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Hiring a designer is a premature optimization

UPDATE: When I wrote this post, I was writing about design in the sense of pretty little boxes – and NOT how the user interface comes together and so on. I’m now aware that the terms “design” and “designer” cover an awful lot of ground :-)

Design is one of the biggest challenges for pure programmers who want to build web apps. When bootstrapping your startup, I’ve read that some people seem to be very keen to hire a designer. I can’t think of a bigger mistake.

On day one, you have three basic options: buy a theme; learn design skills yourself; or hire a designer.

Let’s start with the first option, buying a theme. For under $30 you could have a fantastic design for your marketing site, and an equally excellent design for the tool itself. Ten minutes plus very little investment gives you instant designs that you can work with right there and then.

Alternatively, you can attempt to learn design skills yourself. You might be naturally talented… but are you going to be able to produce designs like those above in a minimal amount of time? Even then, do you really want to be creating unique designs when you could be developing killer features instead?

Finally, hiring a designer. This costs money – big money for a bootstrapped startup. Outsourcing design is a lot like outsourcing programming; you’re not going to get the result you want by paying someone $200. It’s also easy to forget that if you hire a designer, you’re going to have to manage them, give input and direction to get the desired result. Long story short: you’re still going to be using up precious development time.

Concentrate on your major skill – coding – and don’t let premature optimizations, including design, get in the way.

Written by Tom

Are you looking for web development or just someone who will work with your business needs and not against them? Get in touch with me here, or take a look at my consultancy’s website: Moo Unlimited. I’m confident I can help you.

Published inOpinionWeb Apps


  1. excellent article dude. :) love it.
    and I totally agree with it.
    it’s cheaper, faster, more practical.
    and in the end, after you have 10.000+ users, you can always re-design pretty easily, if the money and business concept is there. :)

    cheers, keep writting!! :)

  2. It might work for a SaaS based app but what if you make products like 37 Signals? You might need to hire a designer then

    • Tom Tom

      I think my blog post agrees with you :-)

      • Tom Tom

        I think Adnan’s thinking more about SaaS in the one-man bootstrap sense :-)

      • What I mean that you would need to have a UX/UI guy to beautify the work flow of main system. You can just have themes for site structure(header,footer etc) but not for main system work flow. UI/UX guy can be helpful to make things easier for users. 37 Signals just doing that.

  3. I mostly disagree. Not every project needs a full-blown design component, but it’s important to have at least a little bit of forethought about how things work together to create an experience of your product. Trees vs. Forest, etc. etc.

    • Tom Tom

      OK, agreed, you need to be able to put the blocks in the right place so that users can at least use your tool. But why invest more than that until you have the customers to justify doing so?

    • Tom Tom

      Yes, I thought I’d go a bit crazy for my blog :-) Although to be fair that’s something to bear in mind: typically WordPress themes cost more than their basic HTML equivalents.

  4. Niels Niels

    Completely disagree. Design is not something you slap on top of an app. It is integral to it. Design & development need to work hand in hand.

    Design dictates the look & the flow of an application. Without a good user experience, you are highly unlikely to have customers to warrant spending the money on a designer.

    That doesn’t mean you have to hire a designer, but it does mean that design can’t be an afterthought or a later “optimization”.

    • Definitely +1 In most cases if you want a professional result, you must hire a designer. Otherwise all your projects will look the same

      • Denis Denis


        This article is so wrong…Sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but your opinion is really maddening.

        Oh, and I’m a dev.

  5. Sorry but your post is naive. You think that a designer just makes things pretty and visual. That’s just like saying a programmer is the guy who documents the source code.

    Teaming up with a designer early on is a valuable input if you do it in a holistic approach. Make him part of the bootstrap so you don’t have to pay too much.

    And yes even though I am a designer and developer, I buy themes for $35 and adapt them if it makes sense. That said, most of the times my job was in these cases more strategic.

    • Tom Tom

      You think that a designer just makes things pretty and visual

      Please don’t put words in my mouth :-) I haven’t said anywhere “never hire a designer” – just that from the start, if you’re bootstrapping, I think it’s best to test your idea with a cheap theme instead.

      • Aesthetics is one thing usability and UX is another. Buying a theme may solve your marketing website qualms for a bootstrapped startup but if you’re product is SaaS then you may want to seriously re-consider a $30 theme for anything but a marketing site.

  6. I’m a designer, but I’m also a “ship it” guy, so in some ways I agree with you.

    But there are two key points I think that we also need to consider:

    1) By waiting to invest until “we have the customers to justify doing so”, we put the majority of the risk on our users. While placing some risk on our users is fine, I think the majority of the risk should be born by the product owner — and therefore you should invest just as much or more as you expect your users to engage with your app.

    2) We’re taking the ‘brand’ out of the equation. In building a product, app, or business you are building a brand. Maybe you’re content with a brand that looks and feels like everyone else, but to truly be successful in the long run, you need to invest in your brand. It’s much harder to build / change your brand after the fact.

    Good article though, makes for good discussion.

  7. I could not agree more, but still with to be able to produce good looking desingns :)

  8. Daniel Warner Daniel Warner

    Totally disagree.

    The concept of a strict and separate ‘design layer’ is a plague in the development community. Design is more than shining up buttons and adding background images. If you believe in your app and want to give yourself a shot a massive success, bring a designer in early and work closely with them.

    • Anthony Watts Anthony Watts


  9. While I agree on using a bought theme for blogs or similar sites, if you’re trying to sell a product you really should spend money on a designer.

    People judge a website by its design (whether they should or not), and if you have a recognizable look or a crappy design they’ll leave.

  10. derp derp

    which is worse? designers who think they dont need developers? or developers who think they don’t need designers?

    trick question, theyre both idiots

    • Tom Tom

      I totally agree with you – which is probably why I’ve never written anything that says: “Never, ever hire a designer” :-)

      • Except your article makes a case for ignoring design and it isn’t necessary for a good product…

  11. Dan Carper Dan Carper

    design sells, engineering keeps em coming back for more

  12. […] Don't bother with designers They're expensive and need too much management – just buy a theme and get on with it Hiring a designer is a premature optimization | SaaS Adventures […]

  13. Rick Calder Rick Calder

    Nice padding in the right side bar, a designer do that for you or a theme?

    • Tom Tom

      I’ll give you three guesses :-)

  14. Torbjørn Vik Lunde Torbjørn Vik Lunde

    Calling design premature optimization is like calling coding premature marketing.

    Other than that: I agree with Niels.

  15. I do think that a good product can exist and succeed with a theme or a “rudimentary” design, but it is certainly not a wasted expense. Using a theme inherently means using a system someone else built for your product, which from a design standpoint will likely create problems.

    Design is incredibly important for a young business. Not only does it create a unique identity (even if the identity is just the product itself) and it lends credibility to your entire operation. People *expect* good design the same way they expect a good user experience. Short them on that, and they will feel it. With so many apps / products on the market, it’s never been more important to come across as unique and polished.

    Hire a good designer (for equity, if you’re bootstrapping). If you choose wisely, that designer will be an integral part of the success of your venture. Alternatively, try to save money and risk your reputation.

    • Tom Tom

      Hire a good designer (for equity, if you’re bootstrapping).

      I’m honestly conflicted when it comes to the equity argument; I think to get a good designer on board, it’ll take more than equity, as we all have to pay the bills at some point.

    • NickiD NickiD

      I can”t agree more with Luke Connolly and Ray Garza. Design is your reputation.

  16. It depends on what you mean by design.

    Even as a developer, you’re going to be doing design. User experience & interaction design, visual design, etc etal. The question is, are you any good at it? Or are you better at the coding?

    You might want to think about putting some thought into hiring or attracting at least a UX designer to your project. Even if you skimp on the visual polish, it’s hugely valuable to get someone good to think at least a bit about how your users will, you know, use your project.

    Unless you luck out and find the perfect one, you’re not going to get that with a $30 theme. It will be part of your precious development time, one way or another. If you undervalue UX and/or aren’t great at it, you’re likely to release a finely-engineered turd that no one wants to use.

    • Tom Tom

      Absolutely – if you have the UI & UX abilities of a blind rat, no theme will save you. Still, I think that a theme is a very good way of getting started.

  17. Couldn’t agree more – I’d love to hire a designer but (having done so in the past) their work never seems to make a jot of difference to the things that matter most to our business: attracting traffic, converting it and earning money.

    That isn’t to say designers aren’t brill. They are – but any web project that gives them too much input or cash is probably unbalanced. This applies equally to startups and matured enterprises.

    I’ll probably get flak but sorry guys – the biggest names on the web weren’t built by creatives.

    Coders rock the world.

    (Just for context, we’ve been running a very profitable online business for 10 years.)

  18. One caveat about using themes or contest sites for canned designs; copyright violations. Many of the themes and designs cranked out at these sites have misappropriated fonts, images and even code. A developer friend and collaborator of mine found this out the hard way when Getty sent a client a $4000 bill for usage of exclusive rights protected images in a theme he had paid $35 for. Needless to say this is not an experience any of us would care to have.

    • Tom Tom

      Ouch! Hope your friend managed to recover from that! It’s definitely something of a double-edged sword. Although after writing this, I’m beginning to think I might struggle to hire a designer when the time comes! 😉

  19. Mike Mike

    Total disregard for anything except for design and development. Whatever happened to branding, quite possibly the most important aspect of selling a product or service? You’re not going to get a corporate identity for $35.

    The approach I’ve found that works best with my endeavours has been to get all my designs from the same person, whose design process I really like and give them free reign. Very little input, great results, and most importantly, branding.

  20. This is a debate I have with myself day in & day out. I am a developer and couldn’t afford a designer for my site
    I include my link not as a plug (no doubt it will be no-followed anyway) but so that people can see that with no money I think the basic design is not too bad considering I don’t have a creative bone in my body. Had a quote of £125 per job from a designer I used to do some work for. My initial thoughts are if I can’t come up with a design myself I will get her input.

    • DuncR DuncR

      Well done. You’ve completely captured the essence of Barnsley in your design.

      • I am assuming there was no sarcasm intended there and I will say thanks! If there was sarcasm then thanks anyway!

  21. rob rob

    Can you cite specific successes you have had with this methodology? Examples?

    • Tom Tom

      I’m currently making the equivalent of half my salary with TweetingMachine and InboxCleaner – so, they’ve achieved their aims, i.e. making enough to justify a designer.

      • rob rob

        Make sense, as a designer I don’t want to get into the how much your article pissed me off.

        But as a design strategist I like that your article touches on an important element of strategy that you need to know when to engage with certain experts or resources, and if this is done prematurely you increase your chances of failure.

  22. I think your post is a bit misplaced.

    You should be clear when referring what specifically you hire a designer for. If it’s for your public site then sure if you like go buy a theme. Just remember when you’re company’s gained some traction and your pitching some investors, asking them for 500,000 in funding and they see your theme for 35 dollars, they might not value your business at the same amount you do.

    If your speaking in terms of the product itself then I really don’t think any of your arguments are valid. Unless your using an out of box solution then by all means but developing a product with little or no design expertise in todays competitive market is startup suicide.

  23. Callie Callie

    I have to completely disagree with you on this article, but more so with some of your comments you’ve made to other designers. While you might not come out and state in the article to “never hire a designer” you really do give off that impression.

    • Tom Tom

      In which case I can only apologize to every designer that I’ve inadvertently said that to – and yourself if that’s the impression I’ve given you. If you could show some specific examples of where you think I’ve implied that, I’d appreciate it so I can know better for the future :-)

  24. Ben Ben

    I completely disagree. When it comes to an important project where it’s important to get the right message across I wouldn’t dream of trying to use a theme, since most of my peers and some of my clients will see it for what it is: a generic design that doesn’t reflect the branding or product(s) I’m selling.

    Personally, I couldn’t design a straight line if I tried, but I do appreciate design.

    It’s worth respecting good design talent, and understanding how aesthetics and a well considered user experience contribute to a better overall site. I’m lucky in that I’ve got good relationships with a few designers I think are very good, and when I go to them I know they’ll understand the objectives of my project and how best to approach the design.

    Best of luck with your own approach, but first impressions count and if that impression is of a design that sucks, that’s not going to help you at all.

  25. people buy stuff despite design. As a I designer, I agree with you.
    Most designers that I’ve come across are not worth a dime.

  26. As a designer, I’ve never had to be handled. In fact if you have to handle them to get the desired result you hired the wrong designers.

  27. There is a flip-side to this however. And one that a designer will definitely put forward – template sites and design ‘auction sites’ devalue their industry.

    p.s. the ‘Send Message’ button currently carries a typo.

  28. With all respect, I think you don’t really understand this business.

    I’ve come across your blog thru a twitt, and I was a bit confused because, yesterday, I saw the theme you’re using in your blog for sale at another site and right now I felt like I was visiting that same themes store again.

    Unique design will help you stand out from the rest, not only in the aesthetics. It will give customers and clients a reason to remember you as “that guy who had this special feature” and not as “one of those guys who have this generic-looking blog”.

    If you wanna sell, that’s an enormous plus: Being (psychologically) memorable. Not generic.

    Also, as a developer, you might have awesome skills, but teaming up with a GUI designer, will help you getting that extra “unf!” that your app features need. Even if it’s a SaaS app.

    He can help you not only making it look good, but give you input about the GUI flow. Positioning the elements in the right area, reducing unnecessary elements that might just make your app confusing, etc…

    Nowadays, with the enormous ammount of competitors, selling is not only about being useful, but about being exceptionally user-friendly and standing out from the rest.

    You can stand out from the rest with killer features, but having awesomely-understandable-killer
    -features will increase the chances of success of your app.

    In general, design for Apps is not only about making the app look pretty, but about ensuring the memorability of it by meticulously creating the best way for the user to interact with the features and the best way to receive and deliver information.

    So buying a $30 theme on a store will give you a nice looking desing (even tho you might not be the only one who will be using it), but not one that will really work for your app, since it was conceived in a generic way and not for your specifinc features.

  29. There are no shortcuts in quality.

  30. Me Me

    What a shitty article…
    1. What if you want unique theme for real website (not jus a pile of shit)???
    2. What if you aren’t telented enough to design your own template???

    You really need to think before saying… Now you said big shit man :) So if you want only to attract people to themeforest to buy your design then go and fuck yourself :)

  31. Dunc R Dunc R

    Completely disagree. While I appreciate the need to keep costs down when starting up, quite how you expect to differentiate yourself from the market, build the foundations of a brand, create a UI/UX that ‘just works’ and entice your users with a $35 generic template is beyond me.

    Design is about problem solving, not just applying a pretty style to things. If you’re only dealing with the aesthetics then you’re not a designer, your an artist. Don’t confuse the two.

    If your idea has potential (and your market research should tell you that), then do yourself a favour. Do it once. Do it right. Collaborate from the start with a decent designer. If you’re not willing to invest in your idea, then you obviously have no faith in its success.

  32. toivo toivo

    “Completely disagree. Design is not something you slap on top of an app. It is integral to it.” yes, I agree

    But Tom is talking about the very first stage at the beginning when you have minimum of resources. You could put your effort in a) backend, b)frontend, c) backend and frontend. Just choose a)

  33. While I agree with most this article, I think we have different views on design. If you view design as how something looks then a theme is sufficient for most projects, because they look nice. But most bootstrapped web start ups are not simple marketing sites. They rely on much user interaction. And if the user experience is terrible then people wont want to use the product. So having a designer who understands usability and common design practices could really turn your app into something special.

    Most programmers need designers and most designers need programmers. Teamwork :)

  34. The irony of your ‘send message’ comment button having a missing letter is excruciatingly hilarious.

    • Tom Tom

      Curses! Someone pointed that out recently as well, grr! :)

  35. I think all of the designers commenting here are completely missing the point to this blog post. Here is the key statement to this post…

    “When bootstrapping your startup…”

    This article has nothing to do with look and feel, and everything to do with budget. And as Tom has mentioned above, most designers worth their salt will not work for sweet equity. The same things can be said about developers as well.

    So really, there are just two choices: A template that could have possibly been created by someone with design talent, or dust off your copy of Photoshop 6 and see how long it takes to mangle together the design for your app.

    Bootstrapping, means no money or very little, so a template is the best option that Tom presented.

    BUT… I have yet to read anything about a designer and developer working on trade. You scratch my back and I will scratch yours. Why not browse your local user groups for a designer looking to hire a developer for “cheap”. It might be the start of the next bright and shiny object that everyone wants.


  36. This article has so much fail I don’t even know where to begin. The Update makes it even more fail.

    First off, design is SO much more than “pretty little boxes.” It is impossible to separate “how the user interface comes together” from design. The user interface is the design.

    “Don’t let the design get in the way” ?!?!?
    The design is impossible to ignore. You can have a wonderfully functioning application, but it’ll be *VERY* difficult to get that app off of the ground without a good User Interface. The app store is a brilliant example. There are so many well functioning apps on there that have poor interfaces and they are never used because they’re difficult to use. They aren’t difficult to use because of the development, they’re difficult to use because of the design.

    I could go on with additional examples (MySpace, Color (an iPhone app), Microsoft, Yahoo, etc)

    A strong design is paramount to a website or app. It is something that cannot be ignored or your __(whatever)__ will fail.

  37. Ironically, the article shows just how badly you actually need a designer who can handle your branding. You’re likely patting yourself on the back right now after getting so many comments because like most people who know nothing about design, you probably heard some place that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”.

    Of course, there is such a thing. You’ve got around twenty people telling you directly that you’re wrong. All of those people think you have shit for brains and they’re reposting this article all over web forums and networks (where I found it), telling thousands more people that what little brain you have is pure liquid shit.

    Your article is arrogant, ignorant and disrespectful. The fact that not only did you not realise that yourself, you also don’t have the balls to admit you’re wrong and apologise, speaks volumes about the actual quality of your company and products. Should’ve hired a designer.

  38. Jfk Jfk

    Oh this article is SO wrong… Unfortunately many developers (and managers!) make the same mistake.
    How do you expect to bootstrap anything that attracts users if your product or service is so poorly thought-through (ie designed) that nobody understands or wants to use it?

    As you mention in your update, design is not just about drawing fancy rounded corners. For that you often just need a visual artist, who would follow indications from the designer to execute.

  39. Luke Browell Luke Browell

    The very best developers are also great designers and vice versa.

    Design isn’t just visual, it’s architectural.

    Of course there’s always room in the world for one-trick ponies, but if you want a serious project to succeed, get a good blend of skills.

    This is a good example:

  40. The theme you’ve used here up till now has been purchased and downloaded 514 times. That means you have the same branding as 513 people/companies. That’ll make you stand out from the bedroom hobbyists making jam/greetings cards/crocheted pillow cases…
    Always gets on my tits when I see this. Not even to play around with the CSS to personlise it in any way shows a complete lack of understanding about design and marketing. Lazy and cheap is how you come across.
    I’ve had this with a client, who remarkably is in marketing, who has used an out of the box wordpress theme for his website, and sends me artwork to send to print in word. His content is fulll of reasons why he’s great at his job and people should hire him for his expertise, which seems ridiculously contradictory when he won’t do likewise with people he should be using i.e. a designer/branding expert (which to be fair as someone in marketing he should be more than aware of).
    Well done for getting the exposure mind, cant fault you on your ability to get publicity. When I’m finished reworking my site and blog I may just write an article about how there’s no need to hire a developer when you can google everything you need to know…

  41. that´s the kind of thinking we designers face all the time, you are not saying anything new bro, just think that, despite the quality of the design, it´s not just about the product it´s also how you wrapp it! , you wouldn´t sell coca-cola in a paper bag would you? they new to work together to give the best user-interface to the customer.. your thinking seem to me pretty mediocre…

  42. Show me a successful and bitchin’ web app sans a designer and then I’ll take this blog post more seriously.

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