Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, one of the world's most prominent VC firms, has one. Google Ventures, the investing arm of Google, has five. The design partner—a designer who helps manage and select investments—is becoming a mainstay role at venture capital firms. The latest example: Irene Au, former head of Google’s user interaction team (and before that, the head of UX at Yahoo), announced Tuesday that she is taking a position as an operating partner at the energy-focused Khosla Ventures.
But what is a designer’s role as a partner at a VC firm? And why are VCs suddenly so interested in design?
More and more, the distinguishing factor of Silicon Valley’s brightest companies is their design. Take Instagram, Pinterest, and even Snapchat. Each of these products took something most of us have been doing for a while—sharing images online—and wrapped it in a user interface that helped create billions in value for each company ($1 billion for Instagram, $3.8 billion for Pinterest, $3 billion for Snapchat). Instagram simplified the cacophony of social media into single, beautiful images. Pinterest turned links for fashion and recipes into shareable, lust-worthy cards. And Snapchat—as ugly as some of its tools may appear—reimagined the photograph as an ephemeral experience rather than a permanent one.
It only makes sense that in distinguishing the next wave of apps and platforms worthy of big-time VC investment, a designer would weigh in on the discussion. But the designer partner is a fairly new position, founded, as far as we can tell, in 2009 when Google Ventures enlisted Google designer Braden Kowitz for the job. Given the position's relative infancy, we’re just now starting to see the various ways the design partner’s role at a VC firm might play out.
It's a common misconception that VCs are just check writers who buy a piece of young companies, disappear for a few years, then come to collect when those small companies grow into big companies. In reality, modern VC firms not only carefully invest money, they offer any and all resources at their disposal to ensure their investments pay off. VC firms work closely with their companies to refine business and marketing plans, recruit talented staff, and even work side-by-side to turn products into hits. Designers, of course, can do at least two of these three tasks well. Recruiting new design talent was a responsibility of every design partner we talked to. As for turning all those products into hits? Every design partner's role in this process seems different.
Au intends to pull on her experience as a leader of design teams at Google and Yahoo to instill a drive in her portfolio companies to become "design-centric organizations" rather than mere startups.
"I’ve worked with organizations where we’ve had to bootstrap, proving the value of design every step of the way...and I’ve also worked in conditions where CEOs buy into the concept but don’t know how to get there," Au tells Co.Design. "I have a basket of tools that I can pull out for any kind of condition or situation where we have to figure out how to make design great for a company."
Au sees design-oriented thinking not just as some sort of universal salve for startups, but as a means to diagnose problems within young companies. "I don't necessarily expect to be vetting potential investments, but where there’s poor design, that’s usually a reflection of a deeper underlying issue that has to be solved. If a design is cluttered, it probably suggests that to the company, the value proposition isn't clear to themselves," she says. "You can start to use a design as a tool to spot where the problems are in a company."
The crew of four design partners at Google Ventures operates differently. The team embeds itself at portfolio companies for five-day "design sprints," which work sort of like Extreme Home Makeover for startups, in which new ideas go from problem to sketch to prototype to market-tested product within a week.
"We don't want them to leave with a pile of sticky notes, we want them to leave with clarity to find out what to solve next," says Google Ventures design partner Jake Knapp. Google Ventures design partner Braden Kowitz puts it another way: "I think of teaching design as kind of like learning to ride a bike. I can give advice about riding a bike, but it’s not until you get on the bike and try to ride that you can learn how."
Google Ventures recently ran a week-long design sprint with the makers of an app called Cluster, a tool for privately sharing media between family members. After the week was over, the Cluster team iterated the product further, through three more design sprints of their own. The redesigned app that resulted had a 400% increase in converting those who tried the app into actually using it. Cluster learned how to ride that bike on its own.
So Au wants to use design as both a diagnostic tool and a systemic fix inside new companies. Google Ventures wants to use design as an idea rocket fuel. And then there's John Maeda, who fits into neither of these camps.
Maeda was head of the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the most prominent art schools in the country, before he became KPCB’s first design partner earlier this year. His focus at KPCB is on corporate strategy.
"My role isn’t to fix pixels—which is hard work on its own of course," Maeda tells Co.Design. "My role is to find strategic insights as to where design can have the most business impact. A designer can bring a viewpoint of not just aesthetics, but economics and usage."
Much of Maeda’s work is plotting which sectors are ripe for disruption through design. Looking back at our example of Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat: Those platforms proved that social media had all sorts of untapped needs that design solved. The platforms had to reimagine conventional aesthetics, be streamlined for mobile, and scratch certain emotional itches—all of which translated very concretely to more user engagement (shares, likes, just tapping around, whatever that may be). So what problem does design have to solve after it’s done with social media? That’s up to Maeda to answer for KPCB.
Ultimately, giving designers a position of power at VC firms should redound to the benefit of consumers. The hope is that it will lead to products shaped by human factors instead of just engineering-driven factors. Consider smartphones before the iPhone. Those phones could make calls, play movies, and even browse the Internet. But it took a newly designed approach to the entire smartphone experience to make smartphones great. Every smartphone today is better because of the iPhone. How many other sectors could benefit from their equivalent of the iPhone?