Design, in (our) Startups

by Amy Ngai

Design in Startups (presentation)

Vancouver is a young city with big ideas. One of those big ideas is the Touchpoint Conference held at SFU.

At Touchpoint, SFU’s top students meet and network with representatives from Vancouver’s technology industry, and have the opportunity to apply for internships at companies including Microsoft and Twitter. This year, Axiom Zen joined the conference as a proud representative from Vancouver’s burgeoning startup community.

A mission in design

Students were eager to land a job with us.

We selected ambitious SFU students studying Interaction Design ready and willing to accept the following mission: Design a landing page for a non-profit organization of your choice.

The project was designed as a triple win: experience for the students, free ideas for a non-profit, and more information with which to make hiring decisions for our team. We tested the students’ skills in layout and overall style, but the meat of the assignment was in the “kicker”.

Even if we didn’t hire them, their work would stand alone as a strong portfolio piece to show to other potential employers.

We divided the specialities of design into four categories: Visual Design, User Experience, Front-End Development, and Marketing, and asked the students to pick their expertise. I’ve reproduced our instructions for the kicker below:

While the main assignment is to create a landing page, the goal is for us to discover your strengths. Please choose one of the following options, and flesh out that aspect of your concept.

Visual Design: Focus on a style guide for the mockup you have done to define a strong brand identity. Define your logo, fonts, colours and styles.

Front-End Development: Build it! Feel free to use frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation.

User Experience: Show us annotated wireframes for the main landing page as well as a version for a tablet and phone version. Visual design is not necessary for the mobile mockups. If you have animations and micro-interactions, show us prototypes for how they look or work.

Marketing: Write out all of the marketing copy including headers, bylines and body copy. Defend the voice and strategy of the website.

When reviewing our candidates’ work, the single landing page gave us a quick overview of their current knowledge of web design - their facility with good layouts, proper margins, whitespace and basic graphic design. But the “kicker” was truly where the candidates stood out - or fell flat.

One student created a landing page that was good, great even, but it was the positioning and overall voice of the piece that was truly exceptional. If this was a generic design assignment, he might have wasted time on creating a poor quality logo rather than leaning in, showcasing his strengths and delivering an impressive result in terms of voice and information strategy.

A day later, we followed up with every candidate and offered direct feedback to the unsuccessful many. We invited the remaining few for face-to-face meetings with the design team.

We consider this assignment a resounding success for several reasons:

Self-determination of the “kicker” allowed candidates to focus their efforts and aim for something exceptional while testing their ability to keep the big picture in mind;

Candidates enjoyed the challenge and benefited from our feedback regardless of whether or not we hired them;

Evaluation of candidates’ work by our design team was fast and easy.

My advice on the startup life

I had the opportunity to speak at Touchpoint, as an industry professional representing Axiom Zen as well as an alumni of the SFU School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT).

My talk centered around what I learned at school, how Interaction Design as a profession evolved in the five years I was a student, what life was like for me as a young designer, and how I navigated my way into the startup world.

I spoke about how universities are notorious for creating theoretical thinkers that lack industry-ready know-how -- and how I was no exception. When I graduated, I had too many disparate skills, no deep facility in any one, and very little experience connecting the dots together.

To be fair, it was the year 2005 and the iPhone was still a glimmer in Cupertino’s eye. Interaction Design and User Experience were uncommon terms, and what they represented was shifting constantly. As a student, I absorbed as much as I could, and hoped that I could learn to adapt my expertise as the landscape of technology evolved.

During my speech, I also emphasized the importance of being a “T-shaped designer”; someone who goes deep in at least one of the streams of design while maintaining basic fluency in all major aptitudes and tools. I asked the students: Are you passionate about visual design, user experience, development or marketing? How can you do more things, both in and out of school, to nurture a deep expertise in one of these capacities?

For those aiming to work for a startup, I gave them three pieces of advice: 1) Startups are hard, be ready for the challenge; 2) Be humble, but be hungry; 3) Be confident.

City of Ideas

In the last few years, Vancouver has become a hub for technological innovation with many international conferences taking notice. As a city, we have hosted the Interaction Design Conference, Siggraph, and are hosting the first TED conference outside of California.

A few months ago, as I was traveling through Europe, I was delighted to hear one passenger on a train advising her neighbor to move to Vancouver to find a job in technology. Axiom Zen is at the forefront of this innovation. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Axioms are early innovators in emerging technologies.

Our team of interdisciplinary creatives utilize their insights into new technology to design groundbreaking and delightful product experiences.

Let's build the future together