More Designers should be Entrepreneurs

Some time ago (July 14, 2009 to be exact) I wrote an article encouraging designers to walk the entrepreneurial path on their own by bringing some of their own creations to the market. My article “Sometimes Designers need to Walk the Path on Their Own” encouraged design entrepreneurship simply because of the learning experience designers can get. Not only that, a designer should have the DNA to be an entrepreneur. It is really only about changing the mindset.
So I was presently surprised to see an interview where Scott Wilson, of Tik Tok Kickstarter fame, explains his thoughts on why Designers should be Entrepreneurs. However I disagree with the99percent when they labeled him as a “new breed of designer/entrepreneurs”. I’m sure you would agree with me that design entrepreneurship is something that many designers have been practicing for quite sometime now.
Anyways here is the quote:

Do you think all designers should be entrepreneurs? Or is that just your particular makeup?
I find it slightly odd that all designers aren’t like that, because you’re just so curious. For me, I have such a hunger to learn, to try new things, and to connect the dots. I love seeing all kinds of things from medical to industrial to whatever, and then going, “Oh that’s interesting, and how is that relevant to this thing over here that’s in a completely different sector or category.”
I think there’s a difference between a designer who just wants to go to his computer and design things in a vacuum or design things to a brief and not maybe be challenged too much, and a designer that can actually see the connections and challenge the brief and push back and create something that’s disruptive to what’s in the market right now.
Steve Jobs at Apple, Mark Parker at Nike – who I was fortunate enough to work with for two years – those guys are big-picture designers. They’re right-brain, they connect the dots. I think it’s really important to train that part of how you see things as a designer.
There are a lot of people out there who have more skill than I do, who are more creative, maybe more open-minded, but one of the things that I do is I see the connections and I see the opportunities and I can visualize them.

So I agree with Scott, designers have the DNA to be entrepreneurs. It is about curiosity, big picture thinking, and the ability to connect the dots. I would also like to add to his list the ability to wear many hats, working with, and empathizing with other people. Check out the full interview at the99percent for other cool anecdotes such as “Do what you think is Right and Apologize Later”. Enjoy!

7 Comments
  • Bernardus Romero

    May 19, 2011 at 10:16 am Reply

    Definitely the best contribution a designer could do to society is through his or her work as a consultant.

  • Raph

    May 20, 2011 at 8:21 am Reply

    Hi Brian,
    I quite enjoyed reading the Scott Wilson interview as well, there were some fantastic points made and some great insights.
    However in response to your comments, I think that the99percent hit it on the head by describing him as part of the “new breed of designer/entrepreneurs”. That said I also agree with your stament to a certain extent, that a few designers have practicing this type of design/entrepreneurship for a while.
    So let me explain. I think that while your statement is partially true (eg: a few designers such as yourself have been practicing as a designer/entrepreneurs for some time), I do not think that designers have widely recognised or acknowledged themselves as entrepreneurs. Many are only just becoming aware of this unique blend of designer and entrepreneur.
    This is due to the massive shift in the way society engages in entrepreneurship mainly due to barriers to entry being broken down by the internet. Previously only designers who had many years of experience and extensive business and manufacturing networks built up over many years could truly be designers/entrepreneurs.
    But this is changing because even a student or non designer can dream up a product and now, thanks to the net and advances in rapid manufacturing technolgies, has the basic tools at their disposal to design it (Sketch up), to fund it (Kickstarter), produce it (Ponoko & Shapeways), market it (facebook, twitter etc), sell it (Shopify) all with very low start up costs.
    From concept to actually selling a product could be done for sub $100 total investment dependant on the product. Compare this to even a few years ago when you couldn’t get get rapid prototyping of a small item done for sub $500 and then there was the costs to actually get it produced, into a store and market it all before a sale was made, and in all these transactions the designer would lose out. Now the designer can keep 100% minus costs and still keep control of their IP. It is an amazing shift, but not one that has been fully embraced by all designers.
    I think the designer/entrepreneur concept is something a designers traditionally develops an awareness of as they mature as a designer, and even then only is exposed to the right stimuli. This has been slowly changing over the last 5 years as the barriers to market entry and production break down and become democratised. But design entrepreneurship is still a relatively new concept that is still slowly filtering into the general consciousness of designers.
    Keep in mind that in many respects you, along with others like Scott Wilson, are actually at the very edge of the new breed of designers who do actively engage in the entrepreneurial space.
    Finally, the99percent is holding Scott Wilson up as the luminary of a “new breed of designer/entrepreneurs”, and so they should be, because not only is he actively engaging in the shift but he is also hugely successful at it.

  • Raph

    May 20, 2011 at 8:42 am Reply

    @ Bernardus Romero
    Actually I think the biggest contribution a design could make to society is in this model as a designer/entrepreneur not as a consultant.
    A consultant is selling creativity as a service. This means they are actually not able to directly sell their raw creativity and skills or benefit as extensively as they should as their work will always be filtered by the client to a certain extend, some clients being worse then others. The person ultimately benefiting in the long term in the consultant relationship is the client not the designer. The designer is paid a fee for service which will stop once the product design is complete. They may receive some on going royalties, but the royalties are usually not a big percentage of the total generated and often tightly bound into contracts there for the benefit of the client.
    As a designer/entrepreneur the designer is selling their raw creative and ideas bundled directly into products that they can immediately benefit from and also continue to benefit from as long as the product is selling, particularly if they are selling the products directly to customers and have direct control of manufacturing. Their product ideas also tend to be less filtered, because they have complete control, and therefore can produce some truly exciting products.
    Designer/entrepreneurs are also able to have a direct influence over their own ability create an increased amount of employment compared to consultants who can only ever have a limited impact on this. Designer/Entrepreneurs generate employment as their creative entreprise grows as they need people power for many tasks, often the potential for growth is quite significant compared to consultancies. Overall the consultancy model is very constrained in terms of long term growth – Frog and IDEO are unusual.
    Many consultancies and consultants are also beginning to leave the consultancy model behind. Evidenced by people like Brian (Spaces for ideas), Scott Wilson or in Australia Catalyst Design who produce the Knog bike lights.

  • Bernardus Romero

    May 20, 2011 at 10:55 am Reply

    @Raph You’re completely right. I just think we can accomplish a broader impact as consultants, because our designs are manufactured and brought to the market(s) by another one’s companies (and technologies). This way we can design a wider range of products and for different kinds of users and markets. In a word: DESIGN, which is the best we do.
    Entrepreneurship is vital, you’re right. It’s crucial right now in “peripheral countries” (citing Gui Bonsiepe) like mine, Venezuela, for instance. There’s almost no other option, in fact. But technology and processes are really expensive when you’re a little company.

  • N. Khan

    May 20, 2011 at 11:35 am Reply

    I think designers and creative people are entrepreneurs in spirit to beging with. They don’t want to follow the standard cookie cutter models and that’s what entrepreneurs are. Just make sure you team them up with a good accountant.

  • Raph

    May 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm Reply

    @Bernadaus
    You make a great point. However I think though that overall the consultant’s model is waning and is not a viable model long term. I am already seeing a lot of Australian consultancies scaling back their consulting and bringing more entrepreneurial self driven projects to the fore as these entrepreneurial projects produce better revenues. Globally I think it will become more common for designers to operate as entrepreneurs as the barriers in the world of technology start to fall further and become more accessible.
    As a designer, particularly with technology and processes being expensive or inaccessible, isn’t it our job to use our creative skills to find ways to be able to use or access these technologies and processes at a reasonable cost so they are accessible to us?
    @N. Khan
    So true. Designers and Entrepreneurs certainly both share the common goal of wanting to change the world with their product or company. But despite this, on the whole, there seems to be a lot of hesitation on both sides, probably because they talk a slightly different language, to collaborate. There are some successful case around, but not as many as there should be. It should be the default for new graduates and young designers to be seeking out entrepreneurial opportunities instead of wanting to just work for consultancies or big companies.
    On accountants – fantastic advice. Do you have any further thoughts on the following?
    The problem is designers often don’t know what to look for in an accountant or have no understanding of accounting at all. I think they need to have the basics down to be able to judge wether the accountant is any good (how would you, as a designer, judge wether an accountant is any good at what they do?). I also think the same is true of business understanding, the modern designer needs to have some business basics from the get go, whether they work for a big company, consultancy or decide to take the entrepreneurial route.

  • Brian

    May 25, 2011 at 9:19 pm Reply

    Hi everyone, thanks for the good feedback.
    @Bernadaus and @Raph, both of you are actually correct. Designers have many roles to play today, as well as have a big responsibility in the things that they design.
    As a consultant there is much he/she can do in educating the client as well as ridding the world of bad design and making life better for everyone.
    As a Entrepreneur, a designer has a huge opportunity for a great learning experience, able to hone his craft and skills, and (IMHO) most importantly of all push the boundaries of his work and peers; and as a result raise the general quality of design everywhere.
    Look at the easy access of rendering tools and how far we have come in the design of our presentation materials? Today it is expected that designers know how to render with the computer tools and produce crash hot rendering images.
    @Raph, separately, in response to your comment about Design Entrepreneurship is a new breed, we need to separate two things clearly which I think you might have mixed up. Firstly there is a difference between the existence of design entrepreneurs vs. having the tools to make it easier to get into it.
    Granted the tools might allow a much bigger critical mass, but I still say that design entrepreneurship is nothing new. There are tons of them around, James Dyson, Naoto Fukasawa, Karim Rashid, Philip Starck etc. While we are on furniture designers, practically the entire furniture design industry is build on design entrepreneurship. Furniture designers, design their own products and then either self produce it in limited quantities or sell the rights to it to a brand.
    Good discussion everyone and thanks for sharing.

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