10 Tips for Startups Seeking Design Services

Some of our most exciting and rewarding design work has been supporting startups—collectively, we’ve helped to launch nine over the last decade.  Startup work is as fulfilling as it is risky, and the startup-design agency engagement is critical to a startup’s success.

To help create healthy engagements from the beginning, and launch products that build strong enduring businesses, we recommend you ask yourself if your current or prospective studio:

1. Wants skin in your game.
Design studios that believe in you will reduce their fees for equity.  This works well to align incentives and focus everyone on a successful launch. Generally expect a 25% reduction off standard rates, the rest goes to studio hard costs.  

2. Works as fast and lean as you.
Startups are usually on tight budgets, creating a need for the studio to make product development processes lean, fast and effective. Beware studios who don’t talk about innovating their own processes to help your agenda.  

3. Operates as your central creative partner.
By bringing together multi-disciplined design talent under one roof, a studio can operate as a central creative partner across product design, UX, UI, branding, and visual design. This way of working results in a more cohesive brand, greater efficiency and cost savings.

4. Seamlessly integrates into your team.
Startups and design studios succeed best when they operate as one team. We often invite startup teams to locate themselves in our studio for intensive project sprints, or we move in with our clients. The less formal process enabled by co-location saves both time and money.

5. Helps you fundraise.
The design of a startup pitch is as important as its product’s design.  As creators of your product, design studios are highly qualified to create impactful and intuitive investor decks.

6. Promotes your story.
Design studios will ask your permission to publish non-confidential parts of your project. It’s great, free marketing for the startup, and yes, it helps the studio to win other projects.

7. Is devoted to your traction.
Startups quickly need hard research and data to validate consumer demand and measure consumer traction.  Well-rounded design studios seek to validate traction with qualitative and quantitative research that speeds a startup’s path to sales.

8. Has a strong professional expert network.
A good design studio should have a strong network of experts they draw upon to increase the quality of their recommendations.  This network should include engineers, material and data  scientists, manufacturers, and consumer researchers.  

9. Fits your culture and your budget.
Fit is the most essential element of engaging a studio. Small projects can get lost in a higher cost, larger less flexible agencies.  Small studios are usually founded by entrepreneurial designers, who are more interested in producing high quality work than managing large teams.  Small studios’ agility allows them to quickly adapt to startup workflows.

10. Challenges you to write great briefs.
Great design briefs lead to great products.  Studios should challenge you to write briefs that produce elite-level work.  Assess your studio on the basis of the intensity with which they interrogate what you are trying to do, and why. We value great briefs so highly that we write them for free of charge, regardless of whether you choose to work with us or not.

This article was co-written by Max Burton, Ben Lorimore, and John Butler  If you’ve enjoyed reading it, we’d love your feedback. If you’d like to learn more or get in touch, email us at  hello@industrialcraft.com.