Your startup needs design leadership

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

As a designer who’s spent the last decade working in technology, I’ve had the opportunity to observe first hand how early–stage startups hire, structure, and scale their teams. While business in general has realized the measurable impact of good design, I see many early–stage startups overlook a critical piece of the puzzle: hiring design leadership.

Unless one of your founders is a designer, there will likely be no creative representation at the executive level. Simply hiring a bunch of designers is not enough. Without design management in place, your company will be dominated by left–brain, analytical leaders. Design will take a back seat to engineering and product. The morale of your designers will suffer, and the work they produce will be mediocre.

If you want innovation, high profit margins, premium pricing, great customer experiences, diversity, and inclusion to be part of your culture: hire a design leader.

Design drives innovation and profits

According to the Design Management Institute, design–driven companies outperformed the S&P Index by a whopping 220% from 2004—2014. The influence of design at companies like Apple, Nike, Starbucks, Starwood, and Target is evident from the superior hardware, software, products, and customer experiences that each company creates.

Data from the DMI Design Value Index

As Michael Westcott from the Design Management Institute says:

Having many designers on staff doesn’t necessarily lead to great design as designers need to be managed effectively, which is rare in publicly-traded companies as the left-brained analytical types often dominate the organization, making it difficult for the right-brained creative types’ voices to be heard and respected. That’s why DMI is working to help make organizations more creative worldwide.

Michael makes an absolutely critical point here. Without design leadership, the loudest voice in the room is going to win—and it’s not going to be the voice of a designer.

Design unlocks premium pricing

In the consumer marketplace, you cannot create a premium product without premium design. In the B2B space, companies are realizing the potential of design as a competitive advantage, and building teams in–house. Customers demand a higher level of polish and craftsmanship from products that are priced higher than the competition.

Premium products are well designed, with great user experiences and attention to detail. In order to achieve this level of polish, you need design leaders to guide their team from start to finish.

Let’s consider the smartphone market—specifically the Apple iPhone.

Apple iPhone

At Apple, design drives everything. There is a constant pressure (internal and external) to deliver innovation in the next iPhone. Design leads the way in determining the user experience, both on the hardware and software side. Engineers figure out how to make the design team’s vision happen. Hardware and software is tightly integrated, and the smooth upgrade process ensures customer lock–in. The latest iPhone is always head and shoulders above the competition. Due to the superior user experience of the iPhone, Apple is able to achieve profit margins that other manufacturers can only dream of.

These premium iPhone prices drive close to 50% of the company’s revenue. Amazingly, the iPhone accounts for less than 20% of the global smartphone market, yet captures the vast majority of its profits.

Great design delights customers

The ability of design to increase customer satisfaction, provide delightful user experiences, and lock in customer loyalty should not be overlooked. Designers aren’t just there to make things “look pretty” — they’re trained to think about the entire customer journey and user experience. They think about what to communicate when things go right, and when things inevitably go wrong.

For example, in left-brain leaning organizations, details like error messages are written at the last minute by engineers. Empathy for the user is missing, messages may be cryptic or unclear, and customers will be frustrated at critical moments of their experience. Since we know that it is 6 times more expensive to attract a new customer than retain an existing one, you want to ensure someone is considering these details.

Let’s consider the customer experience of AirBnB.


How do you measure customer satisfaction? One common metric is the Net Promoter Score. AirBnB has a consistently high NPS score (around 74), due to its fantastic user experience and commitment to customer service. AirBnB has omni-channel support—you can reach them on Twitter, on chat, via email, over the phone, etc. This didn’t happen by accident—this is what we call service design, and AirBnB has clearly put a lot of thought put into it.

Users will find large, beautiful photos of Listings, Activities, and Adventures when they browse the website. How does AirBnB accomplish this? They send a professional photographer to shoot photos for hosts. This is an incredible commitment to maintaining quality on the platform. When you’re comparing a standard hotel website to an AirBnB listing, the difference is stark: AirBnB feels much more personal, interesting, and engaging—a remarkable feat for a company that was initially dismissed by the hotel industry.

Design will suffer without leadership

Without leadership in place, your designers will face difficulties that employees in other areas won’t. These designers will report to the wrong people. They won’t have an opportunity to build a strong team culture. They will work alone in their own silos, without any guidance, oversight, and coaching. Morale will decline, and collaboration with other teams will suffer.

In one famous example at Google, the designer Douglas Bowman recounts how engineers forced the design team to test 41 different shades of blue. Choosing the right shade of blue is a designer’s job in most companies—these people and trained in color theory, and have been hired to make subjective decisions like this. This (and other instances, such as being forced to debate whether or not a border should be 3 pixels wide, or 4 pixels wide) led Douglas to conclude that he “can’t operate in an environment like that.”

Inclusion requires leadership

Designer leadership brings another critical element to the table—inclusion. What does it mean to be inclusive? There are many ways to answer this question. If you’re left–handed, you’ve experience trying to use physical products that are only designed for right–handed people. If your vision is impaired, there are many websites you encounter that are inaccessible to screen readers. If you get around in a wheelchair in New York, you have experienced frustration over and over again on the subway (only 25% of stations are accessible). This is the opposite of inclusion.

A good design leader will ensure their team adopts a human–centered approach, considering all different types of people and abilities as they design software and hardware for their customers.

Design needs a seat at the table

One of your most important jobs as a founder is to build the right company culture. If you want to build a design–driven culture, you need a design leader to provide visibility at the executive level.

The impact that a design leader can have on your company is immense—they’ll collaborate on strategic initiatives with your executive team. They will bring focus and alignment to your design team. A design leader will improve workflows, and put processes in place for every project and work stream. They will provide opportunities for career growth, which is necessary to retain talented designers. Above all, they will infuse the value and importance of design throughout your culture.

When thinking about how to structure your team, consider the following:

  • Would you put your CMO in charge of engineers?
  • Would you have customer success report directly to your CFO?
  • Would you hire two junior designers under the CTO?

The clear answer is No on #1 and #2. Many startups choose Yes on option #3. This will lead to immediate problems, which will only be amplified with time. Hire a leader to manage your designers, and your future self will thank you.

How to hire a design leader

A good design leader will focus on their highest–leverage activities: the work that will have the biggest payoff for their team, the product, and the business. Look for a leader who values a diversity of experiences in the designers they hire. In a fast–paced startup environment, where priorities and projects can literally shift from day to day, a solid generalist trumps a great specialist any day. Your leader should also value a diversity of opinions, soliciting constant feedback from engineers, customers, and more.

A good leader values diversity in the people they recruit and hire. Many studies have shown that increased diversity leads to better problem solving, increased empathy for your customers, and better decision–making for your business. By increasing diversity in their design team, they’ll show leaders in other functional areas that diversity is important at your company. A great design leader should be able and willing to hire people that don’t look and think like them.

Most importantly, you want to look for a leader with the right attitude. You want to hire someone who won’t quit. You want to hire someone who will persist through challenges that would stop other people in their tracks. You want someone who is relentlessly optimistic—a leader who will guide their team through the trough of disillusionment with a smile on their face.

Keith Harper is a creative director in New York City, currently looking for his next adventure. He’s served as creative lead at 3 startups that have been acquired, and is President of a national mission–driven organization’s board of directors. You can view his work at