Why designers are essential to successful startups: Cameron Koczon

At a recent event at Huge, the Fictive Kin partner voiced concerns that designers are often shut out of startups' early, critical decisions.

Cameron Koczon, partner at Fictive Kin, speaking at Huge's "The State Of The Design Union: A New Proposal For Designers."

(Photo by Brady Dale)

Have designers lost their seat at the technology table? More importantly, do they not have a place in the early, critical decisions that companies make about what a product is? Are they relegated to making products look nice, not really thinking hard about what they are, and how they work?

Cameron Koczon, a partner at Fictive Kin, a company that builds web and iOS products, came out to Huge last week to talk about those concerns. It was a conversation that could have easily devolved into parsing the subtleties of UX versus UI, but instead Koczon completely eschewed those terms and tried to make the case that designers have been shut out of the big important conversations. And he was frustrated by it.

Koczon himself offered his own explanation for why that might be.

He made a case that designers aren’t essential to a startup getting past its first few stages. Basically, he said, you can start a company with a two developers or two biz dev people. You can definitely start a company with a developer and a biz dev. You can also start a company with a biz dev and a designer or a developer and a designer. But two designers? Not so much (his words, not ours).

Yet, he argued, most companies fail and they will do better, more meaningful work if a good designer is a part of that early core playing a meaningful role. “The shape of products people will make will look different to designers,” Koczon said.

At Fictive Kin, when they are wireframing, he insists on doing everything in blue and all the text in Helvetica. He told the room that he tells his team, “Don’t show me anything sexy until we are married to the solution.” Good visuals can mask a bad product, he said. He wants a solution that works. Then they can make it look nice.

That’s product design, he argued, and there’s not a lot of conversation about product design, he said. How does it work for the user?

We covered a conversation about designers as cofounders over at Technical.ly Philly in April. The conversation surprised us a little: user experience appears to be the main way that startups are competing in spaces where a lot of companies are trying to solve similar problems (such as in transit apps, car sharing, messaging apps or mobile payments). In fact, even dev guru Marty Cagan argued for the critical role designers play and how critical it is not to wall them off from the dev team.

Perhaps the challenge is that design in tech is still working out how to describe itself, as one of the designers Koczon cited in his talk, Jason Santa Maria, argued early this year?

Companies: FictiveKin, Huge
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