A few months ago, Ben Blumenfeld had one of the best, most thankless design jobs on the planet. He’d worked at Facebook for five years. He spearheaded app integration, then took charge of community communications. His last active role was as design lead, where his task was transitioning Facebook users to the new Timeline. And not a day went by that he didn’t see another user request for a "dislike" button.
No matter how much responsibility Blumenfeld had at Facebook, he was still at the wheel of a 900-million-user cruise ship, one barreling through the Internet with a momentum beyond the influence of engines or rudders. So maybe it’s no surprise that Blumenfeld took a sabbatical, considered the next step, and joined The Designer Fund, a young angel fund that helps designers, rather than so-called entrepreneurs, polish, launch, and raise cash for big new ideas—new ideas in health care and education, rather than a new idea for creating the next big social network.
"There’s nothing wrong with creating the next Facebook, I just think there are too many people focused on that," Blumenfeld tells Co.Design. "But if you take 10% to 20% of the designers focused on that problem and put them in education or health care, you’d get huge leaps in those sectors."
Blumenfeld sees The Designer Fund as an opportunity to put young designers on the same footing as MBAs—to learn how to create business plans and pitch VCs, to schmooze their way into the right networks to make those pitches and to financially support themselves for a little while as this metamorphosis takes place. It’s the sort of approach that could give designers an equal place at the Silicon Valley table, alongside all those engineer-driven visionaries behind companies like PayPal to Google. Convincing designers that they should be starting companies instead of looking for jobs is, partly, a cultural problem: It has taken a long time for designers to be recognized as potential CEO’s. But in recent years, companies ranging from Airbnb to Path to Vimeo have proven that the model works—and provided a shorthand for success that was once reserved for engineers out of Stanford and MIT. VCs are hunting for a new kind of user-friendly start-up, and Blumenfeld thinks the time is ripe for young designers.
But the Fund’s ideals may be bigger than the Valley itself. In fact, it’s the blinders of dot-com lifestyles—obsessive Facebook updates, maybe—that Blumenfeld feels are limiting the scope of young, innovative designers. "Design is, does it improve people’s lives? Are you solving a problem that exists? Are you making their lives better?" he says. "Are you empathizing with them? Are you creating something that’s beautiful and fun to use and delightful to use?"
Blumenfeld points to a kind of parochialism that exists in design, simply because they don’t live among the world’s most interesting problems. "Designers don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in hospitals. They don’t spend a lot of time teaching 8th graders," he says. "Because they don’t do that, they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about those problems. You get academics and teachers thinking about education. Doctors and medical technology people thinking about medical devices and the health care space."
As of today, The Designer Fund is working with about a dozen small companies, working on problems ranging from solar-panel distribution to locally driven crowdfunding. And interestingly enough, The Designer Fund’s concerns and goals sound almost identical to Ideo’s, who has also started a new program to incubate young, design-forward companies looking at problems in the same sectors—medicine, education, and green energy. All of which are very grand problems, which often remain stubborn to any solution because of the immense complexity they entail. But it says something about our present moment that designers, rather than just engineers, are being looked at as an innovation engine.