Here's a question I know a lot of startup founders have:

How the heck do I design my product, my website, my logo, and all that other stuff without handing over $40,000 to a fancy design studio?

Sure, you may word it differently, but the meaning stays the same. Good design is tough to make and expensive to buy.

So I wrote this post to discuss with you how important design really is in 2012, how much you should invest in it, and other useful principles for making your design totally kick ass.

But first, let's get one thing straight. I'm not a designer, never was, never will be. In fact, I suck at design. Or, at least, I used to.

These days, I still can't make anything complex, but I got good enough to get along with my own projects, and, most importantly, I'm able to provide well reasoned feedback to designers with whom I collaborate.

How did I get better? By asking myself the following six questions all the time for the last five years. And I'm about to share my answers and, hopefully, they will help you too.

But first things first...

How Design Has Become so Important

Back in the 1950s, Thomas Watson of IBM said:

"Good design is good business."

This quote is one of my favourites, and it has never been truer than today.

It is undeniable that, with the development of technology, we've reached a point where design can either make or break your startup.

App Store

It has become so easy to ship applications and products that look great. High quality graphics can be easily processed, displayed and stored on any device, and the bandwidth allows us to get all of that beauty directly from the Web. As a result, the demand for good design has grown quite a bit.

These days we judge an app by its icon.

So let's be honest:

If your product looks like crap, few people will care enough to give it a try.

And what do you do to get a design that rocks?

You ask yourself the following six questions.

Question #1: What is my Minimum Viable Design?

The Lean Startup methodology advocates the concept of Minimum Viable Product. In case you haven't heard of it, it states that you need to select as few features for your product as possible (just enough to get it in front of the customers), measure their reaction, learn from it, and keep iterating.

Under the MVP model, design would be one of the features you could choose. You have to prioritize how important it is to your customers and how much resources you're willing to invest in it.

To help you make the right choice, let's look at the six variables that affect your decision.

1. Industry. Some industries value design more than others. For example, a fashion recommendations app may need better design than, say, a dollar store discovery app. (Or not.)

2. Target market. Depending on the demographics of your target audience, you may invest either more or less into your design. 20-something hipsters may demand higher quality of design than 50-something affiliate marketers. (Or not.)

3. Platform. Mobile platforms usually require more pixel-perfect design than web apps, just because the number of pixels is much smaller.

4. Price positioning. As David Siteman Garland of The Rise to The Top puts it, there's a difference between Saks Fifth Avenue and Walmart, and you should go for higher quality design, if you want to jump up your prices.

5. Complexity of the product. The more complex the product the more important it is to make the UI (user interface) as simple as possible.

6. Stage of development. If you're at the idea validation stage, design may not play a prevalent role just yet. But as you get closer to the full-scale public launch, your priorities may start shifting.

Did I name all six? Great!

After you account for all these variables, you will have a better understanding of how much time, effort, and money you should be investing into your design. Yet, you still need to decide how to allocate those resources.

This is what I call the Minimum Viable Design.

Let me give you an example. You have $1,000 to spend on the design of your mobile app. Are you going to pay for the UI or for the logo? For the website or for the banner ads? Or should you distribute your budget evenly across all tasks? Or should you just save the money and design the whole thing yourself?

There is no right answer. It's all about priorities.


Remember the 80/20 rule we've talked about a couple of weeks ago? Use it to define the 20% of design elements that are most important (e.g. UI and website) and focus on just that.

The other 80%, say logo, business cards, banner ads, infographics, etc. should be eliminated.

Question #2: Should I hire or take the DIY route?

The second big question is whether you should hire a designer or do everything yourself.

And of course, the main variable here is your budget.

If you have the money to pay a professional designer (freelancer or full-time hire), it's best to do that. But since you're hanging out on Marketing Before Funding, there's a good chance that your design budget isn't exactly huge.

But don't worry! There are other ways you can get your design done, and we're going to look at all of them!

1. Your current team. This is obvious, isn't it? If you have a skilled designer on your team, you're good to go. But remember that you don't need the world's best designer. You just need the one who can match your Minimum Viable Design requirements.

2. Your network. It's often the case that you may already know a good designer or know somebody who can connect you with one. Use your network to find people willing to help you out either at a discounted rate or even for free.

And once you launch, give back by thanking them publicly and referring clients. In the connected economy, reciprocity wins.

3. Why not barter? You're probably an expert at something a designer may need, so why not trade?

4. Contests. If you do have some money to spend, services like 99Designs can be a solid solution. These sites allow you to set a budget for your project and get submissions from dozens of professional designers before you actually choose the best option.

So! Depending on how much money you're willing to invest, how demanding your Minimum Viable Design is, what skills you possess, and how good of a deal you can put together by leveraging your connections and expertise, it should be easy to say whether hiring a professional is worth it.

But before we move on, here's a very important thought to consider. So important, in fact, that if you can only take away one thing from the article, this is it.

If you're not able to spend enough to get truly good design, don't waste your money.

It's like renovating your house. If you're paying for it, it better serve you a long time, and it better be worth every penny.

Also, as Jason Fried of 37signals wrote in Rework, "You're better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole." So prioritize.

Question #3: What do I suck at? What am I good at? How can I get better?

In the previous section of this post, I've raised a question about how skillful you and your team are. Let's look into this a bit further.

First, I want you to admit that there are things you can't do yourself, and promise me that you won't bother trying.

Let me go fist so that you don't feel bad :).


I won't bother making infographics on my own.

...I feel much better already.

You need to understand that bad design will hurt you more than no design at all.

And now that we got this out of the way, let's focus on things that you're good at or can improve.

Here's the truth: It all starts with good taste.

If you have good taste, you can judge your own work and the work of others objectively. It helps you avoid producing crappy design and settling for something mediocre.


The good news is that your taste can be easily developed by:

  • Understanding the basic principles (the Whys) of design,
  • Being exposed to and actively observing good design daily,
  • and a hell of a lot of practicing.

Here's what I want you to do:

  1. Subscribe to Smashing Magazine.
  2. Spend 10 minutes a day on Dribbble.
  3. Find cool lessons on PSDTuts.
  4. Bookmark the stuff you like.
  5. Try to borrow, implement and recreate it in your own projects.

Start small. Try. Fail. Try again.

Question #4: How can I make my design timeless?

Good design is like good music. I doesn't go out of fashion in a month.

The best way to create timeless design is to keep is simple. But in order to do that, you need to know the profound difference between design and ornamentation.

"Ornamentation is anything that is added merely for the sake of visual appeal. It is the unnecessary underlining of a heading, the redundant italicizing of bold type, the border around the page, gradients that don't direct the eye, most drop shadows, stock imagery that adds no value, and certainly the fourth or fifth or sixth typeface used to "spruce up" a design." — Smashing Book #2

Too often designers are guilty of ornamentation. They think that keeping it simple is not enough. It feels like they haven't done their job unless the design is all fancy and colourful.

Aim for simplicity, and you'll have a better chance at not producing a monster.

Also! A few words about minimalism from the same book:

"Minimalism is not a "style," and it is not simply about removing unnecessary elements. It is about needing only a few elements in the first place"

Think about it.

Question #5: Can I use a template for this?

Templates are awesome! They can really simplify your life and save you a lot of money. You just need to know where to find the right one.

There are basically two types of templates:

  1. Overused free junk that is made to be as generic as possible.
  2. Magnificent inexpensive beauty that can become a foundation for your project.

This website is built on a template (theme) with just a hint of customization. I think it looks good. What do you think?

Of course, templates may not work for your core product, but what about your blog or email newsletter? A cool template may be the way to go!

In my humble opinion, Envato has built THE BEST marketplaces for templates, themes, and stock media:

  1. Themeforest
  2. Graphicriver
  3. Videohive
  4. etc.

Check them out!

Question #6: Where can I learn more about design?

So we've looked at all the practical questions already. The last one is about getting your taste improved and your skills polished.

The Colorful Library of an Interaction Designer (Juhan Sonin) / 20100423.7D.05887.P1 / SML

To help you with this noble pursuit, I've curated 20 awesome resources you can check out right now to take your design to the next level:

  1. Startups, This is How Design Works
  2. 960 Web Grid
  3. Smashing Book #1
  4. Smashing Book #2
  5. Smashing Magazine blog
  6. "Designing Brand Identity" by Alina Wheeler
  7. Blog of Francesco Mugnai
  8. "The 100% Easy-2-Read Standard" and everything else by iA
  9. Dribbble
  10. Behance Network
  11. PSDtuts
  12. InstantShift
  13. BuildInternet
  14. Noupe
  15. David Airey
  16. ColourLovers
  19. FastCo. Design
  20. Signal vs. Noise

I personally vouch for every singe one of them.

Your Turn

Let me know what's your take on design in 2012 and how you tackle it on a budget! Share your design advice and cool resources in the comments!

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