Designer co-founders are getting a lot of love in the startup scene as of late. They are no longer a ‘nice to have’, but instead critical to the success of many companies. If you’re a technical co-founder you may want to re-consider your initial team. Though what follows are thoughts aimed at consumer tech / software startups, a design co-founder is just as important for physical product based businesses.
To start though, let’s clarify what kind of designer we’re talking about - the kind of designer startups need. I think Designer Fund says it best:
“We mean an honest-to-goodness, experienced, craft-driven, product-focused, reflective practitioner who has learned to design by designing, who views design as a way of thinking about solving hard problems and is capable of building usable products with more than just beautiful aesthetics.”
If you don’t care about making more usable products stop reading now.
It should be clear from our designer definition that it’s not just about aesthetics. Great usability and clear communication are key to any successful product and they should be baked in from the start, not added later. Design isn’t a superficial layer you should outsource or ‘drop in’. Respect it as any other craft, or be doomed to make mediocre products.
Yup, It’s about more than pixels
A great designer can help you solve tough communication problems, simplify the user experience and make your product a joy to use. If you’re lucky enough to have found a designer unicorn (skilled at UX/UI, graphic design, interaction & frontend dev) then they can also help your product stand out from the competition with a great layer of polish.
Just as great engineers work out product APIs, classes and modules before writing any code, a great designer can help you build a paper prototype or wireframes of the product first. Iterating at this level and working through the user experience is fast and means you can quickly discover and resolve many potential issues before you write a single line of code or commit more costly resources.
This collaboration at a low-fi level spurs product buy in and builds a shared vision amongst the team. Thinking through a products use in it’s paper form first will save engineers hundreds of hours over the course of a project.
Startups have limited resources.
A well rounded, balanced team is crucial for success. Since most startups can’t hire specialists early on (technical or design), you’ll need to get the biggest bang for your buck with each team member you add. You’ll need to find the right designer. UX or graphic design experience alone isn’t enough.
“Many people will tell you creating an engineering driven culture is the key. I don’t actually think building company culture around one department is a good idea though.”
Adding an additional engineer instead of a designer to the founding team will certainly speed up code and technical feature development. But If you end up with a product that’s difficult to use or with a value proposition that’s poorly communicated, you’ve wasted far more time than you’ve gained.
Finding a potential designer co-founder
If you’re an engineer you may think it’s hard to find design talent (designers think the same thing about engineers!). That’s probably because you surround yourself with like minded people - other code slingers and uber nerds ;-). Here’s a few rocks worth overturning:
It’s somewhat easy to find a great pixel pusher, but again you need more. You need a real designer. Read on.
Validating a potential designer
So you have some ideas on where to look. You may have even found some candidates. So here’s some tips on how you can start to validate them. Of course it goes without saying that you should use these tips in addition to asking all the tough questions you’d ask of any potential co-founder:
If you bake design into your startup culture… designers will come
I’ve read many great articles about attracting top engineers (bigger monitors are a start). Many people will tell you creating an engineering driven culture is the key. I don’t actually think building company culture around one department is a good idea though. Superiority complexes can quickly form and undermine other groups perceived value and productivity. Or worse, you could end up with soulless products. While this section alone could spawn several of it’s own articles, here are some simple tips for baking good product design into your culture (helping you attract key talent):
Culture for any startup can’t be built overnight. You do have to actively form it though. Keep in mind that doing nothing will form ‘culture’ too. Lastly, you’ll need to build trust amongst disciplines. Allow for some autonomy so folks can shine.
Change isn’t easy!
Hopefully you understand how important a design co-founder is and what sort of impact they can have on your overall product. Furthermore is should be clear that no one department (design included) should steal the show. But If you’re used to building products with a heavy engineering focus it won’t be easy to relinquish some of the control or support design led features you may think aren’t important. Just remember though:
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Anthony Robbins