After pitching a start-up idea to a serial entrepreneur last year, he told me that all tech start-ups need three co-founders – the hustler, the coder and the designer.  We have a hustler and a coder but no designer.

When we launched the proof of concept we went with a design that was safe. It had been developed by one of our business partners who don’t specialize in design but threw it in as part of their package.

It was enough to get us a product to market. But now with lots of feedback from users, their parents and customers, we know enough for us to be more edgy, unique and inspiring.

But how do you do that when the combined visual design capability of your team is less than that of your pet poodle?  Add to that, you all have an opinion on what the design could be, but no one has the time to learn how to bring your scribbles and ideas to life. And to make it worse, you’re on a start-up budget so money’s tight.

In all other parts of the business we’re following a lean start-up approach, but without solid design support we’ve gone round in circles more often than I like to admit.

Realistically we’ve spent six months trying to solve our design problem – and more than just the creative – also how to choose the right design resource. There are more options than the ones we’ve tried, but for anyone struggling with this same issue here’s the good and the bad of the four approaches we’ve tried to date:

1. Work with a local freelancer

The Good

  • They become part of your team
  • You’re dealing directly with the person holding the pen/pencil/stylus
  • They’re often comfortable working with loose initial requirements

The Bad

  • You’re only getting creative input from a single person
  • If they’re juggling multiple projects there’s a risk that your work can be delayed
  • If they’re not following a structured process there’s a risk you waste a lot of time (and therefore money)

2. Work with a remote freelancer

The Good

  • You’re dealing directly with the person holding the stylus
  • You can wake up to work having been finished while you’re sleeping
  • They’re often comfortable working with loose initial requirements

The Bad

  • You’re only getting creative input from a single person
  • It’s hard to judge the way people work when delivering on a brief until you give them one to work through
  • It takes practice to give great feedback remotely (we’ve learned that video is an awesome tool for this)

3. Work with a design platform (e.g. 99designs, Crowdspring, Design Crowd)

The Good

  • You create a structured brief using their templates (great for getting your thinking sorted)
  • You get lots of ideas and inspiration from different designers through one brief
  • You can wake up to work having been finished while you’re sleeping

The Bad

  • You may have to wade through a lot of spam type submissions to find the good ones
  • There’s a structured process that you have to follow (and it makes it hard to change if you business is changing at the same time)
  • You typically end up work remotely so need to judge communication capability and creativity from their submission

4. Work with a local boutique product development business

The Good

  • You get coordinated input from a group of designers all working to the same brief
  • Because they’re boutique, they’re often more flexible in working style, hours or pricing
  • You can spend time with them face to face (often as much as you need)

The Bad

  • If you’re a start-up and they win a big deal, you can get bumped from their priority list
  • They’re often more expensive than freelancers
  • If you get part way through their process and realize it’s not working for you, it can be tricky to get out of a contractual agreement

So after a number of false starts, we still haven’t nailed our new look and feel, but we’re consistently releasing small changes to our product – testing features in the lean start-up style.

We also have lots of examples of concepts we do and don’t like, and we’re clearer about what needs to improve with the product.

We also now know the difference between a UX/UI designer, a graphic designer, and illustrator and an artist. We’ve discovered they all bring valuable but very different skills and expertise to the table.  Unfortunately, we now also know that we need bits of each skillset to really bring our product to life.

Finding that person is our current challenge and one that would have been easier if we’d tackled it when I got the advice months ago. But hey, better late than never!