The Comprehensive Guide to Building Your Startup Design Team

Let’s say you’re in the early days of launching a company. You’ve got an idea for a killer product and you’re now far enough along its development that you’re about ready to hire your first, or first few designers. You need teammates who understand the full-stack design process, from research and UX to UI and brand, to transform your v1 into something customers truly love.

In essence: it’s time to build your startup’s first design team. So—how do you do that?

Here at Designer Fund, we’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the world’s best designers and design-driven founders over the years. Drawing from our deeply knowledgable network and some of our own experiences, we’ve put together a list of advice, proven tips, and resources you can use to build your first design team.

Here’s everything you need to take your design team started from day one.

What we cover:

  1. Is it the right time to hire your first designer?
  2. What qualities should you look for in your first design hire?
  3. What do early stage design teams need to be successful?
  4. Where can you find designers who want to work at early stage companies?

1. Is it the right time to hire your first designer?

First off, it’s important to know if you even need a design team right now. While companies that invest in design are more likely to succeed, not all startups have the financial means to hire a designer right away. Here are some questions to think through before jumping in.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is design a blocker? If a lack of design expertise is preventing you from getting your product to market, it’s time to hire a designer as soon as it’s financially feasible.
  • Will your design needs be ongoing? If it’s too early to tell, a consultant can be a great partner in helping define your future design needs before hiring someone full-time. Kevin Twohy, a product design and strategy consultant who works with many early-stage startups says, “When it’s too early to paint a realistic picture of what you’re hiring a first designer to do, it can be tough.” But as he often shares with founders, “If we can work together to get some scaffolding in place, even if it doesn’t live up to your highest aspirations, it’s a starting point. After which a talented first designer can understand your vision and start thinking about how to make it better.”
  • Do you believe design to be a key differentiator for your business? If you’re entering a category where all the other products are painful to use, investing in design early on could give you a competitive advantage—helping you launch sooner.

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, it’s likely time to hire your first designer.

🔎 Looking to hire freelance support before investing in a full-time hire? Check out:

freelancer guide

2. What should you look for in your first design hire?

As a founder, you’re aware that being part of an early stage company isn’t for everyone. It takes a certain level of grit, flexibility, and deep excitement about what you’re building to sustain your energy longterm. Here’s what else you should look for when hiring a designer.

Identify the specific skills your company needs

First off, it’s important to know what kind of designer your company needs. While a generalist is generally a good first hire for most early stage companies, some might have unique needs that call for a niche focus—this will depend on your specific product. Here’s what to consider:

  • Generalist designer: If you only have the headcount to bring on one designer at first, you’ll likely want someone who can own the design for projects from start to finish. Generalists’ skills will vary, but their superpower is being able to own a wide variety of design projects, from pitch decks to core product flows. “For most of the teams that I’ve hired, we’ve hired generalists across the board,” shares Carly Lodge, Senior Design Manager at Instagram.
  • Specialist designer: A specialist is a designer with deep expertise in one area of design—whether that’s UX/UI, content design, DesignOps, brand design, or something else. Consider hiring a specialist as your first designer when there is a particular design deliverable that is so core to your business’s success that you’re willing to prioritize it above all else. For example, Jacob Zukerman, Chief Product Officer at Mento, shares, “I was working on building a product that helps people get out of credit card debt, which is something that’s so deep and personal. Not only was it complicated, it was also heavily regulated. The words you use within that product really matter. So our small team included a researcher, a product designer, and a content designer because we needed all of those to be successful.”

Look for compatible soft skills

In addition to hard skills, it’s important to make sure any designers you hire also have the right soft skills. To prime designers for success in a fast-paced, uncertain environment, look for these qualities:

  • An entrepreneurial spirit: Look for a designer who is resourceful and willing to experiment, who is energized by the idea of creating something out of nothing. Even if a designer lacks specific startup experience, these innate qualities often come through in self-initiated projects.
  • A natural leader: Not only does this result in strong work, a designer with leadership skills can also help shape the relationship design has with the rest of your company. As Blake Reary, Staff Interaction Designer at Google, notes, “You need to create a design culture so that you can hire other designers—designers who consider joining in the future will be looking to see if they’ll be entering an environment where there is buy-in and support for design.”
  • Curiosity, motivation, and humility: These are the three qualities Designer Fund advisor Yi Wei looks for when hiring designers for early stage companies because they set an employee up for success later. “If someone has these key ingredients, they can continue to develop other hard and soft skills over time.”

Find the design leader your company needs

Your founding designer needs to be someone who can shape your startup’s design from the ground up. They may be required to step in on branding, marketing, product design, research, or fundraising—sometimes all at once.

While you don’t need to call your first designer a founding designer, the framing can be useful to help you find the kind of design leader your early stage company needs. Putting out the call for a founding designer is a great way to attract someone who is up for the challenge—and who is actually excited by the opportunity. As Elizabeth Lin explains, “You need to thrive in a space with lots of ambiguity. There’s a million question marks around you and you have to be able to be ok deciding which question mark to work on each day. You also have to enjoy creating the process instead of just going with the flow, because the process is always changing.”

🔎 For more qualities to look for when hiring your first designer, explore the following guides:

first designer guide
Demystifying the Founding Designer Role

3. How can you best support your design team?

As a founder, it’s likely you already have a lot of other plates spinning—so finding ways to support your design team might be an afterthought, but it shouldn’t be. The effectiveness of your design team hinges on their overall wellbeing. Focus on these things to help your team succeed as the company grows.

Articulate your values—and make sure that design is one of them

Everyone does their best work when they feel valued. Design make be the difference between a good product and a truly great one—so make sure the design is valued at your company. In what ways does design have a seat at the table? Are you missing opportunities to elevate design across functions?

As Catt Small, Staff Product Designer at Dropbox, explains: “Every company has a set of values and principles—whether or not they're actually explicit. What I’ve worked really hard to do is to make the implicit more explicit. Being explicit about your values is super important to making sure that you’re creating the kind of culture that you want to see.”

Hire a coach for your design leads

If your design leads aren’t already working with a coach, consider hiring one for them. There are many ways to be a good leader—a coach can help your design leads tap into that. “Working with a great coach and mentors earlier in my career helped me unlock a lot of blockers. Most of them were about me or my own narratives, versus anything external,” shares Jacob Zukerman.

Later: Invest in DesignOps

As soon as your design team reaches a certain scale, a DesignOps hire can help you free up time so that designers can focus on designing, instead of managing operational details. Instacart’s Head of Design and Research Operations Taylor Oliva sees DesignOps hires becoming more and more important. She shares, “In the 2022 State of DesignOps report, we saw the ratio of designers to design operators change to 25:1. This is because design leaders are increasingly realizing that by investing in an ops function earlier in the maturity of their teams, they can mitigate a lot of the operational and infrastructural debt that happens organically as a result of design orgs scaling quickly.”

🔎 For more tips on supporting your design managers as your company grows, plus ways DesignOps can benefit your growing design team, check out the guides below:

design manager guide
Setting Up & Scaling DesignOps

4. Where can you find designers who want to work at early stage companies?

Hiring the right people is key to your company’s success. The wrong hire can end up wasting you thousands of hours and dollars—so how do you find the right designers for your company?

While there’s no silver bullet, here are some places to look:

Reach out to design networks

When it comes to hiring designers, one of the best places to start is by reaching out to design networks.

  • Tap into your personal network. Good people generally know good people, so contacting your existing connections can help you find candidates who come with the added benefit of being vouched for by people you trust. Consider emailing friends and colleagues for recommendations, or posting to LinkedIn about your search for a designer.
  • Connect with candidates in design communities. Going outside your immediate networks can introduce you to great, new folks you haven’t heard of before. “Communities will expose you to more diverse candidates and diverse designers,” explains Blake Reary. Designer Fund is one of these!
  • Post to design-focused job boards. One such example is Designer Fund's job board, shared with hundreds of candidates eager to join mission-driven companies that value design. Other platforms to look into include Wellfound, Early Stage Design Jobs, Behance, and Dribbble.

Work closely with collaborators

Leveraging your immediate network is a great way to connect with candidates, but it can be limited. One effective approach is to lean on hiring experts who can help you connect with a wider pool of candidates.

  • Work with design recruiters. Share what you liked and didn’t like about candidates to help them narrow the search—for best results, treat your work together as an ongoing collaboration, not a one-sided service. We’ve worked with hiring agencies like Wert&Co. and Creative People, both of which specialize in hiring designers and creatives.
  • Seek guidance from those who have successfully built design teams from scratch. Designer Fund's advisors, for example, have advised numerous startups, led design teams at companies like Instagram and Slack, and have extensive networks of talented designers. Their expertise can help you put together a high-performing design team.

Build your design team brand

Remember that hiring is often a long game. Even when you don’t have any open roles, you should always be thinking about hiring. Look for ways to build your startup’s brand equity over time.

  • Create an engaging social media presence. To attract candidates who align with your vision and values, use social media to share regular updates highlighting your design team culture and their work. Announce new design roles as they open up and feature team members to showcase the talent and diversity within your team.
  • Highlight your design culture through content. When you have the resources for it, cultivating a company blog is a great way to build your brand. Share case studies and stories about your design team's processes. Even better: ask team members to contribute to the blog, building a diverse resource that explains your company's design philosophy and approach through the perspectives of the people who work there. Check out Air or Notion’s blogs for inspiration.
  • Participate in events, which can expose you to even wider networks. Look for professional talks and casual events related to design that your company can attend or sponsor, helping you connect with even more potential design candidates. You can also encourage designers to attend and speak at events that interest them.

🔎 More tips on finding—and attracting—the right designers, plus tips for interviewing and closing the deal:

Building Design Teams From the Ground Up