The Designer’s Fund aims to get more designers to found their own businesses.

It is part seed-fund, part incubator. Start-ups in the fund get access to other designer-founders who teach them the complexities of starting a business.

Facebook’s design director, Kate Aronowitz, speaking at a Designer Fund event.

A variation on the classic business credo, "Always be selling"--and one that speaks to the rapid prototyping ethos that is a hallmark of design thinking.

A variation on the classic business credo, "Always be selling"--and one that speaks to the rapid prototyping ethos that is a hallmark of design thinking.

A variation on the classic business credo, "Always be selling"--and one that speaks to the rapid prototyping ethos that is a hallmark of design thinking.

Co.Design

One Of Facebook’s Top Designers Is Leaving, To Fund Designer-Led Start-Ups

How do you walk away from one of the biggest products in the world? By walking toward several tiny ones.

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.

Ben Blumenfeld

"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.

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11 Comments

  • Roby Fitzhenry

    Some say designers can change the world whereas others disagree. For me, I think it requires an environment that facilitates open conversation and supports action. It's apparent that this group (along with IDEO)  see the bigger picture and are out to make huge strides with design-minded people at the helm. Bravo!

  • Enrique Allen

     Thanks for your supportive comments! Just wanted to clarify that we're not an incubator model. We believe there's enough existing incubator infrastructure including YC, 500 Startups and even IDEO's new program. Instead, we operate like an angel fund and focus on a small number of founders each year at any stage and work with them throughout the life cycle of their company. 

  • Krzystoff

    they are obviously using the term 'designer' as loosely as possible -- Facebook has no appreciable graphic design whatsoever -- it was thrown together by a bunch of amateur coders, without any thought to design.  until now, there has been no effort to enhance it, so perhaps this pretenders' departure will make room for someone with an ounce of talent and creativity to move in.

  • Stouty

    So this is the person responsible for the unusable visual tram-smash that is Facebook... Not sure it's a good example for design enriching all our lives. 

  • danielhst

    Great article!
    I agree with the other Daniel. As a engineering guy I believe that a big segregation between design and engineering is a good example of a bad work environment. 

    To me both roles are driven by the same "energy". The restless impulse to change things and make them work better. Whether through some computation or through UX. The final impact that both are searching are the same. 

    Maybe the problem starts when we are forced in a specialist based model,. as we are forced to choose which path to go on the corporate domain.

    [sorry for making the note a little larger]

    I found the goal of the startups even better. Aiming efforts to more critical problems to society is one of the steps to a better organization of us humans.

    watch this talk:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... 

    A similar decision that Ben took.

  • Eller

    I think this is great! As (graphic) designers it has always been our duty to solve communication problems, not just make things look good. By the nature of our business we try to approach each project holistically. It's by completely understanding the problem that we can determine if a new marketing approach or brand identity is going to solve the client's problem. Sometimes the product or service is the problem. But because of client egos or our lack of confidence, designers are often relegated to decorator status. This incubator opportunity sounds like something long over due. A safe-house for those crazy ideas that bounced around in our heads, but were never released because no one would listen. Or no one would take the time to recognize we may have the kernel of a great solution, because we looked from a different perspective. Nurturing the synapses between the right-brained designer and the left-brained analytical thinkers could push innovation to a new level. Let's hope.

  • redbeardsf

    Wait... Facebook actually had designers on staff??? Never would have guessed that.

  • Daniel Tarantino

    It's unfortunate that engineers are sliding in this regard, or at least this is how they're perceived. That said, the best engineers will always look to have impact on these subjects. My belief is that designers and engineers should work in unison more often. 

  • Ben Blumenfeld

    Daniel,
    Absolutely. It's all about getting design, engineering, and business working together.
    - Ben