planned, and established, you might want to focus on the cool hues, basic shapes, thin lines and classic typography.

Bonus points: besides the content, consider also the canvas, i.e. the online portfolio page:

  • Is it easy to navigate? Is it structured in a way that makes sense?
  • Did the designer build the online portfolio page themselves or is it a template? It’s certainly not essential that they’ve built it themselves, but it gives a view of the technical chops in case you’re looking for a versatile designer.

How it reads

A design portfolio, however, is not just a collection of images; it’s a collection of solutions to specific and unique design problems. While the visuals are important and naturally what draws us in at first, the creative journey that made it get there is key.

poster design by diwaz for Carrielou

Consider the following:

  • Does the designer thoughtfully describe the problem and goal of the project?
  • Can you sense that they empathize with the user and have a user-centric approach?
  • Do they specifically speak to how client feedback was incorporated throughout the process?
  • Is there a method to the madness? Is the process systematic and iterative—basically does it exhibit good project management skills?
  • How much of it did the specific designer do? Beware of large projects and scopes where there is always a chance that the designer didn’t have a hand every single part, like that specific logo you’re so in love with.
  • Which pieces are real (i.e. made for a real client) and which fake (on spec or not for a real project)? The more “real” design there is, the higher the confidence that this designer has experience working in collaboration a client and solving real problems with real constraints. The “fake” ones can be interesting too, however, as they shed light on the personal passion of the designer and hints to what they really think is their forté.
Logo design by thedani for Bodybalance

If you want to get really good at this, challenge yourself in a little test. First, take a look at the logo and guess what it’s meant to portray: what industry or product is it representing, what values is it embodying, what feelings is it invoking? Then, go ahead and read the designer’s description of that project (or, if you’re on 99designs, read the client’s brief describing the requirements) and see how the two match. Mind you: if you don’t guess right, that may well be the designer’s fault in mis-translating the needs of the client into a visual design. But then, if that was picked as the contest winner, it may be your fault. It’s ok, you’ll get better at this.

Try it out with the Bodybalance logo contest entry above, then see how well this designer captured the client’s needs.

Choosing your designer

Following these criteria you should be able to narrow down to a shortlist of finalists—so no, unfortunately you’re not done yet. When you reach out to your favorite designers to schedule interviews, you may ask them to provide their resumes so you can get a better feel for their experience level and previous work. Years of work don’t necessarily make a good designer, but they’re one indicator, and it always helps to have some context before you dive in.

During the interview—whether that’s in person, on the phone or through email—you should seek to understand at a high-level the creative process of the designer and to assess their interest and thoughts around your work proposal. Think of it like a first date: are you two compatible? Once it’s clear the feeling is mutual, time to seal the deal. In other words, talk about the logistics, such as expectations around timeframe, feedback, communication frequency, number of revisions, etc.

awesome beer labels
Once you’ve found a great graphic designer, you can work with them to create more fantastic imagery for your company. Beer labels by Martis Lupus for Fabryka Piwa.

The portfolio is a good start, but also ensure the human fit between your goals and the designer. If you’re looking for a logo designer, chances are this is only the beginning of the design work for your business. Do this part thoughtfully, and you won’t simply get a snazzy logo, but you’ll also have established a relationship with a great designer who now understands your brand and can deliver beautiful and reliable results in the long term.

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