Hardware Talks

Rafi Ajl on Working with Design Partners

One of the most important things we teach at Highway1 is to treat design as a core value of your company.

To that end, Highway1 senior designer Rafi Ajl gives a lecture during week one that covers the nature of design and how startups can best engage with design partners. We caught up with him afterward to talk some more about how he’s seen startups work with design firms.

HWY1: What’s the first area in which a startup should engage a design partner?
RA: For hardware, everything’s coming from your industrial design: your core values are expressed through it, and it influences your brand and logo. A lot of companies start with a product around which their whole design ecosystem revolves, so all the language they use often comes from that one starting point.

Is there a point in the product development cycle at which it’s too early to engage a designer?
It depends. At Highway1, we’ve had some teams who a lot of people may have considered too early, but to get to a fundable prototype, having that vision around which everything can coalesce about what your product could be is a really important touch point.

If you don’t really know what you’re going to make, that’s too early. You’ll just be giving someone a design brief that says “I don’t really know what we’re going to make, but we like this other stuff.” You can fudge it to some degree if you have a specific goal in mind, but really, you need to know what you’re going to make. From there, if you’re early, you can put a vision forward into the world that expresses intention, without being committed to bringing it to life.

Is there a part of the design brief you’ve seen companies get wrong?
Not really — we coach through that process and put a lot of eyes on it; it helps that they have a framework where the design brief is concerned. The hardest part of the design process is giving feedback.

Most startups have never been design clients before. They’re often service providers first and foremost; that’s something they’re good at, but often they don’t know how to professionally engage with a service provider themselves. The biggest thing we teach startups to do is how to give actionable feedback that isn’t just based on personal preference. When you’re giving feedback to your design partner, you need to learn to disregard your personal biases and talk about performance requirements. Your users generate performance requirements, and the performance requirements evaluate the design.

There are a lot of different package types a startup might choose from when engaging a partner; when’s the right time to go with the full package?
Sensassure is a good example of a startup that went full-package. They felt that it was important because of the stage they were at as a team and how they really wanted to start pursuing marketing themselves in the world. Generally, an engagement at that depth isn’t necessary for a startup — you want to have your values and personality in place before you launch, certainly, but it might not be as sophisticated. They felt that it was important for them to have that level of nuance.

Is there a common way for an engagement to go awry?
Yes: if you don’t give good feedback, or give feedback at all. Because of the class of design talent that Highway1 works with, it doesn’t really happen. There’s also a whole team of people around making sure that everything goes smoothly on our end, so we generally keep things on track.

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Highway1, a division of PCH, is the premier hardware startup accelerator, located in San Francisco. We look for great hardware startups, with an exciting business idea and a compelling prototype. We help you design products that deliver real value to customers, that are delightful to use and that can be manufactured at scale.
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