How To Be The Next Great Designer-Founder

These six questions could help predict your startup’s success.


Ideo. Pinterest. Airbnb. Kickstarter. It’s an all-star list of the companies changing the way we live. It’s also a list of companies created and led by designer founders. The hallmark of a designer-founder is the ability to focus entrepreneurial efforts through the lens of design–to approach the data-driven world of business with human experience in mind. This way of thinking isn’t just a seductive novelty. It’s providing a crucial competitive edge in the crowded world of consumer technology and services.


Do you have designer-founder potential? Ask yourself these six questions to find out.

Do you embrace agile methodologies?
Great designer-founders give themselves space to develop wacky ideas, roll with the flow, and pivot. Designers, not technocrats, have the skillset to venture into new spaces, experiment, prototype, and experiment again.

In 2009, Airbnb was headed toward failure. The founders, including designer Joe Gebbia, drew on design thinking to identify a key problem–the photographs of the rentals were unclear at best and unappealing at worst. They found a simple solution: They flew to New York and used top-of-the-line equipment to photograph the available rental spaces. Improving their images doubled their weekly revenue and proved that great coding wasn’t always the solution.

Do you believe in the power of user-centered design?
Every step of the design process needs to answer this question: Does this meet a human need? Airbnb has figured out a clever way to embed that into the mindset of each employee. The company is so committed to what Gebbia calls “being the patient” that Airbnb employees must stay at an Airbnb rental within their first few weeks of joining the team and report back to the entire office about that experience.


Do you know how to collaborate rather than cooperate?
Many designers have a bad habit of getting overly protective of their creative ideas. A good designer-founder recognizes that business is not about his or her fragile ego. It is about providing solutions, many of which follow from the adage that two heads are better than one. Four established firms merged in the early ’90s to create the design firm Ideo. The company was built on collaboration. Today, it continues to foster a collaborative approach to problem-solving, something Harvard Business Review called a “Culture of Helping.”

Do you mix technology and creativity?
Technology is fundamentally creative. Pinterest’s designer-founder pioneered the architecture for his image-based social platform, bringing simplicity to the search process. By bridging an important gap between technology and creativity, he completely changed how we discover things online.

Do you understand the power of building an ecosystem?
At its best, a designer-founder is someone who designs a system by outlining a problem, then developing and presenting the solutions. Scott Belsky founded the online portfolio showcase Behance with the goal of upending traditional business models by putting power in the hands of the previously powerless–the creatives. As part of that, he built a system that connects talented people with business opportunities in a way that was not possible before.

Do you refuse to give up?
There are always unforeseen obstacles when you found a company, but in my experience it’s not just the most talented that survive–it’s the ones who stand up, dust themselves off, and gear up for whatever comes next. Perseverance matters. Failure is part of the process. Designers, most of whom have experienced excruciating design critiques, are well-poised to handle failure.

The world needs more design-centric companies, run by design-minded people, to create products with human wants and needs in mind. However, many young designers shy away from the business world out of fear of the unknown. Which, come to think of it, is very un-designer-like. Designers are supposed to break rules, not conform to them. Now is the time for designers to embrace the business world and then to do what they do best: redesign it.

About the author

David Slayden is the executive director of BDW, a designer-founder accelerator focused on innovation through the integration of design, tech, and strategy.