Design in Tech: Evolving Challenges for Silicon Valley

As recently as just fifteen years ago, computers were primarily used by researchers and otherwise “nerdy” types. Software was difficult to use, a situation that was remedied by endless manuals. Hardware didn’t look like anything more than a box, preferably one that could be opened easily with a screwdriver. I was fortunate to live through that era and watch it unfold over a few decades at the MIT Media Lab.

Today’s users, however, are considerably less nerdy, and they’re less patient than your average MIT computer science researcher. The design of a digital experience matters a great deal now — as much as the technology — and for that reason, design has risen considerably in importance. So although founding tech startups was long only the purview of engineers, we now see the rise of companies like Airbnb and Pinterest that are founded by designers.

A lot has happened over the last four years at the intersection of design and tech — 27 startups co-founded by designers and 13 design firms have been acquired by technology companies. As a result, design professionals are becoming more visible participants in Silicon Valley, and designers are even being welcomed into the world of venture capital. For example, shortly after I joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers from my post as the President of Rhode Island School of Design, six other venture capital firms brought in designers into their partnerships.

The change afoot has certainly moved the technology industry forward. But it’s also exposed some pain points as designers transition from playing a functional role within their companies, to assuming leadership positions. In order to succeed in such roles, I’ve observed three areas that designers in tech might want to keep in mind for the future:

  1. Designers are often taught to strive for absolute perfection, but the startup world demands shipping fast, often, and imperfectly. Designers traditionally needed to work with “integrity,” which means committing to quality, accountability and authorship. But startups need to move fast and work in rapid iterations to generate actionable data to know how to improve; thus, the mantra we often hear of “ship fast and often.” Designers can choose to embrace the inherent challenge of rapid iteration that startups require, or forego the tech world by designing in traditional media. As the past designer of posters, books, furniture, and other works that I could craft and ship to perfection, I can honestly say that having feet in both worlds of traditional media and digital media is the preferable direction.
  2. Business decisions drive a startup’s growth by necessity, and the task of managing compromises in a product is often unbearable to a designer. Product sales, costs, and other business considerations all affect the decisions made in startups. And although design’s role in tech is hugely important today, it needs to be seen as one of many factors. As I shared in the 2015 #DesignInTech Report: To achieve great design, you need great business thinking/doing — to effectively invest in design — and you need great engineering — to achieve unflagging performance. Successful designers in startups recognize that compromise is a form of communicating their vital voice alongside other constituents inside the company. They also recognize that the product they’re designing is the startup itself. And thus, if there are no compromises to be made, it is in growing the best company possible that they can successfully and sustainably create the best products.
  3. Moving from being a hands-on designer to becoming the hands-off leader of designers is a difficult transition to make. The increased need for design to play a larger role in tech companies means that scaling the design function becomes vital. Designers can learn from their engineering leader counterparts who have learned to be comfortable with relinquishing hands-on responsibilities as the startup grows. Their importance doesn’t diminish. It just changes. The same is true for designers who are developing into leaders, and into the emerging elite that can spearhead the challenge of managing increasingly larger design teams.

I’ve seen these three things happen firsthand to designers in startups that I’ve had the pleasure of working with here at KPCB. Having now seen two cohorts of KPCB Fellows work closely with Silicon Valley design leaders, it’s been amazing to imagine the kind of impact they will have in the future on the tech industry. Each summer, young designers in the KPCB Fellows Program gain the crucial experience of working alongside engineers and others at a startup to learn what is needed from them when products or services are being invented. Participants in our new Product Fellows Program will get the chance to spend a full year working at a tech start-up.

Applications for the Design and Product Fellows opened on January 1, 2016, and will run through the end of the month. If you are interested at all in the inner-workings of product and design at startups, join us. The experience of working alongside engineers, business partners and others will only help you—as the next generation of design and product up-and-comers— fit in and work better with your startup colleagues. And if you’re curious to learn more about design’s emerging role in the tech industry and investing ecosystem, check out the inaugural #DesignInTech Report that was recently named Best SlideShare of 2015 for designers.