Developing a unique design system, establishing a brand identity, and assembling a productive team: How can startups create smart and compelling designs?

LA Weekly Ilya Sizov

Photo Source: personal archive of Ilya Sizov 

A well-crafted design sets a company apart from its competitors, fosters audience loyalty, and ultimately boosts profits. Major businesses have long recognized this, but it’s a different story for young projects in their rapid growth phase. Often, founders lack the funds, time, or clear understanding of why they should invest in a direction that may not immediately generate returns or even cover its own costs.  

So why is design crucial during the early stages of product development?  AWhen will design choices start impacting financial outcomes? Ilya Sizov, Art Director of international projects, Head of Design at TheXPlace, and leading Marketing Design Specialist at Smartcat, addresses these questions and more in an exclusive interview with LAWeekly.

– Ilya, as a designer with over 15 years of experience, an international competition winner, and the creative force behind numerous successful projects, what draws you to startups?

In the beginning, I was employed by agencies and studios where designers would work on multiple diverse brands concurrently. Within a year, I typically completed 5 to 6 large-scale projects.

However, this type of work has its limitations for a designer: ffirst, it’s hard to focus entirely on one project, and second, once you finish a project, it goes through various transformations that you may not have anticipated.

Eventually, I chose to shift from agency work to product-focused work. For me, this means long-term commitment, the opportunity to achieve the quality I envision, and the ability to execute the most precise and well-considered strategic design. 

– How does working with young, emerging projects differ from working with large companies that already have established processes? 

One key aspect of working with startups is the speed of implementing solutions and their effectiveness. This has both pros and cons.

A primary drawback is that things can happen too quickly. Unlike in a corporation, there isn’t time to spend months developing a single feature, resulting in a more refined product. On the other hand, in large enterprises, it’s common for teams to work extensively on a feature, only to scrap it later.  Big companies have the money and resources to invest hundreds of man-hours testing a single hypothesis. In a startup, such a scenario is unlikely, making everything you do in high demand.  Startup employees don’t experience the “corporation effect” or the alienation of labor.

Additionally, startups typically have less team specialization, allowing employees to gain more cross-disciplinary experience compared to working in larger companies. 

–  Can you share some examples of your work with startups over the years and how they impacted the companies’ performance?

My first such project was Fasten, an American startup providing transportation services, specifically taxi services in Boston and Austin. Our main products were two apps: one for drivers and one for customers (riders).

I joined the project team in 2016, and while the company had accomplished quite a bit, the design was rather rough and inconsistent. I was tasked with systematizing and ultimately revamping much of the primary app’s design.  We redesigned the visual aspect of the app and altered the main user flow by 50 percent.  As a result, we significantly increased app downloads to 1.1 million and achieved 50,000 monthly active users. Most importantly, the new design and user experience emphasized our commitment to user convenience and comfort.

Another important case for me was TheXPlace, where I became the first designer and now lead the design direction. Initially, with some assistance from outsourced designers, I designed a product that catered to the needs of gaming industry professionals, serving as a job search platform, portfolio builder, and communication channel within the community.   Key results for TheXPlace include attracting users from major companies like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Tencent, and Activision Blizzard, securing investments, and unlocking new opportunities for the project. I don’t want to give everything away, but this represents a fundamentally new level of investment and development for the project. 

– Does design directly translate to revenue?  How can good design solutions increase a company’s sales and earnings, if at all?  Or is revenue more a matter of technology and development?

Design solutions themselves don’t directly generate revenue, unless it’s a startup specifically focused on selling design assets. Design acts as a vital service function that can significantly drive a company’s growth, giving rise to concepts like design-driven companies and design-driven growth.

Take, for example, Lenovo laptops, which have traditionally been popular for their price and specifications, compared to MacBooks, which have always placed a huge emphasis on design.  However, Lenovo is increasingly focusing on improving design in their newer models.

As industries and technology progress, people increasingly seek to engage with products on an emotional level. Design serves as an ideal tool for this, influencing classic marketing metrics like clicks and engagement. Nowadays, design largely determines whether a user wants to return to a product, how interested they are in interacting with it, and the strength of their attachment.  These factors ultimately translate into sales and profitability figures.

– Small companies often lack their own design system and must develop one from scratch.  What are the challenges?  Can you offer any guidance for colleagues on where to start and how to optimize their work?

Indeed, for startups, the absence of a design system is a harsh reality, and often there’s a critical lack of time for its development. Design is always expected to produce results quickly. However, a design system is an internal tool, a prerequisite for an MVP, which doesn’t directly interact with users. As a result, many initially think it’s not necessary since it doesn’t provide an immediate visible impact.

There’s an interesting chart illustrating this point. The X-axis represents the lifetime of a startup, and the Y-axis measures productivity. Without a design system, productivity remains constant regardless of the startup’s age.

LA Weekly Curve Graph

That’s why I strongly recommend colleagues to first prove the importance of a design system to their team and then create one, starting small with the least time-consuming yet essential elements for consistency. These are the so-called design tokens, the basic components of a design system.. Start with product colors and typography, as well as simple atomic design elements like buttons or form elements. It will take some time initially, but in the near future, it will provide maximum value with minimum investment.

– What advice would you give for developing brand identity? Can you describe a step-by-step process for this? 

There are two popular approaches to identity development: “ the “textbook” approach and the realistic approach.

The textbook approach involves starting with research to determine brand values, mission, and other conceptual indicators.

In reality, startups often lack the time for this stage, so designers need to work in the opposite direction:  starting with the company’s immediate needs.  What digital products will they need in the near future? E – Email campaigns? Web pages or social media channels? What offline products would they like to create? Brochures, business cards, or printed materials?

Once you’ve collected this information, you can start creating a rough plan for your developments. Focus on broader aspects like colors, typography, and concept, rather than getting bogged down in details.

Ultimately, you’ll address the most urgent requests until the startup reaches a stable stage of development.  At that point, you can pause, reevaluate your work, and consider a redesign.  Initially, it’s crucial to have a toolkit for addressing immediate issues. 

– Once you’ve established a basic design foundation for the project, what comes next?

Until your project grows to the point where a rethinking and redesign are necessary, it’s wise to stick with the developed solutions and components of the approved design system. In my opinion, it’s better to create something structured yet not overly perfect, rather than visually perfect but lacking internal order and prone to falling apart With a well-thought-out structure in place, you can add new features and plan a redesign when the time comes. This was the case with TheXPlace: at some point, we realized it was time to upgrade the system, and we’re currently transitioning to a new design system and visual identity for our product. 

– If a project is already quite successful and it’s time to form a team, what advice would you give to the department head? How should they select specialists and where can they find the best? 

Networking, publications in professional communities, and recommendations from people you know personally are all significant.

Often, startup leaders seek candidates based on work experience and accolades, but I believe these factors are more important for managers.  For designers, the portfolio is paramount; – in about 80% of cases, when selecting team candidates, I focus on the quality of their previous work.   Nothing speaks more to a candidate’s professionalism than a good portfolio.

Personal communication is also crucial to ensure that you and the candidate share values and basic human qualities since you’ll be working closely together.  I’ve always formed teams with the principle of fostering friendship and a comfortable work atmosphere.  For example, in Fasten, five other designers and I formed a great, friendly team.. Additionally, pay attention to a candidate’s internal motivation, consistency, and responsibility.  Often, especially in startups, completing tasks requires organization and discipline from designers more than talent.

To select an effective team, I’d like to warn companies against a common misconception.  Some managers prefer to find employees who are conflict-free and simply execute design ideas without question.  I don’t find this approach effective. In design, more so than in other fields, it’s important to hear diverse opinions, and truth is born from debate. I want my employees to be better than me in some aspects, as that’s the only way a team can progress.

– What trends should small company and startup designers follow in 2023? Which tools should they master to enhance work efficiency?

The key factors for designers in startups today are speed and consistency.  It’s crucial to monitor the advancements in artificial intelligence and how it benefits designers.

I’d also suggest exploring no-code tools, which enable you to create websites or mobile apps without developer involvement, using pre-built components. These tools can be cost-effective for startups, helping to create simple pages like landing pages with website builders such as Readymag or Framer.

Lastly, I recommend focusing on automation, a significant trend aimed at streamlining routine processes. Keep an eye on products dedicated to complex integration systems like Zapier or IFTTT. Also, explore new Figma plugins for other work programs that help automate familiar operations.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.