John Maeda on the growing importance of design to Silicon Valley

Former Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda, who joined Silicon Valley firm KPCB in 2013, has released research into design’s growing importance to tech companies. It shows that tech giants are increasingly acquiring design consultancies and designer-founded companies are among the most successful start-ups.

KPCB  | Photo by Mona T. Brooks

John Maeda, design partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, says Silicon Valley firms “are increasingly seeing the value of designers who know how to work with and within the constraints of the tech industry”.

Maeda, who joined KPCB from his post as Rhode Island School of Design president in 2013, makes the statement in his Design in Tech Report 2015, which outlines design’s importance to tech companies.

In the report, Maeda cites Moore’s law, that the number of transistors in a circuit doubles approximately every two years. This has historically been a driving force in the tech industry, but Maeda says: “Moore’s law no longer cuts it as the key path to a happier customer.”

Maeda says: “The previous solution to every new problem in tech has been simple: more tech”. He adds: “As the marginal return on more computing power (a la Moore’s law) continues to diminish, a new kind of design will matter more than Moore.”

The report was put together in consultation with 110 designers working in tech. It shows that since 2010, 27 start-up companies co-founded by designers have been acquired by companies such as Google, Facebook, Adobe and Yahoo.


In addition, since 2011, eight creative consultancies have been “atypically” acquired by tech companies, including Fjord, which was bought by Accenture in 2013, and Gecko Design, which was bought by Google last year.

The report also shows that 20 per cent of the top cumulative-funded venture capital-backed ventures that have raise additional capital since 2013 have designer co-founders. Maeda also says startups are bringing designers in-house earlier, with Ionic Security, ZenPayroll and Remind among those that had design leads in their first ten hires.

To demonstrate how attitudes have changed, the report quotes Airbnb co-founder and design graduate Brian Chesky, who told Dezeen that when his company was set up in 2008 “[Silicon Valley] didn’t think a designer could build and run a company. They were straight up about it. We weren’t MBAs; we weren’t two PhD students from Stanford. Being designers they thought we were people that worked for people that ran companies.”

Maeda himself adds: “There were no designers on Silicon Valley’s fabled ‘Sand Hill Road’ until January of 2014 when I arrived at KPCB. Since then, six more have now joined VC firms [including Google Ventures and Sequoia Capital].”


He adds: “Businesses started by designers have created billions of dollars of value, are raising billions of dollars in capital, and VC firms increasingly see the importance of design.”

Maeda says the growth in mobile technology gave a significant boost to design’s importance. He says: “The smartphone revolution brought design’s value into the foreground. We want to do in our palm, while walking, what we used to do on a big screen while sitting down at a desk. The interaction design challenges presented by that shift are huge.”

This, he says, has also led to an increased focus on user experience. Maeda says: “User experience matters so much because we are experiencing so much… When usage increases dramatically, design’s strategic value is leveraged.”

Maeda adds that design’s influence in tech will continue to grow in the future, with students in business schools “embracing design wholeheartedly”. He says that seven out of ten of both the BusinessWeek Top Ten US Business Schools and the Financial Times Top Ten Global Business Schools have student-led design clubs.

He says: “Design in the tech sector is sparking new and extending existing economic growth. Expect more value-creation by designers in the coming years as tech matures.”


You can read Maeda’s presentation in full here.

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