Going Pro – What it takes to be a lead designer at a top startup
Ben Blumenfeld12 min read
Over the past couple years at Designer Fund we’ve worked closely with many top startups to grow and develop their design teams. These startups build world-class products, value design, and invest heavily in their designers.
In turn, they expect ever-growing contributions from their design teams. From developing an amazing design culture to building prototypes, the days of designers only pushing pixels are long gone. If you’re looking to become a design leader at a top startup, here’s what it’s going to take.
Choose the Right Problem
Designers at top startups are often expected to go extremely deep in their company’s problem space. Unlike agencies, startups rarely look at healthcare one month and financial tools the next.
Before you even step foot inside a startup then, it is extremely important you choose one that is exploring a problem area you are passionate about. Designers that do this have the intrinsic motivation to push through tough times, the energy to inspire those around them, and the focus to go deeper than others have before them.
Go to Ship and Beyond
In one of her many wonderful Medium posts, Julie Zhuo from Facebook posted this graph about the design process experienced designers follow. It does a great job of illustrating the difficulty of the design work that happens after you ship a product at a startup.
However, it does not capture the immense time this last step can take. At top startups, designers are expected to iterate again and again until the solution solves the problem. This means that last and most difficult step can stretch over months or even years. The best designers relish in the challenge and don’t consider their job complete until the problem is solved, whether that be after 3 iterations or 300.
Build a Design Culture
Top startups are now also looking for their designers to help build a company culture that values design. This means producing a well designed product, helping other employees understand and respect design, and can even extend to designing the physical office space. To build this culture designers must:
Be Collaborative and Inclusive
Though going off to a private space and designing a perfect solution is romantic and sometimes necessary it rarely raises the design IQ of an organization. To do this designers need to find opportunities to be collaborative and inclusive where possible.
One great example is a design team that printed up their design mocks and gave out chocolate in return for feedback. This approach ended up getting them insights from unexpected places like finance and legal, and got many people in the company behind what they were building.
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