Tech founder, why haven't you become a designer yet?
No, seriously, why not? It’s cool to be a designer, a creative person who DJs vinyl sets in a funky club at night and starts the morning with a double-filter coffee and a vegan croissant overlooking the sea to get inspired for the next advertising campaign. Not a bad stereotype, right?
A brand designer is a visual communicator with the user. The same user has to pull money out of their pocket and give it to the founder for using their SaaS product. It’s a very interesting task, isn’t it? That’s why I think it would be very useful for a tech founder/CEO to possess design skills to learn a couple of extremely important competencies that will help their business grow steadily.
Creativity and innovation
Unfortunately, internet culture and ignorant people in pursuit of money have desecrated these concepts, making them clichés. This is a shame because creativity and innovation are two of the main drivers of progress, which are linked by a simple logic: creativity is the ability to generate new ideas, approaches, and concepts that help solve existing problems in ways that did not exist before. Innovation is the process of transforming new ideas or concepts into real products, services, or processes. It’s very simple and complex at the same time.
Creativity and the ability to innovate are the main tools of a designer. Let me give you a simple example: a large IT company approached us to create an identity for a low-code platform brand, which was meant to be an alternative to expensive full-code developers in large enterprise projects. But in the course of our research, we found that the challenge is not competition or usability, but the presence of so-called “citizen developers” — marketers, accountants, and HR specialists who know how to create software using low-code platforms. Instead of highlighting the product’s advantages, we offered to sell the product along with a course on low-code for employees of different departments to help them become more efficient. Now it’s not just a product, but a new hard skill for the next generation of employees. This is how designers’ creativity leads to business innovation.
Knowledge and understanding of branding
Some tech founders make the mistake of thinking that a brand is a logo and colors created in 15 minutes with the help of the first service in Google search results based on artificial intelligence. AI is, of course, top-of-the-line, but it is more of a designer’s assistant than a full-fledged founder’s vendor.
A brand is a set of associations, emotions, and feelings associated with a product. Spotify is a cool selection of music and a playlist of the week’s discoveries. Midjourney — art, fast, magic, prompt. Binance — bitcoin, trading, reliable. These are my very first associations with the products of these brands. Pause for 1 minute and think about the tech products you use every day. What associations and emotions do they evoke in you? These are brand assets.
Brand assets help to form a unique brand identity that will help it stand out from the competition and take its place in the market in the user’s mind. Positioning, corporate visual identity, website design, the style of music in a commercial, and even the way your sales managers communicate with customers — all of these are tech brand assets, not just the logo, colors, and name.
For example, there’s a recent TikTok campaign for the UK. It’s a good example of how a brand is trying to take a bite out of Google’s core brand asset “the place where I go if I need some information.” And this is branding too, yes 🙂
The semiotic triangle principle
What is the difference between art and design? Design necessarily has a function, whereas art has only meaning and form.
That is, design is visual communication based on a combination of meaning, form, and function. And when working with your tech brand, it is very important to interpret “function” as a question: “Who is this for?”, “why are we doing this?”, “what do we want to achieve with this design?”, etc.
And this is where a huge problem for young tech startups opens up because when I received briefs on brand identity development from founders, I noticed that 80% of them do not pay attention to user research at all.
“Our audience is marketers.”
Are you sure your product can help every marketer? Or maybe just a digital marketer? Or maybe only a digital marketer of a DTC brand? Or maybe only a digital marketer of a DTC brand who does their job on experience but pays for seven different marketing services just to justify their luck to the CEO at the end of the project?
A thorough understanding of the brand’s audience, communication goals, and desired outcome is all about “function” from the same semiotic triangle that we, as designers, keep in our pockets at all times.
How can a startup founder use a designer’s approach?
- Use creativity as a tool to solve your business problems. Reface, a Ukrainian startup that creates an app with face swap videos, prepared a funny one-minute video featuring the most popular video memes for each pitch, showing the product in action. What’s so creative about it? All the faces from the memes were replaced with those of investors, who were simply delighted. As a result, they raised 5.5M in investments.
- Stay in constant touch with users and test new product ideas and features with them. A few years ago, Tinder began to feel that competitors were breathing down its neck, and the user base was not growing. After speaking with users, they discovered that millennials (aged 25–35) were no longer using the app because it didn’t help them find more serious relationships. In response, Tinder upgraded its features with “Tinder Explore,” which allows users to sort matches by interests, and launched the “You’re Not For Everyone” ad campaign. These changes resulted in an 8% uplift over the campaign period and an increase in revenue of $17M quarter-on-quarter.
- Perceive the brand as an emotional and associative connection between the product and the user. Mailchimp was not bought for the monkey on the logo; rather, it was purchased for taking the monkey off the entrepreneur’s back and offering to do business — not operations — by sending thousands of emails automatically.
- Design business tasks according to the semiotic triangle principle: meaning (what am I doing?), form (how do I do it?), and function (why am I doing it?).
By the way, the founders of Instagram, YouTube, Canva, and Airbnb are good examples of billion-dollar companies with designer founders, and their design skills likely contributed to their success.