Entrepreneurs Need Design Education

 In Medical Product Design

The UCSD Design Lab brought a mix of 250 designers and entrepreneurs to the New Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego last week. Dr. Don Norman, the father of human-centered design and lab founder, convened the event. I was among a handful of design community leaders asked to discuss relations between the burgeoning number of San Diego entrepreneurs and the local design community.

My company, MPE (Formerly Mindflow Design) , has worked on many amazing projects with some of these entrepreneurs.  But rather than simply guess at what they think, I decided to follow the same guidance I give our clients and did some research.

Reaching out to 15 successful local entrepreneurs with products on the market, I posed three open- ended questions that aligned with the evening’s focus.  I asked:

  • What is the state of affairs between designers and entrepreneurs in San Diego?
  • Is there a gap or have you faced any particular challenges?
  • Was it hard to find a design partner?

A majority took time to share their thoughts with me. Synthesizing what they said, here are my top six findings:

1. Inexperienced entrepreneurs often generalize that all designers are the same

They assume that since their company is small, a single designer should be able to handle all of their creative output. That’s like assuming a mechanical, electrical, or software engineer could be used interchangeably irrespective of their disciplines. This misconception is not the entrepreneur’s fault. There are so many different types of design, specialties, and levels of application that even design industry experts get confused. I contend that we as a design community should accept some of the responsibility for educating the entrepreneurial start-up community in San Diego.

2. Entrepreneurs now understand that good design is expected but great design can be a differentiator

This is a macro trend that is most definitely trickling into San Diego. Jon Carder, founder of MOGL said: ”I’ve seen a shift from San Diego’s past where apps functioned great but lacked design to where they have both now. It is expected and now the minimum level of entry.” The design industry has been waiting for years for this mentality to become commonplace and for businesses to understand the value design can have on their bottom line.

3. The one-size-fits-all project plan does not resonate with entrepreneurs

The needs of start-ups and large companies are vastly different. In my experience, the differentiator is the amount of risk each is willing to accept. Large established companies cannot afford market failures or their brands could suffer. Therefore, the large company is willing to pay more for a deeper more detailed engagement that mitigates that risk. Start-ups and smaller companies require project plans that match the level of risk they are willing to accept. Lean start-ups guided by renegade entrepreneurs have less to lose and can adapt or correct their courses much easier. For the designer, determining the right fit is critical.

4. Designers are much easier to find than money

For most of the entrepreneurs I talked to, finding designers or design companies was not a problem. They simply searched Google, checked out websites and then contacted those that they thought were the best fit. The overwhelming response was that securing project funding was their most difficult challenge.

5. Entrepreneurs believe that 3D printing will minimize the role of designers

One even questioned whether designers would even be needed anymore if entrepreneurs could 3D print on their own. 3D printing will certainly help entrepreneurs make, test, and iterate their ideas. However, just as word processors didn’t replace professional writers, 3D printers won’t replace designers. At the same time, we designers need to be smart about how we use 3D printers. They are more than simply vehicles for one-way communication. Instead, they facilitate greater collaboration, allowing both parties to bring ideas to the table. 3D printing will enable non-technical entrepreneurs to contribute more to the process.

6. Entrepreneurs need other entrepreneurs

It was clear that entrepreneurs like to hang out, trade stories, and get advice from other entrepreneurs. Some mentioned that they had a difficult time finding local entrepreneur groups and mentors during their early stages. I was a bit surprised to hear that because we spend a lot of time networking with those types of groups here in San Diego. There are groups like Connect.org, EvoNexus, JLabs, and a slew of other incubators who focus on helping entrepreneurs. It appears that there is a need for additional peer-to-peer type groups for entrepreneurs in San Diego.

My Challenge to You

The insights I gathered point to a need for education to close the gap between entrepreneurs and the design industry. Entrepreneurs, startups, and even large companies have a misunderstanding about design and how to include it in their business plans. The confusion is usually rooted in a misunderstanding about the difference between strategic and tactical design. Sometimes companies need great strategic design thinking and other times just great tactical creative work.

I pose a challenge to the design community, our industry associations, and design schools. Let’s look outside of our profession, investigate the needs of the business community, and help educate them on how best to utilize design in their businesses. This would result in a win-win for designers, entrepreneurs, and the San Diego business community as a whole.

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