the role of a designer in a startup environment

How / Why I came to the realisation

When I first started working at Mixtable my job was to be a Visual Designer. At the time I was designing the iOS app (in sketch), making the iconography, building the brand image and eventually relaunching the website with a fresh look. Pretty typical stuff for a pixel pusher.

However, once I had handed off the mockups to the iOS team, the company’s needs had changed and my role had to be changed. What became apparent was having a full time visual/UI designer wasn't the most useful way to use our limited resources, therefore I was asked to take on some front-end responsibilities. This meant changing my workflow from just designing on vector and photo editing software to taking a concept from whiteboard to working webpage. What I soon realised was this was not only a change in tool and medium but also in process and mindset. So here are a couple of tid-bits I picked up along the way:

Designers role - Not to design

A designers role in a startup is not to design. Contrary to popular belief the designers role in a startup isn't to be a ‘design guru’ or a ‘design rockstar’ or even the all-singing all-dancing design department. No, its to take the opinions, needs and ideas of everyone involved (users, marketers, developers and stakeholders) and turn it into a functional solution. That's why its important to be the design equivalent of a swiss-army knife.

Multi-tool / UX designer

I think the title that best fits that description is a UX designer, lets be honest its such a vague term with very little pre-conceptions it can let you be the person a team needs without being limited by the baggage of being branded “designer” brings with it.

There are a tonne of articles on the web already about what a UX designer is, isn’t and should be so I wont get into it too much here. I’ll just list the kind of skills I think a UX designer should have in their toolbox:


Cheer the fuck up

One of the most frustrating things about being a designer is the “no face”. That moment when you’ve shown the thing you’ve been slaving over to your boss/client/manager and their face re-coils, your stomach drops and you’re back to the proverbial drawing board with a chip on your shoulder and a frown on your face. What you should realise is “We designers have the best jobs in the world. If you’re walking around with a look on your face suggesting otherwise I suggest you get a new job. Or a new face.” . Being the kind of designer that actively listens to every stakeholder, involves the whole team in designing and doesn't take the job as a solemn pursuit can make a real difference to your life, team and face.

Iteration for the nation

Sometimes as a perfectionist in the fast-paced startup world you can find yourself very conflicted. On the one hand you’ve settled on a solution in great time, its a pretty good one and your CEO is happy with it. On the other hand you've spent the last 3 hours trying to get the details right, your university professors words are ringing though your head; “its the details that make good design, great design” like the ghost of design past. While this is still true there is something that got lost along the way (or maybe I was a little hungover that day). If you haven’t taken the time to refine the design, the details don't mean sh*t. Trying to polish turds is always a fools errand. At the end of the day “Don’t mistake speed for precocity: the world doesn’t need wrong answers in record time.”

Time can’t be changed but a colour can

If one of the main goals of a startup is validated learning, nothing can be learnt or validated in the time it takes to get a colour, line or font ‘just right’. Spending a lot of time or money working on perfecting every page in every format of your show-stopping new app is a waste of time; “Until you find product-market fit, you’re essentially a chicken running around with your head cut off.”. So instead of using your time tailoring each page, make a solid, coded, dev-friendly style guide.

Make a style guide and make it early! CSS has a reputation for being messy, unwieldy and its methods being a thing of personal taste. Making a live style guide early can lead to a cleaner codebase, quicker development process and an overall better looking site.

The best part of having a developer friendly style guide, is it allows your developers to use the classes and id’s from the styleguide to transform their scrappy, in the works versions to great from the get go, so the only thing left to do it tweak. I'm not by any stretch of the imagination saying you should be a lazy designer or not take pride in your work, just know the difference between good and good enough. Having a style guide can alleviate a lot of the more tedious design work a tailored website usually involves without compromising on the individuality that happens when using a framework or theme like Bootstrap or foundation.

Re-inventing the wheel

Unless your startup is actually trying to re-invent the wheel, try and avoid re-inventing the wheel. When your trying to be disruptive in the dating industry, there's no need to be disruptive with your share icon. Pick a style that works for you and your users and go with it! Remember, everything is a remix.

Please excuse me if I have come off a little confusing or a little strong. Sometimes its only in hindsight that everything becomes very obvious. I hope in reading this you’ll get there much quicker than I did.

One final note;
Next time you find yourself facing a serious problem that can only be solved through highly creative thinking remember the difference between serious vs. solemn. Its a clip from a speech by John Cleese, if you have the time watch the whole thing.

Dylan Bahnan