What do Slideshare, Pinterest, Airbnb, Behance, Posterous, Flickr, Etsy, Instagram, and Tumblr have in common? Well, they are all successful design-(co)-founded businesses. Their ‘design’ way of thinking transformed their startups into top companies with millions in revenue.

But wait a minute, can their tremendous successes really be attributed to design? Isn’t functionality really what brings customers in and solves their problems?

What is good design, really?

To answer these questions, we must first find out what design really is. Most people – even some designers – perceive design as visual accessories that are added to the business or a product after it’s done. Sad reality is that many of my past freelance design gigs only requested my services at the end of the product development process. It was like putting decorations up on a Christmas tree, but that tree might as well be a birch.

Let me tell you why that’s bad. According to Brandon Hill, design as far as startups are concerned can be split into three categories, the first being user experience, the second marketing, and lastly, branding. For the purpose of this particular discourse I’d like to propose an even simpler categorisation, and that is:

How it looks
How it works
‘It’ referring to the startup or product in discussion.

So we’ve established that design is much more than just visual aesthetics, even though it is also a part of the definition. Or, as Steve Jobs once put it:

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
(Oh, you knew it was coming)

What makes design “good”?

Okay, but what makes design good then? Well, we could certainly follow Dieter Ram’s principles as they did in the Startups, This is How Design Works, but I feel those are somewhat abstract for your everyday entrepreneur just trying to bootstrap her way up to the riches.

Inevitably, what’s good for business, must also be beneficial for the customer – or else, you’d be out of customers pretty soon. It follows that good design is tailored around customers, and also helps solve a need that they have.

Let’s take an example of Airbnb and their recent redesign. After the release, many people started complaining about how unoriginal the new logo is – but similarity between logos happen all the time. There is a limited number of options, anyway.

What makes the redesign good is not the somewhat generic-looking BÉLO, but the consistency that they’ve implemented into their branding. Their social profiles, website, apps, and ads all feature the same squiggly line, the same colors, and even the same custom font called ‘Air’. This helps customers recognise the extensiveness of this brand and makes them trust it more (Hey, if they’re everywhere, they must be pretty competent, right?).

Of course product design is another very important aspect – their website’s and apps’ design are always tailored to offer the best user experience possible for users looking for and renting out real estate.

It’s the same thing with Apple – their products are extremely well designed, but if they were launched outside their big Apple brand, wouldn’t be nearly as successful.

So there it is. Good design is building a product around users and keeping its branding consistent.

So Aesthetics Don’t Really Matter?

After reading the last couple of paragraphs you might think “Ok, but then I needn’t hire a Dribbble celebrity. I’ll just get someone to create something consistently ugly and we’re set”.

And you wouldn’t be so wrong.

Let’s take a look at an example. There is this company called Ling’s Cars. Their website is horrendous, but it’s definitely consistent with the rest of their straight up crazy marketing efforts. And judging by the numbers in the following video of Dragons’ Den, this ‘ugly branding’ is doing them just fine.

But of course you’re probably not a startup that advertises with tanks and missiles, so a nice-looking website will definitely make you more money. And that’s why you need to hire design talent. People don’t know exactly what makes one site better-designed than another, but they still trust attractive websites more. If you’re DIY-ing, here’s how you can improve your design.

You need the whole package. Polished landing pages, an intuitive product, and consistent branding. And that’s why good designers are expensive.

How to Find the Right Designer

Now that you’re equipped with the right knowledge that will help you distinguish between a fantastic designer and a ‘decorator’, you can make your own decision on which kind you need.

Here are a few pointers for finding the one:

Pick, Combine, and Supplement
It’s more than likely that you need more than a single type of designer. These can be a web designer, graphic designer, industrial designer, interface designer, UX designer, etc.

If your startup is an online business, start by hiring a skilled web designer with interest in UX. If you need a physical product designed, you will not be able to avoid hiring an industrial designer. But you’ll also need a graphic designer to create your visuals – so get a freelancer if you’re on a shoelace budget. In any case, don’t look for a unicorn designer.

Don’t Hire Off of Dribbble …
I’m not a big fan of Dribble. Maybe that’s because I never got that special invitation, but I simply don’t think that a designer can present the concept in just 400×300 pixels. I certainly wouldn’t want to base my decision to hire someone on a portfolio composed of small rectangle shots with description along the lines of ‘I was bored lol’.

… or Contest Sites.
Anything that doesn’t involve your designer working along with your company’s vision and values is bad for business. Contest sites like 99designs are actually an inexpensive way of getting tons of possibly nice-looking visuals, but unfortunately that only covers a part of our requirements.

Ask Around
The best way is still to simply ask friends, partners, and colleagues for a recommendation. Many awesome designers don’t do such a good work promoting themselves, so you’ll need to dig deeper to find them. When evaluating their future value for your company, refer to what has been written in this article.

designer points to color swatches
La casa legendary pizza and pasta website screenshots on different screen sizesNew Website Launch - La Casa Pizzeria
Paul Eide tries to tackle DeAngelo Williams who holds a Pizza Hut pizza boxAnatomy of a Marketing Campaign - DeAngelo Williams, Pizza Hut and LGD