Table of Contents

Startups, this is how design works.

A guide for non-designers by Wells Riley.
Format inspired by Jessica Hische.
Originally published in 2012.

Companies like Apple are making design impossible for startups to ignore. Startups like GitHub, Airbnb, Square, and Fitbit have design at the core of their business, and they're doing phenomenal work. But what is ‘design’ actually? Is it a logo? A Wordpress theme? An innovative UI?

It’s so much more than that. It’s a state of mind. It’s an approach to a problem. It’s how you’re going to kick your competitor’s ass. This handy guide will help you understand design and provide resources to help you find awesome design talent.


De•sign [dəzajn] is a
method of problem solving.

The simplest definition. Design is so many things, executed in many different ways, but the function is always the same. Whether it’s blueprints, a clever UI, a brochure, or a chair – design can help solve a visual or physical problem. 1


So what is
“good design”?

This definition is not so simple. The best designs are notorious for seeming not designed at all – or ‘undesigned’.

It’s easier if we break things down a bit. If you know what to look for, it’s easier to identify good design when you see it; or perhaps when you can’t see it at all.


Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles of  “Good Design”
(Wow, how convenient is that?)

Dieter Rams is a German industrial designer closely associated with the consumer products company Braun and functionalist industrial design.

According to Vitsœ: Back in the early 1980s, aware that his design was a significant contributor to the world, he asked himself an important question:
"Is my design good design?"

Since good design can't be measured in a finite way, he set about expressing the ten most important principles for what he considered was good design. (Sometimes they are referred as the ‘Ten commandments’.) Here they are. 3

Good design is…

“We designers, we don’t work in a vacuum. We need business people. We are not the fine artists we are often confused with. Today you find few companies that take design seriously, as I see it.”

— Dieter Rams


Good design can’t be achieved with glossy buttons or masterful wireframes alone. It’s a merger of all these principles into something that is meaningful and deliberate.

Just like a great business plan is nothing without expert execution, a great Photoshop mockup is nothing, for example, without careful consideration to UI or the user’s needs.

“Fill Can” icon
©1983 Susan Kare



A documentary film that provides a look at the creativity behind everything from toothbrushes to
tech gadgets. Watch the complete film here.


Various Braun and Vitsoe Products
©1955-2012 Braun & Vitsoe

Take a look at your current product – is design contributing in an innovative way? Does it make the product useful, understandable, and aesthetic? Is it long-lasting, or will it look outdated or break in a few years?

These are really hard questions to answer. Designers enable you to work within these constraints to create a product customers will fall in love with. Love is a really strong emotion.

Dieter Rams and his contemporaries started a movement in 20th Century towards simple and beautiful products. Design was a strongly valued aspect of business, even 60 years ago. It totally has a place in business today – it’s a proven method.

There are different kinds of design.


Poster for Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits
©1975 Milton Glaser

Graphic Design

This is a term that describes an array of different kinds of designers. Think of it like the term “entrepreneur”. It describes a wide variety of businesspeople - from founders to VC's to “Chief Ninjas” - but isn’t all-inclusive. Graphic designers work with graphical images, whether they be illustrations, typography, or images, and on a variety of media including print and web. Graphic design is typically rendered in 2D – printed on a physical surface or displayed on a screen.

↳ Print Design

A type of graphic designer that works exclusively with print media. Before the widespread adoption of computers, software, and the web, virtually all graphic designers worked on print media such as posters, magazines, billboards, and books. Print designers are typically masters of typography, illustration, and traditional printing processes like the Linotype machine or the letterpress machine, a 500-year-old printing method that has regained popularity in recent years for its handmade and traditional feel.


Interaction Design

Interaction designers, on the other hand, focus on digital products and interactive software design. Some examples include web apps like Facebook and Pinterest, mobile apps like Tweetbot, and operating systems like OS X. While graphic design is meant to be observed, interaction design helps humans experience or manipulate software or interface with screen-based hardware in order to achieve specific goals – checking email, withdrawing money from an ATM, or "Liking" a webpage (such as this one!)

"Interaction design is heavily focused on satisfying the needs and desires
of the people who will use the product."

Framework by Bill Verplank
©2000 Bill Verplank

ConvertBot and Weightbot UI
©2008-2012 Tapbots, LLC

↳ User Interface Design

User Interface (UI) design is the design of software or websites with the focus on the user's experience and interaction. The goal of user interface design is to make the user's interaction as simple and efficient as possible. Good user interface design puts emphasis on goals and completing tasks, and good UI design never draws more attention to itself than enforcing user goals.

"The design process must balance technical functionality and visual elements to create a system that is not only operational but also usable and adaptable to changing user needs." 7

↳ User Experience Design

User Experience (UX) design "incorporates aspects of psychology, anthropology, sociology, computer science, graphic design, industrial design and cognitive science. Depending on the purpose of the product, UX may also involve content design disciplines such as communication design, instructional design, or game design." 8

The goal of UX design is to create a seamless, simple, and useful interaction between a user and a product, whether it be hardware or software. As with UI design, user experience design focuses on creating interactions designed to meet or assist a user's goals and needs.


Panton Stacking Chair
©1967 Verner Panton

Industrial Design

Industrial designers create physical products designated for mass-consumption by millions of people. Motorcycles, iPods, toothbrushes, and nightstands are all designed by industrial designers. These people are masters of physical goods and innovation within the constraints of production lines and machines.

"The objective is to study both function and form, and the connection between product, the user, and the environment." 9

Data: what does the industry think?


What qualities of design do startups consider most important?


I asked 78 CEOs, marketers, engineers, and designers about their opinions and definitions of design. Before I could come up with anything for this project, I had to check my assumptions at the door and get some legit data. It seems that entrepreneurs / engineers and designers are thinking about the same things.


How important is product design?

Product design includes both digital and physical products. It represents not only the aesthetic qualities, but what it does, how well a user thinks it's going to do it, and how easily & quickly they can complete a task.

Think for a moment. How important is product design to you? How important do you think aesthetics and ease-of-use are to your customers?


How deep does design go?

Now we're getting somewhere. Great design is taking root in startup culture, and it seems like many people are open to change. Not only do many entrepreneurs, devs, and engineers see substantial room to improve their own products, they overwhelmingly believe that designers belong on a founding team.

Designer Founders: the missing link


Startups + designers = ?

For a long time, a pair of co-founders consisted of an executive and an engineer. It worked for Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple, just to name a few. These companies have excellent designers today, because it’s a necessity they can’t afford to ignore. It seems like design is becoming more and more prevalent in new startups as well – Square, Fitbit, Tapbots, and more are pushing the envelope.

Design is becoming a key differentiator for companies to acquire funding, press coverage,
and loyal users.

I think it’s time to shake things up a bit.
Let’s add designers into the mix.

Drag »

Business Peeps


Meet some Designer Founders

According to The Designer Fund, startups with designer founders are generating billions of dollars in growth. 16 Below are profiles on five of the most influential designer founders and their incredibly hot startups.


Joe Gebbia, Airbnb

Joe defines the Airbnb experience. He is dedicated to creating an inspiring and effortless user experience through sharp, intuitive design, and crafts the product roadmap to make it so. Joe values products that simplify life and have a positive impact on the environment, and ensures that the company adheres to these tenets.

Prior to Airbnb, Joe was employed by Chronicle Books, co-founded a green design website, and developed several consumer products. An alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design, Joe earned dual degrees in Graphic Design and Industrial Design. 11


Alexa Andrzejewski, Foodspotting

Alexa Andrzejewski is the Founder and CEO of Foodspotting, a website and mobile app for finding and recommending dishes, not just restaurants. As the UX designer behind Foodspotting, Alexa sees herself as the "chief storyteller," responsible for capturing the imagination of her team, partners and investors through metaphors, mantras, user stories, sketches and detailed designs. Foodspotting has received attention from The Today Show, The Cooking Channel, Travel + Leisure, iTunes and Google Play (repeat "App of the Week"), as well as Mark Zuckerberg in his 2011 f8 keynote. Alexa has been profiled in Financial Times Magazine, Inc Magazine’s "30 Under 30" and Gourmet Live's "50 Women Game-Changers." 10


Jessica Hische, Freelance Illustrator

Jessica Hische is a letterer and illustrator best known for her personal projects Daily Drop Cap and the Should I Work for Free? flowchart as well as her work for clients like Wes Anderson, Penguin Books, and Google. She’s been named one of Print Magazine’s New Visual Artists, an ADC Young Gun, and one of Forbes 30 under 30 in Art and Design two years in a row. She is currently serving on the Type Directors Club board of directors, has traveled the world speaking about lettering and illustration, and has probably consumed enough coffee to power a small nation. 12


Mike Matas, Push Pop Press

Mike is a user interface designer and cofounder of Push Pop Press, a digital publishing company that worked with Al Gore to create the first full-length interactive book Our Choice. Recently Push Pop Press was acquired by Facebook where he is now working, giving people better tools to explore and share ideas.

Prior to starting Push Pop Press he worked at Apple where he designed user interfaces and artwork for the iPhone, the iPad, and Mac OS X. Before that he cofounded Delicious Monster, a software company that created Delicious Library. 13


Jeffrey Veen, Typekit

Jeffrey Veen is a founder and the CEO of Small Batch, Inc. where he’s leading a team of developers and creating user-centered web products. Their current effort is Typekit — a widely praised subscription font service that is bringing real typography to the Web for the first time.

Jeffrey was also one of the founding partners of Adaptive Path and project lead for Measure Map, the well-received web analytics tool acquired by Google in 2006, where he managed the user experience group responsible for some of the largest web apps in the world. 14


It’s getting harder and harder to differentiate based on tech talent alone. Designers like Jonathan Ive at Apple, Joe Gebbia at Airbnb, and the rockstar design team at Dropbox (just to name a few) are changing the world today – not entirely because Apple, Airbnb, or Dropbox have better tech, but because they make their products more usable, aesthetic, and human.

Design is the link missing from your founding team. The perfect balance of business, tech, and design is an incredibly powerful tool...

... and an even more powerful business model.

Finding Great Talent


Okay, I need a designer.
What do I look for?

Founders need to share passion, drive, and vision. Find someone who can solve problems and think critically about more than just designing a website. Someone who makes your founding team unstoppable.


Go where the designers are.

The design community is small and nuanced. Many designers aren’t aware of their increasing demand within startups, but that doesn't make them impossible to find.

Here are a few places where you can find excellent local designers right now.


A note about Unicorns by Sacha Greif
Understand your expectations.

In a smart article about finding designers on TNW, Sacha Greif tells a cautionary tale. "Instead of looking for a unicorn ["a magical designer that can solve all [of a company’s] problems," according to Braden Kowitz], think about hiring a web designer who will focus on design, and a front-end engineer who will focus on code. Like WePay’s Aberman states, “When looking for a designer, you can’t have it all. You need to prioritize visual design, product design, front-end development, etc.”

If your budget doesn’t let you hire both, another option is to hire a horse and let them grow a horn on the job: find a good visual designer who’s also willing to learn front-end coding, or a great front-end engineer who wants to get better at design." 17

Canned Unicorn Meat
Courtesy of ThinkGeek



This is just a primer on design for startups. There is so much information out there, and so many brilliant minds talking about great design.

Here are a few resources I highly recommend:

Helpful? Share it!

I love startups and design, and I want them to be best friends forever. I'm Wells Riley, and I'm the founding designer at Runway, formerly Head of Design at Envoy, and the co-founder of Hack Design – an easy to follow design course for people who do amazing things.

It’s so exciting to see design taking a stronger role in new companies. I hope this will be a valuable resource to help designers and entrepreneurs speak the same language.

If you have any feedback, please feel free to tweet me @wr.