Published March 05, 2012

Your startup needs the design process (not necessarily a designer)

"Web Designers Not Welcome" has been a trending meme on startup-focused news sites like Hacker News. Fine… shun the guy with the expensive glasses, but don't slack on the design process while building your product.

I recently read Lazy as a Turtle's post Are you ready for the next stage of commoditization of web design?

The author summarizes that we've already gone through one phase of design commoditization of web design: sites like ThemeForest can sell respectabile site designs at very low rates, relegating the web designer to a mere theme tweaker.

The author then hypothesizes that the rise of Twitter Bootstrap and similar open source CSS frameworks "remove[s] the urgency for a bespoke design for start ups" and even advises "If I were making my living from web design, I would be looking into new pastures."

I can't help but feel that that last quote has more gravity than the author truly intended, but it sounds scary nonetheless.

Should start-ups ditch their designers?

No. Or maybe.

Start-ups may not need a dedicated designer, but they need design. They don't need pixel-perfect design though, and most web designers need to move on from pushing pixels anyway.

There are tougher issues for web designers to concern themselves with. So I thought I'd share my perspective in the article's comment field:

[Commoditization of web design] is a good thing for web designers. It's time to move on from just making pretty pictures of websites.

Making something look good enough for 80% of the web has been easy ever since CSS was widely supported. We as designers got caught up tweaking button sizes and gradients because, well, I don't know why.

Most content on the web is text, and the rules for good-looking text have been perfected for the centuries following the printing press: legible font sizes, proportionate paragraph lengths and line-heights.

It shouldn't take much of a designer's time to make good-looking text. Maybe you won't break new ground but you should be able to make it look beautiful enough for your client or project and move on.

As for the other components of a web page — navigation, layout, branding — if there's a theme out there that has most of that code written and supports the browsers you need, get it on-brand and move on.

There's more important tasks for web designers to do.

We need to focus on how sites work, what they say and how they make the users feel. Optimizing a sign-up or checkout flow is more important than getting the gradient on the toolbar just right. Figuring out what call to action copy speaks to your users is more important than the button being the perfect shade of red. Surprising and delighting the user is harder than cropping a stock photo of a multi-ethnic group of children.

These qualities of a site are the true challenge of web design and the challenge varies from project to project. SOMEONE needs to manage the process, communicate, iterate over ideas and experiment on production regularly. The start-up might not need a web designer, but they need to go through the motions of a good one.

I don't think these are the "new pastures" the author mentions. Rather, its shifting the emphasis of the production process from the part that's easy, making a site look good in a browser, to the part that's hardest for everyone: figuring out what to say and how to say it as simply as possible.

Simple is Not Easy™

Basically: getting a site to work effectively is a lot harder than getting it look good. There is plenty of value here. That value may come from an in-house designer or simply people on the team willing to play the part. But it has to happen some way or another.

All start-ups need someone on the team using the product or service, to put it in front of users and see if what the team has built actually works or if they need to take it back to the drafting table.

That's true design, in the Mike Monteiro sense, right there. You can't commoditize that process.


So I was a little skeptical of the comment field of Lazy as a Turtle. I'm not sure why. So just in case, I copied that comment to the clipboard before I submitted. Then this happened:

  • I selected "Google Account" as my identity (I'm already signed in in this browser) and hit submit.
  • I got a funky red circle above the comment field and no notification.
  • I refreshed the page and tried again.
  • "Redirecting…"
  • Page reloaded, comment's still there, no sense of if its been submitted.

The site is broken, plain and simple.

Someone needs to get a designer on that.