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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 d.school, 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.]