Silicon Valley's New Secret Weapon: Designers Who Found Startups

If you want to ship great products, writes the Designer Fund's Enrique Allen, consider having a designer in your founding group.

For the last few years, I was teaching startups to think like designers. But I eventually realized that you need someone to model and inspire design thinking within the company. If you don’t have a designer in your founding group, it’s harder to have a culture of design. You see the reasons why all the time: A consultant comes in to improve a design and when they leave, the transformation eventually dies.

This was my aha moment; it challenged whether I was making an impact. My solution? Do the opposite of what I’ve been doing. Rather than spending as much energy training nondesigners, I figured I’d help designers succeed as part of the founding DNA of startups, thus making great design a natural expression of their operations.

Although designer-founder genes are rare, more designers have the capacity to step up to the challenge. Inspired by the mathematician Richard Hamming, I believe that being a designer founder of a tech startup is one of the biggest opportunities in the design field today. So I laid out some assertions to begin experimenting, started aligning resources and kickstarted research about designer founders.

What’s Driving the Movement

Here’s why design is important to the tech world today:

1. As the consumer tech market becomes more crowded, brands and experience design—not just technical capabilities—are becoming critical to success.

2. Innovation is about radical collaboration. The critical mass of combined design, technical, and business skills enables product iteration to happen faster and at a higher resolution.

3. Designer founders have unique skills (not just visual) to understand human needs and discover unarticulated opportunities.

With these points in hand, I presented them to as many designers and investors as I could find. Turns out, more than 50 of them believed these assertions, too. So we came together as a community to create the Designer Fund and invest in the next generation of designer founders.

[Image: Seregam/Shutterstock]

The Skills to Ship

Clearly, every designer isn’t meant to be a founder and probably shouldn’t be. To be clear, we don’t mean designer as the prima donna pixel-pusher that you might be picturing. We also don’t mean designer as the "I took one class called UX Fundamentals in business school." We mean an honest-to-goodness, experienced practitioner who has learned to design by designing. And most importantly, they’re able to ship usable products.

Above all, designer founders should be experts at finding the right problems to solve. That means sometimes building usable products that are ugly, or prototyping with a spreadsheet, and not getting trapped into making something beautifully useless that will not scale. Designer founders need to be able to do a lot, and it’s not easy.

This Is About Impact, Not Hype

The point is not to get caught up in buzzword titles, or challenge the role of design consultants or founders with engineering backgrounds, but to highlight the emerging opportunity for founders with design expertise from trained to self-taught backgrounds. It makes sense that a prerequisite for a tech company is to have a founder with technical skills. The same heuristic should hold true if you want to ship consistently well-designed products like Pinterest, AirBnB, and Path. Why not have a cofounder with design skills who champions the user experience?

Now, more than ever, we face complex problems that designer founders are well-equipped to solve. Everyone in a company should have empathy and practice design regardless of their title. Design can no longer be just be an outsourced add-on, limited to putting "lipstick on a pig." Tech moves too fast for such short-sighted design thinking; it won’t be a lasting advantage.

Of course, designer founders aren’t some magical unicorn or silver bullet that’s going to solve everything. They’re but one potential key ingredient to teams of innovators, not a guarantee. Many companies will succeed without designer founders and many will fail with them. But I believe they improve the odds of survival.

Studying the Paths of Designer Founders

Designer founders we’ve observed are consistently multidisciplinary and have cross-functional skills necessary to make decisions about products. They are fluent in the full design stack, ranging from user research and interaction design to information architecture and communication design. They may not be experts in all sub-disciplines of design but can get by on their own in the early days of their startup and attract specialists when needed. In addition, they have a thorough enough working understanding of technology and business stacks, including agile programming and data-based marketing methods. Designer founders can move up and down the design stack and across the technology and business stacks to do what it takes to ship and use data to justify their decisions when needed. Thus, they are capable of leading both their product and organization through the design cycles needed to innovate. There’s a difference between a designer who can design a car dashboard and a designer who can design an entire car and how to drive it. Designer founders need to be able to do both.

[A portrait of the ideal designer founder. Image: Nanostock/Shutterstock]

To support these claims, we’re practicing what we preach and interviewing every designer founder we can find who’s created a venture-backed tech startup. The collection of interviews will be published as a nonprofit book that will be free for students, with the goal of synthesizing patterns and lessons to inspire entrepreneurial designers. The first by-product of this research, our Designer Founders info cards, represent a snapshot of data we’ve collected and some patterns we’re starting to explore. What you find is that designers live behind some of the web’s best startups, including Vimeo, YouTube, Hunch, Path, Etsy, and Instagram. That’s no coincidence.

The Future of Designer Founders

More designer founders than previous decades are daring to walk the unbeaten path and sacrifice the security of a paycheck to pursue the freedom of creating meaningful impact through tech startups. Whether they succeed or not, these designers represent a new breed of entrepreneur that will hopefully inspire the next generation of designers to be even better at making positive social change. There are also schools who are responding to the call to train entrepreneurial designers, such as the Stanford, School of Visual Arts, among others. As we enter a user-interface revolution, there are even more possibilities for designers to create experiences with touch, sound, and movement interaction.

In the wake of Steve Jobs’s example, it’s obvious that designer founders should be champions of the user experience. They’re the ones who stand with one foot in the world of technology and the other in the world of people, bringing the two together.

[Top image: Scorpp/Shutterstock; A special thanks to Maria Molfino, Liz Danzico, and Belinda Lanks for their help in editing.]

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  • hephail

    Nothing new. Steve Jobs was definitely the first. Design is a key component in any product, which is something which as a country U.K. understood first.
    Sadly, in India, we'll never understand it.

  • Joelm

    A well articulated case for founder-designers. 

    I hope the restriction to VC-backed startups reflects only an expedient to find good data, not a belief that only VC-backed enterprises are "real" corporations, "real" startups, or even "real" businesses.  After all, your argument applies just as much to purely bootstrapped entities that may grow slowly but will never be sold and dismembered for the investors, and to intrapreneurial ventures that start life with a different set of advantages than VCs provide (a brand, infrastructure in place, a culturally compatible team, marketing assistance, etc.).  If you are right, designers will be every bit as valuable as in VC-backed companies.

  • D D

    Is there a community for startups that's not VC-backed, not aiming for IPO or being sold, but in "real" business?

  • Jack

    I used to be in a startup before where 1 of the founders is a print designer. It turns out to be a nightmare unfortunately because he keep thinking he knows everything better than us non designers.

    The artwork were great, but in comes splash pages, mystery meat navigation.etc, not understanding that print and web is different where one have to give up on controls in some areas and not simply insist on making a whole blog post as an image simply to get what the perfection he wanted.

    And finally insist the whole page to display fully without scrolling on his own monitor, despite me trying to point out the difference in monitor sizes and resolutions.

    I had a hard time trying to convince him that it was 2 different mediums. However worse thing is that my non technical boss always fully support him. Saying that I should not overstep my boundaries and just build it.

    In the end I was kicked out by them as they hired another developer who just simply do anything asked.

    Not surprisingly, while they were still in the business earning some money, they didn't reach the level of success I first hope they would achieve when I first joined them.

    So bottom note. Designers are great, but make sure you got a designer who understand the mediums he is designing for.

  • Nando

    Clearly a problem with the particular designer, not with design.

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  • Vancan

    I'm a designer myself, and I agree 100% with the author although my quest to have my own start up is still a dream. Hopefully soon, though.

  • Daylon Soh

    I agree that all companies could do better with a design co-founder. I personally think it would be more helpful if the article was published in Fast Company rather than Co.Design as that would encourage a more balanced debate.

  • SocialNetworkSoftware

    We designers are the brains/inspiration behind any successful project. You as a designer only need to wire frame out the top 3 - 5 important features, design the pages in Photoshop and send to us. We could build out your project in less than a month, usually under $10k.

    Sandy Rowley
    Megastar Networks

  • Alvaro Kasillas

    Yes STEVE the desing is very similar of the love, but you complicate
    Is tue all the bumps in to the space are paralles. BUT are you nedle theiarent tangents

  • Steven Bakker

    Love the concept! Shouldn't this apply to all startups - not
    just Silicon Valley tech though? There are many individuals out there who give
    a damn, have great, sustainable ideas, but no way of funding the idea, mainly
    because it's not a tech/gadget/device/app related model. VCs and incubators
    must wake up to the fact that life is about so much more than just technology.
    We need more Venture Catalysts instead of Capitalists.

  • Lisa Tollner

    Enjoyed your story!  Design is essential and humans are drawn to it, and to roll of the designer and designer/founder is often overlooked.  Thanks for sharing!

  • Pete R.

    Thank you for spreading this out. I always believe that designers can also be great founders. The power to understand human needs and discover unarticulated opportunities are super helpful during the product development. 

    We designers always imagine ourself as the audience when designing work which allows us to get into users' boots, understand partially what they want out of the product we're designing and eventually improve the product upon it.

    I also believe that Solo Designers who is also a developer Founder have the upper hand in terms of costs and efficiency. 

    Great article. :)

  • SocialNetworkSoftware

    Finally! This is an awesome idea. What is the use of building a great idea, if the site is hard to use.

  • JamesHRH

      the basic premise of successful entrepreneurship is to match your personality to your market opportunity. The commonality between Bill Gates & Steve Jobs is that the personalities matched the opportunity, when they were most successful (Bill early; Steve late).

    You are both right: now is the time when, in consumer internet at least, where more designers personalities are likely to meet a market opportunity that fits. And, Bill & Steve's greatest strengths was there go to market savvy (Bill in the world of lock down distribution & Steve in the world of branding).