DesignNews

Designer Founders project seeks support

Book that demystifies startup path for designers asks for Kickstarter funding as industry figures debate content

Designer Founders, a non-profit book that aims to "demystify the path for designers to build tech startups with meaningful impact and for entrepreneurs to embody design thinking in their work" is looking for funding on Kickstarter.

The book features 35 interviews with founders who have design backgrounds, such as Aza Raskin and Khoi Vinh.

We asked three people behind the book, Enrique Allen, Ben Blumenfeld and Xander Pollock, about the origins of the project and why they felt it important to fund and produce.

In a statement to us, they said that while work like The Design Entrepreneur exists, there is currently nothing that really "focuses on tech startups with the potential for meaningful impact in terms of scale and the positive social value created". Designer Founders is therefore important to provide inspirational first-hand stories, helping designers make tech startups with meaningful impact, and specific role models and case studies to educate entrepreneurial designers. The funding is required, we're told, to make the book and distribute it freely to students worldwide.

Designers as founders

According to the trio, part of the inspiration behind the book stemmed from constant press on engineering-centric founders, and the realisation that few designer founders were getting celebrated, to the point few students knew about them: "By highlighting and celebrating the contributions of designer founders, we hope to inspire more entrepreneurial designers to create companies of lasting value." Content has mostly arrived from "interviewing designer founders from diverse backgrounds and at various stages in their careers, including pioneers, up-and-comers, experts, and popular – and not-so-popular – millionaires".

Much of the importance of having a talented designer founder is summed up by a Jon Kolko quote: having someone who is an "honest-to-goodness, experienced, craft-driven, product-focused, reflective practitioner who has learned to design by designing, who views design as a way of thinking about solving hard problems and is capable of building usable products with more than just beautiful aesthetics" should increase your chances of designing a great product and user experience.

But the team is quick to point out the book isn't about designers being all-important at the expense of other contributors – it's about collaborating: "Innovation takes radical collaboration. The critical mass of combined design, technical, and business skills enables product iteration to happen faster and at a higher resolution."

Learning from others

Behance CEO Scott Belsky is one of the people interviewed in the book. He and co-founder Matias Corea share stories of what it's like to found a design-centric business, and believes Designer Founders is an important project.

"Design is a competitive advantage for modern day companies, especially those in tech,” says Belsky. “For this reason, designers should consider themselves as entrepreneurs and seize the opportunity to solve problems by founding businesses.

“However, there are many obstacles that creative people face in making ideas happen. The best way to prepare is to learn from other peoples' mistakes and lessons learned the hard way. I think this book will help."

Other industry talent we spoke to largely agreed. Developer James Seymour-Lock said: "With design and image increasingly important, getting a solid design in place before launch is as key as solid code. A designer founder can start at the core development of the application to make sure usability and the user experience are fluid throughout." He's looking forward to reading the book and seeing how others fared on this aspect of their projects.

Nick Crossland, senior online producer at Rckt, told us he learned everything about the commercial side of the industry through trial and error and 'old school' business books: "But designers often see the world in a different way from others, and learning from those who have been successful can only be a good thing."

However, he said the book appeared to focus on designers "who want to gain investment and global domination" and hoped it would have lessons for those with more modest ambitions too.

Clearleft partner Andy Budd thought the book might help deal with a common belief that startups are "the preserve of developers and that designers tend to get bought in once the functionality is built, to 'add the gloss'". He said projects like The Designer Fund help encourage designers to found businesses by "providing them with support and seed investment", but it's also "useful to have role models to show that the startup world isn't solely the preserve of the development community". As such, he told us that the book is a good idea.

The importance of designers

Given recent rows about whether design makes startups successful at all, we also asked how important it was for a company to have a designer as a founder. James Deer, founder of GatherContent, told us "the world is in dire need of more product-focused founders," and that "products should delight – and that rarely comes from engineers."

Budd agreed. "Design is incredibly important,” he said. “It can make the difference between a functional product people can use and a delightful product people want to use. As such, it makes sense to have a designer on board from the start."

However, he noted that it is possible to build a working product with a single tech founder, which isn't the case if all you have is a designer: "As such, you can see why so many startups focus on filling the technical role first and will often leave design until they've received funding."

Crossland warned about startups that follow that line of thinking. "One of Steve Jobs' legacies is the mainstream acceptance that design isn't just a superficial afterthought to make a product look pretty: it's fundamental to the success of products and services in the 21st century,” he said. "As a startup gets bigger, gets investment and becomes more focused on money and revenue, having a designer at the helm can help to keep the need for a pure, simple, beautiful user experience heard around the boardroom."

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