Design in the startup world

How must designers, used to striving for perfection in their work, modify their processes and attitudes to fit the ‘ship fast and often’ mindset of Silicon Valley? John Maeda identifies three key issues

Montage for design for startups

As recently as just 15 years ago, computers were primarily used by researchers and otherwise ‘nerdy’ types. Software was difficult to use, a situation that was remedied by endless manuals. Hardware didn’t look like anything more than a box, preferably one that could be opened easily with a screwdriver. I was fortunate to live through that era and watch it unfold over a few decades at the MIT Media Lab.

Today’s users, however, are considerably less nerdy, and they’re less patient than your average MIT computer science researcher. The design of a digital experience matters a great deal now – as much as the technology – and for that reason, design has risen considerably in importance. So although founding tech startups was long only the purview of engineers, we now see the rise of companies like Airbnb and Pinterest that are founded by designers.

A lot has happened over the last four years at the intersection of design and tech – 27 startups co-founded by designers and 13 design firms have been acquired by technology companies. As a result, design professionals are becoming more visible in Silicon Valley, and designers are even being welcomed into the world of venture capital. For example, shortly after I joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers from my post as the President of Rhode Island School of Design, six other venture capital firms brought in designers into their partnerships.

The change afoot has certainly moved the technology industry forward. But it’s also exposed some pain points as designers transition from playing a functional role within their companies, to assuming leadership positions. In order to succeed in such roles, I’ve observed three areas that designers in tech might want to keep in mind for the future:

—I—

Designers are often taught to strive for absolute perfection, but the startup world demands shipping fast, often, and imperfectly. Designers traditionally needed to work with ‘integrity’, which means committing to quality, accountability and authorship. But startups need to move fast and work in rapid iterations to generate actionable data to know how to improve; thus, the mantra we often hear of ‘ship fast and often’. Designers can choose to embrace the inherent challenge of rapid iteration that startups require, or forego the tech world by designing in traditional media. As the past designer of posters, books, furniture, and other works that I could craft and ship to perfection, I can honestly say that having feet in both worlds of traditional media and digital media is the preferable direction.

—II—

Business decisions drive a startup’s growth by necessity, and the task of managing compromises in a product is often unbearable to a designer. Product sales, costs, and other business considerations all affect the decisions made in startups. And although design’s role in tech is hugely important today, it needs to be seen as one of many factors. As I shared in the 2015 #DesignInTech Report: to achieve great design, you need great business thinking/doing – to effectively invest in design – and you need great engineering – to achieve unflagging performance. Successful designers in startups recognise that compromise is a form of communicating their vital voice alongside other constituents inside the company. They also recognise that the product they’re designing is the startup itself. And thus, if there are no compromises to be made, it is in growing the best company possible that they can successfully and sustainably create the best products.

To achieve great design, you need great business thinking/doing – to effectively invest in design – and you need great engineering – to achieve unflagging performance.

—III—

Moving from being a hands-on designer to becoming the hands-off leader of designers is a difficult transition to make. The increased need for design to play a larger role in tech companies means that scaling the design function becomes vital. Designers can learn from their engineering leader counterparts who have learned to be comfortable with relinquishing hands-on responsibilities as the startup grows. Their importance doesn’t diminish. It just changes.

Moving from being a hands-on designer to becoming the hands-off leader of designers is a difficult transition to make.

I saw these three things happen first-hand to designers in startups that I had worked with when at KPCB. Each summer, young designers in the KPCB Fellows Program gain the crucial experience of working alongside engineers and others at a startup to learn what is needed from them when products or services are being invented. Having now seen two cohorts of KPCB Fellows, it’s been amazing to imagine the kind of impact they will have. The experience of working alongside engineers and others will only help the next generation of designers fit in and work better with their startup colleagues.

At the time of writing this post, which has been republished with permission, John Maeda was Design Partner at Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. He has since left KPCB and is now Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion at Automattic. For more on design’s emerging role in the tech industry and investing ecosystem, see the #DesignInTech Report here: kpcb.com/blog/design-in-tech-report-2015. More on the KPCB Fellows Program at kpcbfellows.com

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