is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
I often meet entrepreneurs who are trying to get their startups off the ground and who are looking to find the right designer to add to their founding team. They’re usual pretty savvy about the importance of the craft and have an honest desire to build world-class design-centric products. What they need help with is finding that key first designer, the one who will create the foundation for their product and brand.
The smarter ones realize that they have to immerse themselves in the field and learn its contours. They know that it takes patience and persistence to meet the right designers, that they have to learn where they gather (online and offline), how they talk to one another, and what motivates them. Good founders take the same approach as they might follow in recruiting a chief technology officer or a head of sales: they immerse themselves in that profession so that they can understand the difference between a good candidate and a bad candidate.
Where I see even some of the smartest of these folks go astray, though, is in the kind of designer they’re looking for. I’m not even talking about whether they should be hiring product designers or branding designers or some hybrid of those skills. Rather, I’m talking about what role they want their first design hires to fill.
Many times, what I see is a reluctance to hire designers into key leadership positions. There’s a mistaken belief that if the work that needs to get done is fairly tactical it therefore requires someone to simply execute the tasks. It’s true that in the beginning of a startup‘s life, the design tasks can be largely the same regardless of what level designer you have: build the first product, establish the processes for design, develop the brand, put up the first web site, etc.
But even on a small team, it can make an enormous difference to the company’s culture and DNA whether the first designer to come aboard is at the staff-level or at the leadership level. The way a staff designer solves these problems can be very different from the way a design leader solves them. Staff level designers will tend to focus on the nuts and bolts; design leaders (good ones) will think about the short- and long-term journey of the company itself. This includes the nuts and bolts, but also takes into account a host of other factors that are natural outgrowths of a team member who is a peer to the company’s other leaders. This means that when a design leader is thinking about design, he or she is always thinking about recruiting, business strategy, partnerships, markets, capital, and more as well.
The conundrum is that while many founders see the wisdom in hiring leaders for technology, operations, sales and other aspects of the business, when it comes to design, they have a different approach. They’re more often than not content to hire someone with a more junior level of experience to play a more limited role in the formation of the company. That’s an understandable but shortsighted incongruity.
In politics, they say that “personnel is policy,” meaning who you hire determines what you do and how you operate. That’s just as true for startups, where products are the direct result of who works on them. There are of course countless ways to build companies, but if you want to build a truly design-centric business—which in many ways has become the baseline for startups today—then it behooves you to have a design leader on your team from the outset.+