Granted, you’re an aspiring designer founder; or you’re a non-designer entrepreneur who nevertheless understands that design is critical to the cause of starting a great company. Now, you want to know how you actually put design into practice for the new endeavor you want to launch. How, in fact, do you create an organization that has this mindset and method at its beating heart? How do you “design” your startup?
During the scores of hours I spent talking to entrepreneurs at design-led companies, a number of themes kept recurring: three beacons, let’s say, that you should steer towards, to found a design-centric business.
Foundation Not Façade
The first thing to be mindful of is to build design into a startup’s very foundations, rather than bolt it on later as mere façade. If a startup is serious about competing on design, then those practices and that mindset have to exist at a company’s inception and throughout its lifecycle. The evidence is overwhelming that when it’s not, especially for young companies, competing demands will inevitably crowd out design.
I’m not saying that a startup needs design in equal measures at every turn. If your user-credentials database has been hacked, it’s Engineering–I need more power (i.e., two-factor authentication)! But for design to be more than a spiffy website and clever logo—for design to be a meaningful approach to how you solve problems and thereby create value—it has to be an integral part of your company’s journey.
By far the most important thing you can do to empower design within your organization is to have a designer in your founding team. In fact, when I asked Evan Sharp how essential having a designer cofounder is he said, “You can’t do it any other way….If the goal is to have a human-centered product, you need people who value human-resonant products in your company.”
Some of these “state of design” appraisals that I’ve read quote industry stats, like number of design firms acquired or design patents filed in the past year, as evidence of tech companies finally seeing the light. But I think that’s a wrongheaded measure. Loading on a bunch of young designers—giving your company a schmear of design—without integrating design into your decision-making, without making it integral to your business’ strategy? To me, that reeks of the inadequate design-as-façade approach of old.
By far the most important thing you can do to empower design within your organization is to have a designer in your founding team. You can’t do it any other way…. If the goal is to have a human-centered product, you need people who value human-resonant products in your company.
Two fellow designers in the Valley who do get it, though, are Ben Blumenfeld and Enrique Allen, the founders of Designer Fund. Designer Fund is a seed fund that invests in and supports startups founded by designers. I led the initial investment in it after getting to know Ben and Enrique, and seeing that they shared my conviction that designer founders are the future. Designer Fund is the first seed fund with this tenet as its core investment thesis. It’s backed companies devoted to brilliant user experiences, including Stripe, Omada, Framer, and AltSchool. It also provides professional development to designers, and helps connect them with other designers and entrepreneurs. Designer Fund is the realization of dreams that I (and many others) have had since my IDEO years, as well as an indication of the shape of things to come.
Another person who understands how indelible the very first people you bring into a business are to shaping its culture is one of my heroes in business, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the highly successful outdoor-apparel maker. Chouinard—who’s a designer in my book, even if he doesn’t think of himself as one—built a company with an amazing work culture based on independence, achievement, and social responsibility. Back in the 1970s, Patagonia was already giving benefits to its employees, like generous maternity leave, flexible scheduling, and in-house childcare, which many companies to this day still don’t offer. Now, three months of vacation for all employees isn’t going to scale for most companies, but what Chouinard did was to attract talent uniquely suited to his mission.
In his book, Let My People Go Surfing, Chouinard talks about Patagonia’s policy of recruiting very talented, highly motivated people and then leaving them be to manage their own schedules. His unimpeachable reasoning on the latter is that, “A serious surfer doesn’t plan to go surfing next Tuesday at two o’clock. You go surfing when there are waves and the tide and wind are right.” Chouinard, himself, now takes June to November off each year to go fly-fishing in Wyoming. He does so confident that he’s put people in place who are more capable than he at tending to Patagonia’s day-to-day needs and a structure in place that keeps making clothes that people love. He has, in other words, designed an organization that almost autonomously designs great products.
When management consultants come to Chouinard and ask him how to replicate Patagonia’s culture of independence and productivity for incumbent companies, he tells them, “Forget it. You’ll fail. Because you have to start with the very first person you hire.”
That echoes something Joe Gebbia told me: “Culture doesn’t make the people, it’s the people in your building that make the culture. Which means spend as much time up front to get it right, to get the right people in, because it’s a lot easier to mold concrete when it’s wet than to chip away at it when it’s dry.”
In my own career, I’ve seen the power of design to define products and transform businesses—but only when it’s part of the company’s DNA. An empowered, foundational design culture will change the organization; a bolted-on design presence will fail. Either, during the misty mountain origins of your startup, dwarves banged an obsidian keystone—with your designer founder’s name chiseled in it—into the cold firmament of how you do business. Or else, your company has an inflatable bouncy castle—with “Design” written in black Sharpie on it—that it busts out for happy hours and holiday parties, w00t.
Do or Do not
“There is no try,” teaches Master Yoda. Who, if memory serves, was my instructor for ME210 (Electro-Mechanical Systems Design), a course at Stanford in which you were asked to build the most absurdly unbuildable products. The project briefs made me literally stare, scratch my head, and think, I don’t know how you make that happen. Example: my first assignment was to design a rideable paper bicycle.
All the stuff you’re asked to do early on when you choose to become a product designer seem almost impossible. But the more you do it, the less impossible the impossible seems. Over time, you get more comfortable doing what seemingly can’t be done, because you learn from experience that if you work and prototype and then re-work, you begin to gain purchase on the problem, until it eventually bends under the force of your creative effort. And before you know it, you’re cruising around on a paper bicycle.
This is the sort of mentality that a designer—someone who has learned to design by designing—will bring to the founding table. Adrian James, cofounder of Omada, says that when he looks at the world, “I see all these little things that are broken. But I don’t experience it as negative. Rather, I experience them as exciting little challenges all around me.” (Incidentally, one of my favorite definitions of an entrepreneur is “someone who does more than anyone thought possible with less than anyone thought possible.”)
What this means in practice is that a designer cofounder will be a compulsive design doer. She will rush to prototype, storyboard, create mock-ups and models. It’s extremely powerful, especially in your earliest days as a company, to have someone who can convert your abstract ideas into something with existential heft. A tangible prototype—even one that’s made out of foamcore or cardboard—will open up a visual line of communication for your team; it will create a shared reality for your startup to rally around and iterate on. Shireen Yates, CEO and founder of Nima, and Xander Pollock, a designer entrepreneur whose company was acquired by Google, both volunteered that having something actual and vivid to show investors—even if it looks janky as hell—will also help you fundraise. A fact that I, as an investor, can attest to.
What are the essential elements of the designer’s mind? I’d say, at the most fundamental: curiosity and need to fix things. These perhaps inborn characteristics, through training practice, beget a sensitivity to finding the right problem to work on and a will for doing what seemingly can’t be done.
If you’re an engineering or business cofounder, it might be uncomfortable to add a weirdo designer to your early team, but the earlier a designer is added as a strategic peer, the more likely it is that your startup will develop a design culture. Joe Gebbia describes this as, “The space around the creation of the product, the supporting mechanism, the guidebook to how we want people to go about the creation of the product. The unspoken social contract you have with the people in your company to build the thing you’re trying to bring to market.”
I can’t overstate the lasting advantage such a culture will give your company. In a sense, you want a designer cofounder in order to project her weirdness onto the organization. Her design sensibilities, design intelligence, even design neuroses. Meld your startup with the mind of a designer. Entrepreneur and IDEO alum Tiffany Card uploads her design consciousness to her companies by sharing “how design-led organizations do decision-making, all the way through to really sitting down and, Here are the meetings you should have on a weekly basis … [and demonstrating] how design can be built into a sprint cadence.” She adds: “The CEO, if they’re not a designer founder, usually doesn’t have the time to facilitate that conversation within the leadership team.”
What are the essential elements of the designer’s mind? I’d say, at the most fundamental: curiosity and a need to fix things. These perhaps inborn characteristics, through training practice, beget a sensitivity to finding the right problem to work on—which I’ve discussed in prior chapters—and a will for doing what seemingly can’t be done. Finally, the outgrowth of this disposition is a creative process that embraces the wildly interdisciplinary and the messy.
It’s not about making your startup more artistic. Design is a modality for practical, human-attuned problem solving. What a design culture does is liberates the creativity of the entire organization—not just designers but business, engineering, the entire stack—to readily generate ideas and continuously test them for validation. Problem-solve and iterate: it’s what a startup must do to thrive; it’s what a designer does by temperament and training. And if this mindset is mapped on to your company, then whatever other features you build, impossible will not be an option.
Liquid not Solid
I think that having a designer cofounder is crucial to the implicit culture of a startup—to installing an inherent dedication to both choosing the right opportunity and delivering an exceptional solution. But the next imperative to “designing” a startup/forming a design-centric organization is to establish an explicit culture, one that respects the journey over the destination.
IDEO used to display their most celebrated products in glass trophy cases. They had every reason to be proud of their designs. Their portfolio includes much-lauded products like Apple’s first mouse, Eli Lilly insulin injection pens, the Palm V, Swiffer cleaning products, a portable heart defibrillator, and countless other things you’ve probably used. But the danger in fetishizing “the product” is that this creates the false impression that design is a finite and definite thing—a bullseye you hit and then call it a day.
The truth is very much the contrary. Design isn’t something that can be bottled under glass or kept genied inside of physical artifacts. The product is a point, not the point. Or, as I like to say: Product-market fit is a liquid not a solid. Meaning, achieving product-market fit is a great thing, but it’s a transitory achievement—a false summit of sorts. The competitive landscape changes. Your customers will want more. New technology enables new features/functions/form factors. The goal is not to achieve product-market fit, but rather to achieve a drumbeat of regular and repeated product-market fits.
What really matters for a modern company is building design processes—lightweight methods and processes for problem-solving, creativity, and iteration. At Delighted, process removes a layer of worry, says its CEO and designer founder Caleb Elston, because “Every time we start a project, we don’t have to reinvent how to do it.” It might not make sense if you’re only, say, four people, but sometime before Employee #40, all startups should follow suit and design not just a great product, but a process for continuously designing great products—a system for repeatable genius.
What this system will look like will vary from company to company, but any one worth its salt will value two things above all: the user and the process.
In the last chapter, I called for aspiring designer founders to never lose sight of the business side of their companies. But today, the savvy strategy for any business is to not be overly focused on short-term transactions, and instead, to do what comes naturally to designers: put the end-user first. Shanna Tellerman, founder and CEO of Modsy, is one such designer: “I go home obsessed about how customers are going to experience Modsy, and love it, and talk about it to everyone they’ve ever met. Not: How do I get $10 out of my customers? That would be nice, but I’m so much more concerned about the experience.”
Similarly, when I interviewed Greg Duffy, cofounder of Dropcam, he told me that they could’ve gone after the home security market by trying to frighten their customers about the big, bad world lurking outside their windows. But they wanted to be more than a security camera for their customers. Their vision for the company was to create a private home video camera and cloud video archive for people to capture all the moments of their lives, which would otherwise be lost. They built a product and service that their customers loved and were willing to pay a monthly subscription for. They consciously chose joy over fear—chose to build trust and a long-term relationship, rather than cash in on myopic transactions.
Similarly, when Josh Brewer led the design team at Twitter, they committed to championing the user experience—
And that made me, and a number of the designers on the team, unpopular in a lot of cases and in a lot of meetings. Because we were the ones saying, “I get it. We want to do this, and I see the revenue implications, and I know why we would do that. However! Can we stop and think about what happens if we destroy the trust our users have in the system?”
What really matters for a modern company is building design processes—lightweight methods and processes for problem-solving, creativity, and iteration.
I witnessed the very opposite of this attitude at the beginning of my last project at IDEO. I led the team that designed Cisco’s first line of VoIP desk phones. This was their first phone. Their first product that wouldn’t live on a rack in a data center or a closet, but would instead be far more personal. I mean, this is a product that literally touches your face throughout the day. And when Cisco came to us in 1998, they didn’t have any idea how to develop a consumer product or really anything with a user interface. What they did know about phones they had learned from a former Nortel marketing executive, who they’d hired a few weeks before retaining us, in order to drive the functional spec from their side.
I’ll never forget our first meeting with this new Cisco exec, who’d had decades of experience in the industry. With a devilish-seeming smile, he handed us a tear sheet of features and functions, jam-packed with detailed telephonic terminology and requirements that reflected zero compassion for the audience that mattered most—the user. We hacked through this dense jungle of clueless priorities to arrive at something easy to use, even if it was your first time making a call.
The 7900 series became the bestselling and last great desk phone in history because my team and I went out of our way to understand the existing beliefs that new users were bringing to the table. We met them where they lived, rather than expecting them to come visit our narrow assumptions. Doing this during the design process requires an uncanny ability to forget everything you know about the problem and the solution you’re developing.
I’ve worked with some of the most talented designers out there. What distinguishes them is that every time they look at something it’s as if they’re seeing it for the first time—not through the eyes of someone who has been grappling with the challenge for days or weeks, but through the eyes of a bright and shiny new user. It’s having this perspective that will distinguish companies that get design from those that don’t.
Process > Product > Profit
The greatest creation in nature isn’t any one species—but the process of evolution by natural selection, which has produced, in Darwin’s words, “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” The greatest invention in history isn’t any one device—but the scientific method, a process that has given us all the marvels of the modern world. Likewise, what will mark a company as being design-led won’t be any single end product, no matter how trim and polished. No, a company where design is truly a core value is one that will value creating a process for creating great products and experiences, time and again.
It’s rare that massive new product categories are launched at established companies. But after Jobs returned to Apple as CEO in 1997, he did it five times. It was because he had constructed a process—a set of plans, patterns, and protocols—for repeatable genius. Because, once again, design is more than aesthetics—it’s a methodology for solving problems, which is different from the analytical approaches that business or technical entrepreneurs are usually taught. Designer founders see design as a process, a series of conversations and collaborations between various relevant parties. One designer founder who certainly does is Evan Sharp. He believes that, “The disease in our world is seeing the product as the goal, not the continuous journey.”
Some astute readers may have noticed that I’ve thus far avoided referring to this method as “design thinking.” There are reasons. For one, I believe that design thinking, as codified and popularized by IDEO, could use a little editing. More on this in the next chapter. The more significant reason that I’ve shied away from the term is that the concept goes back decades, and there are as many definitions of design thinking as there are Post-It notes at a 3M factory.
What really matters for a modern company is building design processes—lightweight methods and processes for problem-solving, creativity, and iteration.
What I came to realize, through speaking with so many design minds, is that, though the specific terminology varies, design thinkers of various stripes are speaking a common set of fundamental truths about what design is. For example, The Universal Traveler’s “Seven Universal Stages of Creative Problem-Solving” (Accept Situation → Analysis → Define → Ideate → Select → Implement → Evaluate) doesn’t sound all that dissimilar to IDEO’s more famous five-step design-thinking process (Empathize → Define → Ideate → Prototype → Test).
Nor is my conception of the design methodology for startups so different from these central verities. I think a startup’s design process needs to begin by really trying to understand the users’ experience and what the problem or opportunity truly is, not just the task at hand or the assignment given. It needs to generate ideas collaboratively. Turn those ideas into prototype solutions. Test your solutions in the real world, and then refine them.
As a side note, I think there should be prototyping with purpose. That is, I think it’s important to be explicit about what specific question you’re trying to answer with your prototype. If your question relates to user activation metrics, build a handful of lightweight landing pages to test a range of options. If your question can be answered with a simple beam calculation, do the math instead of building a prototype. Remember: prototypes aren’t the point—feedback is.
Apart from that, my stations of design, as I said, are not so different from the process that other design thinkers have described. They’re just slightly different routes to the same place. But the approach is incredibly effective at freeing creativity—and it scales. The same principles can be used to design chairs, shopping carts, electric cars, emergency-room procedures, customer experiences, organizational structures, even other processes. “I think I went to Stanford for product design,” Kris Woyzbun, cofounder of Tablo Inc., told us, “because I still had that idea of a world where I design things….But then the d.school opened my eyes to this way of thinking about a problem that’s more interesting than the final solution.”
As I wrote earlier in this chapter, a company that’s empowered by this type of design will be transformed. MBAs and engineers are taught to identify the opportunity set, find certainty in numbers, and optimize accordingly. But in an organization in which design processes are pervasive, they’ll come to understand that not all problems should be treated as engineering problems. Some need to be broken apart, reframed, and put back together in a new synthesis.
If everyone in your startup is at least a little bit of a design thinker, the creative confidence of your business will increase and you’ll be able to arrive at more innovative solutions. “If a company is ultimately in the service of trying to solve problems,” said Nate Weiner, “I think designer founders are able to … apply that process and that experience in any [technical, design, or business] conversation.
Of course, big ideas aside, there will be mundane particulars of your process to be worked out. At Apple, for example, big projects are broken down into smaller tasks, which are assigned to teams, and those tasks are further broken down into subtasks assigned to a “directly responsible individual.” (Stay hungry, stay foolish—but learn to project manage!)
The product teams at Airbnb are organized around the customer journey. According to product manager Sarvesh Regmi, teams can touch any part of the product experience and conflicts are resolved—in design thinking fashion—by working out the assumptions behind competing approaches, framing them as hypotheses, discerning the unknowns, and testing via experiments.
At Abstract, a collaboration platform for designers, Josh Brewer’s process for his designers is all about communication. Small, lightweight signals to one another that are easy to digest and incorporate into decision-making. Another benefit is that, as these communications are shared with all, everyone feels connected and involved.
At Particle.io, a platform for IoT developers, they try to empower their employees so that “everyone can do design work and design-y things.” Nobody works exclusively on hardware engineering, for example; rather, team members shift around to address various product needs, which ensures there’s no lost productivity when hardware hits a lull in their cycle.
Tiffany Chu reported to us that at Remix, the urban-planning startup she cofounded,
We have a playbook for everything. A sales playbook, success playbook. It’s a Google doc that we and our customers co-create. Like a shared bible. [Playbook is] a nicer way of saying process. Rather than saying I’m going to follow this process, it’s saying, Look, we have a playbook and everyone at the company contributes their learnings to the playbook.
The point is, every company is different and you will have to find your own process for repeatable genius – one rooted in the principles of design thinking. But a process you must seek, because design no longer dead ends with a product or transaction.
On an episode of the design podcast 99% Invisible, host Roman Mars said, “For anything complex, perfect design is a moving target.” I think that’s exactly right. In this ever more uncertain, constantly shifting century of the designer, companies and especially startups can never stop learning and adapting. Everyone in a business needs to learn to think more like a designer, because the Japanese principle of kaizen—or continuous innovation and improvement—applies to most every organization now. And a modern enterprise should, at its core, always be designing.