Danielle Thompson is a UI/UX product designer specializing in the fintech market. She has helped companies raise over $200 million in seed and VC funding, and she is now the founder of Design Match, a service connecting amazing design talent with ambitious startups all over the world. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.
Doreen Lorenzo: When did you first realize you had an interest in design?
Danielle Thompson: I wasn’t aware of it, but I was always building things as a kid. I’d create little shops and be concerned about how things were presented. Later when I went to art school, I absolutely loved creating art, but art didn’t always feel accessible because of the cultural references needed to understand certain pieces. When I got exposed to the design world at university, I started to fall in love with what design really was – the art of translation. If you don’t understand something I’ve made, then it’s on me as the designer. Design really is for the people we design for.
What inspired you to launch your first startup? What did you learn from the experience?
My first startup was inspired by me learning I could work and make money online. I learned how to use Photoshop and people started hiring me to edit their photos for their online dating profiles and design their resumes. I remember talking to my classmates in my first year of university, and they were so surprised I was already making money as a designer. No one was working online at the time, but I had a strong foundation of empowerment fueled by my parents, my family, and my community that gave me the confidence to go out into the world before I had a degree or even done an internship.
At 17 years old, I founded my first company working online called Intern, which created accessible paid internships for design students. I created the website, some of the platform, and went out to try and get funding. I got my first check for $35,000 and that was matched in Canada by a young entrepreneurship fund. I had $70,000, but no idea how to build or run the company. It was a messy start. There were so many issues with that company and it ultimately didn’t succeed. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to work with students and teach them how to work online. I actually returned the money to my investor because I felt I didn’t do what I said I set out to do. It was still a great experience because it taught me how much I don’t know. You need to fail before you can start to see things clearly and understand what aspects go into running a company.
You’ve gone on to become the founder of a number of other startups. Can you tell us about them?
After that first startup, I started freelancing and raising my income. I soon had too much work to take on myself, so I launched a series of agencies that allowed me to hire people and eventually build an international team. I wanted to teach other people how to do this, especially since as I traveled I became a mini influencer. I had grown a big following of women of color and got featured in places like Cosmo magazine. I remember there was this girl who came up to me when I was in Vietnam and asked, “Are you Danielle Thompson? I follow you on Instagram. I thought you were in Bali!” I was like, oh my gosh. Is this what being famous feels like?
I created the Freelance Travel Network which helped students go from struggling after quitting or losing their job to becoming six-figure freelancers in and outside of design. After that, I went on to create Dream Team, a company that builds teams for startups. I collaborated with a partner in the U.S. to build amazing teams of people from all over the world to create products for startups online during Covid. I also created a community called Design Club which connects designers with other designers to empower one another. Throughout all of these experiences, I realized all I wanted to do was create more equal opportunities and help people make more money. The most practical way to do that is to actually get people jobs. That’s where my current company Design Match came in.
What is Design Match’s mission?
At Design Match, our mission is to empower one million designers. The reason why we’re so obsessed with empowering designers is because everything in our world is designed. The laptop you’re using, the cup that I’m drinking out of. Everything stems from design. We have these designers who choose things they want to create in the world. My idea is that if we empower the creators, makers, and architects who want to build the products and experiences they want to, maybe they’ll choose to create things around us that make the world better. If we empower more creatives, maybe they’ll choose to design a better world.
Which design projects or products have you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?
I recently got to work with St. Jude Hospital to help create the largest open-source pediatric cancer database in the world. I didn’t know anything about this space going into the project. Now I know there’s so much data out there that can help accelerate discoveries and cures without the long research paper publication process and whole bureaucracy that puts progress on hold. Conducting analyses typically requires a supercomputer and expensive software, but we created a way to instantly do most analyses in the cloud. I get chills when I talk about it because when I think of the impact of this, it’s absolutely huge. This product is democratizing all this pediatric cancer data to set the world stage for pediatric and hopefully adult cancer research so that hospitals, clinics, and research institutions can share their work more frequently and foster an open-source education platform.
Part of being a great designer is the ability to immerse yourself in other cultures. As someone who’s traveled across the world, how has that influenced your design perspective?
I’m from Canada and was living in Montreal. I was so happy with my life there. I had amazing friends who were supportive of me. My career was going really well. When I tell people about my travels, they think I left for a better life or something like that. That’s not my story. Montreal and Canada are still home in my heart. Life there was very comfortable, but I felt like in order to expand my view of the world and contribute in a meaningful way, I needed to get more uncomfortable. The secret sauce to traveling is to accept that there’s going to be discomfort. When you’re leaving something known to go to something unknown, you have to mentally prepare for uncertainty. I read a statistic that one of the most stressful things that you can do in life is move. I do that like 10 times a year.
When I go to a country where I don’t speak the language, I don’t even have a SIM card, there’s so much uncertainty. You start to become more comfortable with uncertainty. You even start to expect it. You become more resourceful. That resourcefulness has translated into my design. My curiosity for the world and deeply diving into the daily life of so many cultures has allowed me to create better digital products and experiences. Understanding how languages impact the existence of people in certain areas has increased my empathy, allowing me to step into roles where I’m a designer making a scientific application even though I probably failed one of my science courses in school. Traveling lets me channel different personas because I’ve become so used to adapting to wherever I am in the world.
How do you choose where to go? Is it driven by projects or do you just choose where you want to go visit?
It’s driven by what I’m feeling at the moment and what I want to feel like. For example, I had been living in Bali and it was beautiful, calm, and relaxed. Now I’m ready for a city. I’m ready to bring back that energy. Sometimes my actual building process works better in certain cycles. Bali is a great place for ideation because when I’m in Southeast Asia in general, there’s this convenience culture that allows me to feel like whatever I want to do is possible. Then when I take that energy and those ideas and bring them into North or South America, all of a sudden I’m in this fast-paced environment and I start executing at a faster pace. I’m very into self data and tracking myself to understand how I work, how I sleep, how food affects me. It’s this idea of running the design process on myself to understand how spaces and places affect my productivity. Everything actually started to correlate, and I’ve been able to make more educated decisions by carrying out the design process on my own life.
You seem to be a natural mentor. How can encourage more designers to become mentors?
Motivating designers to teach and share is about helping them realize that they have so much value to give. What I encourage people to do is remember when they were dreaming about being where they are now. We need to show people that they are successful where they are literally right now, even when they still have goals and ambitions. Once you realize that, there’s a natural desire to bring people along with you. The reason people don’t become mentors in my opinion is that they don’t think they have anything to give. Once they realize they do, the conversation changes. A good mentor doesn’t even really teach much. They just help people see their own greatness.
How do we collectively uplift and support underrepresented designers?
There are practices like blind hiring and visual representation that can bring in more diversity to companies, but to bring more underrepresented designers to the forefront, I think programs like Design Match are fantastic. We have designers from all over the world like Romania, Nigeria, Canada, the US, Singapore, Malaysia, and more. We do all the selling for them. We tell the client why each designer is the perfect fit, putting this level of trust in their decision. Getting this stamp from the company reduces any anxieties for anyone who hasn’t worked with people from other places in the world because we understand there is a cultural bias that exists for most people. One way we’re confronting this in design is by starting a nonprofit called the Diseño a Futuro. It’s a program we’re going to run in Europe that provides free design education and showcases what career opportunities are possible. Providing free design education is going to be a really big part of bringing more diversity into design.
What advice would you give to aspiring designers and entrepreneurs?
Things don’t have to be perfect. When I started off, I was so nervous because you look online and you see a lot of celebrity designers and people posting beautiful work. Then you’re in Figma struggling to make a button and it’s not looking as refined as someone else’s. I realized that at every stage of my career I was still able to help someone. Maybe I didn’t have the hard skills, but I had the soft skills to translate, understand, and listen, so I just put more time and effort. Even if you’re not the best in all the technology, there are still so many opportunities out there for you to succeed. It can feel overwhelming to try and create something that’s different, but don’t be afraid to make mistakes. All your experience, exactly where you are today, is enough to build something unique and beautiful.