This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
The tech titans of Silicon Valley are actively circling the strategic value of design. I didn’t take their interest seriously until I saw the news in December that John Maeda, the former President of the Rhode Island School of Design, joined venerable VC firm Kleiner Perkins. He’s the Valley’s first-ever Design Partner. That’s a serious step into the mover-shaker circle for the design profession.
The reasons for an investor focus on design are not all that hard to understand. “Great design” has helped drive Apple’s valuation to $475 billion, while AirBnB, Square and Pinterest all demonstrate how superb user experience design attracts both rabid fans and VC investment (over $1 billion between them, to date). Last, but far from least, is Google’s $3.2 Billion acquisition of the design-centric Nest, maker of a smart thermostat.
Appreciation for design in the tech world didn’t come overnight; it has been on the rise for some time. As the first industrial designer to graduate from Harvard Business School, I thought design had hit the big time a few years ago, when the students at my alma mater created a Design club. By contrast, when I was an MBA there our case studies (and those at every b-school) presented new products as originating from some kind of immaculate conception. Design was not an actor in the business dramas we studied. The school’s appreciation for design’s strategic importance has come a long, long way since those days.
But when I hit the road in 2008 raising capital for our fairly design-centric venture, The Grommet, I noticed that no investor ever remarked on my industrial design credentials. Venture capitalists were far more accustomed to the expertise of a software developer or even a mechanical engineer than to a person who could create the overarching user experience. This lack of familiarity with design was bizarre, but also deeply familiar to me. When I first told my own father the name of my college major, he thought that industrial design meant creating factories.
While I long ago stopped worrying about when design would be invited to sit at the grownups’ table, I couldn’t help but be excited by the news that Maeda was joining Kleiner Perkins. He has blogged about his early observations at Kleiner, arguing for design’s potential in the tech world:
The marginal excitement generated by more memory or faster processor speeds has lost its allure in recent years because there’s generally enough computing horsepower to do everything we might want to do. So we don’t yearn for the bigger, brighter or even cheaper as much anymore. We now choose based upon design – the answer to “how it feels” versus “how fast it is.”
I reached out to Maeda to ask about how he was finding the position, and he responded that in week four on the job he had given an hour-long presentation on design and tech to all of Kleiner’s partners. “Given the strong, positive response after my presentation, it’s clear that there’s a there-there,” he wrote.
I’m sure I speak for design-oriented entrepreneurs everywhere when I say that it’s about time.