Here’s a senior thesis you really need to read: It’s titled Startups, this is how design works and if you click the link you’ll see it’s nothing like a traditional college thesis. It’s the creation of Wells Riley, a designer and Northeastern senior who has one simple point to make: Startups don’t take design seriously enough.

It’s impossible to really capture the site with a screenshot, but here’s just a glimpse of a small piece of it.

I’m going to link to the page once again so you actually click and give it a look, because it’s a great guide to thinking about design, and there’s no point to me trying to describe how the page is laid out. It’s a beautiful site, but part of Riley’s point is that design is about way more than just how something looks.

I asked Riley a few questions about the project by email, which he kindly answered. Here’s his take —

What made you decide to create this primer?

I created this site as my Degree Project (or thesis project, capstone… so many different names for it) for my BFA in Graphic Design at Northeastern. Everyone’s project is completely self-initiated and open ended, and I chose this direction out of my passion for design and interest in startups. I used to be a product and branding design consultant for startups here in Boston, and it amazed me how many companies had only a basic understanding of design (and how often it ended up hurting their business). There’s tons of startups, and tons of great designers out there. If I could get entrepreneurs to understand the history, value and basic vocabulary of design, maybe I could get the two disciplines to work together more easily.

How important is it to utilize good design to explain the principles of design, as you obviously did with such an elegant site?

It’s obviously important to “practice what you preach,” but more importantly I’m interested in helping people understand what good design (or even just design as a profession) means. I think the hardest thing for some people to understand is that design is about so much more than aesthetics. When people think of design as “making it look pretty” or “pushing pixels” it devalues the industry tremendously. In general, I think that causes people to not think of design as a technical profession, but as an arbitrary and purely artistic profession. So much of product design happens before and after aesthetics, and design can be surprisingly analytical. Aesthetics are just one tool in the designer’s toolbox — it would be like calling a senior software engineer a ‘code monkey’ — there’s a lot more to software development than indenting brackets.

Executives and engineers clearly have a lot to learn from designers in your view. What do designers have to learn from them?

Whether it be a symptom of the industry, or a symptom of the environment surrounding design, I feel many designers underestimate their value in business. With sites like 99designs out there, and the availability of programs like Photoshop and Dreamweaver (or even PowerPoint, etc.), everyone has become a self-proclaimed “designer.” People can see type and see images and arrange them and call it “design,” but it’s not as easy to arrange a business plan or arrange code to execute a desired program. Within that context, designers have lost perceived value and therefore have come to value themselves less. Business people and entrepreneurs are notoriously hard-headed and aggressive, and eager to show the world their skills and worth. I think designers could learn a lot from that kind of attitude.


If you want to read more about design thinking and why startups need to take it seriously, I recommend you read this guest post from Babson professor Heidi Neck.