• Jonn Galea

A startups' guide to design (& designers)

To have a successful startup, all you need is a great idea and the ability to build it. But what about design? When does that come into play? How should one go about recruiting designers? And what exactly does a designer do, anyway? Confused? I'm here to help.


In my eight years working in design amongst early-stage startups, the question I have been asked the most by founders must be 'when should we employ a designer?'. My initial answer has, thus far, always being a cheeky, non-comital, 'It depends' — Conversation inevitably ensues.

Over time, I have noticed certain patterns emerging, as my knowledge of adjacent fields (product management, engineering, etc) has increased. I'm hoping the following will empower anyone out there to better know when to seek the help of a designer and how to do so when knowledge in the field is lacking or nonexistent.

Reasons NOT to employ a designer

I am regularly reminded that it can be quite tricky to understand exactly what a designer does in the tech world. There is no shame in it, product designers are decisively different from the more stereotypical image of what a designer should be, my parents still don't quite understand what it is I do for a living. Let's start by clarifying a common misconception.

If you're thinking you need a designer because you desperately need a nice logo and a swanky website, your priorities are grossly misplaced.

As an early-stage startup, no one (ironically, apart from designers perhaps) cares that much if you have a nice identity. Users and investors will forgive a dodgy look and feel as long as the product shows potential for solving genuine problems.

Where design can help is to help you iteratively formulate your vision into a solution that can be experienced by the users it intends to serve, and hopefully beyond. Yes, we call ourselves many things — Product Designers, UX Designers, UI Designers, Information Architects... — all that you need to know is that empathetic problem solving is at the core of what we do.

That said, it certainly is true that everyone within a startup is expected to wear many hats, and designers are no different. When I first joined Lingvist, then still a company of six folks, I worked on everything from wire-framing, creating personas, and creating a rudimentary design system, to designing business cards, pitch decks (a lot of pitch decks!), social media marketing, beer labels (because Estonia), and so on.

But I stress, if a designer at a startup is working mainly on branding or marketing, we have a problem.

No time like now

The moment you are looking to get your product in front of users is the moment you should be, at the very least, getting advice from a product designer. And since the goal of any startup is to test a hypothesis in front of users ASAP, then the honest answer with regards to 'when?', is right away.

Is this possible? In the vast majority of cases, of course, it isn't. So the more constructive answer is, as soon as you can afford it, and that's usually when you get your first round of funding. As hinted at above, most, if not all, early-stage investors will look past a weak initial design as long as the idea is great and backed by founders who are passionate about the problem it solves.

The reason behind this is more than just skin deep, a good designer is not just one who creates an interface that looks 'professional'.

Designers bring with them an empathetic, user-centric mindset along with a design thinking philosophy and toolset. This provides for a different perspective when it comes to analysing whether to pivot or persevere.

It is worth noting that, until recently, B2B and SaaS were somewhat exempt from this urgency to bring in a designer. The argument being that this model is not very public-facing and the end-user is very unlikely to be the one footing the bill. This has changed significantly in recent years as competition in the field has increased. We are now seeing a greater emphasis being made on optimal user experiences regardless of the industry.

The obvious remedy: employ a design agency.

Right, so you have identified that it's about time you brought a designer into the fold, but adding someone to the payroll is a massive commitment for any startup, and with so many dedicated design agencies around, why not just go with one of them? In my opinion, this will be a bad move, with caveats.

A far too common mistake I've seen startups make is approach an established branding/marketing/communication agency (perhaps with a 'technology arm') to help them with all their design needs, and the agency model is simply not the right one for the job.

I spent a long time working at communication and marketing agencies, and their bread and butter is providing multiple options for a solution when what a startup needs is help defining a singular problem.

The result is a lot of expensive and sexy looking material that will go straight into the bin within a matter of months — logos, brand guidelines, hi-fidelity mock-ups for websites, apps and adverts. All too soon and all too peripheral.

The exception here is if you approach an increasing number of agencies that are dedicated to user experience (UX) and general product design, perhaps even one that specifically caters for startups, like my good friends at DUX.

In any case, keep in mind that for any work to be fruitful, both parties need to be in this for the long haul. Erase the concept that an agency can solve all your design needs in a few weeks. Finding proper solutions is iterative, and takes time, and agencies are not cheap!

Employing an agency will also not help a startup achieve that desired autonomy it needs to grow and they will always have other clients or pitches vying for their attention. But if both startup and agency start with the concept of creating a successful relationship up to the point where a startup can establish its own design resources, all parties stand to benefit.

How about employing a freelancer?

The great thing about freelancers is that you can find experienced people at a rate that is far cheaper than any agency, and just like an agency, you don't need to commit long-term. However, some similar problems may arise.

Freelancers are likely to have other clients and may lean into supplying at least some peripheral work to make you feel like you're getting your money's worth. This is a typical case of employing a mercenary who is seeking to fulfil a contractual obligation and move on. This is fine for branding and advertising but not for the intricacies of product design, where what you really need are missionaries who can get behind the long-term product vision and company mission. Again, we have exception here.

Approaching a freelancer with an agreement towards creating a more permanent relationship down the line can work beautifully, and is arguably the most common approach I've seen in my years in the field. I have even been through the process myself — twice.

When both parties understand that the company's future is not secure and requires flexibility, agreeing to engage in a mutually advantageous contract once the company is on a more stable footing can prove quite motivational to all involved.

Also, note that there is no harm in bringing in a consultant to specifically help find the right designer for a startup's needs. In fact, this is extremely wise. If you lack industry knowledge to hire a good designer, accept it and seek help. Hiring the wrong people wastes time, money and kill morale — all massively detrimental to a newly founded startup.

And finally, the in-house designer

As you may have realised by now, whichever way you look at it, bringing in a dedicated and talented designer to work solely on your product should be the ultimate goal.

It's arguably the conclusion you hoped I wouldn't suggest, but there is a reason why established tech companies have in-house design teams. I'm confident the previous points help explain just how beneficial this is and that it can be done without incurring massive costs and commitment.

Ultimately, to breed success, you need a cohesive team that is focused on the same, long-term vision. For that, your best bet is to find someone willing to dedicate themselves to the cause full-time.

You will note that I said you need a designer that is dedicated, not experienced. Over the last few years, I have encountered so many talented designers well-versed in all that is needed to be a success in the industry but just need that initial break. I genuinely feel that a startup taking a 'chance' on a designer showcasing the right approach and energy can be massively beneficial to both parties.

Yes, mistakes will be made, but this part and parcel of startup life anyway. They will only serve to harbour passion, loyalty and camaraderie. Experience will come along quickly, especially if you ensure mentorship from others that already have it (which is so readily (and freely) available now thanks to sites such as ADPList). Furthermore, the experience garnered will be specific to the problem space you are working in.

I hope that you now have a clearer picture of how to approach bringing in that initial design help to a startup. How crucial it is to ensure that person is part of the team and can grow with the company, to not be afraid to seek help in understanding what to look for in a designer, and finally, to embrace the current period of risk by hedging your bets on understanding and passion over experience.

Let me know how you get on.

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