“We’re past the era of “superstar designer”, and we’re in the era of teams & collaboration” - IBM Head of Design, Phil Gilbert famously says about the current times we are in.

And this is even more applicable to the startup culture that is rapidly evolving.

And Gilbert also says something about design that designers of the 21st century can greatly benefit from. When he quotes Paul Rand, the legendary graphic designer, during an interview, Gilbert says,

“Design is about relationships.”

“The relationship between sets of information in an app. Or the relationship between people of different cultures interacting with an app or with each other. All of this is design.”

And with the internet giving rise to more and more roles and jobs in design, this perspective has limitless learnings for designers of this age.

Startups need designers now more than ever before. Not only to scale faster, but to also give more meaningful experiences and products that matter to humans.

But in Indian startup culture, that notion of design and designers’ importance is still yet to be realized. Designers don’t get heard much. And often they find themselves stuck in loops where big decision makers don’t take them seriously.

So what can a designer do to matter more? And have their thoughts actually get converted into actionable strategies?

The Director of Design at BYJU'S, Varghese Mathew was with HelloMeets earlier this September. And he gave key definitive ways of how designers can build their influence on business decisions.

There is a huge focus on the basics and application of visual thinking and building relationships. This blog condenses those into the most actionable things you can do as a designer.

What Design is today in India for startups

"Design often is not positioned as a business thing, but a 'Design' thing... which doesn't have influence on actual business decisions." –  Phill Gilbert.

And usually, creative decisions tend to be dismissed due to lack of 'data' and 'projected ROI' and other operational reasons that are too convenient.

Solution to the above issue needs a little shift in the perspective:

Mostly, this is how you need to look at design:

“Design is about selling things."

Selling is influencing - a capacity to have an effect on someone's behavior, but you do it through design-oriented thought process and expression. Varghese calls that Visual Thinking in practice and real application.

What is Visual Thinking?

Visual thinking - has three components:

  • Seeing/ looking - Look at visuals, objects in different ways. Increase the accuracy of looking by finding patterns. You are influenced by what you look at.
  • Imagination - After you train your mind by looking at more patterns and looking at the world differently, they become your experiences and learnings. You also look at metaphors that pack more layers of meanings. You'll get foresight out of this. And foresight will give you insights on making your design better. Train your mind to look at the right things.
  • Showing and drawing - Designers need to be able to do this. Expressing ideas. Start sketching what you see. Once do that, your imagination grows. To get better at this, start sketching what's directly in front you. Simplify your reality.

How can designers use visual thinking to guide startups better?

Any designer would agree that expression is their strength. Visual thinking's expression is one way to begin influencing your team and those around you.

If you start expressing ideas through mind maps, mood boards, customer journeys and personas - you'll be able to influence those around you with what you draw. [And these will be the ideas that you want your teams and decision makers to consider in their strategy. ]

Varghese added to this by saying that humans are visual creatures. And we all have innate need to imagine things, and we do so based on what we're exposed to.

If you keep exposing your team and decision makers to visually well-represented thoughts and designs, their thoughts will eventually start getting influenced by yours.

Be approachable to everyone. Have an impact on people with your visual thinking. Use your skill that makes you someone that people love to invite to discussions.

So how to get a seat at the decision makers’ table in your startup ?

Build relationships. Empower decision-makers with visual thinking.
Build relationships that allow you the bandwidth to make your own decisions and definitive actions when it comes to design. Like with a CTO or a board member or the CEO/Founder. Help them express themselves better, and in turn you gain their trust in an honest way, while exposing them to good design and your visual thinking.

Then focus on evolving your decision-makers' ideas through your visual thinking. Give them better ways of designing the product, the UI/UX, the visual identity of your product, and more. Over time, through your visual thinking and execution output, your opinion will have more lasting value for your team members. Visibly so.

How to deal with overrated numbers and data argument?
Don't keep giving founders and decision makers too many options. As they tend to not perceive design options as definitive solutions right away unless you show them data of it's success or projections. Which can be costly and too time consuming.

Even A/B testing and stuff like that is not always needed. So sometimes, definitive design steps should be owned by you, the designers. and you should be right about them. Constant need of data is not always possible to fulfill, especially when it comes to creative ideas and their execution.

How to handle the situation when your design manager doesn't agree with you even when you support your theory by using the already established principles and guidelines?

Well, let that one conflict go, and let the manager win. Choose to lose 20 times, to win next 80 times. Ensure that you express your thoughts and design in the best way possible in any case. But don't get into conflicts that don't lead to your growth.

Varghese says that designers need to be at startups where the design culture is an enabling one. If that is not there, and if you're not getting to grow under a manager, then leave that culture.

Use visual thinking to build better relationships with product developers

Expose them to the great design that you come across and want to get inspired by. Show them successful examples of designs at really good products. Make them a part of your design process, be empathetic to developers and everyone.
Show them mood-boards, to enable their imagination that's complementary to your thinking. Make them a part of the process of creating solutions.
Also get some understanding of coding languages - to know what's possible and not possible.

Don't get held up in the title of a designer, be more open to others and experience what other role go through objectively. And be available to help, regardless of your seniority as a designer. It goes on to help you in the longer run.
Tips for building relationships in the remote world

  • Switch on your video during calls
  • Share creative works you like and are coming up with
  • Share music
  • Share fun, crack witty jokes

One of the practices that you can do for collective decision thinking where you have influence
Give every decision making stakeholders some colorful post-its or markers. Allow them to write only one idea or actionable step in the process you are discussing.
Chart out the process using them. Out of these ideas, you give your holistic mind-map and imagination of the process that works for everyone.

Resources:Experience In visual thinking - by Robert McKim [resource]

Go check out video of Phill Gilbert, GM-Design at IBM [on design thinking labs and what he does]

"Computational design doesn't have perfection - it is an ever-evolving product. It has to evolve." [John Maeda - resource]

Design in tech report by John Maeda [To understanding design thinking, computational thinking] https://designintech.report By John Maeda