Startup design: The Xmas Light Metaphor

Posted on January 31, 2010.

I would venture a guess that in most designers’ experience they rarely get to create something from scratch. Typically, we’re called in to rework, redesign and ultimately clean up somebody else’s mess design. In the dot-com days this was not necessarily the case given the youth of the medium but the landscape is different today. The company is established. The business model and brand are in place. The design has been there for several years and has likely been redesigned several times. In addition, corporate politics have been taking root (if it’s a younger company) and organizational ownership claims have been laid and fought over.

As a designer coming in to this situation the challenge goes far beyond design. Coming into an established company’s redesign project means starting off with untangling the existing situation. In many ways it’s like taking out the Christmas lights from last year and starting the process of this year’s decoration.

You start here:

(yes, it’s a cute pic)

Taking out last year’s lights means taking out a giant tangled mess of strings, bulbs, glitter, staples and random tape fragments that make simply untangling the ball significantly harder to accomplish. Then, as you go through the strings, you start to figure out which lights work, which lights don’t, which strings have a staple through them, what’s hopelessly tangled and what can be salvaged.

Existing corporate redesign work is exactly like this. You have to peel back the strings (existing designs, decision history, information architecture, org structure) and then assess the state of each one. Next, you need to take all the random elements you come across along the way (political insight, conflicting corporate business directions) into consideration and finally assemble the lights into a new design that takes advantage of their existing condition while ensuring your final outcome is original and better (more effective, meets business/user goals) than last year’s display.

Startup design is different. You come in with a blank slate – no existing brand, very few players, minimal (if any) political currents and likely, a throw-away placeholder web presence that was hastily put up just to hold the URL. You also get to start with your own, clean, fresh box of lights.

This is your toolkit. Everything is new, untangled and nicely packaged. Best part – everything works! No one has ever laid these lights out before. There are no random artifacts and nothing to untangle. Your goal is to take a box of fresh ideas and make something no one has ever seen before. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to reinvent the use of the lights but at least you have that option. Startups want to take on incumbents in their field. They want to take the tools that have been used for years and turn them on their head. This is a designer’s dream. Take the expected outcome:

and innovate:

Try something that’s never been tried before and see if it works. If it doesn’t, iterate and try again. The agility of the startup encoruages this. Not only is it in the interest of the startup to refine its approach until it best fits the marketplace but it helps establish the brand of the young company as a savvy innovator.

Now, this lack of “structure” may actually prove challenging for some designers who are used to being handed stacks of requirements and explicit style guides before beginning their work. But for those who thrive in this open canvas situation, this is the best of all design worlds.


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