When to hire a designer (hint: now!)

I’ve been to a few startup events recently, in particular the Future M Startup Bootcamp and NEVCA office hours at Venture Cafe. Thanks in particular to Venture Cafe for hosting the event – it was a great time and lots of good discussion.

A subject came up repeatedly at both events that I think is worth commenting on. The question is, “When should I hire a designer to work on my application/startup”?

Especially for consumer web companies, my answer is, “you should have already hired one”. A strong designer should be one of the first people you hire into a company, for a few reasons. We did this at goby and the company would not be the same if we had not. But before we go into the reasons, let’s talk about what I mean by a designer.

The word “designer” can mean a lot of different things to different people. There are graphic designers, web designers, product designers, and a number of other variations in skill-sets and perspectives. Product design is not about having a cute logo (although that helps). It’s not about having good fonts & colors (although this is a good idea and harder than it looks). It’s not about having a clean and elegant user interface (although that’s becoming an expectation if not a requirement in today’s consumer web environment). It’s fundamentally about understanding your customer – a good designer is always thinking about who your user is, why they’re coming to your site, what they think they are seeing when they see your site for the first time, what your information architecture is, and how they are going to react to all of it. They will also be well versed in what’s going in the outside world, what trends exist in design, and why those trends are happening. They’ll also be out talking to customers, getting feedback, and incorporating that into their designs.

Expectations are insanely high in the consumer web. People make instant, instinctive judgments about the value and trustworthiness of your site. This isn’t just about good graphics, it is deeper than that. And if you don’t get it right, you’ll struggle to find and keep visitors.

Ideally, you would find someone who can also do web/graphic design and wireframes as well, but if all you want is a nicer looking site, you can find a contractor to help with that on an as-needed basis. But this misses the point. There’s a natural tendency for product developers & engineers to design the product (and they should be intimately involved of course!), but there is deep benefit in having someone who is outside the coding process thinking about users from their perspective, and without being too tied to the engineering process.

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