I still do some moonlighting in Web development from time to time, and one of my older clients—a small management consulting shop—finally decided to hire a full-time Web developer. Since the site had very little back-end programming (only a CGI script for form processing), the manager was mostly concerned with user interfaces, effective coding, and the ability to get pages updated quickly. He asked me what he should look for in a Web designer. Here’s what I recommended.

The necessary skill set
The key to hiring the right Web designer is deciding in advance what skills you need. If your site relies heavily on server-side or database components, you may not be as concerned with a candidate’s lack of experience with JavaScript or other client-side technologies. You would never hire a plumber to paint your house, but I’ve seen hiring managers make mistakes almost that drastic in hiring the wrong kind of coder.

A firm grasp of the basics
If you’re hiring a Web designer who will be responsible for client-side development and presentation, you’ll want the candidate to demonstrate a strong understanding of the basics. The hire should be able to demonstrate advanced experience with HTML 4.0, document object model (DOM), JavaScript, and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). You should look for knowledge of techniques that make your pages load faster and behave consistently across browsers and platforms.

So how do you determine whether candidates have those skills? First, ask for samples of work they’ve already done. Then, look for less graphic-heavy pages, especially using spacer gifs to smooth page layout. Candidates should be using CSS2 to position copy and page elements, not gifs. If the highlight of their Web page is the marquee tag, you know that you are in trouble.

Competence with graphic tools
Even if your site is not graphics-heavy, you should expect your designer to have some experience with Photoshop, Fireworks, or the like. Good designers should be able to create graphics appropriate for your pages from scratch or modify existing images.

Knowledge of when and how to implement multimedia content
Multimedia is a big issue when it comes to hiring Web designers. I can think of only a few more frustrating Web experiences than the gratuitous use of Flash animation—such as the massive, useless pre-loader whose only purpose is to toss your company logo around the screen and add some tasteless music that guarantees you lose some impatient visitors.

Flash and video content definitely have their places in Web development, but they should be used when other functionality cannot do the job. You may be viewing the mocked-up site in a controlled environment where you don’t have bandwidth limitations. But you have to consider how the page will load and what kind of experience 50 percent of your users will have.

An understanding of accessibility and user interface issues
Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect every designer to be well-versed in Section 508 guidelines—at least, for now. But take my word for it: Accessibility is becoming increasingly important, and making a site accessible entails more than just adding alt text to image graphics. Again, CSS and CSS2 address some of the traditional accessibility issues, such as the reliance on a million table tags to organize content on a Web page. Your designers should be able to discuss those issues and code to them.

In a similar vein, I wouldn’t expect every Web designer to be an information architect. However, a good designer understands the importance of how pieces of content relate to each other on the site. This understanding will separate Web designers who know you have to craft the user experience from those who just slap graphics on pages.

Other questions

Depending on your development needs, you may want to consider asking the following questions of your potential candidate:

  • Can you develop tools to help us easily update content?
  • Do you validate your code? To which standard?
  • Can you also develop the back-end functions?
  • Can you develop secure e-commerce solutions?
  • What development languages do you know?
  • Do you use frames or flash intros in your designs?
  • What Web-authoring tools do you use?
  • How quickly will my site load and what browsers will you test it in?

Final analysis
Here’s one more test to help you determine whether someone you’re interviewing is right for the job. During the interview, have the candidate walk you through his or her portfolio and explain design decisions. Look at the code. You don’t have to understand every JavaScript function to know whether the code is well-commented and neatly organized. If the candidate can’t walk a nontechnical person through the code and explain how it works—or if there is a conspicuous absence of comments at all—you’d better look for another designer.