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.

3 Comments
  • Lloyd Pennington

    May 10, 2012 at 10:52 pm Reply

    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 successful product or service. focusing on the big picture without paying attention to the pixels will dilute the offering and therefor the profitability of the venture.
    Equally, focussing on one or two pixels will result in total failure almost certainly.
    In our view of the venture, we even need to consider the frame in which our big picture sits, the wall it is mounted upon and the gallery which houses it. In other words, our venture does not sit in isolated space, far away from the gaze of a viewing public. It exists within an eco-system of other businesses that support our own. Be that the media, the supply chain, distribution channels or any or all of a multitude of other external influences.
    The companies that are to do well (I’m thinking terms of billion dollar companies) are the ones who design in collaboration with their entire eco-system. It is this that will create the greatest barrier to market entry, not patent wars.
    Those that aspire to emulate even on a micro scale, the behaviour of the most successful companies will achieve their own modicum of success. Those that dont will be left behind to fill up the refuse cans.

    • Brian (Design Sojourn)

      May 24, 2012 at 11:59 pm Reply

      @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.

  • max

    July 22, 2012 at 11:31 pm Reply

    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 at things. It has nothing to do with a something-to-make-products-look-better approach. This is the common (and wrong) interpretation of design as style.
    You can apply two design methodologies. One is the user-centered design. Its assumption is that a firm may infer unique insights to inform product innovation by asking users about their needs or, more effectively, by observing them as they use existing products and by tracking their behavior in consumption processes.
    The other one is design-driven innovation. Design-driven innovation in action is a superior capability to propose innovations that radically redefine what a product means for a customer. It has nothing to do with the market/people needs. An example was (and still is) Apple’s Steve Jobs.
    All the Best
    Massimo

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