When you’re searching for a design firm to handle your website design, redesign, or branding, it’s highly likely that you don’t want to settle for anything less than the best. But if you’ve never worked with an agency or design company before, how can you know exactly what makes a great design firm?

Much like the factors we used to rank the top design agencies in the world, there are a few factors and hints you can pick up on to determine whether or not the firm you want to work with is worth your business.

Here’s a rundown of what we think makes a great design firm, and how you can find one for yourself!

Quality of Their Work

This one may seem obvious — you’re not going to pick a firm that has horrible design, right? — but do you know exactly how to determine whether or not a firm has done quality work for its clients?

Firms can tell you they do great work, but you should rely on their portfolio or design samples before proceeding with your evaluation. Some design firms will give you a list of a clients, but that doesn’t tell you exactly what they did for that particular business or website. What if they only designed a logo or single page?

Ask to see a portfolio of the firm’s website designs, graphic designs, or any other work that they may have done (such as logo design, flash design, or development). Truly reputable design firms will be able to present this information to you very quickly. It may also already be on their website.

Once you’ve seen the samples, evaluate them for quality. Are the websites up-to-date, modern, and functional? Can you go to the live site and test it? Does the firm’s style of design match your own? Would you be happy if one of the websites they have created in the past was yours?

Their Design Process

Get in touch with each firm you are considering and ask about their design process. How do they handle a new website design or redesign? What does the process look like, from start to finish, and how long does it typically take?

Some firms may have one designer who is dedicated to your project from start to finish. He or she may handle everything from the concept to the creation of graphical elements to the actual development of the final site. Other firms may have individual dedicated team members, such as a dedicated designer, developer, or project manager. Larger firms may have a full team that is able to work on your project as needed, allowing you to receive input and contributions from multiple designers, developers, and strategists.

The firms you are evaluating should be able to clearly explain how their design process works, who is involved, and how long it will take to complete your project. They should have immediate answers about who will be assigned to your design tasks. Note that some uncertainty is typical — they may only be able to give you a general estimate of how long your project will take, or can’t immediately say the exact team members who will be assigned to your site — but the most crucial information should be provided up front.

Also, remember to ask about their process for any ongoing maintenance. You are probably planning to have a long-term relationship with this firm, so it would be best to know right away what their procedures are outside of big projects. Most firms offer ongoing maintenance plans — those who don’t may not be a suitable choice for you.

The Cost of Their Work

There is no industry standard for website design costs. Firms generally charge as much as they think their work is worth. Also, many website design agencies don’t show their pricing on their website. There are two reasons for this:

  1. They don’t want their competitors knowing what they charge, and
  2. They would rather have potential clients call them to get this information, which makes them more likely to stay in the sales process or at least learn more on a phone call.

Although there is no industry standard, you can still likely eliminate firms that are out of your budget via a quick phone call or email. The best firms will provide their pricing right away, and be upfront with you about all costs — even if they are outside of your budget.

Some of the best design firms on our list are those that display their pricing for website design, and other online design tasks, right on their site. They are transparent about their pricing, as well as their ongoing maintenance or “on demand” design fees.

As far as cost is concerned, remember: you typically get what you pay for. It is almost always worth making the investment in a website design that is modern and true to your vision rather than skimping and saving a few hundred dollars.

Their Size, Location, and Staff

When it comes to picking the best design firm, most people think of the first three factors we named (quality, process, and cost). But there are other things that you should consider when trying to establish a good working relationship with an agency or design partner.

First, consider the size of the company. Do you feel comfortable working with a firm with less than ten employees? Or are you looking for a firm that is larger, with staff to support all your needs? There are benefits to both small and large firms. If you need a lot of support and want very fast turnaround times, a larger firm is probably the better choice.

The location of the firm may also be important to you. Do you want to work with an agency that you can visit frequently, or does distance not bother you? Are you prepared to work with a company in a different time zone, or would you rather find a firm you can call whenever you need help?

Finally, remember to consider the team of people you’ll be working with. Look at the firm’s employees closely. Are their employees actively posting on their blog, social media accounts, or updating pages on their website? Do they seem dedicated to their jobs? It may seem like snooping to look at this much detail, but you can often learn a lot about a firm by checking out the people who work for them!

These are just a few of the factors that make a great design firm. There are a lot of companies out there with amazing portfolios, a great staff, and reasonable pricing. Who you ultimately choose will be up to your own personal preference.

Need help finding some firms to evaluate? Check out our 2014 list of the best design agencies to get started.