Recently I’ve seen more and more articles highlighting ways you can start companies and build products without writing a single line of code, and several people I know dismissed the topic as foolish. But it’s all very in line with the “designer as a founder” concept (which isn’t new), and something that I think is now a necessity to (almost) all successful companies and products.
First, let me clear up what I mean by “designer.”
When most people think of a “designer” they think of what is better known as a “visual designer,” a pixel-pushing artist that spends their time making the interface elements look pretty in photoshop. But while the aforementioned talents are certainly useful, what we’re really looking for is someone who can understand the problem the target user is having, visualize the solution that will solve that problem, and be able to create some rough version of that solution that they can put in front of real users. All three of these things are often core to any great designer’s workflow throughout the process, but especially important at the outset.
So why does this kind of person need to be a founder?
It’s no longer about what you’re doing, it’s about how well you’re doing it
As it gets easier and easier to create and launch web or mobile apps, it becomes increasingly difficult to do something truly unique. How many times have you been able to describe an app lately and not reference it to one or several others like it in order to explain it? The experience is the differentiator these days, and that means this needs to be a core focus of the company from the start.
In the beginning, it’s the fastest/only way to validate
If you’re practicing the Lean Startup methodology (and if you’re not you should be) you know that you need to be getting out of the building and talking to your users early and often. Sure a conversation in a coffee shop works fine, but putting clickable mockups or even a working prototype in front of them so you can watch them interact with it is 10 times better. Having a designer around early can make that happen and make it so that you are learning and validating your direction far earlier than if you had to build and ship an actual app that could take weeks or even months.
Good designers tend to be more empathetic
The ability to step back and see the problem from the user’s eyes is extremely important to building any great product. But when you’re the one writing the code or designing the product it can be really easy to assume the user will instinctively “get” something you created, when they actually won’t. From my experience, the ability to step back and see the product through the actual user’s eyes is easier for designers (though still difficult for them too!).
Culture is more top down than you think
Great teams empower EVERYONE to be designers and see what they are building through the user’s eyes as often as possible. I think Frank Nuovo defined “design” best:
“Design in it’s simplest form is the activity of creating solutions. Design is something that everyone does every day.”
If you believe this is true and expect the team to believe it as well, it can’t be something the founders don’t truly believe themselves. As much as you don’t want to admit that there is a hierarchy in a small team, people look to the founders personalities to shape the company culture.
I hope to see more and more examples of founding teams including a designer in the future.