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4 Reasons Why Design Is Taking Over Silicon Valley

VC design partner John Maeda says that the most successful tech companies of the future will really be design companies. Here's why.

[Background Illustrations: Wacomka via Shutterstock]

Are the fortunes of design on the rise in Silicon Valley? A resounding yes, says John Maeda, design partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. During a presentation at South By Southwest 2015 on Sunday, Maeda argued that not only is Silicon Valley taking design more seriously; design is actually taking over. Here are four key reasons why the most successful tech companies of the future will really be design companies.

Moore's Law No Longer Cuts It

Starting with Flextronics' acquisition of the design consultancy Frog in 2004, the last 10 years have seen an increasing number of tech companies acquiring creative firms. For example, Google now owns industrial design firms, while Facebook owns software and digital design firms Sofa, Teehan+Lax, and Hot Studio. And this trend is starting to hit critical mass: 27 startups co-founded by designers have been acquired by big tech companies since 2010, while six venture capital firms have invited designers onto their teams for the first time in the past year.

This trend is only going to continue, Maeda said during his presentation, because "Moore's Law no longer cuts it as the key path to a happier customer" in Silicon Valley. For years, the solution to every problem in tech was to build a faster chip. Now, design—not silicon —is seen as the answer. For example, look at the new MacBook: from a pure silicon perspective, it's slower than the old MacBook and MacBook Air, but its industrial design pushes the envelope in other ways, from the simplicity of its ports to its effortless portability.

Start With Design, Don't End With It

With design capturing more and more venture capital dollars, there's a shift occurring in tech. Before, tech companies saw design as something to spray on a product at the end—think of the generic beige case you might slap a desktop PC into, but increasingly, the companies that are making the biggest splash are integrating design into every product from the beginning, like the Nest smart thermostat.

The happy marriage of technology and design long predates Silicon Valley's rise. Consider, for example, Michael Thonet's No. 141 chair, also known as Vienna coffee house chair. Designed in 1859, the No. 141 was designed in such a way that exactly 36 chairs could be packed into a one-meter shipping container when disassembled. It's the original flat-pack furniture, and that design allowed Thonet chairs to be manufactured cheaply in Eastern Europe, then shipped to places as far away as New York while keeping the price low. Over 50 million No. 141 chairs have been sold since 1859, a feat that would be impossible if good design thinking hadn't informed every part of the manufacturing process.

"To achieve great design, you need great business thinking/doing—to effectively invest in design—and you need great engineering—to achieve unflagging performance," Maeda argues in his presentation. Letting design lead your business isn't something Apple came up with. It's something that the best businesses have always done. Tech is only really figuring out.

Tech Is No Longer For Techies

There was a time when tech companies didn't have to worry about design, because their audiences were techies, just like them. Not only is that no longer true, but the ubiquity of tech has made user interface and experience design more important than ever before. Back in the '80s and '90s, you might only interact with a bad user interface a couple of times a day—Maeda calls these "pain points"—but now that we check our smartphones hundreds of times a day, the number of possible "ouch points" that can alienate a user have increased tenfold. "User experience matters so much now, because we are experiencing so much," Maeda says in his presentation. "A pain point can become a 'pain plane' on mobile. That's a lot of ouch."

Why Designers Are Important To Startups

Designers are key to startups and established tech companies alike, Maeda argues. In startups, early hires heavily influence corporate culture, so bringing in designers on the ground floor is hugely important. That's a fact startups are surely starting to wake up to: designers are now hired at a rate of one to four compared to engineers at tech startups. According to KPCB's talent partner Jackie Xu, this ratio used to be closer to 1:15 or even 1:30.

That's how designers can help build a company from the ground up. But Maeda also sees a new trend starting to happen. More and more designers are being hired in upper management positions in tech companies, advocating for design from the top down. Take Nike, which has a designer as CEO.

Read Maeda's Design in Tech report here.