The Rise of Design in Tech: Choosing “The Dirt” Over "The Cloud"

The Rise of Design in Tech: Choosing “The Dirt” Over "The Cloud"

When I went to Silicon Valley at the end of 2013, I had that feeling that comes every so often in one’s life: of not being too early, and not being too late. I had listened to the co-founder of Airbnb, Joe Gebbia, as he visited the Rhode Island School of Design each year as an alumnus and later as a trustee, and he would tell me that Silicon Valley was amazing. Frankly, I didn’t believe him. I had spent twelve years of my life at the MIT Media Lab, ubiquitously known in the tech world for being “amazing,” and by the mid-2000s “the cloud” was getting boring for me. I wanted to be closer to creation — “the dirt” of the physical world.

There’s a special quality that can only be learned through creating artifacts in the real world. For instance, one evening I was visiting one of the freshmen studios and spied the hands of a student absolutely covered in charcoal dust. I commented on her hands being intensely dirty as a badge of courage, to which she replied politely that it really wasn’t at all: that unless your entire arms, shoulders, and neck were covered with charcoal, you were really just warming up. The intensity and energy of the students at RISD were not dissimilar to my students at MIT. If anything, I found their attitude towards life to be identical. They were both makers, and makers love to do one thing above all: make.

There’s a special quality that can only be learned through creating artifacts in the real world.

Back in the 1990s, when I was at MIT, I advocated for more artists and designers to code – and for more scientists and engineers to enter the arts. I was lucky to meet many young and talented “hybrids” of that era, and I got to work closely with them as members of my research group. It was a time when “Design in Tech” was still rather hard to fathom, with large numbers of detractors, sometimes hostile, from the classical fields of art and design.

By the mid-2000s, I could see computing shifting and permeating into the design world faster than design was entering the technology space. I had thought that my career would lead me to create a new school, like the Bauhaus, and I had designed a basic prototype where that could occur online. But I hit an obstacle. It was clear that it would take a few million dollars to build, and I would constantly be asked: “What’s your business plan?” So I got an MBA to figure out what that meant.

And then Apple’s iPod began to ascend out of nowhere. As a result, I was often asked, “Why?” To which I would respond, “Design.” To which I would be asked, “What is design?” To which I would respond, “Simplicity.” To which I would be asked, “What is simplicity?” So I started to blog about simplicity – in 2004, back when blogging wasn’t cool yet – and tried to figure it out in the open and on the Web. That blogging resulted in my publishing “The Laws of Simplicity,” which by accident and without intention became MIT Press’ all-time best-selling book. I did not at all expect the book to strike such a chord. So I became even more curious about the sentiments emerging at the intersection of design, technology, and business.

This ultimately led to the beginnings of my #DesignInTech report, which looks at the rising importance of design in the tech industry.

Having gone back and forth between the design and tech worlds for three decades, and having advised a few hundred companies along the way, I could finally see all of the pieces out there – but just as pieces. Mike Abbott, former VP of Engineering at Twitter and now General Partner at KPCB, invited me to join KPCB to advance an initiative he’d just started on bringing more designers across the tech community in Silicon Valley. I can’t tell you enough how invigorating it has been to talk with so many passionate folks across the Bay Area – and that includes my 200+ Uber drivers as well as my incredibly warm Airbnb hosts when I’ve spent my time there. It’s true – I don’t have a car, and I don’t have a house. I guess I’m trying to live like the Millennials, in what I call a “post-possessionista” state of mind.

Spending the requisite 10,000 hours hanging out with young technology creatives has been absolutely inspirational. It is just as Joe Gebbia told me – it’s truly amazing. And much like I experienced at MIT in championing the technologists who dared to be artists and designers, and at RISD in championing the artists and designers who dared to be technologists, I felt it important to champion the designers who are transforming the startup ecosystem and technology industry in my new role in the VC community.

I don’t have a car, and I don’t have a house. I guess I’m trying to live like the Millennials, in what I call a “post-possessionista” state of mind.

But metaphor and analogy and good storytelling don’t cut it here. Silicon Valley is a place ruled by Kahneman’s “fast thinking” which requires patterns to match against – ideally patterns that match up with dollar signs. I knew about Airbnb since its inception, thanks to my former head of development at RISD, Beth Garvin, who found them for me at a RISD alumni event. And having met so many designer founders, co-founders, and design leaders in the tech industry and hearing all their stories, I knew there was more than anecdotal data out there. I knew that lowercase “design” in the tech world had turned into high-status uppercase-D “Design” and was making its way towards dollar-sign “DE$IGN” – as it always does when a new kind of technology starts to mature.

My natural inclination was to write another book about what I was seeing, but something about this new world I am living in compelled me to make a “deck” instead. The tech world seems to love infographics and decks (aka PowerPoint slides). Something about being here has made me see the quanta of “the deck” with a renewed respect. I love Benedict Evans’ decks for their simplicity, and Henry Blodget’s decks have been fantastic to read as well. But Mary Meeker’s “Internet Trends Report” is the greatest of decks – and through 2014 I got to see Mary working closely with her team on it. I was even given the honor of contributing a slide (page 39 of the 2014 Internet Trends Report). I felt that making a freely distributable deck could feel similar to making a book – the honest kind of making that I’ve always felt as a creative.

What you see in the just-launched #DesignInTech Report is the 5th iteration of the deck. Every click, drag, and keystroke is mine. So I apologize for the many imperfections you can find on each page. If you share in sentiment one or more of the messages contained in its pages, please share the page with a friend. Or even better, share the page with your CEO. And if you are a designer who is the CEO yourself, please drop me a line as I’d like to learn about what you are up to. Thanks for being interested in the #DesignInTech Report!