An Important Time for Design
Issue № 342

An Important Time for Design

A note from the editors: This article was edited post production to remove the link to Design is Horseshit and add a link to The Designer Fund.

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.

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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.

The internet, at this time in history, is the greatest client assignment of all time. It’s offering you a blank check and asking you to come up with something fascinating and useful that it can embrace en masse, to the benefit of everyone.

Ben Pieratt, Svpply

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#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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:

E. B. White was amused to learn from a farmer friend that many electrified fences don’t have any current running through them. The cows apparently learn to stay away from them, and after that you don’t need the current. “Rise up, cows!” he wrote, “Take your liberty while despots snore!”

If you’re a hacker who has thought of one day starting a startup, there are probably two things keeping you from doing it. One is that you don’t know anything about business. The other is that you’re afraid of competition. Neither of these fences have any current in them.

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.

Realignment#section4

The desire to redesign is aesthetic-driven, while the desire to realign is purpose-driven.

Cameron Moll

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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#section10

I want to end with an excerpt from Wilson Miner’s wonderful talk at Build.

Design is the choices we make about the world we want to live in.

We make our world what it is and we become the kind of people who live in it.

What do we want to spend more time with? What do we want to shape us? What nourishes us? What do we want to see grow?

You know what we get to do when we leave here? We get to go make things. Things that nudge the world a little bit in what we hope is the right direction. We get to put a dent in the universe. This is a great job.

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.

About the Author

Cameron Koczon

Hi, I’m Cameron. Welcome to my bio. My real name is Cameron Koczon but I go by Fictive Cameron on the Internet. I run a web company called Fictive Kin based in Brooklyn, NY. We are currently working furiously on an app called Gimme Bar which is, as they say, neato torpedo. I co-created a to do list application called TeuxDeux and I co-organized a web conference called Brooklyn Beta. I like co-doing things because it’s more fun to work on awesome things with awesome people. I sometimes post to my off-kilter blog. I smoke a pipe.

22 Reader Comments

  1. Good article. Inspiring.
    To add to your list of organization/incubators to out there is the recent Designer’s Fund (http://designerfund.com/). I am not affiliated with it but have been fascinated with its genesis, since a couple of years ago I was noticing the “designer-based startup” here in San Francisco. Joe Gebbia of Airbnb, being a shining example and a few friends of mine as well.

  2. For a Startup to Succeed, you need:
    # to be solving something worth solving
    # a sustainable business model
    # a great product that’s easy to understand and delightful to use
    # to excite the right audience with the right message

    Disciplines and skills needed are:
    * Business
    * Engineering
    * Marketing
    * *Design*

  3. In the link to the “misguided ideas about what design is” the author seems very proud of himself for saying that Apple didn’t start out with great design and began by building products out of wood in their garage. While this is completely true, he is missing a key point that many people forget. Apple started building products in their garage when the bar was set very low for design. People point at Apple now as the bar to hit because that is what is expected by consumers. When apple started the bar was in the basement so there was no need to invest in great design at the time. Fast forward to now and it is a totally different world. Consumers are not as wowed by solid features in the back end as much as they are by the experience of using the product on the front end.

    Non-designers can argue all they want about whether there is more value in a new feature than in a slick UI, but I have seen too many developers just ignore the fact that what users want is something that is easy and pleasurable to use.

    If I was a startup building PCs I just couldn’t build a machine that is amazing under the covers and nail together a wooden box in my garage to hold it. So the argument that startups should compare them selves to Apple as a startup is just plain silly in 2012.

  4. I must add that, one of the happiest experiences I’ve had was working with a great developer; he’d be coding and I’d be writing the CSS for display — live, while on the phone. Excellent time, and great result.

  5. Diane, I regularly do skype/remote desktop sessions with clients, but while it’s certainly better than nothing I feel it can’t beat, pardon the expression, real face time.

  6. I agree that capital is a big issue for the design community — we do not have the culture of re-investing, like Silicon Valley does. We are also not focused on raising (often) ridiculous sums of money with the goal of a quick, lucrative exit. Designers care more about the craft than the money, and this is a good thing, because I don’t think you need much money to get an idea off the ground these days.

    The bar to getting started is so low, you only need to pair up with a good developer to get a minimum viable product going. Any team of two can bootstrap a product while continuing to do client or full-time work. But having access to small amounts of seed money would certainly accelerate the process for many of us.

    More Y-Combinator-ish incubators and educational spaces like General Assembly will help designers get their ideas off the ground. And there is definitely an opportunity for more funds like The Designer Fund.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Cameron!

  7. I completely second keith. As a designer, I find that crafting good designs is always the most important thing. Money will come by it’s own. I joined a good ios developer and a great copywriter, while I take care of design and html. What else would we need?
    We already made a couple of products that made us pretty popular, and are now so buried in jobs that we can’t even find the time to promote us. Why should we need money to grow? We don’t. We just need to continue improving.

  8. Thanks for the inspiring article. I’ve started my professional life as a product designer moving into UX and I see how your point fits perfectly to these two domains. Two designers as start-up founders? I say amen to that.

  9. The startup community is certainly reassuring how important good design is. All I want next to happen is a local business seeing the true importance of good design. They are currently being swayed by poor design firms that what they are creating for them is good. It’s not good. It looks like what Mr. 2000 was designing. Maybe local businesses think they don’t need good design on their web properties because they don’t think their property is of great value to them. I certainly think that if it was well designed your local businesses would stand out amongst everyone in the town and whether you might not get more traffic through your doorstep you will get more traffic through the interwebs that is bound to keep you at your brick and mortar shop and supporting the local economy. Good design is powerful, it’s just a hard sell to some.

  10. Excellent article.

    I am an serial entrepreneur as well, with a background in print design. Still, the article spoke to me on many levels-

    In my opinion, we need to revisit the label of “designer”, because the definition is very narrow (at least it is perceived that way). Most people think of design as pure esthetics, while good design encompasses so much more: functionality, strategy, and message. 20-30 years ago, design was a rather elite field with designers requiring specialized tools. Today, anyone with a computer can call him/herself a designer.

    I continue to do consulting, but have changed my title to brand strategist, and am currently rebranding/renaming my consulting business to better define where I fall: more aesthetically focused than a marketer, more voice driven than a designer.

    With so much access to media, today’s consumers are very sophisticated. Design as afterthought just doesn’t cut it.

  11. Great article. I really appreciate your thoughts and found this article inspiring. Just the shot in the arm I was looking for!

    Cheers!

  12. This article is, in short, one with the most rational and realistic line of thinking that I have read about our recent design world. There are two points that are still lingering for me, and that will ensure that I read and share this several times over.

    The first is the point about Design As a Partner, and designers taking their fair share of both risk and rewards. I can’t agree enough that this is a line of thinking that we all need to hold in esteem. Ignoring that design is a profession that contributes, a huge amount, to the financial, social and good will success of any business is a big mistake. We are doing ourselves a disservice by keeping our minds in the fantasy realm and not entering the business realm, even in a small way.

    The second point is that which is threaded throughout the article that I love, and that is that we, like developers, need to rise up and not just be builders. Accepting our roles as builders, and waiting for others outside of our profession to change this perspective for us, is what causes a huge amount of the complaints from our community that design doesn’t get respect. We have to give ourselves respect first and teach others how to treat design and there is no better way to do so then, as you mention, observe and study how development did it.

    Great article… thank you for writing it!

  13. Large companies (non-internet of course) are getting into design more and more. They have old systems and are going through a redesign like we’ve never seen before.

    I work for a very large corporation (to remain nameless) that is starting to understand how an aesthetically pleasing design can help their employees in many ways. I believe their old, poor designs have been created by the hands of rushed developers trying to meet a particular release date.

    Design isn’t the only part of this process. More and more large organizations are not only focusing on their designs, but also on how the designs will be used and interacted with by their users. Usability is a new facet of design and will continue to see much more growth in 2012 and beyond.

  14. Great article. Timely for me since I’ve found myself in the situation described: start-up, sole web/interactive designer and in charge of UX/UI.

    It’s true that design shouldn’t be considered a commodity. Designing should NOT just be the simple act of “skinning” applications. I’m fortunate that I was hired on with the responsibility of improving overall UX/UI and not just as a “designer”. This has enabled me to directly affect the UX/UI in a predominately development focused/driven environment. Even better, everyone is focused on what is best for the user. I’m also involved at the product level and we are working though UX/UI even before the Dev’s start building. We’ve had great results and it really helps bridge the gaps from pre-inception to full release.

    Again great article and I love the “electric fence” reference. I’ve been sharing this article with everyone within the company.

  15. Get High Quality CMS websites for Low cost for your business. Avail Web design and Graphics Designing solutions along with logos,images @ webbeets.com

  16. Good article kevin,
    Specially when HTML5 and css3 building its way to new design era, the lines are increasing more than layers and that is more important when it comes to page-speed.
    One thing that really disturbs me when i handover the nicely build HTML design to the developers and they just slaughter the whole design without knowing what they are doing. They should be more careful with the desgin, at least they should know basic html.

  17. An amazing article! Timely. I need to put some of the key concepts and phrases to memory when talking with clients.

    Comment #11 from byderekj, and #12 from Maja, really hit my nail on the head.

    An “exacto-knife-era” graphic designer, I have now added the title of “Strategic Visual Designer” to my marketing. I love being involved in the development of a small companies message and look, beginning with a great mark! 2012 is to be a “re-design of my priorities” year and this article really outlines a clear path.

    One question: How does one compete with “CMS for low cost” from a designer in India or a “5 page website for $50” from a “new designer” in Israel, looking to build their portfolio? Half of my design work is gratis [for local non-profits], but being expected to work for peanuts gets old.

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