Demand for Beautiful Design Grows in Quant-Crazy Silicon Valley

A new class is gaining power in the left-brain territory of Silicon Valley: designers.

You could witness their rise at Google's I/O developer conference last month, where the company introduced aesthetically pleasing versions of products such as Google Maps. Its new look for Google+ even seemed to borrow from Pinterest, with posts formatted as cards that cascade downward when users refresh the page.

Designer Wanted

But it's not just Google. Many technology titans previously satisfied with making products useful increasingly feel pressed to make them beautiful, too. They are responding by giving design and user experience a more prominent organizational role. Startups, meanwhile, are getting hungrier for designers at the top of their games, spurred partly by the ascendance of Silicon Valley darlings like Pinterest, Airbnb and Path — all of which have co-founders who double as design or product leads.

Apple, of course, has always prioritized design. But that only set it apart from the competition. Now a focus on design is spreading, particularly in the last 12 to 18 months, according to Shannon Callahan, an Andreessen Horowitz partner charged with building a technical talent pool to introduce to companies in the venture-capital firm's portfolio. And that trickles down to what startups are willing to pay designers.

“Whether a company is on the enterprise side or on the consumer side, design is front and center,” she said. “It's important to realize that designers in general have elevated themselves to being equivalent to engineers.”

That's why VC firms, too, are expanding their focus beyond the pursuit of premier technical talent and getting more inventive about grooming the next generation of designers. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers started a selective design fellowship program this year, picking college juniors from schools including the Rhode Island School of Design, Yale and Stanford to work this summer at companies such as Square, Jawbone, Klout and Shopkick. It's a result of consumer demand, said Juliet de Baubigny, a partner who focuses on cultivating talent.

“Users expect beautiful design,” she said. “When you go onto an app, it's not a nice-to-have. It's a must-have right now.”

The rise of design at Google represents a cultural shift for an organization known for subordinating all other functions to engineering. And the perception of Google as an engineers' paradise where aesthetics aren't valued still makes hiring designers difficult, according to Director of Android Design Matias Duarte, who came to Google from Palm three years ago. His team works on the Android system itself as well as Android apps like Gmail, Calendar and Google Now and hardware initiatives like the Nexus tablets.

“I had a lot of anxiety about joining both Google and Android because neither of those companies was known for valuing design or user-centric practices or having much of an aesthetic sense at all,” said Mr. Duarte. “What lured me is that [CEO] Larry [Page] had a vision that Google needed to be not just smart and fast, but also beautiful.”

In practice, this has meant installing design leads in product areas like Android and commerce, but also more organic methods of outreach and feedback within the company to show the value design can bring to product development, he said.

As it built the Jelly Bean version of the Android operating system, for example, the design team made an effort to teach engineers and product managers to think in terms of the emotions the product was eliciting. They were taught to catalog an interaction as “jank” if it produced a bad emotion—if the screen failed to do what the user expected, for example, or if an animation didn't seem smooth enough. If it was good, they filed it under “butter.”

“By giving these things a name and giving clear examples, it's now become part of the culture,” Mr. Duarte said. “And now the culture of the company is to avoid negative emotions.”

Future companies seem more likely to arrive with design already in their DNA, à la Pinterest and Kickstarter. That's the goal of groups like the Designer Fund, a community of designers formed to mentor startups and provide angel investments, although it doesn't lead funding rounds or sit on boards. The diverse array of companies it's worked with includes Omada Health, a digital health startup dedicated to diabetes prevention, and Mosaic, a platform for crowdfunding clean technology investment.

“If you go up and down Sand Hill Road, a lot of the venture capitalists come from engineering backgrounds,” said Enrique Allen, the Designer Fund's co-director, referring to a part of Menlo Park., Calif., known for its concentration of tech VCs. “There are just simply not enough heroes that designers are aware of and can point to, so we're trying to bring awareness.”

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