What Really Matters in the World of Design in Tech

What Really Matters in the World of Design in Tech

Recently at South by Southwest, John Maeda, a design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, unveiled his second inaugural, Design in Tech report. In a slideshow he showed how design in tech is playing an increasingly larger role due to the fact that there are millions of people today other than computer engineers using technology on a daily basis.

Using data on mergers and acquisitions— Maeda counted 42 design firms that have been acquired since 2004 with roughly half of those transactions happened in the last year— the most active buyers: Accenture, Deloitte, IBM, and Facebook.  Maeda believes that big business want, need, and will pay for design.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Design isn’t just about beauty; it’s about market relevance and meaningful results.
  • M&A activity continues in the design space, and it’s increased.
  • Increasing the designers needed in the tech industry requires rethinking education.
  • The adoption of design by public companies is only growing.
  • Designers bring needed critical thinking/making in the economic case for inclusion.
  • Work in the research labs from decades ago drives today’s startups. Be aware.

Maeda concluded by highlighting the “Three Kinds of Design” currently at play and based on his research companies need to evolve their thinking into three competencies:

  • Design (“classical design—there’s a right way to make what is perfect, crafted, and complete”
  • Business (“design thinking—because execution has outpaced innovation, and experience matters”
  • Technology (“computational design—designing for billions of individual people and in realtime, is at scale and TBD”

Classic design is the education that designers currently receive in school, which is used in media like print and physical displays. These types of design projects tend to be finite; whether it’s a building or a page layout, once they’re built, they’re done. Classic design might impact a million active users, and will be around for centuries.

Design thinking is geared towards those who are business-focused. Maeda says it’s time to explore how design can further shape the customer experience when execution has outpaced innovation. Maeda also looked at universities and discovered that some business students sought out design courses, which he believes is good in order to create empathy.

Computational thinkers are designers who have an understanding of algorithms and processes, especially those who can think about the customer experience in mobile apps, Internet-connected devices, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality and other spaces.

In business or technology design, the product is always evolving. “The three categories above are co-dependent, you must embrace at least two of the above categories,” Maeda notes on the slide. But it’s the last two categories—the ones linked to business and technology—that are growing most rapidly.

Finally, he thinks that the word “design” itself will become meaningless as people begin to qualify the specific kind of design they’re looking for.