I'm Maria, a designer in Silicon Valley. I have been working at various startups in the bay for the past 5 years. I have learned a lot while being the only designer, and later as part of larger teams with many talented designers and managers. In this project I hope to share a bit about my experience of being the only designer with no previous startup world experience.

My experience as the only brand designer

Before moving to SF and joining the startup world, I worked as an art director at several ad agencies in Chicago. I was part of a team of multiple designers, art directors, copywriters, producers, production designers, and creative directors. As an art director, I had a copywriter partner to bounce ideas off with, brainstorm, and collaborate.

Once I moved to San Francisco I decided to join a startup, mostly out of curiosity. I honestly had no idea what the startup world was like, what a series A, B, C, or whatever meant. To be honest, relative to the ad world, it felt like working at a non profit. There wasn’t money to hire a producer, production designer or copywriter. The design team consisted of 3 of us: my manager, a product design lead, and myself.

Still, I enjoyed the thrill of helping build the brand for a new company at a very fast pace. In one year we designed the whole website, we branded/wrapped cars, produced packaging, made brand videos, developed an illustration style, had photo shoots, and worked on our social and email strategy. Unlike the ad world, where it could take a year to ship one thing, at this startup we shipped many things a quarter. However, there was very little time to explore multiple designs. Also, it was our responsibility to find our printing vendors, warehouses to store the packaging, produce everything at all sizes, contact photographers and draft contracts. All in all - I learned a lot in that year. Including how to let go of “perfection”, manage my own timelines, and build relationships with outside partners.

"It’s exhausting and Exhilarating being the only designer"

I later joined another startup, where after a few months, I found myself being the only brand designer again. Often I had to answer the questions: Why is brand needed? What’s the purpose of having a consistent look and feel? Should it matter if it looks good as long as it works? The goals of the company were also constantly changing, so I had to learn how to work with ambiguity and find opportunity in an ever changing environment. This was very hard, but I was lucky to be surrounded by product designers who provided advice/guidance on how to be okay with the ambiguous nature of startups.

Throughout the years I have met several other “brand,” “visual,” or “communications” designers who have also been the only designers at their companies. We have shared stories of how hard and thrilling it can be. Being the only designer is very challenging, but it is also exciting as you help build a company from the ground up.

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