Does design make startups successful?

An infographic by The Designer Fund, arguing about the "billions worth of value created by tech startups with designer co-founders" sparked a heated online debate between self-described 'digital smartypants' Jon Yongfook Cockle and HubSpot director of UX Joshua Porter.

Yongfook argued that "design is horseshit", claiming the "talk of designers as the new kings of startups is becoming increasingly overblown", and that while design enhances value, it does not create it. He said that people within the industry should focus on creating value – fast – rather than "creating shitty startups that look amazing". Porter retorted with Design is not horsepoop, a post that rallied against Yongfook's assertion that "design enhances value, it does not create it", and argued that "design is in part the process of discovering problems and then conceiving solutions to them".

We spoke to both Yongfook and Porter, to gain further insight into their takes on design and the importance (or lack thereof) of designer co-founders. Yongfook told us that in the past he wasted time on creating products that didn't have a clear value proposition, such as me-too apps that are merely 'better designed'. "I'm not interested in creating that kind of work any more. Now I'm in search of problems where I can create a solution users find so valuable that they will use it even if it isn't well-designed or well-engineered," he said, adding: "Finding and creating a truly valuable solution is much more difficult than creating an elegant solution."

A problem worth solving

Yongfook reckons that more people should see what happens if an app or service is dramatically dropped in price. If no-one pays, it's clearly not solving a valuable problem. "Too many startups worry about design and engineering before they have even found a problem worth solving," he told us. "I don't have any personal vendetta against any kind of design – I just think all of that is a bunch of horseshit until you've actually gotten out of the building and found 10 people who tell you 'shut up and take my money!' when you describe the problem that you're solving." For an early-stage startup, Yongfook believes that early customer development process is the only thing that matters, and he respects those startups that begin humbly with something mashed together, then go out on the street to find customers and improve their product over time: "Look at Apple or Microsoft, that's exactly how they started …"

Unsurprisingly, Porter has a different take. He told us there's no problem with people over-emphasising aesthetics, and instead argued that it's a problem when people dismiss design as merely making something look good: "That completely undervalues what good design actually is." Porter said that Yongfook did back off an the assertion that people should "stop creating shitty startups that look amazing", but he also took issue with the claim that startups don't focus enough on solving problems: "I agree with this, but I disagree completely that it has nothing to do with design. Design is about conceiving something that works, and there are design methods that would help Yongfook and other startup founders immensely."

An approach to design

Porter told us that while he was doing design consulting, he found designers that merely took something and made it pretty were marginalised, and didn't add value, but those who questioned the problems they'd been asked to solve – and kept questioning throughout the process – "invariably created the best design because they had gotten closer to the real problem at hand … the problem their users had".

In web design, Porter said that there are probably designers who don't have the responsibility for the entire process of researching, conceiving, and planning a design to solve customer problems – those designers immersed solely on HTML and CSS, for example. "But again those people are merely getting ready to dive into the real problem solving … if they are curious about their profession they will eventually go to their boss and say 'I don't think we're doing this right' and instantly become more valuable as a result."

It should come as no surprise, then, to hear that Porter thinks it's important for more, not less, focus to be on designers as founders, and that this should improve the likelihood of a successful product or service. "Designers are extremely well positioned to solve the problems of businesses, if they are willing to learn research techniques and generally own the design process from start to finish," he said. "I realise that many designers are not interested in taking this route, but those who are will be as successful, if not more, than people from other professions."

A hunch isn't enough

Yongfook remained unconvinced. He said that the "design is 'everything' across a long enough timeline argument" had been fired back to him, and sidesteps the point he was trying to make. "The only thing that is important for an early-stage startup is figuring out how to create value, how to solve a real problem … That process of creating the Minimum Viable Product is something you're going to go through multiple times as you figure out what your customers need and your early assumptions turn out to be entirely backwards," he said. "And if you're an early stage startup that has a 'hunch' about what the market needs, you're probably flat-out wrong! Get out of the building, talk to people and discover that for yourself."

He noted that some designers will say this process is in itself design, but Yongfook argued it's customer and product development, and something an entire team should be involved in if the startup is small: "It's not a process that a designer owns exclusively, nor something designers are better at because of their creative or problem-solving skills. Everyone is everything in an early stage startup. It's a chaotic mess of figuring shit out together."

Perhaps it's ultimately a question of semantics, but at least Porter and Yongfook both agree that the industry would benefit from more people thinking about problems that need solving rather than diving in and just creating something with good 'design'.

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