design_glassesBrad Keywell, former Groupon co-founder and now co-founder of Chicago’s Lightbank venture capital firm, says “Design is one of the most critical differentiators between good and great technology.”

Keywell is not alone. He’s simply echoing a view that in the past two to three years has become conventional wisdom among investors and entrepreneurs. This rapid shift in thinking has made top-tier design talent as scarce and as highly coveted as elite engineering talent in many startup ecosystems. A 2011 Dice report titled “America’s Tech Talent Crunch” ranked Illinois sixth in talent shortage. Similarly, a recent Quora thread echoing this problem reads, “I’ve got a list of half a dozen great companies who are having troubles finding a good designer right now and every designer I’ve talked to is deluged by work.”

Seeing this as a particularly potent problem in the midwest, Keywell and his fellow Lightbank partners have launched the Lightbank Design fellowship program. The three-month program is designed to allow promising young graphic designers — young in terms of either age or experience — to hone their skills and gain exposure to the world of technology by working alongside Lightbank’s more than 50 early-stage portfolio startups. Participants, aka “Fellows,” will be paid for their time and presumably have the inside track on permanent employment opportunities within this rarified pool of companies upon completion of the program.

“We are believers in the power of great design, and our goal is to nurture and expose top design talent to real-world situations where they have the opportunity to interact with an array of emerging technology entrepreneurs and businesses,” Keywell says.

The problem, according to Keywell, is two-fold. First, the midwest startup ecosystem suffers from an overall lack of technology-focused design talent. While there are pockets of geekdom throughout the country, much of the top tech and design talent gravitates toward the two coasts. This program is intended to address this shortcoming by delivering frontline training to a new crop of aspiring designers three times a year (Winter, Summer, and Fall). Second, the serial entrepreneur and investor believes there’s an entire population of design talent in other industries that wants to transition to the technology world but has no concept of where to begin and or how. Lightbank Design aims to be this point of transition.

“You’d think startups would be a natural draw to the best designers,” Keywell says, “but there’s a weird disconnect between design and technology communities. In recognition, we concluded that we wanted to be at the front end of connecting the dots.”

Lightbank has partnered with local educational program The Starter League (formerly Code Academy) to identify up-and-coming talent in need of real world industry experience. Would be designers can sign up for classes through Starter League directly but will need to apply for the Lightbank Design fellowship separately (email resumes and portfolios to design@lightbank.com). The deadline for applications to the first batch is January 31, 2013. A dedicated microsite for the program should be coming later this week.

“Design-first is the new product strategy, and designers are essentially the new hackers,” Ashish Rangnekar, co-founder of Lightbank-backed education startup BenchPrep, says. “Users care as much, if not more, about the usability and design of the product as they do about the features. So it’s crucial for us to find talent that can help us stand out in the marketplace, attract new users, and carry out our overall vision.”

In addition to working alongside Lightbank portfolio companies, Fellows in the program will receive mentorship and ongoing seminar-style education centered around technology-focused design. Keywell, et al are still finalizing the list of participating mentors, but hinted that many will likely come from the Chicago Ideas Week network.

When Lightbank started, it occupied an 11,000 square foot office at the now infamous 600 West Chicago Ave building. Today, nearly three years later, the firm’s footprint has swelled to more than 800,000 square feet, including a startup accelerator and many portfolio companies headquartered in the building. The firm casts the biggest shadow in the Chicago startup ecosystem.

The reaction hasn’t always been positive. The September launch of the firm’s Lightbank Start incubator program was met with significant opposition when it was revealed that the investor would be taking 50 percent equity in each new startup in exchange for contributing $100,000 seed money, office space, and mentorship. These types of aggressive terms risk an investor being labeled – fairly or unfairly – as entrepreneur-unfriendly.

On the other hand, Lightbank’s move to cultivate this pool of design talent on behalf of its portfolio should earn it a gold star from those entrepreneurs and designers who stand to benefit. Other Chicago investors and startups may be less enthused, however, potentially viewing the program as absorbing a disproportionate amount of already scarce design talent.

Lightbank Design plays into a broader “full-service VC trend” where firms are bringing additional tangible resources in-house. Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, Lightbank, and others have been building full staffs of public relations, digital marketing, customer acquisition, recruiting, and accounting professionals, among others to support their portfolio companies.

Cultivating design talent, as Lightbank is doing, is merely an extension of this. And given the outward-facing nature of their work, it has the potential to have an enormous impact on company success.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia]