Design Essential to Sustainable Companies, Speakers Say at Montclair Entrepreneurs

From funding and product to ethics and culture, design is the key to making companies sustainable. Dozens gathered earlier this month at Montclair State University’s Feliciano School of Business for a panel discussion on design for sustainable business. It was hosted by Montclair Entrepreneurs, a Meetup community of entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs that has nearly 5,000 members, started by the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship.

Tyrone Ross Jr., managing partner of NobleBridge Wealth, a Montclair-based investment-management and strategic wealth planning firm, moderated the panel, which featured two New Jersey-based entrepreneurs. Ross has worked with institutions, and corporations and retail clients; and he advises early-stage startups on their financial planning.

“Everything in the world is design, everything that’s made is design,” said panel member Cat Noone, founder and CEO of Iris Health, a company in Princeton whose app enables seniors to track and understand their health. When asked by Ross which brands or companies are exemplars of good design, she answered “Apple” with zero hesitation. “Everything you touch is beautiful. Everything is well thought out,” she said. “Everything is easy to you. There is a reason for everything they do and every product they create.”

Benedikt Lehnert is the director of product design for Microsoft M365 Mobile Experiences, and he works with Noone as an angel investor in design-driven startups across the country. “Three components to the discipline of design [are] usefulness, usability and craft,” he said. “Something has a good design when it’s useful, meaning that it serves a need. … It’s usable, as in easy to use, fun to use. And it is well crafted.”

The duo cofounded Lyra, a symbol-to-speech app for children with autism; and Stark, a color-blind simulator and contrast checker. The three discussed the role of design in achieving a sustainable business and how founders can (and should) adopt good design as a value, not just a one-off process.

Designers should be cofounders

Noone and Lehnert were not shy about declaring that they only invest in companies with a cofounder who is a designer. “Bringing a designer on board means, more often that not, that you’re putting people before profit,” said Lehnert. “Those who put that at the forefront, in the beginning, have a much better advantage, rather than focusing on sales or business development.”

Design with humanity in mind

“Design is felt, it’s emotion, the feeling you get when you see that beautiful [Tesla] design. And it’s the same with iPhone,” said Ross. “When you first get the iPhone, it’s beautiful, it makes you feel a certain way. That was Steve Jobs’ magic. He made you feel a certain way through his product, and that’s through design. I think we’re starting to see companies embrace that.”

Design the company internally

“Your company is a product. We want to make sure that a designer is on board, and that not everyone on the team looks the same,” Noone stated. “If that team page is all white males, you can’t inherently empathize with the people using your product. If you’re company isn’t diverse, there are going to be touch points that are going to be missing by default.”

Design with a purpose

“Our jobs as designers are, one, advocating for the user or the customer. The other is for us to say, ‘Does this thing have to exist?’” said Lehnert. “It is not enough to make something. You should ask yourself, ‘Is this something that should be made?’”

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