Making the Case for Design Entrepreneurs

by Doug Powell

The intersection of entrepreneurship and design—especially communication design—is a particularly lonely place. With a few remarkable exceptions, designers have steered clear of this risky and volatile, yet potentially rewarding territory, preferring instead to stick to the well-worn path of the traditional models of design studio, in-house graphics department, or freelance practice.

In an industry filled with an abundance of extraordinarily creative minds, why have so few chosen to challenge this convention and venture into entrepreneurship by bringing their own ideas directly to the marketplace?

First and foremost is money (a very valid concern!). The fact is, most entrepreneurial ventures require some sort of capital investment in order to launch, and most design businesses run on a fairly tight margin—especially in a slumping economy—so extra cash for side projects is hard to come by. This means that designers need to get smart about where the money is and how to access it. Traditional sources of business funding, such as venture capitalists, angel investors, small business bank loans, or government grants continue to be options, especially when are seeking higher amounts. In addition, an emerging category of alternative funding options is becoming more accessible for creative businesses looking for smaller amounts of seed funding. This includes so called micro-lending operations such as Kiva and Kickstarter, along with social innovation projects like the Pepsi Refresh Project, and any number of business competitions, which are often sponsored by universities.

Secondly, designers tend to have very strong professional networks within the creative world. When we attend a professional conference, it’s usually a design conference. When we look for inspiration, it’s often other designers whom we turn to. But becoming successful entrepreneurs requires us to work in a more interdisciplinary way—to form partnerships with lawyers, accountants, other entrepreneurs, and specialists from an array of backgrounds, in addition to the writers, photographers and other designers who currently fill our contact lists. These new professional alliances will allow us to expand our understanding of the complicated process of launching a startup and to more effectively plan for this process.

Finally, we need to get comfortable with a new definition of risk. The last two years of economic crisis have taught us that there is no such thing as a risk-free business, that even the safest possible business situations can disintegrate in shocking fashion, even the most solid and fruitful client relationships can fade. Yes, entrepreneurial ventures involve an element of risk, but if they are well planned, that risk is manageable—we decide how much risk to take and when to take it.

In the end, designers must find a way to do all of this, and more, without losing that essential spark of creativity that makes us unique business people.

Many designers stick to traditional models of design practice even though entrepreneurial efforts could lead them to more potentially rewarding opportunities.

Quick Tips
Many academic institutions have incubator programs designed to foster entrepreneurial growth. Find out what’s available in your region by reviewing offerings from the most vibrant local business schools.

Social media is a great tool for expanding your professional network. Try searching for terms like “entrepreneur,” “small business,” or “start up” on Twitter to tap into new areas of expertise.

Dig Deeper!
There are an infinite number of business how-to books. The trick is to find the ones that are most relevant. Here are a few to get you started:

1. The Art Of The Start by Guy Kawasaki is the bible for creative startups. It’s a quick, easy read, and a great primer on the entrepreneurial process (and Kawasaki is also a prolific Tweeter: @GuyKawasaki).

2. Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky is written on the premise that the creative spark is really only 1% of what it takes to build a business. Belsky covers the other 99%.

3. Good To Great by Jim Collins is the latest from this entrepreneurial guru. Even though most of us are dealing with a much smaller scale, there are essential lessons to be learned here about planning for growth.

4. is a listing of business plan competitions, both regional and national.

5. Check out Merge for thoughts on the convergence of design and entrepreneurship.