Don’t start a design company, start a designed company

Nick Marsh and Nicola Sherry, of Sidekick Studios, talk about what designers can bring to start-up companies.

Nick and Nicola

With Apple riding high as one of the world’s most valuable companies, the importance of great design has never been more obvious. But how do companies embed a design culture that enables them to produce great products over and over again?

The clearest and simplest way of doing this is by ensuring that design is included in the earliest stages of a company’s formation – by having a designer as a founder.

Hannah Donovan, co-founder of and a trained product designer points out that these days all companies want to foster ‘a culture of design’. She believes that this is a big change from previous patterns. ‘Startups, traditionally, have placed importance on engineering, I think now people are realising that’s only one part of a healthy balanced team, and having a designer in a position where they have the power to affect change is a prerequisite for creating this culture,’ she says.

People with design backgrounds have founded some of the most successful American startups of recent years; Chad Hurley at YouTube, David Karp of Tumblr, Caterina Fake from Flickr and current Silicon Valley darlings Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, creators of AirBnB. This trend has even spawned a dedicated investment fund that only invests in tech startups founded by designers – The Designers Fund.

So what do designers bring to their startups, beyond the obvious craft skills?

Chris Downs, founder of and an interaction designer by training, points out that ‘design helps you have the right idea at the start, as designers we’re trained to look at the world and say that could be better, that could be different. That’s a real asset.’

Beyond having the right idea, designers are also really comfortable with the hands-on processes required to get an innovative new product to market. Katie Harris, trained service designer and ethnographer and founder of, explains that designers are ‘much more used to prototyping – mocking something up quickly and not being afraid to tear it up and start again if it doesn’t work.’

It’s not easy though. Founding a startup is always a huge challenge. Beyond working 120-hour weeks, designer-founders need to be prepared to move their thinking beyond designing a product to designing the organisation that designs the product. In short – management.

But, for those designers willing to take the plunge the rewards can be huge. The Designers Fund estimates that around $5.4 billion (£3.4 billion) has been spent in recent years acquiring tech startups founded by designers.

Bethany Koby, designer and co-founder of <> makes a really valuable point, often missed by entrepreneurial designers: ‘Designers don’t just have to start design companies.’ She, along with her partner Daniel Hirschmann, align making a profit with a real purpose by delivering practical hands-on workshops that teach people to produce and not just to consume technology.

So should you quit your comfy design studio job and start something up? For Chris Downs it’s a no-brainer. He says, ‘Digital products and services are now so inexpensive to test and prototype that my advice would be to stop thinking about building something and just go and make something.’

Nick Marsh is design director at Sidekick Studios and Nicola Sherry is designer. Sidekick Studios will be running events over the summer for designers in London interested in finding out more about how to get ready for startup – where to meet other founders, how to raise funding and much more. Follow @sidekickstudios on Twitter for updates.

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  • Esteban Olmedo November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The concept of embedding design into established companies is an extremely difficult task, but not an impossible one. With patience, constant positive reinforcement and other factors it could help SOME companies. However as an individual the concept of “not starting a design company”, but rather “starting a design company” is one that has been going around in my head for some time. Personally the appeal derives from feeling in control, rather than your fighting a loosing the battle, the believe that the business is fundamentally sound and the fact that the company is not driven by conventional targets that ‘business’ prioritises; it’s about providing a great service that people need and ideally love. I would like to emphasise that Design is not the superhero, it would be very arrogant to say that ‘business’ or for that matter other industries have no part in starting a “design company”. There are many aspects that designers can and should take advantage off. The quote I would like to end with, is a point that I think a “design company” in particular should be prepared for, ‘Your business is your business but once you have shareholders your business becomes your shareholder’s business’

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