Day 3: 99 Designs

They say Silicon Valley is full of business hustlers, tech hackers and design hipsters. On day three we visited a company that definitely has the hipsters sorted. Aleks Witko, head of Visual Design, was our host at 99 designs.

99 Designs started in Melbourne, but they’ve now expanded to a few locations globally, with their new headquarters at a cool space in Oakland, across the bridge from San Francisco. Aleks described Oakland as the next Brooklyn – a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood that’s already feeling pretty trendy.

Aleks started with a story to paint a picture of how user-centred design shapes our experience. He began with the first humans to control fire for light, heat and safety. Over time, each use of fire was separated and refined, and whole industries were built around its function. Now, our experience with light is as simple as flicking a switch.

As we focused on the needs of humans, such as needing light, we moved away from the original sulution, fire, and managed to reduce the experience to a single, frictionless interaction

As a designer, Aleks’s philosophy is design is about solving human needs.

99 Designs is a marketplace for businesses to buy great designs from a huge community of designers globally. With many concepts pitched for each brief, 99 Designs makes good design accessible and affordable.

Aleks shared with us how he with his team is starting to solve one of the biggest problems people face when looking for design services – struggling with writing an effective brief. I can say, as a designer, that I had to quickly learn to clarify, question and rephrase each client brief to clear up any misunderstanding. Bad briefs are not the client’s fault – they are doing the best they can. But even with the best intentions, they can be a big waste of time and source of frustration for designers.

99 Designs is solving this with a highly visual and interactive brief-writing experience. Customers choose designs they like from a selection presented, which has been tagged by their community with a kind of folksonomy. For example, the user may think they want a logo that is ‘timeless’, but actually chooses logos that are tagged as ‘trendy’. 99 Designs is automating writing a great design brief.

This ‘kill the brief’ project resulted in a significant lift of the company’s conversion rate. Great user experience that solves real needs can have a massive impact on a company’s bottom line.

Aleks had some interesting advice for relating to startups. He suggesting we find boring industries which people aren’t currently focusing on, and to talk to people in that industry about the problems and challenges they face. By asking open-ended questions and probing into the details, we should be able to discover opportunities to solve real problems and form a business.

Our time with Aleks at 99 Designs was especially insightful and inspiring to me. He is a designer and has used design thinking and creative problem solving to find valuable solutions and drive a pretty amazing career so far.

To recap, the main points I took from 99 Designs are:

  • the best design removes complexity or is invisible
  • the best solutions are found by focusing on the human problem, not the technology
  • a great idea for startups is to focus on a shitty industry and solve the problems that no one is currently focused on

Oh, and Aussie designers can kick arse in the Valley.

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