Five tips to make it as a Silicon Valley designer

Use these principles to build your career working with innovation-driven businesses as Silicon Valley designer

After spending a number of years in Silicon Valley, first in early-stage investing and then leading a brand strategy agency focused on startups; I’ve started noticing a pattern that unites designers and creatives who made it big in the world of fast-paced startup.

The core uniting principle of these people is the level of their involvement and enthusiasm within the company. Independently of their position, they are all active decision-makers influencing business growth; and well aware of operations and processes that go beyond the traditional “design” field.

A great Silicon Valley designer understands that it’s up to them to build a great company. And then to do great design for it.

Value diversity

Diversity is way more than a Silicon Valley buzzword. From a practical (not to mention moral) standpoint, diversity in design leads to better innovation; by increasing diversity of thought in the creative process, we are better able to solve problems. It’s that simple.

Taking into consideration a variety of opinions, paying attention to feedback from fringe users, and looking for opportunities to design for those who haven’t been served yet can take you far in your career, whether as part of a small startup or a big agency.

Joe Vasquez, Venture Partner at Revel Partners, mentions the following about his investment decision process: “A diverse team better represents a broader school of consumer. I can see that the company knows the value of going after a whole set of customers and not just one persona and understands how to connect with them.”

Be curious

Unlike most disciplines, design has a rapidly evolving canvas, especially in Silicon Valley. With new devices, new tools, new screens, and ever-updating frameworks; we have to figure out a lot of things on the go. Silicon Valley designer needs to have more than just artistic abilities to be successful; it goes far beyond programming as well. Think psychology, anthropology, statistics, economics, and business.

Chris Laughlin, a good friend and Design Lead for First Round Capital shared this insight that I find very spot-on: “When we hire someone that has a natural curiosity, which I believe most designers do, then they're going to find their way. The natural drive towards understanding the “why” behind the “what” is the hallmark of a great designer.”

Your curiosity drives everything else — unconventional solutions save the day.

Know the limitations

Leading a brand strategy agency in Silicon Valley taught me that at the end of the day; especially if you work with startups, it all comes down to tradeoffs — no matter what you do.

As the Founder of visualization software Stick, Alli McKee once told me, “finding what is good enough and how to you make up for any gaps is where you have to strike that balance in a startup. It’s the 80/20 rule that wins the day, not a 100.”

Perfectionism, that all us designers are so passionate about, will literally kill you in a startup. Balance becomes critical because you can’t push for the quality of Pentagram and BBDO in everything you do within a startup; these nascent companies do not have the runway, do not have the time, and often simply do not have enough people.

Think inside the box

Our partner, and outstanding marketing professional behind the rise of BitTorrent, Christian Averill is a big fan of a book “Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results”, by Drew Boyd. Unlike the traditional “outside the box” attitude that relies on a breakthrough idea that can save a company from crisis, “inside the box” is a framework that systematizes creativity as part of the corporate culture, through creating new ideas independent of specific problems.

“Everything you do in your life, you put inside your own little box - there’s no such thing as ‘outside the box’. The more diverse experiences you have, the more things you put inside of your box, which will bring you inspiration and synthesis” - says Christian. Sometimes the creative process stops being creative. It turns into a mundane activity where even the most talented of us can lose sight of the exciting. As Silicon Valley designer working in the most fast-paced age we’ve ever lived in, you have to take care of your own creative self to keep that fire burning every day, not just on-demand.

Look at the big picture

My co-founder and our production lead Olga’s advice is the following: “No matter what you design, whether it’s brand identity, product design, a website or a pitch deck - don’t forget to think big picture. For example, a deck design is worth nothing if you fail to create a concise visual narrative that will support - not overshadow - the pitch. A brand identity is worth nothing if your client (or non-design team) doesn’t understand how to use that fancy brand book.”

It’s not a novel idea (sorry Olga), but in Silicon Valley, it matters like nowhere else; design is part of a complex ecosystem. It’s here to help sales, engineering, operations, and marketing; and it should be here to alleviate any communication challenges, not to create more.

There are things that never change; no matter how far humanity has gone; no matter how digital diverse or “smart” we’ve become. Every client is still always late, always out of budget; still a better designer than you; always with a 1000 additional requests and little to no understanding of what it takes to implement the idea.

It’s all good — these challenges come with the territory. It’s our duty to educate, empathize and offer solutions, as it’s always been. The rest can become a few great memes, as they often do.

For women-designers willing to break into tech industry, we've assembled this list of tips from women creative leaders in Silicon Valley.


How do vision and mission statements impact a company's long-term direction?

Effective vision and mission statements should ideally constitute important tools in formulating a company’s strategy. They should largely remain unchanged through the years, though a significant pivot may bring about new vision and mission statements. Together, they work to define the focus of the business and how it impacts the world. 

The vision statement is a representation of your company’s view of a better world. The mission statement reflects how it sets about to achieve this vision. They work together to create internal alignment and help with strategic decision making. When planning for the future, developing new products, or experimenting with new strategies, teams can perform a quick check against the vision and mission statements to ensure that these initiatives are aligned with the essence of the brand. 

In short, the vision and mission statements are powerful tools which can and should impact decisions across the organizations, making them important factors in a company’s long-term direction.

How does brand strategy influence the overall success of a business?

Your brand strategy reflects how your brand sees the world and its role within it. It is the framework that, ideally, should guide all your communications (both external and internal) and audience touchpoints, i.e. each interaction an audience member has with your business. 

Having standardized communication across all channels and touchpoints makes business processes smoother and positively influences your client relationships, ensuring you develop strong, long-term connections with your customers. It also simplifies strategic decision-making and aligns your team. All these factors are vital to the success of a business.

How do messaging frameworks help communicate your brand message effectively?

Messaging frameworks are structured guides that outline the core messages, value propositions, and differentiators of a brand. They ensure consistency across all communications, from marketing materials and social media posts to customer service interactions. By defining key messages that resonate with the brand's target audiences, messaging frameworks help ensure that a brand’s communications are clear and memorable. 

They also help organizations stay aligned internally and ensure that each member, regardless of their role, understands what the brand’s key message is and how to communicate it effectively. This internal alignment is crucial for presenting a unified brand image to the outside world.

What specific elements contribute to a brand's verbal identity?

A brand’s verbal identity should align your team on how your brand communicates and how this communication changes depending on the situation. It defines a specific and recognizable language through which your brand can deliver its message to your audience or audiences.

Typically, a verbal identity includes some, or all, of the following elements:

Brand personality: This captures the human traits or characteristics that your brand embodies, such as being adventurous, sophisticated, or reliable, which help shape how your brand is perceived.

Brand voice: The brand voice reflects how your brand reflects its personality across all communication channels.

Brand tone: While the brand voice remains consistent, the brand tone can change depending on the context of the message and the audience being addressed, ranging from formal and professional to informal and friendly.

Messaging frameworks: These are strategic tools that outline the key messages your brand intends to communicate to its different target audiences, ensuring that all messaging is aligned with your brand's mission, vision, and value propositions.

Messaging examples: These provide specific examples of how your brand's messaging might be applied in various scenarios.

Style and grammar guidelines: These outline your preferred spelling, grammar, and style, ensuring that your communication is consistent across the board. 

What are some key considerations when developing a tone of voice for a brand?

The first and most important consideration is the brand’s personality. While businesses are functional, they still communicate with people – and people primarily connect with stories and personas. Your brand’s personality will define a set of human characteristics which reflect how it sees itself in the world. By giving your brand these human attributes, you are making it both distinctive and easier to identify with. The tone of voice should reflect your brand’s personality.

It’s also important to consider your target market and your audience’s expectations. While having a distinctive tone of voice is important for memorability, there is such a thing as being too different. If all brands in your segment adopt a serious, professional tone, and you would like to be fun and playful, there is certainly space for that, but consider very carefully why you are doing it.


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