Design Is Dead, Long Live Design

Design, as it relates to early stage web based businesses, is one of the more troubling words facing our industry. I believe this is primarily for three reasons. 1. If we consider a traditional definition of design, it is being outsourced and commoditized by international firms and through businesses like 99 Designs.

2. Executives who do not understand design and the value it can deliver reduce the practice to coloring in pixels. Executives very rarely value pixels, and if they do, it’s temporary in nature.

3. There is as much subjectivity in the field as objectivity. This makes it hard and emotional for executives, particularly early stage executives where no corporate styles exist.

I always say to my teammates at Thinktiv, “Design is dead.” And by the traditional definition, I believe that’s true in many markets, including ours. Design processes are frequently associated with high premiums, long cycles, and lots of ego. This has led to a noticeable decrease in a design firm’s ability to monetize design practices. This is why you see design agencies moving towards new terminology like “innovation firms” or “global innovation strategy.” However, it’s the same people working with the same customers using the same processes after the same output. They even charge their customers the same way. It’s design.

In the early stage market there is an ever-increasing trend of copying the design stylings of others. Illustratively, our president, Justin Petro @justinpetro frequently states, “there’s no such thing as a truly unique brand system unless you spend a lot of money.” At one end of this practice, we find design mashups, the styling and direction of 2 or 3 established companies rolled into one. We hear 2 or 3 customer ideas a month that reference 37 signals and say, “we want to be like that but …” At the other end, we find the cloning strategy. An example is Indeed.com of Google. This is not a criticism of Indeed. In fact, they’re able to produce a familiar experience for users without investing in heavy brand or experience innovation, and they’re very successful. This is some of the most compelling evidence of the challenges associated with design.

So, all this said, roughly half of my team at Thinktiv are designers by trade. We have interaction designers, visual designers, brand designers, print designers, motion graphics experts, and I’m certain I’m forgetting a discipline. So, why do we hire so many designers?

It’s simple; the design community is saturated with great commercial minds that have never been put into roles with deep commercial responsibility. At Thinktiv, our commercial responsibility is to unlock piles of money for early stage companies. We need to compel venture capital firms to finance our customers, end-users to pay for our customers’ products and corporate buyers to place a premium on our customers’ businesses. Our venture acceleration program has been successful over the past 5 years because we’ve become excellent at increasing corporate valuation through the use of design to architect product and market vision. We do not follow many common design practices nor do we do ‘design consulting’ for early stage companies outside the context of our venture acceleration program. We focus on a specific set of artifacts for a specific set of people that we know maximizes corporate valuation. Our designers tell their story through fundraising decks, business model spreadsheets, product screens, demonstrations, advertisements, and dozens of other artifacts that they must be able to create – all with a singular focus on the next phase of corporate monetization. They act much more like entrepreneurs in residence than they do design consultants.

Designers that join our team go through an adjustment period. They transition from a world of interaction, usability and pixels to a world of market definition, business competition and executive sales. I’m happy to say that our hiring practices are effective, we find people capable of making this adjustment. And, I think my teammates are generally pretty happy in their roles. In the end, I feel comfortable that many of the individuals on our design team can stand up in front of Venture Capital firms and pitch our customers’ business for a Series A raise. I feel comfortable they can do this because, at times, they do. I don’t believe that’s the traditional definition of design, but it’s ours.