Entrepreneurs & Design: The Missing Link

Entrepreneurship is on the rise. At a time when job security and economic uncertainty threaten the most seemingly stable companies and industries, and when the very rules of work are being rewritten, the self-determined path to personal and professional fulfillment has become more and more appealing. The reality is that entrepreneurial success doesn’t come by accident or pure luck — it’s the result of many factors and elements converging towards a single vision. Business savvy, technical proficiency, and ample funding are the standard ingredients for a new venture, not to mention fierce motivation, a strong team, and a ton of hard work. But what about design?

At the TigerLaunch Finals held on Saturday, April 8, at Princeton University, we saw eighteen impressive teams of student entrepreneurs compete for $30,000 in prize money (Sheila was one of the judges). Pitch after pitch, it was clear that these young entrepreneurs had all their bases covered: a compelling idea, substantial market knowledge, technical know-how, a business strategy, and fairly sound financial planning. Science and technology were the stars of the show for virtually all of the presentations; social apps, medical devices, sustainable energy sources, and innovative uses of data demonstrated a keen understanding of where unmet human needs intersected with new and emerging capabilities. The teams’ delivery was also well-polished, and their responses to the Q&A afterwards were direct and thorough.

However, to us, the missing piece of these stories was design. While there were attempts at graphic design — logos, slide decks, and branded materials — vital design-based enablers of entrepreneurial work, such as a human-centered design approach, design research, and information design, were absent. Granted, most of these students were pursuing studies in the sciences, not design, and access to design and designers may have been limited or not even a consideration (many university business and entrepreneurship programs are still figuring out how to incorporate design into their curricula, if at all). Nevertheless, with design increasingly occupying the public spotlight through established companies like Apple, Target, IBM, Starbucks, and Nike, as well as younger design savvy Davids-turned-Goliaths like Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Uber, it was still surprising not to see any sign of design’s influence on these budding enterprises.

Design itself is not a guarantor of success — it is an enabler, coordinator, facilitator, and synthesizer of diverse other elements, and it takes considerable skill and commitment to reap its rewards long-term. That doesn’t mean, however, that the benefits of design and a design-minded approach can’t be realized in smaller but meaningful ways. Some fundamental design principles, methods, and tips can greatly enrich and enhance the concepts, products, and stories behind early-stage ventures.

  1. Connect with designers and the design field. Start by getting a better sense of where and how design can help your venture, before even attempting any design work yourself. If you can’t yet afford to hire a designer to work with you, find designers who can provide friendly guidance (not free or cheap work!) on topics like product design, service design, design research, design thinking, branding, and marketing. Books, blogs, magazines, professional associations, and other resources can help point the way also.
  2. Learn from the leaders. Research how the most successful companies use design, inside and out. Look internally, at how they strategize and operate, and externally, at how they create and deliver products, services, and experiences to their customers. These case studies can offer valuable lessons in design process, culture, and collaboration, regardless of company size and investment levels.
  3. Always focus on people. All too often, entrepreneurs fall in love with their solutions and all the features and functionality, but they forget what it all looks like from a user’s point of view. A “solution” is really a solution when it makes a situation better for someone in a way they can understand. Make sure you deeply understand who your solution is for (before building it) and whether the presence of your solution in their lives can make a positive impact for them.
  4. Get serious about research. Hunches and personal preferences won’t cut it when building a business. You need to understand your audience/users, and you can only do that with research. There are many more ways to gauge reactions on your idea or prototype than using surveys or interviews, and even these need to be carefully designed and conducted to gather relevant and valid insights. Read up on ethnography and design research, and try to find someone who can offer guidance on scaling research to your needs.
  5. Create a one-sentence description of your venture. Entrepreneurs frequently dive into solution details without describing what their company is about and why it exists because they already know the up-front stuff. Audiences don’t have a clue, which is why you need a short, memorable one-liner (often called the “elevator pitch”) as an entry point to more detailed information. Weave the language and concepts from that statement into your storytelling to help reinforce understanding.
  6. Make your idea as real and tangible as possible. It’s crucial to paint a clear picture of how a solution works, especially when it’s a radically new or unfamiliar concept. Show the connection between your solution and your audience, in the words you use, the tone, the visual language, and especially in stories and scenarios where people are experiencing your solution and its benefits. Go beyond words alone and use whatever means you can — a concept illustration, a role play, a video/animation, an inexpensive mock-up, even pictures of comparable ideas and related concepts (if appropriate to use) — to bring your solution to life in a personable, engaging, and even entertaining way.
  7. Keep your story simple and clear. A good story delivers a few key points loud and clear, then provides detail as needed. Pace the information you share, moving incrementally from broad overview to narrow specifics. Plain language is also essential — avoid jargon, spell out acronyms, and define important but unfamiliar terms.
  8. Show your data in a meaningful way. Don’t show tables or graphics just to show off that you have done your homework. If a graphic on a slide isn’t adding anything or you won’t take time to explain it, don’t include it or find a better way to convey that information. It’s usually better to summarize or present key data points or insights directly than to provide a data dump (or worse, a decorated data dump).
  9. Visualize concepts whenever possible. Is there a process? A network? A system? A timeline? Make it visual so it’s quicker and easier to read. The more complex the idea to show, the more you need to test the visual with people to ensure it comes across as intended. If you’re creating your own visuals, focus on pure communication and use basic shapes and symbols consistently. Resist the temptation to get “creative” at this stage, and please strip down presentation software default styles like shadows and 3D effects.
  10. View your presentation from the audience’s perspective. When delivering your presentation in front of a room, pay attention to how your slides actually look in context: typography, color, contrast, and other visual factors can affect the whole experience for your audience. Can people way in the back row read all the text? Does your color palette work when projected? Are you physically blocking view of your slides with your body? Many small annoyances can make people tune out.

Entrepreneurs and designers still have a ways to go before their worlds are effectively bridged, but as more design-driven and design-led ventures pave the way for younger generations of entrepreneurs, the value of design expertise and designers as partners will become more apparent.

If you’d like to know more about these tips or discuss your new business idea, get in touch!