Where Are The Design Founders?

Is there really a shortage of design entrepreneurs?


“We’re supposedly in the midst of a design renaissance… And yet, there’s a dearth of designer founders.”

Jessica Alter started this dialogue with this great article: http://goo.gl/lou7pL

She’s right. There is a shortage of designers relative to startup talent and demand. And yes — designers have been trained as agents for decades, and aren’t often exposed to startup culture or highly motivated to become entrepreneurs.

At the same time, there’s plenty of good news. The shortage Jessica describes exists precisely because the value of design thinking is skyrocketing.

As it turns out, designers make fantastic entrepreneurs, and more of us are starting companies every day. This is, quite simply, the best time in history to become a designer.

The real reason for the shortage, in my opinion, is that most designers become addicted to the creative-consulting, or studio-based, business model — meaning, anytime designers trade their time for cash rather than equity.

I say “addicted” because I worry that studios seem great in the short term, but may be ultimately bad for us in the long run.

Sure, there’s plenty to like about studios. Compared to a product startup or company, the studio model is super-simple (at least in theory). It converts raw design talent into cash. It has been around forever, involves less financial risk, and lets designers focus on the work they really love: designing stuff.

So what is wrong with studios?

Working in the studio model trains designers to think like technicians, not owners. It makes us value time and materials as opposed to equity. It leads to obsession over craft instead of growth. It causes us to worry about retainers to cover payroll versus building an exit-able business.

This is a huge missed opportunity — because designers have the insights and skills to consistently create the best products, and companies, in the world. Companies that help people and make a fortune at the same time.

I don’t hate studios, and I don’t have all the answers, but I do know:

We should be questioning the business model around which 90% of us choose to organize our craft, income, and creative fulfillment.

That model should make designers rich and happy.

Where are the design founders? There is no external trend or gatekeeper to point to.

Each designer must ask him or herself, “How do I want to create value in the world, and make money from my craft, in a way that makes me happy?”

I think we should ask this question more often.


If you’re a designer, founder, or just agree with the points above, help me spread the word: hit “recommend” so your followers see this. Thx!

If you disagree with the ideas outlined above — please comment.


Context: I spent the first five years of my career working at studios — large, small, corporate and highly creative. I also started my own one-man studio for two years. I’ve enjoyed the whole ride.