Elle Luna calls herself a "designer, storyteller, and startup advisor." As a mentor at the Designer Fund, which believes designers should be startup founders rather than late-stage additions, Luna feels designers have a role to play at every stage of the process, including the gleam-in-eye phase.
FAST COMPANY: You recently left your position at the major design firm IDEO.
ELLE LUNA: I love IDEO. I worked there for a really long time, and strongly believe in the work IDEO is doing. But I was at an interesting spot where I was hearing about a lot of startups and tech companies here in the Bay Area that were needing to bring great user experience to life. I decided to take the jump, scratch the itch, and work with those smaller teams. I’m now working with Orchestra, a mobile application that you could call a connected to-do list, and at the end of the month I’ll be working with the incubator Onlab, helping mentor young teams coming our of Japan.
You and your husband, Onesheet founder Brenden Mulligan, recently took a trip around the world exploring design and tech.
We took an eight-week trip. The approach to how we thought about this trip was really different. We tried to stay in apartments everywhere through Airbnb, and we basically used Twitter and Instagram and would post to connect with other entrepreneurs and designers in different cities. It was amazing how many different people would pull together and come out and get together. When we would land in different cities, we essentially used all our social media accounts. I found an apartment in Cape Town through our Instagram account [top image]. I posted a photo of the coast with a question, "Does anyone have an apartment they could rent for cheap for two nights?" An hour later we were sitting in a gorgeous apartment on the beach that was affordable.
One of your interests is in "humanizing brands."
Human brands are honest, emotional, and engaging. There’s a huge opportunity for large and otherwise faceless companies to think about this, and there’s a huge opportunity on the other side for startups to think about what their voice might be.
But isn’t this more a concern for a marketer than a designer?
I just talked to somebody last week, and I said, "Can we stop talking about marketing?" When I think about the role of design, and the overarching role of user experience, it starts from the moment you become aware of something and ends the moment you finish using the product. Until the minute that experience ends and from the moment it begins, that’s the entire user experience. To think of one as being design and one as being marketing feels totally disjoined. The minute you saw one of those iPod ads, with the iconic dancers rocking out with the fluorescent colors and nothing except for the logo and the white signature headphones—the minute you see that, it begins to suggest an identity, an aspiration; it begins to tell a story. And people see themselves in that story, and over time, they go and buy the iPod and they continue to be the touch points of this story. It should be entirely holistic, entirely seamless.
So designers have a role to play at every stage, including the very earliest, which squares with your belief that more designers should be founders.
I believe that design has a broader role than visual expression. There’s the question of, What should our company be doing? What problems are we solving? I would say designers can and should be answering questions like, What the hell are we doing? What products are we building next? Oftentimes, visual design isn’t needed at that moment, but that doesn’t mean design doesn’t play a role there. In my first full week of working with the team at Orchestra, I don’t think I opened my computer one time. It was the white board, markers, tons of paper, tons of post-its—just an incredible energy and the spirit of designing. So yes, design is incredibly strategic. Later, visual design becomes absolutely vital, and that’s really more the front-of-the-house way all that strategy becomes expressed. The two go hand in hand: to have both, design strategy as well as design expression, is a powerful combination.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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