What it Means to Have a Designer as a Startup Founder

So it looks like The Designer Fund, a VC fund that specifically invests in Startup companies that have designers as founders is starting to gain traction. It seems that suddenly everyone seems to have an opinion on the premium placed on designers.

Brace yourselves! I’m going to join the fray with my 2 cents worth simply because I find that many people seem to miss what the Designer Fund is extolling. I would even dare say that even the Designer Fund itself seems to miss something in the communications of their objectives.

But before we go on check out some of the current sentiments on this hot topic, researched and organized for you in chronological order:

1) The Designer Fund in all its glory! A brag list of all the exciting and successful companies that have a designer(s) as one of the founders.

2) Yongfook rants, (in respond to this brag list) in his post “Design is Horseshit!“, on how the premium set on designers is overblown and there is a lot more to running a start up than being a designer. Yongfook seems to lean towards the view that design is about creating value through making things beautiful.

3) Joshua Porter calls out YongFook in his post “Design is not Horsepoop“. Joshua’s take is that design is more than skin deep, it’s a process and a mindset. He quotes Steve Jobs saying, “Design is how it works.”

4) Finally, a bunch of us were having a conversation on Twitter today on the seemingly narrow view of design on this website: “Startups, This is how Design Works“.

You see, it is not about how you define design, but how wide (or narrow) you consider the scope of design to be. This is the same problem many people have with the whole Design Thinking shindig. Take a look at the following graphic and you’ll know what I mean.


Click on the Image for a Bigger View.

It’s one of the situations where people are both wrong and right at the same time. We are all really talking about the same thing. It’s all design. From making things look good or easy to use, to creating the right experience, to identifying opportunities for market grown through user insights etc., we are all talking about the same thing.

Now, lets go back to the Designer Fund’s point of view, and look at what they mean where they say that Designers should be part of a Startup’s founding team. What they are trying to say is no different to what some of us (go Rita-Sue!) have been saying for years, and that is we need to get a Designer in the boardroom.

When you have designers (skilled in the “Design as a Strategic Activity” bit) in the boardroom or coffee shop table (where most Startups find themselves), design becomes central to the business strategy and decision making process at the highest level. So the Design Fund believes that having Designers as founders will lead to a design driven Startup that will have a high change to build something meaningful, useful, and awesome!

But to start building, you will need everything to come together in the right way, and at this stage design switches to design implementation mode. Therefore, in reality you will need both parts of Design (and in between) as outlined in my graphic above. Any argument, for or against the Designer Fund, which only considers one part of this equation is fundamentally wrong.

. .

Brian Ling

Brian is the Founder and Design Director at Design Sojourn, a Design Led Innovation Consultancy. He is a multi-award winning design leader, and specialises in strategic design and innovation programs that drive successful organisations. Brian’s 20-year career in design, driven through a deep understanding of human behavior, spans over multiple domains such as consumer electronics, government, healthcare, non-profit agencies, hospitality, F&B, retail, online solutions and best in class service experiences.

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3 Comments on "What it Means to Have a Designer as a Startup Founder"

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Brian I think that DESIGNSOJOURN is a good initiative with a good knowledge of the topic. That’s why I wish you and your colleagues the best. On the contrary I saw a comment here that you reported as coming from someone who rants. I think that the guy who wrote such a comment stuffed with a brothel language can’t help anyone because he demonstrated to ignore what Design really means in addition to the manners and professionalism. Design is NOT a trivial issue. It can improve society and lifestyle, in addition to business and/or technology. It’s another way of looking… Read more »
Lloyd Pennington
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Brian, I completely agree with you. Many view Design as making pretty boxes for stuff to go inside. Others understand that there needs to be many more supporting structures in place to make the pretty box come to fruition. Marketing, financial control, manufacturing, engineering… the list goes on and on. One cannot succeed at the highest level without the other. This reminds me of your excellant post about the qualities that good designers must exhibit. The one that springs to my mind here is “zooming”. Aesthetic is just one tiny pixel in a vey big picture that makes up a… Read more »
Brian (Design Sojourn)
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Brian (Design Sojourn)

@Lloyd: As usual, what a fantastic comment! That is indeed the challenge. Many organizations and people continue to see design as a implementation activity and that makes it a hard sell. Thanks for stopping by.

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