The Golden Age of Design in Startups

Three bits of evidence: designer-led companies are being invested in, designers are increasingly wanted as founders, and design firms are being bought for their talent.

I just returned from Dave McClure’s excellent Warm Gun Conference, and I haven’t been this excited to be a designer in a while. The entire event was about design, metrics, and products, and even more importantly the people at the conference were many of the who’s who in Bay Area design. From what I saw and experienced there I daresay there are signs we’re entering a golden age of Design.

The evidence:

1. The startups being invested in are designer-led. Take the new Designer Fund that funds startups with designer-founders and helps mentor them. Consider the companies in the banner of their site: YouTube, Tumblr, Android, Slideshare, Feedburner, Flickr, Vimeo, Path, Airbnb…all founded by designers. I think we’ll see this continue to be the case. User experience is a huge differentiator in startups right now, with startups like Typekit, Instagram, Lovely, Oink, and others getting investment and doing well.

2. Hot startups want designer co-founders. I talked with many people who were building startups and their top priority was getting great designers on board. But they didn’t just want good designers. They wanted designer co-founders, people who could help them from day 1 and be invested in the company. This is a change from the ever-present search for technical co-founders…designer co-founders are in demand as well.

This makes sense. In a sea of competition…the survivors will be the ones who can communicate most clearly and provide value most quickly. And who specializes in those things more than designers?

3. Startups are being bought for their design talent. While I was traveling I heard news that Facebook acquired Gowalla and I had to smile. This is an obvious design talent acquisition…Gowalla has one of the most talented groups of designers around and while their service was successful, it was seen to have lost to Foursquare and was looking to reinvent itself. Now, it doesn’t have to…I’m sure Facebook has a large roadmap (apparently they’ll be working on the timeline team) that Josh Williams and company can start designing toward. Couple this with Facebook’s acquisition of Push Pop Press, Sofa, and Daytum, and you see a clear trend here…they’re pulling in as much design talent as they can.

This also jibes with what I heard from other bay-area startups. I’ve talked to friends at both Twitter and Zynga and the message is the same…they are 100% focused on design and investing heavily in it (and have been for a couple years now). I’ve even been asked if I know world-class design teams or agencies who want something new…not because these companies want to work with them but because they want to BUY them…because they can’t get design talent fast enough by recruiting individuals. Seriously.

I also met the design recruiter for Groupon who said that they can’t get enough designers. He was currently fighting against a bit of public pushback b/c of the IPO filing but in general had an amazing growth engine with which to recruit. He could be as aggressive as he wanted in getting designers.

So I’m not sure what the precursor to all of this was…perhaps Apple’s rise to the most valuable tech company in the world on the back of well-designed products? Or maybe the rise of the social networks like Twitter and Facebook who now are poised to be the primary point of communication for the next decade? I don’t know, but those events probably helped. I also think repeated failure of poorly-designed products must be a part of this…we’ve all had those projects in which we knew the design just wasn’t there and hurt over time. I think most people by now have had an experience like this and want to do anything they can to prevent it from happening again.

All of this holds true for us at HubSpot as well…we’re investing heavily in design and front-end engineering for the foreseeable future. We’ve got a ton of projects in the pipeline, and to build the world-class software we want we’re going to need thousands of hours of design work to get there. While our events on the East Coast aren’t quite as big as those in the Valley (yet), our people aren’t lacking in passion for design.

I remember not too many years ago that designers lamented of not having a “seat at the table”. Well, folks, your time has come. Not only do you have a seat at the table…you’ve got a starring role. There is no better time to be a designer than right now.

Published: December 5th, 2011