Asking around, it appears that this is a pretty common problem. Does anyone have any tips on ways to get involved with the designer community or specific designers?
In all seriousness, I like working with a designer rather than hiring one. Part of it is how one sees design. Is design something you can just purchase? If so, isn't code just something you can purchase? I think that part of the reason we're here is that we realize that you can't just buy your way out of code problems. Code is important, it takes dedication and hard work not the fulfillment of some sort of spec list.
The same is true, in my personal opinion, of design. The design and interactions that users are going to experience are of a lot of importance. It's not that hard to find a designer who will work with you on a project. The key is to treat them like a partner rather than someone who is doing some lower form of work that you don't really need, but will make it look flashier to users. Even if you don't have money, it's possible to get people to come on if they're a partner in the project. I mean, artsy people really understand not getting paid (especially if you're in the same not getting paid boat). They don't understand being belittled and unappreciated - really, who does?
So, respect, partnership and working together can go a long way on random projects that probably won't amount to much. There are lots of sites like http://99designs.com where you can get people to compete on spec. It feels a bit cold to me - as if once a design is made, it's done. I prefer a more continual improvement thing.
I'm not saying 99designs doesn't serve a good purpose. It's just not my style. I also have a lot of artsy friends so it might be easier for me than you. If you can find someone who is good at graphic design and understands user experience, data layout, etc. it's awesome.
Relying on your artsy friends for design makes about as much sense as relying on your techie friends to build a website. Maybe you can get a favor if you happen to have a connection, but it certainly doesn't scale for a long term business decision.
That said, you can look at portfolio type sites like http://sortfolio.com/ to get an idea of style. Find one to your liking and see what their rates are. It's like talking to a tattoo artist about an idea versus buying one off the wall.
In my world though, I don't even know how to start getting friends that are artsy. Any good suggestions there?
You could also call up a print shop. They know plenty of print designers, though to be fair they're not always up on web design.
The first can be found on many sites including 99designs.com. Finding the latter is much harder. Lots and lots of networking is probably your best bet. As a ui designer I can say that there are no specific designer events you will find me at. Most design events focus on print design, and multimedia design is a synonym for Flash in the design world.
If you do do a job posting don't call the position web designer. Call it interface designer or ux designer. The applicants you get should be much more qualified.
Interface/UX design is severally un-recgonized by large organizations like the AIGA, and most 'web-design' discussion centers around designerly portfolio sites, long pages mimicking print design, and of course Flash sites.
As a designer with an interest in CS I find myself constantly torn between two worlds, since most people on the design side don't care much for the CS and most people on the CS side don't care much for Paul Rand's or Pete Modrian's.
I feel quite fortunate as I've since managed to find a smallish (but growing) agency not to far from where I live that I couldn't be happier with. For the past couple of projects I've met them face-to-face where we've talked over goals and ideas while they presented options and suggestions. They're not afraid to call me out when I'm being too prescriptive but they make an effort to understand. What I like most of all is the working relationship, the communication and, above all, the quality of the finished product.
I found them by searching for designers within driving distance of where I live, digging through lots of portfolios trying to get a sense of whose work I enjoyed most and whether I thought I could afford it.
If you're having difficulty coming up with a shortlist http://sortfolio.com/ by the 37signals guys might be a good starting point; you can restrict agencies by geographic location and budget.
I don't suggest this if you're looking to move fast as it's not easy, takes time, and a healthy resistance to frustration but I feel good that I could produce something that looks good _and_ is functional.
Also, if you designed it yourself, it's so much more convenient to make changes and experiment. I don't have to bug a freelance designer for the smallest of changes.
Ui should be simple. And while simple is not easy to get to, once you get there, it adds a whole another dimension to your skills and expertise. Once you have the essentials down, it's a smoother ride.
Whenever I build something, no one cares about the code, features, or performance. All they care about is how it looks.
Although I tend to work more on the development side of things I can tell you that finding competent, knowledgeable designers who understand how to create usable interfaces that will help increase conversion rates and still look appealing to the target market is no easy task.
We interviewed about 100 designers before we found a few that understood that design needs to support business objectives and solve business problems (like how do we get more sign-ups directly from our home page?)
Many of the designers out there are simply focused on making websites/interfaces that look good but don't actually support business objectives or customer needs.
The best designers take a problem solving approach instead of a purely aesthetic one. So when interviewing them be sure to ask plenty of "problem solving" type questions. This will help you weed out the "artsy" types from the serious designers.
One more piece of advice: stay away from sites like 99designs etc since the only designers on there seem to be ones who are just starting out and have very little experience solving real world problems. 99Designs may be great for small mom and pop outfits (think local deli, florist, etc) but it doesn't work well for serious start ups that will need to launch with an interface optimized for conversions.
If you are looking for a rock solid design team that also understands the development process, give me a shout. We're currently wrapping up some work for another incubator.
Ask yourself this, "Where do you go about finding programmers?"
A good answer for this is usually at local meet up groups. Programmers don't have a monopoly on such things.
Some ideas for local meet ups:
Full disclosure: I'm a co-founder of Refresh Portland (http://refreshportland.org)
For example, we recently had Jared Spool speak for free at Oregon's chapter of SIGCHI, CHIFOO. It was free and jam packed with around 180+ designers.
I'm sure that there are a quite a few groups where designers go to gather and talk about topics that are important to them.
So, my advice is to go to a designer meet up and mingle. Even if you don't find a designer right away, just tell them about your project and they might know a friend of a friend.
do design/dev/ux/strat/whatever/i pet my cat
obviously, if you find someone good, hang on to that relationship.
Fortunately or unfortunately for you, I'm the type of guy who likes to be involved during the development process (even from the idea/concept if possible).
I have posted in Freelance Switch with good results.
You can check this designer for example: http://www.lorenzociglioni.com (based in Rome, really cool guy)
Other than that you can check out http://www.sortfolio.com (form the 37signals folks)
I'm sure that in HN are a few.
Edit: Fixed the link.
I asked in a post on HackerNews for a designer earlier this week and received no comments or responses. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1363053
Carbonmade is higher end and really just provides portfolios of design work to peruse and contact information - I found the hit rate on making contact to be very low and ultimately ran into communication/timing/buy-in problems here too.
Short of engaging a design cofounder/partner/employee, your best bet is to use a site like carbonmade to try to find someone local and to meet face to face and establish a relationship with the designer - difficult unless you are in NYC or LA/SF or other design hubs.
I echo the sentiment that design is critical.