J.R.R. Tolkien once said that shortcuts make for long delays.

I’m sure we all know someone who likes to cut corners—someone who likes to skim by with the least amount of work and effort, but expects to come out on top nonetheless.

Well, that’s not me, that’s not my team, and that’s not what great design is about. This mentality also won’t fly for someone trying to build a company from scratch.

When it comes to building a startup, there are no shortcuts and no manuals. Instead, there are endless stories from people far and wide who have attempted the same thing to varying degrees of success.

The truly successful have come out on top because they’ve worked hard to get to where they are, have experienced many trials and tribulations along the way, haven’t given up, and have learned valuable lessons that continue to propel them forward in their careers.

Successful people love sharing the lessons they’ve learned along their journey to show how far they’ve come and to encourage the ones coming behind them.

So today, I’m not here to give you a shortcut; I’m here to share some valuable lessons. If learning from the hard lessons of others makes your own journey a little easier, that’s not cheating—that’s using the tools provided. So without further ado, here are six great lessons from expert designers that you can take with you as you build your company:

1. Greatness doesn’t come out of nowhere

Julie Zho, VP of product design at Facebook, has a lot of lessons to reflect on from her early days with everyone’s favourite social media channel. In ‘Unintuitive Lessons on Being a Designer’ she describes the moment she came to realize that every designer begins at the same place: the drawing board:

I used to assume that great work came in flashes of brilliance. I’d see a stunning end design and think to myself, wow, this designer is a genius. I’d imagine her sitting down at her desk, opening up Photoshop, and quietly translating the marvelous vision in her head onto the screen while sipping chamomile tea. I’d assume she was in possession of some mystical talent that I simply did not have.

In the years since, I’ve gotten a peek inside the “genius” of many top designers, and I know this now: the path to great work is one of brute force.

She’s saying what looks like magic is actually the result of hours of hard work and determination. For entrepreneurs, she should be preaching to the choir. The average designer doesn’t just wake up knowing exactly what their end product will look like and instantly making millions. Only after many iterations, some trial and error, and much hard work will you know you’ve landed on something you can be proud of.

2. Sometimes innovation can hold you back

In his post ‘Designers will design, developers will develop, and why you must stop them’ Leonard Teo, CEO/product owner at ballistiq.com and artstation.com, explains how he learned early on in the creation of ArtStation that innovation can be detrimental to a company that can’t really afford to innovate:

The “innovative” designs that were “boundary pushing” were also practically unusable in real life. Because many of the components were completely new, our developers had to implement them. The problem is that anything you develop will generally suck in its first version. Things won’t work correctly. And there are always nasty edge cases that you didn’t think about.

After all that work—all that time, money and energy put into creating something he and his team thought would be beautiful—it simply didn’t work out.

So what did he learn from all of this?

The biggest lesson that I learned was that you have to provide context and be transparent. When talking to my team, I should have given a lot more context about the constraints of the project. We really couldn’t afford the time and cost overruns. We needed things to be as “off-the-shelf” as possible so that we could ship the product.

Sometimes you just need to launch! You can nitpick and go back and forth as much as you want, but eventually you’ve got to just go. And sometimes that means going with the safest or easiest option. Also, Teo was also afraid of being strict and direct with his team. He didn’t want to annoy his developers or crush the vision of his designers. But that’s what being a good leader is all about—you have to be able to shoulder the good and the bad, stand up for what you believe in, and take all the criticism and backlash that comes with it. Remember, at the end of the day, your company is your baby and no one will fight for it the same way you will.

3. Your clients can provide you with many valuable insights

At MindSea, a major app project for one of our clients, Proposify, taught our design team a valuable lesson right from the outset. From our initial discussions with the Proposify team, we knew that heavy collaboration was going to be a major key to our success. As our product designer, Amanda Somers, explains:

During our build with Proposify, we worked very closely with their design and engineering teams to bring this app to life. The more we collaborated, the more mutually beneficial we found it. We learned early on that the insights we were able to gain from their team were invaluable to our design planning, and so we made a point to incorporate check-in and planning sessions with Proposify all throughout the length of our build.

If you provide product or app design services, coming in as an outside agency has its advantages—you bring a non-biased, fresh point of view, along with your portfolio of expertise. But keep in mind: The company you’re working for ultimately knows their product better than anyone else. You are there to accomplish something they can’t do, but the insights they have to share can greatly benefit your process and ultimately the end result. Keep the lines of communication open and rely on company insiders for useful tidbits of information.  

4. You must be able to distinguish a client’s wants from their needs

On a similar note, Jennifer Aldrich, senior manager of design community at InvisionApp, brings up a point that is so important for every aspiring designer to know (and really, it translates well to any field). In her post ‘Good Designers vs Great Designers’ she says:

The longer you spend in the design world, the more you realize that building on command never, ever ends well. People usually ask for things they want, not necessarily for what they need.

Good design is all about solving the problem at hand. Again, you were called upon for your expertise. You have an obligation to stand up and appropriately challenge what you believe to be wrong or misguided, even if it means going against what your client is saying. It’s not easy, but once you’ve mastered that, you’re halfway there.

Aldrich ends this way:

Good designers take orders and hand over exactly what a client wants. Great designers dive deep to uncover what a client actually needs.

Bingo. Keep that in mind with any new client you take on.

5. Design is not the only department in your company

There’s a good lesson to be learned from 3M Healthcare involving collaboration and design. In UXPin’s post ‘Design With Discipline: UX Lessons from 3M,’ Andy Vitale, lead interaction designer for 3M, reveals:

Our design approach is to regularly connect with colleagues in other disciplines like marketing and R&D as strategic partners. When our UX and business teams work together with clear vision and goals, we find greater success through a shared commitment to authenticity.

While as a startup you may not have all the complex departments that 3M does, the “one team, one vision” approach is a great strategy to keep in mind as you go forward and grow. Good communication is key to the success of any company and any relationship—and it starts in-house.

6. Your project is more than the end product

Michael Lee, senior product designer at Pivotal, has learned that multiple design states are required in order to present a final product to a client. In Designing for Various UI States, he describes this in detail:

One of the mistakes I made starting out as a designer was designing the perfect final state and passing the mocks with redlines onto the developers. What I failed to realize in the past is that the final “perfect” mockup is just one state of the current design. There are usually other states that are needed for each specific screen in an app.

The bottom line here is to not forget all the little details and steps along the way that tell your complete story. Yes, the final design screen is the big picture, but how do users get there and what roadblocks might they encounter along the way? You have a big vision for your company or product, but how do you get there? What smaller goals can you work toward? All of that needs to be considered and incorporated into your plan so that you don’t veer off track.

So there you have it! The above are great stories from some of the best designers in the game. They have developed their own startups or they work at some of the most successful companies out there today. Be sure to keep these lessons in mind as you grow your company and you’ll be well on your way to major success!

Have your own lesson to share? Leave a comment below. Looking to get an app built or designed for your startup? Get in touch directly today!

New call-to-action