The Role of Design in Startup Weekend

11/11/2014 | By Alisha Neva

This post originally appeared on

We at Up Philadelphia recently had our most successful event ever, and I attribute a good portion of that to an increased participation from designers. As a designer myself, I was a participant at the previous event in October 2011 and instantly became hooked, evangelically telling every designer I could get near about what a fantastic opportunity it is. Even after pouring my heart out, quoting Fast Company articles about designer founders, and explaining how as a result of Startup Weekend I was given an amazing job opportunity that allowed me to leave my miserable corporate job of a decade, these designers weren’t rushing to sign up.

But why is that? Do most designers lack that entrepreneurial spirit? Do they fear they’re going to exhaust their creative gas tanks? Are they intimidated by the amount of work involved? Why is it so difficult to encourage designers to participate in what is actually a highly creative and inspiring event?

Thankfully, due to persistence and badgering, we had over 20 designers register for Philadelphia Startup Weekend 3.0, and it was obvious in the aesthetic quality of the work presented on Sunday evening. Participants included Sharon McMullen, Interactive Designer at Anthropologie, and Amy Reyes, Senior Graphic Designer at US Airways. This was their first Startup Weekend event.

“I signed up to step out of my comfort zone,” Amy says. “To shake things up, learn something new, and see how far I could push myself.” The idea of creating an app can sound scary to a designer. They might feel as if they need to know how to code or must have experience with app development. Not the case. Creating the brand, making interface mockups, and formatting the final presentation are all tasks that benefit from the help of a designer. Not to mention, it’s advantageous for any Startup Weekend team to have a member who can offer up a different perspective in regards to creative problem solving.

Because designers are scarce at Startup Weekend events, they are hot commodities. Every team wants one and values the skills he or she can bring to the table. Sharon explains, “They appreciate you! I don’t think I’ve ever received so much positive feedback and confidence in my choices and development of an identity. With such a positive atmosphere it pushes you to make it the best it can be and it’s so rewarding.” The other attendees understand that good design can make or break a product and having a designer on their team is like having a secret weapon. She also adds that she liked how everyone enters the room as equals. “I felt like I walked in with a clean slate and no one judged me either way. It was amazing! I got to prove myself with the work I did THAT DAY.”

Of course, building a startup in a weekend doesn’t come without its share of challenges. Designers typically like to take their time with projects, patiently waiting for creativity to strike, but as Amy realized, that’s not an option. “Perfectionism is a road block to momentum, and there’s not really any room (or time) for it. You have to manage your time, and you have to be fast. Period. That was hard.”

But in the end, it’s more than worth it. When asked if she’d participate again, Sharon responds, “HELL YES.” That pretty much says it all. She adds, “The rewards you get from taking a weekend away and designing for some amazing new companies is priceless.” Amy’s reaction was quite similar. “Yes. In a heartbeat.” It’s definitely addictive, especially for a designer that might be working in the corporate world where they work with the same brand every day. You leave Startup Weekend with an incredible sense of accomplishment. As a designer, it’s easy to fall into a staleness, where you aren’t challenging yourself or learning new skills. Startup Weekend is like a creativity boot camp that recharges your system. Amy says, “I feel like I can take anything on and have been running strong all week. It totally re-ignited my passion for what I do.”

In addition to leaving recharged, you might walk away with some great contacts and possible future opportunities as well. Sharon received eight freelance requests from the weekend. “I highly recommend going and staying late at the very last happy hour celebration. I made most of my connections there because people could pin you with your work. And the drinks didn’t harm either,” she shares.

Still on the fence? Here’s Amy’s take. “On one side of the fence is this amazing opportunity to totally reenergize your career, meet new people, step outside your comfort zone and make something wonderful. On the other side of the fence is the same weekend you had last weekend…which, I’m sure was awesome…but not THIS awesome.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Original Post written April 27, 2012 by Melissa Ivone.