On Designers in Silicon Valley

Hello, readers! I can't believe it's been almost two weeks, but that's been two weeks of excitement, despair, pavement-pounding, and finally jitteriness as I take some big steps towards making this startup dream a reality. A good two weeks, but I have a few things to say, and certainly owe about three weeks of readings of the week. To kick things off, I thought I'd share two Quora posts I made, and give a little bit more insight on this at the end. If you enjoy the answers and have a Quora account, I'd appreciate the up-votes of the answers, as well. Enjoy!

Are designers replacing software engineers as the new "rock stars" of the tech industry?

Like many have said, I don't think this is so much 'replacing' as 'supplementing.' The attitude of the question, actually, fascinates me: I think it reflects the more interesting cultural divide between designers and software engineers. I suspect designers tend to be all-or-nothing in terms of impact: in some cases they're making huge impact that turns into a real competitive advantage for the company, or they have little to no impact. For many reasons, I think the number of publicized cases in which designers are starting to make an impact are increasing.

This "battle" is resulting in a somewhat "us-vs-them" attitude within engineers and designers who have not yet learned to collaborate. For the longest time, software engineers have "ruled the roost" so to speak, commanding and pushing forward tech companies. The increased relevance of skills they don't accept, as well as public acceptance of that relevance, is a bit disarming. As for the designers, I can point to a very finely cultivated attitude of self-importance that makes them await the moment when all others will recognize and bow down to their brilliance.

I'll throw my own two cents in on this one, as long as I'm passing through the domain: engineers who insist on doing everything themselves underestimate the talent and skill needed to succeed in other domains, and thus also shortchange their own ideas and ambitions. Designers who refuse to interface with the technical side of things, both in using and harnessing some amount of technical knowledge to understand the limits and possibilities of product, or in using engineers to design products (solutions) to fit needs (problems), miss out on opportunities to create the most effective products possible.

Finally, not that anybody asked explicitly, I think one of the biggest reason for the change in the number of publicized cases of designers impacting product is the change in the type of web products being designed today. I think it's probably similar to the birth of modern branding and marketing - the point at which manufacturers realized that they didn't just have to sell a product, but they could sell what those products represented. This was the point at which the engineering challenges of mass-producing products began to become, while not unimportant or negligible, a more tractable problem. At this point, the majority of products became easier to produce from a technical standpoint, and people were able to begin focusing on investing resources in other parts of the product. Similarly, I think we're starting to see a shift from products that are purely utility-based (Amazon, eBay, Google search, even Facebook fit this category for me) to products that are more based upon entertainment and emotion (Gilt Groupe, Etsy, Twitter, Tumblr, to think of somewhat analogous products). While utility is capable of being optimized using the same attitudes and ideology behind traditional engineering optimization techniques (read: metrics-driven design), many companies are winning now by appealing to emotions, which can't be optimized.

Why is there such a stunningly short supply of designers in Silicon Valley right now?

There are a few reasons. I think the particular type of designer that's extremely difficult to hire for is the type of designer that startups need most. This is the designer who not only has some basic understanding of visual design, but more importantly, understands product. This is a designer who has some experience with business and strategy, understands the basic technical components of the project, and has a deep understanding and feel for user interactions. More importantly, they need the ability to understand the pieces of the project they don't understand ("design research"). As with any skill-based profession, there is a large variance between the bottom and top of the stack, and anybody at the top of the stack is infinitely more valuable than other, less-skilled designers. That said, I think there are a few reasons why startups in particular have been hit-hard by a crisis in design talent, and incidentally, why I don't think this is going to get any better (and possibly grow worse).

The job you're offering is not going to attract a supremely talented designer: part of what makes a designer more "talented" than another is the ability to understand what does and doesn't make an interesting problem space, by whatever criteria they apply to the situation. This ability to research and understand problem spaces is key to determining product strategy and converting that into interactions that solve for that space. If you come to a designer having already done that research, particularly, having not done it and/or done it badly, but insist that you want to work on this problem, it becomes difficult for the designer to get fully excited about the project. Ideally, the way to convince a designer to join you is right from the start of the project, so they can have a say in the area of inquiry and the outlook the team takes towards the project. That, or you find a designer who's already thinking in the same space you are.

Startups are built by and for engineers: Silicon Valley and its startups have always had a very hacker culture, and usually that's for the better. As a result, companies value engineers and engineering mindsets highly. There's two main ways this manifests itself to the detriment of designers: 1) It forces designers who want to be taken seriously in the design world to become more like engineers. I remember speaking to a friend who was hired recently as an engineer - I asked him if he felt that he was "giving up," and he oddly understood exactly what I meant. The more engineering work a designer does in this world, the more highly regarded the designer is. But you're not trying to hire another developer, you're trying to hire a designer. 2) Designers are expected to operate on engineer's terms. A friend of mine was asked to join a project, and when he asked the founder what he would do when the two of them disagree, the founder responded, "Oh, we'll A/B test to see which idea makes more sense." If you don't see why that isn't a problem, do a bit of research on the problem with local maximas (). I'm not arguing that you should not be metrics-based, but that you need to use metrics intelligently, and a designer needs the freedom and organizational structure to practice their flavor of design with thought and care. Without that, you are hiring another engineer. Designers who actually want to be designers are unlikely to stand for it.

Forget Wall Street, worry about Forest Street: I know a lot of people are worried about the coders and hackers that move over to Wall Street to make big money, and they worry about making startups an attractive competitive option. But no one is worrying about big design firms like IDEO and Frog that are attracting the most talented designers. You are competing against them for your design talent, and if you're not taking that competition seriously, you will lose. IDEO has a nice campus around Forest Street in Palo Alto, with interest-focused working groups, known for the high quality of other designers and incredibly creative and fulfilling culture. They're aggressive about recruiting, and value the qualities and process that startup culture so often misunderstands, and the designers are able to feel respected and impactful not only by their peers, but the large companies and other organizations that hire them. Which only makes the situation more dire: consulting has a set of incentives all its own, and they're not necessarily conducive to the startup environment. A designer spending most of his/her time consulting is developing a different set of instincts that make it harder to translate to the startup world.

There is no educational pipeline: Many design schools aren't teaching the skills needed for a modern day designer, dealing with the types of problems many startups are - this is a subject of discussion right now for the design community. I like to describe the more appropriate "designer" in this day and age as not an art school graduate, but rather a social scientist with product sense - or, alternatively, a product person who knows social science. Either way, you need someone who has a rich understanding of the way people think and interact, but also has the ability to imagine, and believe in, products that change their behavior. Still, the path forward for design education is murky at best. In the meantime, the startup community suffers most. There is no specific degree that you can point to as graduating students who understand interaction and experience, oftentimes people can come from any degree, but degrees that also give students a strong background in digital products (and designers need to have at least basic technical knowledge) are in short supply. The designers who do have these skills graduate from other disciplines, and thus have to take a few leaps and bounds in their self-education to learn how to apply their abilities in the digital space. The Stanford Product Design Program is graduating some of the most talented "design" students (both undergrads and graduates), yet is focused almost exclusively on physical products (though they are trying to change this). The classes that I found changed my process and thought the most were actually not available to HCI students, and I couldn't find an equivalent class in the CS course catalogue. Anyways, as long as startups continue to draw from a small pool of students, and require students to teach themselves, the more they will struggle to find a healthy supply of fresh design talent.

Anyways, some closing points:

I think sometimes one of the biggest points of contention that comes up, and you see this with business people as well, is this contention of, "I am a visionary, and no one else can be a visionary like me because of my special, unique vantage point." Each startup seems to be an ultimate entry into the great ballot-system of who in the startup world constitutes the "idea person," the visionary. Worse, is every industry pundit from Paul Graham to Dave McClure, who feel the need to weigh in on this or that as being the real innovators in a company. But it just doesn't work like that. In fact, everyone has the potential to be a visionary. Whatever you do, you can imagine a changed world, a world that looks different. But just because you can envision it, doesn't mean you can achieve it. Look, that's sort of a buzzkill, I know. But buck up, people. I should say, it's not that you can't achieve it, it's that you can't achieve it alone.

Designers don't take offense at the idea that we can't code our nifty machine learning algorithm or superfast real-time database, because we know how much time goes into the mastery of CS skills. Many of us don't doubt that we could learn to code, too, given the time and effort to master the domain. But we're spending that time mastering our own domain, instead. In the same way, I don't doubt that many developers could master and become great designers as well. But like coding, designing is an art, a tool that requires hours of practice, effort, and proper thought and reflection to really master. I have a hard time believing anybody can be an effective designer in a space without spending the time. And if a developer is spending that time coding, it's difficult to believe that he/she could also be an epic designer. The combination does exist, but it's quite rare. Entrusting and collaborating with a member of the opposite profession isn't really about who's "smarter," or who's more of a "rockstar," but more of an admission of the increasing complexity of products and the increasing complexity of skills that need to be put into those products.