Mills Baker presents an interesting essay on design’s role within startups, how it has evolved over the past few years, and whether “pretty” is enough of a differentiating feature to create success. While I don’t agree with all of the conclusions made—eg. citing Medium or Square as any sort of failure seems somewhat premature—I do agree with the general basic sentiment: Design goes far beyond UI and UX (even with all those lovely animations).
To me, though, this is not a problem “designers” face as much as it is a company culture problem. Yes, designers have been given a seat at the table, but which table and how many other seats are around it? In most early stage startups I consult for, there is no “executive” team member responsible for design. This means that all high-level strategic planning, even product planning, is done by a combination of CEOs, CTOs, CFOs, and investors. Many of these startups have a “creative director,” who will ensure a company’s brand resonates with its advertising, product, and communications—but is, at the same time, not consulted for actual strategic input. As these startups mature and grow in size, they will sometimes bring in a VP Design, often when their creative director’s daily responsibilities become too much to balance against interfacing with the executive team. Now, truly, design has a seat at the table; but so do a whole new batch of board members, COOs, and VPs. It’s already too late.
Designing, to a great degree, is an act of empathy. It requires an understanding of psychology, emotion, and relationships. It is of great mystery to me why this role is not considered fundamental when discussing strategy. Questions around pricing/licensing models, partnership opportunities, and even enterprise sales approach would all be better answered with a knowledgable, experienced designer in the room.
To this end, I’d love to see more startups embrace the role of CCO (Chief Creative Officer) from the beginning. The name itself implies an equality with CEOs and CTOs (both of which are common positions in 2-5 person startups), which I believe helps ensure their ideas are valued on strategic matters. Adding this role at the beginning signals to future employees (and customers) that the company not only values design, but a creative, human approach to doing business. This is the real “design” that unfortunately, in most cases, is still stuck in the high chair.