How you must think about visual design in your startup

I expect this is going to ruffle some feathers. I’ve been making products for a while and of all the things I’ve learned while doing it, one of the most consistent (and consistently frustrating) is this:

You all care far too much about how something looks. Especially you, designers.

I get it. I really, honestly do. I love making pretty things. If I had my way, I’d actually get to spend more time on visual design and making the most absurdly beautiful products I could. I’d slave over clean lines and perfect font pairings and handle shit the way Medium does… but, that’s irresponsible.

Our job, as the designers of products, is to take the tools we use to create products (IA, UI, UX, visual design, etc.) and solve problems. But… it’s also our responsibility to be cognizant of the time we spend in each of those tools, and moments in which that time is no longer related to actually solving a problem.

This is the narrative I present to startups on how they need to think about visual design:

I’ll take the definition of design in this case to be: Design, an effort of creation dedicated to solving a problem. It’s OK if the problem is trivial: “How do the visitors of my Pokemon Go tracking website know the distance between Pokemon” is still a problem, even if it’s not a world-changing one.

Design, though, is not necessarily Art. It may be artful, but the goal is to solve the problem, first and foremost. Where most of the effort in visual design for startups goes wrong is that time spent on visual design, art and beauty should scale only to the importance of the problem’s need for art and beauty to be part of the solution. In the case of Medium, it might be a requirement for the product to be artfully crafted to be successful — but in a large quantity of products, it is simply & absolutely not necessary.

Design is not about the Craft of Design, if adhering to that process ignores the time and expediency being a startup requires. Use existing resources and templates as appropriate. If you are an early startup that is staffed with a designer that is unwilling to consider buying a theme or assets as a starting point, that designer’s desire to create art is costing your startup a more valuable resource: time.

There’s no excuse to not use ALL the tools available as a designer, at the cost of your company’s time.

Your visual design should be about meeting something I’d dub the ‘Threshold of Trust’. You need to reach a degree of quality in visual design that meets the expectations of your potential customers when they see your product, and ask themselves the questions:

Are these guys legit? Are they on the level? Do they look like I should trust them?
As an early startup, aim for visual design that’s trusted, not cream of the crop.

Importantly though, that line — the Threshold of Trust, is not the same line as industry-leading visual design. It’s not a brand identity as hammered home as AirBnB or as fully realized as Snapchat. Not YET, anyway. In the case of your early startups, your 10-person teams or you — solo founders, when it comes to visual design, you need to ignore the industry-leading line altogether.

Frankly put, you’re not capable of getting there, and to even try is to misunderstand where your time and focus need to be spent. Even you, the designer, at this stage need to be focusing on better understanding the problems you’re solving over the visual beauty and artfulness of the presentation of your solutions.

When your team has grown and you’ve raised your Series A, some designer will sit you down and say, “it’s time — we need to go from meeting the Threshold of Trust to being industry-leading,” and it’s really only then, at that point, that you should start to consider whether your visual design needs to operate at that level, to support your users, your position in the industry or your differentiation.

Thank you for reading.
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