Why Designers Make Good Founders (and Cofounders)

Article by Collis Ta'eed. Illustration by Maus Ventura.

The Designer Founder

By some accounts, design has won itself a ‘seat at the table’. This came as news to me. Like everyone else I’ve seen and been excited by the growing appreciation for design. From thermostats to wearables, websites to mobile experiences, people expect a higher standard than they once did. But designers at the helm, or table, of startups and businesses? I must confess to not having met many.

I know of some great designer founded companies - AirBnB, Behance, Basecamp, Nest, Instagram amongst others. But most founders that I come across online or off are from a tech or business background. The lack of design founders is a shame. There are some very good reasons why designers make valuable additions to a startup team.

Problem Solvers and Creators

All designers have two primary concerns: solving problems, and creating things. No matter the flavour of design, be it product, industrial, UX, branding or anything in between, this is the essence of design work.

Underpinning all forms of design are methods and approaches collectively referred to as design thinking. This way of thinking includes problem analysis, exploration, discovery, and drawing on established design patterns and references. There are rarely explicit rights and wrongs in design.

Because of the subjective nature of design, one of the most important traits for a designer to have is empathy. Great designers feel for their users, viewers, and consumers. Through this empathy, they develop a visceral connection to the work they are doing. Mat Hunter from the UK's Design Council writes:

"Another, sometimes less obvious, attribute of design is that it is human-centred. Designers are sometimes caricatured as self-obsessed, but the truth is that really great designers care hugely about the real people who will use the product, service, building or experience they are developing." - Mat Hunter

Blending empathy, intuition, and critical thinking is what makes designers good problem solvers, good creators, and in some cases, good founders.

Why Designers Fit Startups

Startups are about solving problems. A startup hoping to create value must first find a problem, then create and craft a solution to it. As problem solvers by trade, designers are well-suited to this challenge.

As they grow, startups are faced with a wide range of design problems. These go way beyond defining and designing the product itself. At the size that Envato has gotten I find myself constantly engaged in organizational design. It sounds odd, but I believe culture needs to be designed, communications channels need to be designed, structures need to be laid out. And it’s a set of fascinating design problems.

Design thinking can be a valuable asset in all these contexts. It is a deliberate approach that combines problem solving, creativity, empathy and experience, and brings it to bear on some difficult problems.

Some years ago we hired a wonderfully talented product and experience designer named Justin French to the team. Within months his constant questioning of why and refusal to discuss solutions until problems had been properly framed had rubbed off all over our small team. It drove the entire team to better understandings and ultimately better work. A good designer will have this effect. They'll lead by example, and introduce new ways of thinking that don't need to be the sole province of ‘the’ designer.

By having a designer-founder, startups have a chance to imprint this design-led culture and mindset across their organization. This can create a life-long differentiator and value-add for a new business. It's never too late to introduce this mindset, and Google is an inspiring example of the change that good designers can lead. Baking it in from the start is even more powerful.

Do All Designers Make Good Founders?

Not all designers will make good founders, no more than all management consultants, or all software developers. The traits of a good founder are subjects of much interest, particularly from incubators and investors whose job it is to find the right horse to back.

Y Combinator's Paul Graham articulates my favourite description of the most important trait of a successful founder. His view is that you must be 'relentlessly resourceful', demonstrating a self-aware determination to persevere and ultimately conquer the challenges of a startup. Marry this relentless resourcefulness with a broad design mindset and you have a powerful potential founder for an internet startup.

For some designers however, the challenges of a startup pose only a distraction from their true calling. In her 2012 Wired op-ed, cofounder and CEO of FounderDating Jessica Alter suggests that:

"If someone just loves to design for design’s sake, or is focusing on only that when designing a product, then maybe he or she shouldn’t start a company. ... But if what they really love is the process around designing — around solving problems they are passionate about — then they are well-suited for entrepreneurship." - Jessica Alter

Designer Khoi Vinh writes from his own startup experience:

"Because startups always have extremely limited time and resources, prioritizing the UI comes at an enormous cost to the company. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do, but when it’s not, when it gets top priority because it’s the challenge that the designer founder might be most comfortable with, or simply the one that he or she prefers the most, that can be disastrous. Because when you’re designing, you’re not necessarily acquiring customers, or marketing your product, or forging partnerships — or any of the many other complex, taxing and ongoing efforts that startups require, but which are only tangentially related to design." - Khoi Vinh

For many great designers, design itself is a calling, an obsession, and a great love. A more generalist designer can comfortably fit into any good founding team. Where you have a designer's designer, the founding team must be highly complementary to their specialized skills.

In a study of designer-founded businesses, DesignerFund found that most designer founders had linked up with a technical founder. The most powerful combination of all was a founding team that included a technical founder, a designer founder and a business-oriented founder.

Will We See More Designer-Founders in the Future?

Startup culture has become decidedly more mainstream in the last decade. From major Hollywood outings about Facebook and Apple, to a larger startup community in general, we are seeing an impressive cohort of empowered entrepreneurs coming up. I see tech and engineering culture continuing to celebrate startups far more than design culture does. Because of that, I think we'll continue to see a minority of founders coming from a design background, but that should change.

As a designer-founder myself, I encourage designers to consider founding a startup as an alternative to the more traditional freelancing and agency routes so many of us take. I have had the good fortune to use my small design experience in cofounding and building up Envato. Throughout the company’s life the design mindset has served me well, and the company’s growth has given me the most interesting design challenges I’ve ever gotten to work through.

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