How can we nurture a great designer at tech startups?

How can we attract talented graduate designers? Can we be a serious contender in the design industry?

The traditional (or conventional) wisdom says the best place for graduates to learn their trades is at successful creative agencies or consultancies. But is it possible for tech start-ups to nurture design talent too?

I took a (very subjective and personal) look at pros and cons of options from a graduate’s point of view to see if joining the start-ups can be a viable option for them.

Pros and cons of established medium to large design agency or consultancy


  • There are many peers you can learn from – a team or teams of designers who compete and inspire each other (in theory, at least)

  • There is a variety of work going on, giving you wider insight.

  • Higher possibility of doing projects for large, well-known brands

  • Longer term projects allow you deeper understanding of brands

  • Design is at the heart of the company

  • Large alumni network can help you in the future. Or add some kudos in your CV.


  • Smaller part / say / influence in a project (you will probably have to be very assertive to be noticed) to begin with

  • Pay is often linked to a job title – okay for the first few years but it will become increasingly painful as you reach senior positions

  • More office politics (just because there are more people…)

  • Tendency to design for the peers and awards

  • Less disruptive in general

Other characteristics:

  • Many processes and templates to follow

  • The projects tend to be longer

Pros and cons of tech start-ups for designers


  • Greater responsibility, influence and contribution as there are generally less people

  • Early exposure to clients

  • Get to see the end results quickly

  • Multi disciplinary team environment for insights and inspiration

  • Emphasis on great user experience

  • Likes to be disruptive


  • As it tends to be small you have less peers to learn from. The worst case scenario is you could just get thrown into the deep end without any support.

  • The projects tend to be for smaller clients. (Having said that, more and more large enterprise are seeking out start-ups for innovative solution as you can see from our client list)

  • The projects tend to be shorter with less time for crafting design

  • Less emphasis on design

Other characteristics:

  • It’s usually small

  • The projects tend to be shorter

So, what can tech start-ups do?

1. Invest on support

You will need good senior designers who are willing to help others to begin with. If you do, then the small setting is actually a positive thing as graduates can get more personal, hands on attention.

Make sure training is provided and appropriate tools are available. There might not be many peers inside the company, but there are millions out there in some form of on- and offline communities. Join up.

2. Promote user experience

While visual design might not be at the heart of the company, the user experience should definitely be, alongside technology.

Visual design (including branding) is basically the physical manifestation of user experience. It can’t be ignored. Even if the technology works well, if it fails to communicate and be usable, no one will use it or identify with it. It’s not just about making things look pretty. It’s vital that you get the design right.

You also need to understand that design is something constantly evolving and improving. Let’s try not to call that jpeg “FINAL”…!*

*Dear graduate readers: You will soon encounter a filename that ends with “FINAL FINAL FINAL” or “NEW NEW NEW” when you start working. Someone has obviously been very optimistic.

3. Be disruptive and cutting edge (and fun)

This is the biggest advantage start-ups have over bigger, more established firms. You are more agile and flexible, and you can be more disruptive.

Any designers can make difference, create something new from day one. Surely that is very motivating.

4. Inspire

Working within a multidisciplinary team can inspire designers in a different way from a team of designers. It is not about designs for designs sake. It’s the art of looking sideways in a sense.

In the bigger firms, especially those that operate with a waterfall methodology, sometimes you don’t even get a single opportunity to talk to a developer during a project.

Start-ups should create an environment that encourages all the team members to communicate – if you are running in agile that incorporates UX and design properly (If you’re interested in how to do this, here is my previous blog: Agile Survival Guide for Designers), then that should happen naturally.

Are you a graduate?

There is a lot happening with design in tech start-ups right now. It feels a lot like 1960s was for graphic design. There are opportunities to innovate and experiment. While I agree that there are loads you can learn from being surrounded by designers, surrounded by developers and other disciplines enables you to achieve something equally exciting, and potentially new and groundbreaking.

Maybe you need a bit of entrepreneurial spirit and drive to improve. And a love of creating something you can be proud of. It’s more about what you create and do, rather than what other people think you do.

I am not saying all the tech start-ups are great place for a budding designer. But as long as they hit the four points I listed above, I think they can be a great place to be. Maybe more than what the traditional wisdom says. If you are a graduate / budding designer and interested in working with us, please give us a shout at

(If you’re interested in seeing the Lego plant pot being made, here is the stop motion animation I made while building it. And it’s inspired by Being Geek Chic blog.)

16th April 2013 Sari Griffiths

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