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But maybe all I need is the "look" from them and I'll leave it to myself to impliment it?
Where should I draw the line? (No pun intended, for a change.) After all, the more of a project I do myself, the more money for my pocket.
Turns out someone I've known for a couple of years does that - absolutely stunning work, fine arts degree and background, and has done the interfaces for some major Fortune 500 companies. Just that, only designed the site interface and they did all the rest in-house, either the company or their agency. I had never heard of that being done before, but it's a specialty that should be developed further; it's a great way to go.
The reason such dodgy practice has become standard in this industry is that there is no professional over site of projects to specify the standards and quality required. Most customers are not technically proficient. They have no skills to judge the quality of the design work done on their behalf. So the designer need only create work that looks good on the customers computer.
For example, take a construction project. The customer would commission a design form an architect. Next an engineer and surveyor would develop a technical design spec form the architect's drawings. Then a 3rd party, the constructor, would do the actual building. During the construction the Engineers and architects would examine the quality of work getting done. If the constructor tried to put in sub-standard elements (eg dodgy concrete mix) then the engineer should stop them and correct the problem so that the customer gets the build that they need. It is because 3 parties are involved that quality can be maintained. The architect/engineers are always separate form the constructors. Using the same firm for both design, spec and construction would create a conflict of interests that results in corners getting cut and quality reduced.
Likewise on in web design, it would be prudent (esp on large projects) to hire one group of designers to create the design and spec for the project. Then have another group of designers/programers/artists who would actually code the pages and create the graphics. One group overseeing the work of the other to ensure the customer gets the quality of work requested/expected.
In your own case, you have the tech knowledge to oversee the project yourself. But you need to be precise in your spec. If you want the same quality of design as you produce yourself then you have to ask for it at the start. Specify in the design brief that all code should be valid XHTML 1.1 Strict and CSS as per W3C standards. If you don't specify exactly what you want you will get anything. I learned this the hard way too. I once asked a designer to create a front page for a new site. A week later he sent me a html page consisting of one table of 1 row by 1 col and containing just one huge jpg file that was 800x600px and centered in the table.
I started as a web designer in 1999 and worked steadily until I returned to school in 2001. Since then I have taken a bunch of design courses, so did some work for that, and some minor graphic work for sites that I run, but really haven't kept up with the industry. So coming back to it professionally two months ago, it was very easy to see that a lot had changed dramatically. When I last worked, CSS was sometimes used for fonts but nothing else. Only non-professional designers would dream of using it for positioning! Standards, what were standards? Maybe I am at an advantage to come back in after such a long break, because I can clearly see what has changed and what I need to learn. I have spent the past month just researching and practicing, my top concerns being CSS and accessibility.
I think it is okay be a graphic designer and just create the graphics. Many graphics people simply don't have brains that are good with the technical end (not that it is so difficult, but it can be a bit tedious if its not your thing!). However, most of us don't have the luxury to just make graphics, and we should learn to create the best code possible if we want to be truly professional.
Also, look at the big picture when evaluating a coder's work. Are the portfolios centered on your industry? Was the candidate working under design constraints imposed by the client or employer? I'd check for more mundane things-- properly nested tags, consistent capitalization and tag use (e.g. not using <i> and <em> for the exact same purpose, not closing <TABLE> with </Table>). Anything that would indicate conscientious attention to consistent, clean underlying code. Such an individual might be amenable to coding to your preferences.
We use a coding style sheet (not to be confused with a cascading stylesheet :-) ) for HTML; the tags which are preferred, which ones get carriage returns or indents, how files/classes/ids are named. When we bring in contractors, they are instructed to code according to the house style, which most all do, though we start them on simpler markup before moving into the vagaries of, say, <tbody> styles.
I know some terrific designers (my favourite has an MA in "Communication Design") but not a single one that is both an outstanding designer and outstanding HTML coder. Aren't those two very different skill-sets, though?
We finally ended up doing exactly as you suggest: we only asks designers for the "look" of the site. They are told not to send us HTML, only graphic files.
I hired someone to do HTML/CSS/JS. He is neither a designer nor a programmer although he has to understand a bit of both. Two months later, all my pages are XHTML valid, and the CSS is getting a face-lift (it already validates too, but I want it cleaned up).
With dynamically generated pages, there are many naming conventions, set-up files, templating systems, etc, etc... and the designers are quite grateful not to have to learn about them. It also means we can hire an outstanding designer that has very little or no understanding of HTML/CSS/JS, never mind CVS or JSPs.
There are now more freelance designers whose services I can call upon, and they don't charge the same ridiculously inflated prices as some of the "web designers" I used to deal with. Hopefully the HTML integration time will go down with practice, and as we get to re-use time-tested code.
Proficiency in XHTML and CSS takes serious effort to aquire, but isn't yet in enought demand to be worth getting from purely marketing/employment standpoint. Especially for "web designers" who are often used to learning by doing and have trouble comprehending complex technical information.
Personally, I think days when fancy designs could buy you anything have mostly passed. Investing in content and marketing is now the best way to win visitors.