How to Draw a Startup That Looks Different from Other Startups


Show Art for “How to Draw a Startup”

At the beginning of last year, I wrote a post about the woeful lack of aesthetic diversity in illustrations used for tech products—a phenomenon I described as a kind of a pervasive “monoculture.” That caught the attention of illustrator and designer Mark Grambau, who has since launched a new podcast called “How to Draw a Startup” which focuses on “illustration’s evolving role in the tech industry.” Grambau describes it as a podcast mini-series that “explores why illustration is utilized, how illustrated brands are crafted, and where illustrators fit in creative teams.”

The show’s fifth episode digs further into this monoculture topic, asking whether my assertion was valid, and how designers and illustrators can advocate for more unique aesthetic approaches in technology. Grambau includes this quote from an interview he did with me, in which I suggest some of the implications of this monoculture:

The question is: At what point does the value become commoditized? And at what point does the lack of distinctiveness, the lack of unique voices really start to hurt the company themselves and also hurt the community of users and customers?

I mean, if you’ve got a wide range of apps and services—you know, everything from ride hailing to apartment sharing to recording your physical and health data—if all of these services speak in the same language, are you essentially talking to one kind of user out there? Or one kind of customer? Or maybe effectively excluding other people? Or are you missing opportunities to make your brand, your company, your service distinct from the others? Ultimately, are we all just limiting the the use cases that we solve for? Limiting the problems that we’re trying to tackle?

And I’m exaggerating a little bit here about what the outcome is of these kinds of aesthetic choices, but if you look at how technology has chosen to apply itself over the past decade, the kinds of problems that technology has applied itself to, it’s actually no accident that this kind of illustration caught on. It’s very anodyne. It’s very benign. It’s not very challenging. It doesn’t really seek to address a wider worldview, doesn’t seek to acknowledge diversity in the audience that it’s communicating to. And that matches up to the kinds of apps and services that we’ve seen over the past decade or so, where, you know, you have services devoted to getting your laundry done or getting alcohol delivered to, you know, your condo. I mean, basically services that are oriented towards treating customers as, you know, privileged children.

“How to Draw a Startup” is unusual in that it eschews the normal interview format that the vast majority of design podcasts take. (In this way it’s similar to what we’ve tried to do with my own podcast, “Wireframe.”) Instead, it opts to edit together multiple voices and perspectives into a cohesive narrative, with Grambau weaving it together as the host—and doing it all superbly, I might add. In this fifth episode alone, Grambau includes not just comments from me but also from Maryland Institute College of Art illustration chairperson Allan Comport, Google Doodler Jennifer Hom, former Intercom designer Stewart Scott-Curran, Dropbox designer Kristen Spilman, illustrator Quentin Vijoux, and Buck creative director Kevin Walkerwhew. You get the idea; Grambau is thorough.

And not just in his sourcing, either. In addition to meticulously weaving together a number of disparate voices, Grambau also provides full transcriptions for each episode on the show’s site, copiously illustrated (of course) with supporting visuals. Each installment becomes more than just a show; it’s a complete resource, even a lesson in the topic at hand. And the topics that “How to Draw a Startup” takes on are substantive; Grambau dives deep into the gap between aesthetic and systemic visual work, illustration methodology, cultural representation and more. No one has covered this increasingly important nexus between technology and illustration with as much detail and thoughtfulness. What’s more, it’s extremely listenable; as host, Grambau takes pains to tell his stories with clarity and to explain complex or obscure topics in plain language for the uninitiated.

The entirety of episode five is embedded here for your listening pleasure. You can also subscribe to “How to Draw a Startup” at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts (personally, I use Pocket Casts).

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