What happens when design meets startup culture?

Looking back and reflecting on the journey of our design intern at Aalto Startup Center, by Alessia Menegolli

Four months ago I was buying my no-return ticket for the rollercoaster that is Finnish startup scene. Specifically, I grabbed a seat in Aalto University’s ecosystem’s vagon as I joined Aalto Startup Centre. My journey as a design intern, or as we loved to call it “designer in residence”, has indeed given me the thrills, just as in a rollercoaster’s ride.

Now, at the end of my journey, it is time to stop and look back at what we achieved and what being a designer immersed in this very peculiar environment meant for me, and what it could possibly represent for the next students joining the team.

First and foremost, a little introduction about myself: I am a soon-to-be Aalto master’s graduate in the Collaborative and Industrial Design program. My background is in product design, but I gradually switched towards a service and UX design approach, mostly because of my love of working closely with people.

Although I had some previous experience and knowledge on startups’ environment and ways of working, Aalto Startup Center offered me a new way of looking at it. What I am most grateful to have experienced is the passion that all the people in the team and the startups put everyday in their own work. It just felt incredible.

As a designer at Aalto Startup Center, my time was split between internal work and moments entirely dedicated to the portfolio´s startups, giving advice and discussing closely with them. As a student coming from the department of Design, I also acted as a link between the Startup Center and the ARTS community, supported by the amazing people of TOKYO, the association of ARTS students.

We established the “stARTing up – ARTS FELLOWS” initiative which seeked to give opportunities to startups to experience in first person the immeasurable value that artistic, design and creative expertise brings to companies as well as strengthening the involvement of students into the startup ecosystem, and vice versa.

Sometimes, in startups there is still this misconception about design being only a means for “polishing pixels”. In reality design can be much more than that, but when you are focused on surviving and developing your idea into an actual business it can be easy to not attribute enough importance to design disciplines and practice. Nevertheless, the impact of choosing a design-driven approach can be much more than just achieving a polished interface. This is why advocating and raising awareness on design and creative culture, as well as spreading collaborative and design thinking-oriented ways of working, were the priorities in my work at Startup Center.

Fostering a design culture amongst the companies was achieved by initiatives such as Design Café, a series of low-key events where startups could participate in discussions around design-related topics, and Design Clinic, where the design interns would offer consultancy time to the companies highlighting the different facets that design practice can take.

Design gives startups a better understanding of what people actually want and would pay for, more empathy for their customers and their world, a way for them to communicate their uniqueness through their product or service. Technology can often be copied, design can bring in an emotion which often can’t.” 

– Laurence McCahill [1]

As a design student, entering this world was one unique experience. I fell in love with the fast-paced environment, the vast array of opportunities offered by different projects, the continuous stimuli, the passion shown by people in their everyday work, the openness of the teams and the warmth with which I was welcomed on-board. I enjoyed every last bit of it. Of course, service and UX design has still a long road ahead to be fully implemented and fully functional in Aalto Startup Center, but I am confident this legacy will be passed on to capable designers who will develop it further and make it flourish even more.

Coming to the end of my rollercoaster ride, I found myself reflecting on my journey. Here are the top 3 learnings that I took away from my personal experience at Aalto Startup Center:

  • Believe in yourself and in your own abilities.

As a young student it is very easy to doubt your skills, but realizing the value that your input brings to the team is the first step to become more confident about it. In this sense, I believe that Aalto Startup Center offers the perfect platform for students to apply the capabilities they have been building in years of academic education.

  • Teamwork is the key to success.

I have always preferred working in group settings, rather than alone and I have always believed that teamwork brings an unique value to the project because it allows different points of views to shape each other. My experience at Aalto Startup Center was a confirmation on this front: working closely with Karishma, my designer colleague, and the Startup Center´s team was essential during my time there. So don’t fly solo, but gather a team of amazing people to support you.

  • Have fun and do what you love!

Does this sound obvious? Well it’s not. Bring your passion to the working place everyday, do what you love and take choices that will help you in building a sustainable future that can fulfill you as a professional, but most importantly, as a person. And don’t forget to have fun along the way.


[1]: Laurence McCahill, Why startups need design from day one