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Designer + Developer Partnerships: How to find the right partner and make it work

A few months into working on my business full-time, I took a call from a Victoria McGinley, a client I had helped with some coding for her WordPress site, who was also a designer and starting to get requests to design WordPress blogs. The thing was, she didn’t know enough about code to create the designs she wanted, and she wasn’t interested in learning. So she proposed that she work on the design and I work on the development for those projects.

Partnering with a designer or developer can be a great way to focus on what you love as a freelancer, while making it easy to get booked out with clients. Must-read post to make this work!

Four years later, I’ve dropped design services completely to focus on WordPress development, and the majority of my income comes from the projects that Victoria and I work on together. Through that partnership, and other partnerships and conversations with other designers, I’ve learned a thing or two about designer + developer partnerships along the way.

Freelancing can be lonely, but with the right partnership, you get the best of both worlds. You still get to set the rules and shape the work you do, but you also gain a co-worker of sorts who gets it. Find the right partner, and you can do more together than either of you can do alone. As a developer, that can also mean a steady stream of work with predictable scope and expectations.

So how do you find the right partner and make the relationship work for both of you? I’ve found that it comes down to these three things:

1. Know yourself.

Before you look for a partner, you need to understand your own strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes. What kind of projects do you like to work on? What kind of work do you do best? Every designer has a different aesthetic and creates web designs that represent varying levels of development complexity. Be honest with yourself about what you can do.

Before I agree to work with another designer, I look through their portfolio and see if I could have completed the development for their other projects. If I see too many elements that I don’t know how to do, or functionality or aesthetics I know that I don’t like to work with, then I know it’s not a good fit for me.

For an ongoing relationship, ideally you want to find someone who challenges you a little bit. Part of what has made my partnership with Victoria successful is the fact that we have grown in our abilities together. While most of each new project is predictable, there’s always an element that stretches my abilities. That means we are able to offer more to the next client and continually grow our body of work.

2. Communication is key.

I’ve found that communication is typically where things break down between designers and developers. I have to admit, communication is not my strength. One of the reasons I enjoy development is because I am very results-oriented, and I enjoy the instant gratification of seeing things work when I reload the page. But that also means that I tend to bury my head in my work and like to have something concrete to show before I make contact with the outside world. I find a lot of developers work similarly!

On the flip side, your designer doesn’t code for a reason. They may not know all the inner workings of the elements they design. They are also trying to communicate a dynamic design on a static page, so it’s no wonder that things can get lost in translation! Early and frequent communication throughout the design process can help ensure there are no surprises when it’s time for development.

The thing I hear the most from designers is they just want to know what’s going on with the project. Delays are understandable — sometimes things take longer than expected, or another project has to be prioritized, or you have something personal going on. The designer just wants to know that! Clients tend to have a closer working relationship with the designer than the developer, and so the designer will likely have to answer for any delays.

3. Treat your designer as a true partner.

This goes hand in hand with communication, but takes it a step further. I think developers tend to see designers as another client to please in the process, which can put you on the defensive when they ask for updates or explanations. At the end of the day, they just want to be involved in the decision-making process. Remember that you’re partners working toward the same goal! When you treat your designer as a partner, you gain a valuable resource to talk through any issues you may have.

If you think something won’t work from a functionality standpoint, it’s OK to say so. If you don’t know how to code something, that’s OK too! In my experience, what frustrates designers is seeing their designs changed with no explanation when they are presented with the final site. Remember that any changes reflect more on their work than on yours, since the visual design is what clients see and understand. Plus, they’ve had the chance to work more closely with the client and understand the overall goals for the site.

Whenever I’ve had issues with the design, I talk it out with the designer first. I explain my reasoning and offer alternative solutions. Sometimes the solution I would have chosen on my own is not what’s going to work best for the client’s goals and needs. Sometimes the issues I point out aren’t actually issues for the client at all!

Furthermore, when you treat each other as partners, you can improve your businesses and projects together. Victoria and I are constantly evaluating our systems and improving them, so that neither of us are unintentionally creating more work for the other.

Ultimately, a successful designer + developer partnership is like any other partnership: It takes compatibility and communication. It’s always a work in progress. When you can shift your mindset from looking out for yourself to working together towards a common goal, working with someone else can be really rewarding!

Designers and developers, tell me how you make it work!

Lisa Butler Lisa M. Butler wants to live in a world with no alarm clocks (that’s why she works for herself!). As a web developer, she’s coded over 100 websites on WordPress. When she’s not knee-deep in CSS, HTML, and PHP, you can find her podcasting with her boyfriend, chasing their dogs around the house, or packing her bags for her next flight. Her latest project, Creative Code Club, teaches people how to code for WordPress in short, monthly video lessons. Say hello on Twitter or her website, where you can download her free guide to WordPress plugins.

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