Design is on a roll. Client services are experiencing a major uptick in demand, seasoned design professionals are abandoning client work in favor of entrepreneurship, and designer-co-founded startups such as Kickstarter and Airbnb are taking center stage. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that design has a massive role to play in the evolution of the web and the next generation of web products.
This has not gone unnoticed in the startup world. Nearly every CEO and VC I’ve met in the last six months is on a wild hunt for designers. This demand is a powerful tool: it can be used to get more selective with clients, bring design to new markets, and get higher rates—or, it can be used to take aim at something bigger.
Ben is right. You’ve been given a blank check. On it, you can write an hourly rate, or you can band together as a community and change the way design is perceived, change the way products are built, and quite possibly change the world.
All eyes on design
The startup world has pinned a great deal of hope on design and is watching to see how it plays out. It’s ready to believe that design is going to change the world—all we have to do is show that it can. If we succeed, we change the way design is perceived and valued forever. If we fail, design will lose its luster and misguided ideas about what design is may prevail.
The challenge is that while most of these folks know that they want design in their products (because, you know, Steve Jobs and shit), they don’t really know what that means or how to effectively incorporate design into their MVP / Lean Startup culture.
This lack of understanding is compounded by designers’ history of client services, a history that makes it easy for other communities to view design as a commodity rather than an essential partner. As such, the default position in the startup world has been to bring designers onboard to decorate existing products. Very little attention has been given to the possibility that those same designers might become founders or co-founders of their own companies.
This makes me nervous because it feels like design is getting set up for failure. It is difficult for design to flourish in organizations that don’t understand it. These organizations are no different than any client you’ve ever had: they have the same capacity to elicit or inhibit greatness in your work. The best clients are the ones who define their problems clearly and put their trust in designers to solve them. This model of defining constraints and enabling designers to come up with a solution within those constraints is a good one. But too many constraints can be suffocating.
If, for example, the designer is brought on after a feature set is solidified and a first version of a product has been built, there will be very little beneath the surface that can be done—and it’s what happens beneath the surface in product design that makes or breaks it. For design to work, at least one designer must be a part of the product team from the start. The design team needs to be treated like a partner, not a service provider.
Design as partner
If we want to really show what design is and what it can do, we need to get design elevated to the partner level. Partners have major equity stakes, real decision-making power, and are involved in product development from the beginning. The design team must feel that it has both the authority to make product decisions and the responsibility for the outcome of those decisions. If good design has an important role to play in the future of the web (it does), designers should work on their own terms and with a fair share of both the risk and the reward (read: cash money) set aside for them.
Remember the stakes. The products that take design seriously and incorporate it from the start are going to be the ones that connect with people in a way that really makes an impact in the world. As more and more products are built in this manner, people are going to notice the pattern. Designers will be seen as an essential ingredient in any startup team. The perception of design as decoration will start to show cracks.
I wish I could say that this designer-partner world was our inevitable future. We could all just kick back, relax, and grab a Corona like in those commercials. Alas, everything I’m seeing suggests the opposite. Designers—even some of the industry’s best—are routinely being pulled into existing startups as employee number four, five, or even later; as a result, they end up overly constrained and under-compensated. It’s going to be tough to turn that tide, but it can be done. As a matter of fact, it already has been done by another group of service providers: developers.
A semi-paved road
Even though the road from service provider to partner is a tough one, designers have the benefit of being able to examine the path taken by developers, who have done an enviable job of maintaining a strong community identity while gaining a tremendous amount of power and respect in the startup world.
If we go back ten to fifteen years, it was a common narrative for an MBA with a rich uncle and nothing more than a degree and an idea to raise some money and then hire a bunch of developers on a salary basis to do the work of building. Fast forward to today, and it’s difficult to raise money without a CTO or “technical co-founder,” and no one blinks at a startup co-founded by two developers.
It’s my belief that this transformation came about because developers undertook a wholesale realignment of their focus. There were many factors that enabled this realignment, but for my money ($17.43), Paul Graham (PG) and the folks at Y Combinator (YC) deserve a lot of the credit. They revolutionized how products were built and funded. Thanks in part to their efforts, we now have Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit, Heroku, and a whole lot more.
The money that Team YC set aside specifically for developer-entrepreneurs played a big role in all this, but the work they did to change the prevailing thinking in the developer community was even more important. PG wrote a series of essays encouraging developers to take the startup leap. In a 2001 essay entitled The Other Road Ahead under the heading of “Why Not?” he says:
Paul let developers know that there was nothing to fear in building something on their own. The fences have no current. This is probably the single most important lesson designers need to internalize as they undertake a realignment of their own.
It’s time for the design community to follow in developers’ footsteps and fundamentally realign its focus. We need to think about products over posters and people over page views. We need this to happen at every level: in design schools, in design writing, and in the things we celebrate online and in person. We have a new purpose: elevate design and help change the world. Let’s talk about how to do that.
Co-found a startup
The easiest way to become a designer-partner is to start something yourself. When you’re there from the beginning, you help determine the culture of the organization and you can personally ensure that design has a partner role.
This could be a side project that takes off, a la Instapaper. It could be a bigger idea that you decide to pursue full-time. It could also be an idea from someone you trust and would work well with. It’s ok to be patient and discerning when starting something new, but remember that conditions for a startup are never perfect.
If you want to take some of the risk out of the equation, you could apply to one of the many incubators out there. There’s Y Combinator (the most prestigious), The Designer Fund (for designer founders), TechStars (on the rise), Rock Health (for healthcare startups), and Imagine K-12 (for education startups).
It’s important to note that being a co-founder does not necessarily mean serving as CEO. Design can be a partner without being the leader. Generally, the person who has the strongest hold on the vision of the product will fit best into the CEO role.
Join a startup
If you’re not yet ready to create a brand new product, you have another great option: you can join an existing startup. Just remember, all startups are not created equal.
It’s very important to join a startup that treats design as an equal partner, not just a service provider. Doing so is the only way to ensure that the startups most willing to take design seriously will get access to the best design talent. Startups currently unwilling to make design a partner will need to change their ways or do without.
Don’t be afraid to grill the heck out of any company that you might join and find out just how seriously they take design. How are product decisions made and where does design fit in that process? Is designer compensation on par with developer compensation? Are designers at equity parity with developers at every seniority level? These may seem like very forward questions, but they’re not. They will save you from joining a startup that only pays lip service to design.
Work on bigger problems
If we want to be taken seriously as co-founders and partners, we have to tackle problems outside of our insular design community. Don’t create the next Dribbble; instead, bring a Dribbble level of craft to a bigger problem. The kind of problem that has the potential to change the world and impact millions of people’s lives.
Build something that fixes the insanity of modern education. Or helps people weather the upcoming financial crises and rise in unemployment. Or improves the health of people around the world. Or brings neighbors closer together. Or helps people run small businesses. Or strengthens the bonds of families. Or puts existing abusive, mammoth institutions out of business (pretty please).
Need more problems to solve? Check out this most excellent list by the Y Combinator folks of problems they’d love to fund; or, better yet, get outside and away from your computer and talk to your family, local businesses, and community.
Support your peers
The design community lacks capital and that is going to hurt designers’ ability to co-found startups. We need to do three things to bring money to our community.
First, established practitioners who have achieved a great deal of success need to invest in the next generation of designers and encourage a startup focus. Seeing as very few designers have had partner roles at startups thus far, this will take some time.
Second, we need to welcome and actively invite a small number of the very best investors to play a larger role in our community. The kinds of folks who appreciate the partner role that design can play.
Finally, we need to do more of what we’ve been doing: supporting one another. Let’s continue to take advantage of the opportunity afforded us by Kickstarter. Let’s continue to buy pro accounts in apps that we find meaningful like Dribbble or Instapaper. A few thousand members of our community contributing $20 each can easily bring a product to life.
Designers and developers
It is difficult to rally for designers without making it seem like you are discounting the value of developers. It’s important to remember that what we’re trying to do is evolve the notion of the ideal team. The ideal team includes both design and development, working in tight communication and mutual respect from the beginning. This is an enviable dynamic and surprisingly uncommon.
In his Brooklyn Beta talk, Tony Fadell said that at Apple, “Everyone on the team is an artist.” This is the right outlook. If we want design to be seen as more than decoration, we must remember that development is more than plumbing. Great developers are “designers” in their own domain. Design can even be our common thread, uniting two groups with a shared love of detail, craft, and building things.
Nudge the world
I want to end with an excerpt from Wilson Miner’s wonderful talk at Build.
The web is going to increasingly shape our world and consequently our daily lives. We can either sit on the sidelines and submissively assist those who are doing the shaping or we can take a more active role in creating the future we want. This year, thanks to a spike in demand, designers have a chance to actively nudge the world in any direction they like. It’s a huge opportunity with a tiny window. Let’s not let it pass by.