Start-ups are always busy. Shipping the product and getting it out into the wild for the market to see and play with is usually a key priority for start-ups. Often, this is why a well designed product, website or app gets compromised for speed to market.  But especially throughout America, there is a growing trend for start-ups that have a strong design background to enjoy faster success. Is this a co-incidence? I think not…

To prove my point that design matters a lot, let’s look at some obvious examples. Firstly, Apple’s Steve Jobs was well known for being addicted to design to the point of insanity. He even studied typography at Reed College at one stage and this love for designed transpired into his products. People love Apple products because they are just as equally beautiful to see, feel and touch as they are to use. In more recent examples, AirBNB’s CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design. The mobile app smart journal, Path is also a good example of why good design attracts users. All are well designed and thus loved.

Visually compelling design is a powerful tool in attracting people to come and keep looking. Even if design is not at the core of the product, the layout, spacing, typography still contributes to the user experience.  For a start-up like Dropbox, a cloud storage company, although cloud storage is not very sexy, their products in both website and mobile app are very well thought out. I believe for start-ups that ignore design principles, they do so at their peril.

Some of the Designer Fund Start-ups

Fastcodedesign featured a designer named Enrique Allen, who went from teaching start-ups how to design to creating an investment company called Designers Fund to invest in the next generation of designer start-up founders. Allen also leads the Accelerator 500Startups team of Design Advisors who coach start-ups how to maximise return on design.  He understands that design is fundamental to creating great products and believes founders who are also designers have distinct advantages. From the article, Allen states that design is important in the tech world today because:

“1. As the consumer tech market becomes more crowded, brands and experience design–not just technical capabilities–are becoming critical to success.

2. Innovation is about radical collaboration. The critical mass of combined design, technical, and business skills enables product iteration to happen faster and at a higher resolution.

3. Designer founders have unique skills (not just visual) to understand human needs and discover unarticulated opportunities.”

WSJ, yesterday reported that Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Google has also stepped up its efforts to help their portfolio companies realize and extract the value of good design. They have recently created a small group of designers called the ‘Design Group’ and have already seen success. A make-over of CustomMade Inc., a site that helps people find and hire people to make things for you, boosted the number of people logging into start projects by 200%. For Venture Capital firms that want to differentiate themselves and offer entrepreneurs more than money or advice, offering solid resources like design expertise is a key way to do this.

Famous entrepreneur turned angel investor, Dave McClure of 500Startups, says that ‘Design and marketing are way more important than code’ because marketing is the most critical  component of success in consumer internet start-ups. He believes “The real challenge is finding designers and product managers who can build an awesome product experience, and marketers who can figure out effective, scalable, integrated distribution strategies.”

Chinese tech companies are often criticized for their horrendous design and cluttered layouts filled with a sea of text.  There are some who argue that this is just cultural and people like ugly websites, but I disagree.  I also see more Chinese start-ups and tech companies that are shifting their attention to high impact design that draw users in. Popular interest graph based social network, or RenRen’s recently released social travel website,  or clone, are good examples of the next evolution of Chinese start-ups that value design.

Clearly design which encompasses user interaction and experience, is playing a more and more important role in the success of start-ups. It also adds inherent value by people perceiving something with greater value which translates into justifiably higher prices and more profit margins. For this reason, very strong designers who understand design, engineering and business are mighty powerful and valuable.

Jason Lim

Jason is an Australian born Chinese living in Beijing, specializing in entrepreneurship, start-ups and the investment eco-system in China, especially in the tech and social area.

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  1. Great article, as a designer/co-founder myself this was nice to read 😉

    Also great to see a steady improvement in and realisation of the importance in design amongst Chinese start-ups. 

  2. Design is absolutely key!  There was a recent article describing why Google+ failed to take off while Path continues to grow.  Although this was a little simplistic, it can’t be understanded that Path’s beautiful design has helped it gain traction.  Fortunately, there are awesome tools to help startups build simple and intuitive websites that are easy on the eye.  Skeleton and Bootstrap are great frameworks that focus on simplicity, ease of use, and serve as a bridge for startups that may not have designer on board in the initial product building phase.

  3.   Great points, Paul(!) and solid article, Jason; if within the start-up
    space (or any industry,) design is crucial especially if the underlying
    product/business model is operating in the same market.  If you guys
    haven’t already, do check out which is another
    interesting “jobsite”/portfolio platform. 

    I feel particularly at-home with your remarks about Dropbox and cloud
    storage, Jason, because I currently work with a file-sharing cloud
    start-up.  And we’ve had immense feedback from our users/supporters on
    exactly your point.  Our Co-founder and CEO even touched on this note in
    an interview with ifanr:

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