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The Value of Designers in Tech Startups
Igor Bonifacic on why startups are a practical and profitable career choice for art school grads

A disparate collection of popular websites and services…

Elegant, simple, and beautiful design is now expected to be a core competency of any new product or company; as such, talented and skilled designers are in high demand throughout the tech world. However, many recent art school graduates either don’t know how to get involved with a startup, or, more likely, they have yet to discover that joining or creating a startup is a practical and rewarding career option. In an attempt to highlight the opportunities startups represent to upcoming and recent graduates, FounderDating, Extreme Startups, and the Ontario College of Art and Design‘s Imagination Catalyst hosted a presentation last Thursday on the important role design played in building some the tech world’s most successful companies like Instagram and Path. The presentation, which was led by FounderDating’s Eli Aleyner and Mani Fazeli, focused on the question of how one joins or starts a startup as a designer, and whether creating a new business straight out of school is a smart decision.

On how a designer can get involved with a startup

…with one commonality

According to Aleyner and Fazeli, designers come in one of two breeds. First, there are the individuals that are natural design prodigies like Tumblr co-founder David Karp. Karp never attended design school, but managed to become the product head of UrbanBaby at the age of 17, before starting Tumblr with co-founder Marco Arment in 2007. Individuals like Karp are rare, however, and most graduates will likely need to spend time honing their craft with other companies before embarking upon their own projects. 

It is possible to gain all the experience one needs to build a successful startup without working for someone else first, but it’s likely a better idea to join an already established startup. Here, the two men suggested that graduates should look to join a company that is going through a “hockey stick phase.” That is, aspiring designers should look to join a company that is experiencing rapid growth due to the overwhelming popularity of its product. In the context of Toronto, 500px is a good example of such a company; 500px and companies like it are in the process of supplementing and extending their initial product offering, and are, therefore, looking for an infusion of talent to help them broaden their appeal even further, making them the perfect candidate to share one’s portfolio with. 

There is, of course, the practical consideration of finding startups that are looking to hire. After all, the majority of startups are not posting on common job boards like Craigslist or Workopolis. Here, the panel that took place after the presentation suggested that students check out a resource like Dribble. Dribble is a website that allows visual artists of any kind to upload and share their work. It also includes a job board, and some of the best startups and agencies out there are parsing through user posting on a daily basis to find the next Matias Duarte.   

Should a recent graduate decide to build their own company after leaving school, however, it’s almost always a good idea to find one or more co-founders to work with; according to a statistic Fazeli provided, a startup with two co-founders is 40 per cent more likely to succeed than a startup with a single founder. When looking for a co-founder to work with, it’s important to find someone that is not a carbon copy of yourself, as those are the individuals that will likely bring the kind of fresh perspectives that help make a startup successful. Moreover, co-founders should stick to what they excel at: so, for instance, the co-founder with the design background should not double as the company’s PR representative–unless they have a background in PR as well.   

On the benefits of joining a startup for a designer

…beautiful, simple and effective design.

As a designer, there are many benefits to joining or starting a startup. Chief among them is that your skill-set and expertise will be valued at every stage of a startup’s lifecycle. From inception to launch and beyond, the front-facing look and feel of a product are the responsibility of a startup’s design team. And unlike design agencies, which often employ a large group of designers, working on very specialized tasks, startup design teams are small. According to Dawson Whitfield, UI and UX designer at Weebly, most startups try to maintain a ratio of 1 designer to 10 developers. This means that you will work on a variety of design tasks, and that you have a powerful say in determining the vision and execution of your company’s product.    

My ultimate takeaway from the event 

As technology continues to become increasingly sophisticated, skilled designers will likely play an even greater role in ensuring that everyday users can make the most of new innovations. Moreover, according to studies completed in the United States, over the past decade, new job growth has almost exclusively been driven by startups and small business, not large corporations. Thus, the career prospects for a creative individual have never been better. However, seizing those prospects takes a willingness to embrace the unknown, but the rewards for doing so are great; even if the startup you create or join fails, the skills and experiences you will pick up along the way will prove invaluable in any future endeavours. In a sense, there’s nothing to lose–so what are you waiting for? 


Igor Bonifacic is a writer working for the Toronto Standard. You can follow him on twitter @igorbonifacic

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