Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers design fellowship is a summer program in its second year that matches design students up with startups funded by the firm, like Square, Flipboard, and Twitter.

Digital designer John Maeda, who just became KCPB's head of design after a six-year stint as the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, says the experience of putting a student's creative energy to work in a real-world environment is "like putting education on Miracle-Gro."

It also allows young designers to see a place for themselves in the startup world of Silicon Valley, which they might not automatically gravitate toward. "There hasn’t been a critical mass of designers in this region that could share their thinking in a tech-dominated world," Maeda explains.

"Technology is something that we all know what it can do, but we need to know how it can make someone feel," Maeda told Co.Design. "That competency is not usually seen as one of the core ingredients in Silicon Valley."

The students get paid to work with their company on a project all summer, while attending discussions with mentors like Marcos Weskamp, Flipboard's head of design.

The link between designers and entrepreneurship isn't new--where would Apple be without Jony Ive?--but Silicon Valley as an employment hub tends to be synonymous with programming and engineering. Programs like this give startups a shot at working with design students who can create, as Maeda frames it, a product that not only "looks cool, but one that moves your heart."

Co.Design

Why Startups Need Design Students

Former RISD President John Maeda's new gig connects young designers with Silicon Valley mentorship.

As the end of the fall semester drew to a close at the Rhode Island School of Design last year, the college's leader, the charismatic digital designer John Maeda, announced he would be jumping ship for the sunny office parks of Silicon Valley, where he would carve a role for himself as a design partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. On his first day, he set about doing what he has done for years: trying to help students merge their design education with technology.

This time, it's through KPCB's design fellowship, a summer program in its second year that matches design students up with startups funded by the firm, like Square, Flipboard, and Twitter. "This has been a lot of my life, crossing design and technology," Maeda tells Co.Design. "I see this as a kind of leadership development program, which is very exciting." The students get paid to work with their company on a project all summer, while attending discussions with mentors like Marcos Weskamp, Flipboard's head of design.

Photo by © 2013 Mona T. Brooks

This kind of hands-on experience, according to Maeda, gives students the opportunity to take the conceptual knowledge they've acquired during their studio education and apply it to the outside world. Putting students' creative energy to work in the real world is "like putting education on Miracle-Gro," he says, and allows young designers to see a place for themselves in the startup world of Silicon Valley, which they might not automatically gravitate toward.

"There hasn’t been a critical mass of designers in this region that could share their thinking in a tech-dominated world," he explains. "Technology is something that we all know what it can do, but we need to know how it can make someone feel," as he puts it. "That competency is not usually seen as one of the core ingredients in Silicon Valley."

Photo by © 2013 Mona T. Brooks

It is, however, a skill nurtured in art and design schools, one that design students could bring to the startup table. And the skills of designers aren't so far from what the startup world has been looking for all along, as Maeda notes in a blog:

Designers are not afraid to get their hands dirty and to go deep in their work--exactly what a startup environment demands. The fluid structures and rigorous work ethic that can seem daunting to those of another mindset will feel like home to those with a creative bent.

The link between designers and entrepreneurship isn't new--where would Apple be without Jony Ive?--but Silicon Valley as an employment hub tends to be synonymous with programming and engineering. Art and design, less so, though that is changing. For last year's cohort, the matchup seems to be working out. According to Christina Lee, KPCB's communications head, more than 90% of last year's fellows (12 in design and 35 in engineering) received a full-time employment offer afterward. The startups, in turn, got a shot at luring the next Marcos Weskamp or Brian Chesky to their company--a designer who can create, as Maeda frames it, a product that not only "looks cool, but one that moves your heart."

[Image: © 2013 Mona T. Brooks]

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  • The MBA/MA Design Leadership at Johns Hopkins and Maryland Institute College of Art is a dual-degree program focused on developing creative problem solvers and innovative leaders. A large variety of Start-ups and Fortune 500 companies patiently await for March 2014, when the first graduating cohort will come onboard. Fluent in both design and business, these students will undoubtedly bring creative confidence and fresh ideas to their future employers. www.designleadershipmba.com

  • Good article. It would be really cool if there were more workshops about design/engineering/fashion/technology all in one.

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