Web Design is still a very immature industry and as a result, things are a little less standardized than other products and services that have been around for a long time. Unfortunately this means less quality control for consumers who might not know what they're getting when they sign a contract. This also means that just about anyone can call themselves a web designer.
This problem is compounded by the fact that most consumers are in the dark about what goes in to a website. The service itself is shrouded in mystery and for all you know, your web designer is playing video games all day long with the meter running. Here's some practical advice on how to choose a web designer.
Solution Based Design
If a company is defining itself as a web design company, then it must be performing design work. Design isn't simply making something look good. Design transcends mere look and feel. If you bought a car only to discover that it looked good and continually broke down or was entirely impractical for what you needed it for, you wouldn't say it was well designed. A good web designer will start by asking you questions about your business instead of talking about website features or what you want your website to look like. If they start by asking you about what colours you like and what style you want for your website, they're only thinking about their objectives and not yours. Design is about problem solving and that can't happen unless the designer is exploring the problem that a solution is needed for. For example, if a custom home builder is building a house for you but they never bother to ask you questions about who and how many people will be living there, they probably won't design something suited to a family's basic needs. If your web designer doesn't take an interest in your company's goals, services, clients, etc, they won't be designing a solution for you, they'll just be building another generic website that does nothing to help you achieve your communications goals.
Unfortunately, many "web designers" are anything but. In my own market, many so called "web design" companies are in fact simply reselling cookie cutter templates that they buy online for $100 or less and apply it to your project at a dramatically marked up cost. The difficulty for you is that it's hard to know if your designer designed something specifically for you or if they're just reselling templates. Again, this is a question of design. The design process requires exploration of a client's needs and then designing a solution that will overcome their challenges. If your designer is simply grabbing a template off the web and trying to force the puzzle of your communications goals into the parameters of a prefabricated template, chances are, you're not going to have something that addresses your needs. Sure, you'll have a website... but it might as well be somebody else's website. There are "design" companies in my own local market who are using templates for their own websites. That's usually a pretty dead giveaway. The best indicators of this kind of thing are when your designer's website or samples from their portfolio are very generic looking. Usually the logo will stand out a bit compared to the rest of the site (or they won't even have an actual logo). The colors won't match the logo exactly and the rest of the layout will be very generic looking. Another dead giveaway is the price. If they're quoting dramatically lower than others, chances are they can afford to do this because they're not actually doing any design work. This may seem counter intuitive, but if you have several bidders proposing solutions for you and if you suspect that one or more of the bidders is simply reselling templates; ask the other bidders if that's the case. If I was one of the bidders, I could take a quick look at their code and determine if they're using a template and then show you where that template is being sold to prove that they didn't design it themselves. Make sure that this proof is provided though, because obviously competitive bidders will have much to gain by slandering their competition. They need to back up that slander with evidence.
Most web design services are business to business. This means that a good web designer can be something of a chameleon when it comes to business. They can get their head inside the needs of a plumbing company one day and then do the same thing with a financial company the next day and partner with both in achieving their communications goals online. If they are to partner with you and provide solutions to your needs, they'll have to have a good business sense. A fundamental demonstration of good business sense is professionalism. Unfortunately, in the web and graphic design industry, this trait is severely lacking. This is because many web designers are too cool to dress professionally. They'd rather show up to meetings wearing flip flops and torn jeans. I think this demonstrates a lack of maturity and a lack of basic understanding of their own services. Think about it. A HUGE part of a designer's job is to make you look good to your prospects. They need to design something that is going to leave a strong impression (often a strong FIRST impression) on your audience. If they aren't presenting themselves in a professional manner when they meet with you, then obviously they're missing the point about strong impression. We make many of our decisions intuitively based on how we feel about something. I'm less likely to buy something from a website that looks unprofessional and you should be just as skeptical of someone who doesn't display professionalism in the way they present themselves. If they can't grasp that, they probably won't be able to when designing your vital communication material.