When Should Startups Hire a Full-Time Designer?

In this article, we are going to dive into when startups should hire a full-time designer. We are going to be speaking mostly for software companies, as that is our area of expertise. However, the same principles apply to any startup.

In addition, we are going to give suggestions on how startups can solve design problems with small budgets, less than $500. Let's get rolling!

Why hire a designer?

Like any employee, your reason for hiring a designer should be to solve a problem. With many other roles, this is simple. Programmers write code. Marketers bring you leads. Salespeople sell.

However, design is a broad skill set consisting of many disciplines that aren't always helpful for a startup. It is very important to define the problems you are trying to solve with design. While there are many design problems facing startups, we are going to limit our conversation to four:

  • If your website is really ugly, you have a problem with branding.
  • If your website looks good but isn't performing well, you have a problem with conversions.
  • If your software looks really ugly, you have a problem with visual design
  • If your software looks good but it is hard to use, you have a problem with your user experience.

Designers love to make these definitions extremely complicated by reinventing themselves every day. However, these terms seem to be used and understood by most designers.

How do I identify a problem

Very simple. Ask your customers. Or potential customers. Really anyone attached to your product in some way. If after a few conversations you continue to hear about a problem, it needs to be addressed.

Now that we can define your problem, let's talk about whether you should hire a full-time designer to work on these problems.

Website vs software

Your software is what your users interact with to accomplish their goals. Your website is where they learn about what makes you different.

Branding design is essential for startups, but startup probably shouldn't hire full-time designers to do their branding.

Branding

We would argue that startups shouldn't ever hire a full-time designer exclusively for branding.

Branding is very hard for one person to do on their own. Branding requires skills including logo design, graphic design, photography, illustration, strategy, and much more. If someone has all of those skills, they are 1) hard to find 2) more expensive than an agency.

To solve problems associated with branding, we recommend working with a design agency. It is possible to have someone on your internal team build a team of freelancers, but this is often not something startups have time to focus on. Hiring a full team of graphic designers, photographers, and branding experts just to build your brand is an expensive idea, likely leading to poor results.

Now, full disclosure: we are obviously biased because we do branding for startups when designing websites. Nonetheless, we stand behind our statements. ("I regret nothing." Ron Swanson)

What if I can only spend $500 on branding?

We like to think of branding as the clothes our business wears to present itself to the world. Styles change, and so do companies. Don't sweat too much about figuring out a brand that lasts forever. Even extremely successful companies rebrand.

Go onto Webflow, Squarespace, or any other website builder and find a template for sale that you like (we have a few templates for sale if you are interested). Base your entire brand on the elements of the template you choose. Then have someone on Fiverr design you a logo based on the website. Easy. Breezy. Beautiful.

Conversion design is essential for startups, and potentially a good place to hire a full time designer.

Conversions

Hiring a designer to increase conversions can be a great investment. Growth Designers will dive into the analytics of your site and find pages that aren't helping visitors become customers. Then, growth designers will make changes to your design and run tests to determine whether changes will work.

But should they be full-time?

It depends on the math.

On average, a quality full-time designer focused on conversions (Growth Designer) will cost around $120k per year including benefits, salary, and other costs.

Let's say that the designer you hire is REALLY good and can increase conversions by 25% (that is a lot!). If your business profits $2M annually, a 25% increase in conversions is worth a lot of money to you. However, if you only profit $250k annually, a 25% increase might not be worth it right now.

Hiring a growth designer or conversion-focused designer full-time can have enormous positive impacts on your business. But again, only if the math works. If it does not, we would recommend finding someone who can do other aspects of design that also has experience designing for conversions. Do the math and see for yourself.

What if I can only spend $500 on conversions?

Oh man, that one is tough. Conversion design is a long process any way you swing it. It requires understanding analytics as well as user behavior. And visual design of course. And probably some coding.

The best course of action in our opinion on a limited budget is to have one of your founding members take an online course on conversions and learn about how they can improve.

Visual design is where most startups hire their first full-time designers.

Visual Design (UI Design)

Hiring a full-time visual designer or User Interface (UI) Designer is great for startups with enough work to keep them busy.

In our experience, a designer can move about 3-4x faster than a developer. So, if your team has one developer, hiring someone full-time is probably premature, and we would advise against it.

If you have a team of four developers, then for sure hire someone full-time. You are going to have more than enough for them to work on and likely your developers will be thrilled about not having to design.

The other situation it makes sense is when you have built a lot of software already and have a huge backlog of poorly designed features.

What if I only have $500 for visual design?

If your project is small enough, you could hire a freelance/contract designer to do a quick pass on your visual designs. However, understand that these changes will only fix the visuals. For $500, you won't get someone who will dive into how the design works for users. But for some startups, that is all that is needed to get them to the next phase of their venture.

UX Design is, in our opinion, the best design choice for a startup

User Experience

Hiring a user experience designer is, in our opinion, the best investment a software startup can make.

When software is your entire company, your user experience is your entire company. UX Designers primarily work to understand user behavior. They do this by talking to users in 1:1 interviews, using analytics software, as well as workshops sessions with internal teams.

But, hiring a UXer full-time at a startup? That raises a few red flags.

A true UX designer doesn't often have the visual design skills to make things beautiful. Because of this, a true UX designer is often not the best hire for a startup until they have a team of designers. So, let's say you have 20 developers and 5 designers. If your designers are struggling to create products your users love, absolutely hire a UX designer full time to improve your user experience.

Product Designer: UX and UI combined

The title "Product Designer" is becoming more popular, which usually means someone who can do both the UI design and the UX design. This is certainly the type of designer a software startup should be looking for. These designers are usually either more visual focused or user focused, but these are easy conversations to have in an interview.

Can I hire one designer who can do it all?

Yes. You could find someone who says they can do it all.

However, you probably can't find someone who can do a good job at everything.

Sometimes that is ok for startups. When no one is doing branding, it is often better to have someone do it than no one. But a lot of these problems we talked about are ongoing. It takes persistence and time to increase conversions, improve the user experience, and make the visual design beautiful.

The key for founders is to focus on what problems they are having and find one designer who can solve those problems.

Choose your character

Remember Madden 2002? Or any video game ever? When you choose your character, they have bars next to their name showing how good they are at certain things. No one, not even Daunte Culpepper, is 100% at everything.

Think of designers the same way. We have talked about four different attributes in design:

  • Branding
  • Conversions
  • Visual Design
  • User Experience

Where is your company right now? Ask yourself and your team where they are at on a scale right now. More importantly, which areas do you believe will have the biggest effect on the success of your business?

Conclusion

Hiring a full-time designer is a huge step for any startup. We hope that this article breaks down the process and makes it easier to start. Design has the potential to drastically improve your company, giving you a big differentiator from competitors. That is what our team wants for you, and hopefully is what you want as well.

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