Path, Dropbox, Pinterest, Airbnb. They’re some of the most high-profile startups in the world. And now through March 10, the Designer Fund is accepting applications for a new program called Bridge that will allow designers to take a whirl working there.
Bridge isn’t your typical residency, built to get young people into the industry. Rather, it’s intended for mid- to senior-level designers across all disciplines to try out the startup experience for three months—completely integrated with the team, working on an applied project that can be finished within a quarter. It’s a cushy arrangement: Designers will get full benefits, a "top salary," and up to $10,000 in relocation expenses. In fact, it sounds a little too good to be true. We talked to the Designer Fund founder Enrique Allen about why companies are going through the trouble to make this happen, and what problems that Silicon Valley and designers are having making love connections on their own.
One of the biggest problems in the Valley is a simple education gap. It’s not just that schools can pump out junior-level designers who could probably use some real-world experience to improve. It’s that, for the mid- to senior-level designer—or anyone who graduated before 2005—technological magic like multitouch screens weren’t part of the curriculum. Apps and their associated APIs didn’t really exist. It’s difficult to be a designer who has experience and up-to-date knowledge.
"These companies are asking for people who don’t even exist right now, a handful of designers in the world that can produce what they’re looking for," Allen says. "And schools can only go so far. There’s nothing for mid- to senior-level folks to go in and continue to build on their skills. There’s a gap." A skilled industrial designer has honed a specialized toolset that can be difficult to retrofit without a new wave of study—and study where, exactly? Allen refers to Bridge as something akin to "a PhD or postdoc for designers," a way for the best and the brightest to keep learning and contributing on the cutting edge. "Even if you have cut your teeth on mobile, there’s always another Android device coming out and different gestures emerging," Allen says. Ongoing education is now just part of keeping up, especially in the Valley.
You’d think that a company like Path would be pretty much set with design. They run what’s arguably the most beautiful social network in existence, yet its features dwarf Instagram. When you look at Path, it’s hard to say, "This is what’s missing in the UI!" And that’s precisely the problem. "I think at a high level, startups need folks who can bring in a fresh perspective," Allen says. "Sometimes when you’re facing design challenges and you’ve been facing familiar challenges for a long time, it’s awesome when someone with a ton of creativity from another domain comes in to approach the problem."
But fresh perspectives are tough to land in the Valley, because wooing talent is generally so hard. In a hub like San Francisco, there are just a boatload of places for a talented, knowledgeable designer to land. "It might take months or years to court someone to join long term. What if you could just start on a project with them and get to work?" Allen asks. "Instead of all this back and forth flirting and dating, it’s like, let’s just work together and build some stuff."
In a startup’s timeline, months are years. By the time the right person shows up to put just the right UX cherry on top of Path that will make it as viral as Facebook, social networking may have evolved beyond the service’s scope.
So you have all these hot startups that want fresh perspectives, why wouldn’t designers be interested? "Not many startups have founders and a design team to collaborate with, and culture that truly values design," Allen admits. Especially for designers who’ve never worked in startups before—maybe even designers who’ve never worked on a team before (freelancers)—the culture can make for an intimidating leap. Bridge tackles this issue by featuring only design-oriented startups, including Asana, Omada Health, Stripe, and Mindsnacks, some of which have been founded by designers themselves. Then, designers get to sort of "try before they buy" by working on a three-month project that may or may not spin off into a permanent position.
Truth be told, all this means that Bridge’s carefully pruned cohort of designer-friendly companies probably can’t be a model that will scale to every well-funded startup in existence. If an engineer-dominated company made the Bridge list, it would probably kill the model before it could start. "What’s important is, these [Bridge] companies are really investing in design as part of their DNA, their company culture," Allen says. "They want to build a community of design that fosters collaboration. We want to elevate the entire industry in the context of startups." So while Bridge may not serve as a large-scale residency program for the industry, its handling of designers could be viewed as a sort of flagship of the Valley—a new model recruitment and collaboration, and for post-grad learning.
If you’re interested in applying to Bridge, find more information here.