When is the right time to invest in design?


Written by

Andy Kelly

So when then?

Some small businesses can get away with spending very little on design in the early stages. Some founders may already have some design skills they can call upon to begin with.

But if you’re a tech startup, hoping to sail the high seas of the internet, investing in design will be essential, to stand out from the crowd and build a trustworthy brand.

The quick answer to the question above is: as soon as possible. But that’s probably not super helpful so in this post we look at how you might determine when it’s time to properly invest and how much you should be spending.

First though, what do we mean by ‘design’?

Do you understand your design needs?

When we say design, we’re talking about more than just a logo (although that is part of it).

With the internet providing unrivalled access to a whole range of services and creative technology more accessible than ever before, the product functionality isn’t enough of a differentiator on its own.

Design is the key to standing out.


A company's brand includes everything from the logo and typeface to the tone of voice, but we’re mainly focusing on the visual design side of things here.

This is going to be the face of your startup – it’s what people will see on your social media platforms and website.

Getting this to be coherent and recognisable is harder to do than many think.

The good news is this stuff is easier to change & evolve as you go along, when compared to say, the product itself.

One tech company that has a very recognisable and distinctive brand is Mailchimp, the marketing email provider. This page on their website explains how it’s been refined over time but has retained many of the features that made it unique in the first place.

Website Design

If your brand design and logo are the shop sign, visible all the way down the street, then your website is the shop window.

This should tell visitors everything they need to know about the company and your product or service in a pretty short space of time.

But it’s about more than just looking nice and sounding good. For tech startups trying to sell an app or services or companies looking for investment you’ve got to provide a smooth user journey through that website, helping interested consumers get key pricing information and most importantly make it easy for them to spend money.

Product Design

If you’re a product-based startup hopefully this bit is high on your radar but it’s not always easy to do early on.

It may be that you need to get enough interest in the thing or build a prototype version before going any further.

Nonetheless your company will not succeed unless you get this bit right.  

For many successful tech companies, it’s the usability and smoothness of their app or software’s design that makes them the market leaders.

In other words, when the competition is this fierce, can you afford not to invest in the design of your product?

The questions you need to ask

So, the question remains which one of these areas should you prioritise and when do you spend proper money on it?

You’re not going to get all of the above services from one person, although you might be able to bring someone on board who can do them all to a certain standard.

In most cases though you’ll need the help of an agency (or two) with proficiency in the above specialisms.

Deciding when to spend the money will depend on the answers to the following questions. Is it going to be ASAP, before seeking investment or after you’ve got it?

Invest in your team.

Most startups begin with a couple of founders, or maybe a small team of people, with shared responsibilities.

Someone has a great idea and often technical expertise in the product or service they are offering but they don’t necessarily have the skills to design and build the thing.

On the other you may have a CTO who is capable of developing an early version of the app or service you’re building and even a half decent website. They may not however, have the design skills needed to create a coherent brand. Or vice versa.

If you’ve got a couple of these skills in your team from the outset, you may be able to put off spending money for some time. But be wary of shipping an ‘ok’ product. Your standard of what’s good enough may be significantly lower than that of a professional designer.

Gone are the days where the likes of Amazon or Google could create a website that would survive for quite a long time, purely on the novelty of the service it provided.

These days 88% of visitors don’t return to websites if the desktop or mobile experience is sub-par.

If you plan on outlasting the competition, recognise your individual limitations as soon as possible and fill that gap.

The next thing is asking yourself, are you seeking investment ASAP or are you hoping to bootstrap your way to success?

Applying for angel or venture capital investment is a common step for many startups.

Whether looking for seed funding early on or building to a point before asking for a further cash injection, the design is going to have to be pretty polished.

The branding and website design could be something you aim to improve upon once you have that investment but having a well-designed product is essential.

And it is possible to show off to investors without necessarily having the money to develop a fully-fledged app or website. We wrote about how to do this here. Link to other article once it’s up

On the other hand, your plan might be to bootstrap the app. This approach means that the company is reliant on self-generated income to survive, which will definitely be easier to achieve if the founders already have the necessary design and development skills.

Regardless, it’s a legitimate approach that has the benefit of only putting your money at risk and not the investor’s money or the jobs of the team you bring on board.

Many apps, browser extensions and software add-ons are bootstrapped and often stay developer owned.

It’s arguably easier to progress in these areas without a premium design as the most important thing is function. Plus, not needing to impress investors, you can focus your efforts on building a good product and finding a supportive (and hopefully paying!) community online.

How much are you willing to spend?

The point at which you invest in design might depend on how much you’re willing to spend.

Do you value design enough to recognise that the good stuff is generally going to come with a higher price tag?

It can be tempting to go with a cheaper supplier early on, to keep costs down but the cliché ‘buy it cheap, buy it twice’ is generally true.

Getting your product, brand or website to a ‘good enough’ quality will only get you so far before you begin to resent it. It won’t be too long before you have to hire another, more expensive supplier to really get what you’re after.

Of course, not everything with a higher price tag is automatically going to be better, so make sure to do the research. As a general rule of thumb however, it’s a pretty good indicator.

We understand there’s a limit to how much you’re going to be able to spend early on but try and think of your design work as an investment itself.

By spending the money now, you’ll gain traction, recognition and brand coherence earlier on. And hopefully that design will serve its purpose for much longer (assuming no meddling investors decide they want it to look different).

What will it cost?

It’s the question everyone wants an answer to: how much is it going to cost?

Unfortunately, we can’t really give you a simple answer to that.

Bet that’s exactly what you didn’t want to hear… Sorry.

The truth is it does depend on how much of the stuff we mentioned above you need doing and how expansive that work is. Prices vary drastically depending on location and quality.

That’s assuming you can get them all done at one place that is. If you can it will also have the benefit of a single team getting to know that brand well and being fully integrated in it.

If you want to know how our process works, we’ve got a fun little how it works section on our website.

As you’ll see, we sit down with our clients for a thorough discovery session before we can even begin to give an idea of what it will cost.

But the people that come to us know we’re going to deliver something that will stand out from the crowd, will wow investors and will please their customers.

If you want a more conclusive answer than that, well maybe we’re not for you.

So, when is it time to invest in design? Well, that’s really up to you to decide.