Designing for a Startup

Of the more than half-million new businesses that open their doors each year, how many will succeed? While there’s no standard method of measuring startups and failures, the Small Business Administration reported that in 2005, some 670,000 companies opened their doors. Sadly 80%, or close to half a million of them, closed up shop not long after.

What makes the difference between success and failure? Capitalization, management, competition and market forces are some of the reasons. Branding, marketing and design also play a vital role—and the designer hired to counsel a startup can often help make the difference between profit and loss. HOW asked three designers to share their insights on designing for startups and to feature the identity systems they’ve created for their clients.

Project 1

Client: Hagin Investment Management Identity System
Design Firm: Thinkso Creative, New York City
Designer: Brett Traylor

How is designing for a startup business different than designing for an existing company?
Every designer loves the opportunity to redesign a big, established brand, but it’s very exciting to help build something from the ground up. The client/designer relationships tend to be more intimate, and the entrepreneurial spirit of a startup can also mean more creative elbow room. However, many startups don’t have a clear positioning or sense of their client base, so the beginning design process often doubles as business consultation.

In today’s technologically connected world, does a business card matter? There are still a few places where low-tech beats out highNothing is more effective than a good conversation, a firm handshake and a finely printed business card to seal that first, good impression. What’s more, the psychological effect of being plugged into the digital world 24/7 creates a longing for something more tactile—something real.

With the costs involved in opening a business, marketing can end up competing with "necessities" like chairs, watercoolers and Post-its. Many companies don’t realize that a solid identity and marketing effort can be the make or break in the first year. For those who do understand the value of good design and doing it right the first time, we create an affordable plan that will most effectively market the business. This forces us to identify the "must-haves" and to get creative in terms of production.

What identity materials were considered must-haves for this client?
Hagin’s business cards are of strategic importance. As money managers, their clients frequently include union members. Hagin’s cards are designed to accommodate a "union bug" that indicates they were printed in a union shop—this can make the difference in closing a deal. A sales presentation is also fundamental when trying to convince prospects to make multi-million dollar investments. We designed a system of preprinted covers, digital templates and binding to add polish and quality to something that is used so often by this company, and the Strathmore paper we chose conveys the proper sense of establishment.

Project 2

Client: Blue Wing Communications/Blue Wing Interactive Identity System
Design Firm: Alan Coon Design Ltd., Hudson, NY
Designers: Alan Coon, Karina Hadida

What are some initial considerations when designing for a startup business?
Because the goals and vision of startup companies are often open to profound changes in their early years of business, the client needs to answer important key questions for us at the start: What are their plans and goals for their identity in the next year? Next five years? Could their business offerings change? Will the identity need to be augmented? And, then the question for us is: Can our vision be expanded to meet the potential needs of this business? It’s important to leave an opening in the identity for future needs—to make the system malleable.

What were the most important branding tools for your client to start their business with and why?
The letterhead, business cards, envelopes and mailing labels. Blue Wing’s target market is large organizations in the financial services and health care industries, with specific attention to marketing directors and corporate communications officers. Today’s business world can be short on handshakes and face-to-face meetings; there are many jobs in which service providers and the client never actually meet.

In the age of electronic correspondence, well-designed and printed communications are more important now than ever, and Blue Wing knew this before the identity project began. Because Blue Wing’s needs are primarily business-to-business communication,s their correspondence must be impeccable. The stationery frames the message and needs to carry the same weight.

The dragonfly symbol came from the initial creative discussions surrounding who Blue Wing wanted to be. Dragonflies are loaded with positive symbolism. Physically the dragonfly’s elegance and tactile quality was perfect for engraving. After one look at the final drawing of the dragonfly, we decided we were printing on Mohawk Superfine and we were on the phone to the engraver.

Project 3

Client: Opolis Identity System
Design Firm: Opolis, Portland, OR
Designer: Michael Verdine

How do you counsel a startup business about branding and identity needs?
With a startup, you’re working with a blank slate, so our first point is to make it clear that no matter what kind of business they are, they are a brand. The key for branding and identity is to be cohesive in all communications. Even a Christmas card communicates who you are as a brand. Make sure everything harkens back to your brand values; that way, you establish a sense of consistency to your customers.

In this case, you were the client. How did you approach designing for yourself, and what materials did you consider crucial for your own business startup?
First of all, we had to overcome the challenge of finding the time to design for ourselves. Then, of course it’s hard to stay within parameters when you know how much more can be done, but we stayed true to our approach.

We maintained our direction with simplicity. Although identity tools have changed in recent years, customers still want to see your business card. We produced the ‘staples’ but used the paper and specialty processes to add intrigue. At first glance the card looks very simple, but the more you look at it the more you discover: the perforations, the different colors on each side, the letterpress, the engraving, the classic elegance of Strathmore Writing. We love how everything looks and feels.

HOW October 2007