3 questions every designer should ask before joining a start-up

UPDATE: for another/additional look at this, see this piece on designsstaff.org

It is a great time to be a designer. Big companies are recognizing your value and your scarcity and start-ups are investing in design. With all this attention starting to focus on the craft, you will get calls, lots of calls.

Be excited, but be careful.

If the "product guy" can't answer these three questions, move on

Design is a hot topic right now and the bandwagon is filling up fast. Recruiters, investors, product guys, all calling to see if you want to come work at a start-up that has a great concept and early traction, but really needs some help on the design side…

When you hear this, listen. It could be a great opportunity. When you hear this, be skeptical, it could be some investor pushing a team to check a box. Everyone is saying you need a designer to be successful, but most people don’t know what a designer needs to be successful – and it is up to you to figure out if you are just a name on a list and will be a resource to be consumed or if this is a chance to be an integral piece of a culture that is driven by design.

I have been there, at the start-up that needed a ton of help on the design side to be successful. When I was the creative director for AND 1, we decided to invest in design and opened an office in Portland, OR. We ended up pulling some of the top designers from NIKE and Adidas over to our side. We built a fantastic squad. It started paying off immediately in marketshare and mindshare. Leading this team was a blast but I think we created a real advantage because this talent was poured over a culture compatible with design rather than into a department to be consumed as a resource.

The recruiting effort was intense and we went after top people across the industry – selling them on joining a start-up as designers. As the conversations progressed, I realized that all the best guys were asking us the same 3 questions in different ways and they all related to our culture.

1.    Where do new ideas come from? For example, how did product X or marketing initiative Y go from idea to in market? Who was involved? What did the process look like?

In my experience, designers flourish in a best idea wins culture. Look for a company where you are expected to contribute on any topic at any time. You will be more successful at start-ups that want engagement and vision on every consumer touch point and internal process and are set up to act on individual insight. If the person interviewing you knows what they would do with a great idea, it is a good leading indicator of this type of culture.

2.    Who is your customer? How do you know? What would it take to change the definition of your customer?

The best product teams I have been involved with always got the vision holders close to the consumer and created powerful loops of market feedback. Look for a culture that counts on everyone to help define the customer and that is open to new perspectives from customer service to finance to sales etc. A well formed, but plastic customer description that is expected to evolve with new insight means the door is open for innovation and that your developed sense of consumer empathy will be put to good use. 

3.    What does your brand stand for and what are your product priorities? 

At AND 1 we started and finished with the ball player with attitude and believed in brand above all else. Companies that have a well defined vision for the brand and believe in building brand across all consumer touch points are more likely to support successful designers. Brand conscious start-ups tend to be consumer centric and have a native, design driven culture where you can have material impact without material politics.

I think any designer considering a role at a start-up should be asking some version of these three questions and learning if they will be a design resource or a successful designer. If the company is not set up to let you succeed, keep waiting, the phone should ring again in 5…4…3…2…1…

If you are a designer thinking about joining a start-up I hope you will reach out. If you have other questions you think are critical to ask, I hope you will leave them in the comments.