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Navigating as a solo designer in a startup

Being a solo designer in a startup isn’t easy but it can be an amazing opportunity to grow your career and make an impact.

UX/UI Design
7 minute read

When I started as a designer at British Airways, there were 19 other UX designers, one visual designer and a design manager. How many designers do you think there were at Triptease when I started? Just One. Me. What happens when you’re the only designer and how do you get through it? More importantly, what do you do when it’s a startup where there are less likely to be processes in place or support from HR initiatives?

Pitfalls of working alone

  • No one to learn from
  • No one to bounce ideas off of
  • Difficulty measuring your performance
  • Isolation from community
  • Difficulty with prioritisation of work

So, how do we get over these challenges of working alone?

How to learn without peers

Depending on your learning style, it can be a bit rubbish not having other designers to learn with/from. Or it could be an absolute nightmare. I learn by doing so I’ve found it a bit tricky to rely solely on my motivation and ability to discover things to learn. How do you combat this?

Create external motivation

  • I follow a bunch of designers I admire. Stéphanie Walter shares a lot of content around UX design, CSS and accessibility which I love. Femke Van Schoonhoven talks about the design process and a lot of content around collaboration and side hustling. And of course Zander Whitehurst, the king of the Figma reel.
  • When I find content that I like via any one of those people I admire, I use that content as a jumping-off point for further learning from other sources including books and podcasts.
  • Share design best practices with your business. I run a design dojo* a couple of times a month and use learning hours** to share learning with PMs and engineers that are interested in design. This inspires one to keep an eye on trends and patterns that are helpful for your products and the business.

How to brainstorm with and get feedback from non-designers

I’m a collaborative person. I have a lot of ideas and I like to talk them through, debate positions, explore options etc with other people. If I settle on a direction, I want other people to attempt to poke holes in it. When you’re the only designer, other people rarely care about pixels, FigJam, your twee micro animation and other things that we want to get in the weeds about. So how do you get that sense of bouncing design ideas off of others?

  • You have to invite people to work with you this way explicitly.
  • You have to make it fun for them too. Engineers don’t want you to talk at them, they want to collaborate with you. Product managers don’t want to get the pixels perfect, they want to get the solution perfect. So I never finish designs on my own. I design in code with engineers. Or we sketch together. Or we vote on design directions with sticky dots. Anything to make it clear that they are your co-designers.
  • You have to provide structure and guidance when you do this. Letting people know why you’re doing a particular step or working on a specific artefact is helpful for them to understand the boundaries of input and feedback they can give. Use templates if you must and always give examples of what you want from them.
  • Speak their language. No one else cares about design as much as you do. When I bounce ideas off of my product managers, I talk in terms of customer outcomes they want to influence or change, revenue generated, cost of delay or cost saving. When I talk with engineers, I talk about feasibility, impact vs effort, technical debt/sustainability, reusability etc. All ideas point back to something that matters to them.

How do you get assessed on design if no one else gets design?

I’m about to be appraised for the year and in thinking about how anyone will assess me, I have to think about how to set expectations around what I do and how good I am at executing them. If people think my job is creating beautiful pixels but they can’t see when the pixels are off, it’s difficult to get the assessment right, right?

So what can be done?

  • Seek inspiration from others that have done it. I’ve created career frameworks before so I can reference the past. I also look at design teams I admire - Monzo, and Spotify to see what they’ve published on the topic.
  • Make things understandable. I’m a UX designer working in a product design role. So while I do all aspects of the design for my team, the ones I want to stand out are the things related to The Strategist in this UX collective article. By sharing the context of Strategists vs Researchers vs Creators as guidance, and creating some checklists against what those kinds of designers deliver, I create a nice process for helping people understand what I do. Avoid using jargon and make it easy for people to match your deliverables/process to the checklists.
  • Align with whoever hired you. Sure, there’s no other designer at Triptease, but the CPO hired me because he knew we needed a designer like me. This means it’s incredibly important that this person - the CPO for me - shares the same view as you on your aspirations and growth plan.
  • Find a mentor outside your business. I’m doing a strategic UX leadership course purely so I can hang out in the same space as people doing the roles I want. I don’t have a mentor yet but I get to hear other people’s perspectives on the things I do or the problems I have and maybe someday, one of them will decide they want to mentor me.

How do you avoid isolation from the design community

Oh boy! When I joined Triptease, it was the middle of the pandemic. I’d had zero experience with hospitality or hospitality tech. So during my first few months, I was just getting up to speed with the Triptease way of doing design, artefacts, deliverables, products and the industry. So, I felt a little like there was no one to geek out on design with.

  • Go to networking events. The pandemic was rather terrible but one good thing was access to distant events. I went to UX beers Antwerp, Adobe Max, Product Camp (Poland) and a whole bunch of other local online events. I have also gone to two Memorisely meet-ups (including one in Vancouver!) and other in-person events within the UK. These all allow me to mingle and dive into deep design chat with people that won’t get bored.
  • Listen to podcasts. Design matters, The UX cake, 99% invisible, Design life etc are all ways I stay tapped into the design community as I work, walk or do other things that don’t require 100% attention.
  • Take a course. I first got involved with Memorisely because I took the UI course. It was awesome. I made some pals and get to be part of this lovely global community.


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How do you prioritise your work?

If you’re the only designer, particularly in a start-up, then the likelihood that you have to wear many hats and navigate through the entire design process is high. But you’re one person. How can you do UX research and UX design and brand design and visual design and pay attention to business needs etc?

How can you be sure that you’re working on the right things?

  • Take your steer from the squad or product manager. Whatever is most important for getting features shipped is most important for you.
  • Assess effort versus impact. Should you embark on a piece of user research spanning weeks of effort or run a workshop with your customer services team members? Can you reuse a pattern from one of the popular design systems or do you need to schedule usability testing? Getting good at assessing your cost-benefit ratio can be the difference between being OK and being great.

How can you get work done if there’s no one to delegate to?

  • Be ruthless in deciding what needn’t be done. I use the Eisenhower Matrix popularised by Steve Covey (in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people).
  • Done is better than perfect. Focus on delivering value as quickly as possible and don’t do work that you don’t need to.

How do you set expectations when you’ve got a lot on?

  • Over-communicate! This week I’m preparing my talk for a conference, creating deliverables for 2 squads, helping with our Customer Advisory Board, and preparing for an appraisal (including reworking the framework I’m to be appraised against). It’s all too much. So I told my teams that I won’t be attending any meetings I don’t have to be in, cleared out my calendar and scheduled in focus areas for deep work, and have been sharing updates/revisions to my expected completion dates asynchronously.
  • Be dispensable. I’ve empowered my teams to do design without me. We have constraints around typography, spacing, colours etc. If you create a design system and guidance around how to use it, even better. Everyone knows that my role is to validate solution ideas not generate all of them, so they feel confident experimenting in my absence. I review design in code so engineers feel confident to start building knowing that we can revise everything when I get a chance.

Being a solo designer in a startup isn’t easy but it can be an amazing opportunity to grow your career and make an impact. If you know someone who works as a solo designer or someone who is considering it, why don’t you share these tips with them?

*Design dojo is named for the martial arts dojo - a place to train and get better

**Learning hour is our informal time people can share anything they’re passionate about