Why a Designer Should Be Your First Hire

The impact a designer makes on your startup’s Brand & Culture, Presentation of Ideas, and Product Experience.

Design — With a “Capital D”

Starting a company is hard. In a world with over 1,000 SaaS startups created a year, just having a good tech stack won’t set you apart. You’ll need something else up your sleeve. At High Alpha, we believe that design with a “capital D” saturated throughout a company can make all the difference. Design with a “capital D” references design as a holistic, human-centered approach to solving problems not just stylistic problems, but problems of all types and levels of importance. It can distinguish your product, create your culture, and influence your investors and clients.

This concept is not unique to High Alpha. In fact the importance design plays in the world of business is widely discussed in many publications such as Forbes, Huffington Post, and TechCrunch.

NEA, one of the world’s largest venture capital firms, created the The Future of Design in Startups Survey in 2016 where they collected information from 400+ startups across the world to better understand the importance and emerging trends of design in startups. Across all key questions, the more mature companies reported a greater impact design had on their business.

Slide from NEA’s “The Future of Design in Startups” survey results.

You’re hopefully wondering how a new startup like yourself could implement a design-first strategy. Our number one tip: Hire a designer as one of your first employees. Having a designer by your side as soon as possible will increase your business’s chances for success and make a profound impact across your Brand & Culture, Presentation of Ideas, and Product Experience.

How Design Affects Brand & Culture

Company culture is made of shared beliefs and values that are communicated through various touchpoints and ultimately shape employee perceptions, behaviors, and understanding.Those touchpoints should be genuine, unique to your company, and a part of an overarching goal. Design thinking and research can help you craft your company’s story by using methods that take a 30,000-foot view of everything and allow you to align project work with the company mission and drive company culture. A designer can play a critical role in the planning of your strategic decisions and culture building while also helping to execute on the higher-level work. The earlier these outcomes are defined, the quicker you can identify the right employees who are aligned with your culture and mission in order to grow in the right direction.

Once you know what your company stands for, you‘ll be able to build your brand. Transcending your logo, website, or products, a brand is the value your customers and investors get from the experience they have with your business. It is the expression of who you are and what you offer. Using the same design thinking methods, a designer can carry that desired impression throughout every touchpoint of your brand, ultimately allowing it to improve recognition, create trust, and build value for your company. Companies such as Zendesk, AirBnB, and obviously Apple do this well and reap the benefits of brand loyal customers.

How Design Affects the Presentation of Ideas

VCs hear pitches from new startups every day, so the only way to grab their attention is going to be in the story you tell and how you tell it. The right designer will do more than just make the bullets in a PowerPoint prettier, they will help tell the story better by illustrating what you uniquely bring to the table. Design helps narrate the arc of your companies story, but it can also create suspense or delight within the presentation, allowing the time you spend presenting to be attention-grabbing and memorable.

This relates to your client experience and sales process as well. You may not be the only company out there doing what you do, so allow design to elevate your company ideas and catch your potential client’s attention. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, on average, most users spend less than 59 seconds on a webpage. If you don’t capture the user’s attention in less than a minute, you’ve lost them. Design can help by taking a holistic, human-centered approach to understanding to the customer journey and how the information is presented to them. By mapping out every touchpoint from a customer’s first trip to the website to their time of renewal, you’re able to design a cohesive and seamless brand experience.

How Design Affects the Product Experience

In the past, you could get away with launching an MVP with little to no design effort, gaining your first handful of customers without high expectation. Now, with so many open source resources, engineering teams are able to get a product up and running faster than ever. However, the design standards have completely changed and a poorly-designed MVP no longer cuts it with your potential clients—they expect an impressive user experience from day one. According to an AppDynamics report, as smartphone and tablet owners become more familiar with—and reliant on—apps and websites, their expectations regarding performance increase. Their tolerance levels are also changing: close to half (48% for US and 47% for UK) of all respondents are less tolerant of problems with apps or websites than they were a few years ago. People want user-devoted, frictionless experiences in their interactions with technology, and design plays a huge role in making sure your users are satisfied. Processes like design sprints and user testing allow designers to get into the mind of the end user and reflect a solution in a clean, easy-to-understand manner. A designer can understand patterns, know what has been done before, and understand how to evolve that into a new solution that will make your product more valuable than its competitor.

With over 1,000 new SaaS startups created each year, you’ll need every advantage you can get to increase your odds of success. Design can—and should—be a primary differentiator for you business, profoundly impacting your brand, culture, presentation of ideas, UI, and product experiences. Because of this, bringing on a full-time designer to your team as soon as possible is the best move you can make. #worthit

P.S. At High Alpha, we believe in this so much that we created a Designer in Residence Program. With this program, we hire designers with previous design experience or background and we teach them our design philosophy for a design-led startup. Our goal is to integrate them within our portfolio companies for the long term after their residency with the High Alpha team.


Kolby is a member of the design team at High Alpha and Studio Science. She is also the President of AIGA Indianapolis. Say hi on Twitter .