Why Startups Need Design Students

January 17, 2014

Photo by © 2013 Mona T. Brooks


As the end of the fall semester drew to a close at the Rhode Island School of Design last year, the college’s leader, the charismatic digital designer John Maeda, announced he would be jumping ship for the sunny office parks of Silicon Valley, where he would carve a role for himself as a design partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. On his first day, he set about doing what he has done for years: trying to help students merge their design education with technology.

This time, it’s through KPCB’s design fellowship, a summer program in its second year that matches design students up with startups funded by the firm, like Square, Flipboard, and Twitter. “This has been a lot of my life, crossing design and technology,” Maeda tells Co.Design. “I see this as a kind of leadership development program, which is very exciting.” The students get paid to work with their company on a project all summer, while attending discussions with mentors like Marcos Weskamp, Flipboard’s head of design.

This kind of hands-on experience, according to Maeda, gives students the opportunity to take the conceptual knowledge they’ve acquired during their studio education and apply it to the outside world. Putting students’ creative energy to work in the real world is “like putting education on Miracle-Gro,” he says, and allows young designers to see a place for themselves in the startup world of Silicon Valley, which they might not automatically gravitate toward.

“There hasn’t been a critical mass of designers in this region that could share their thinking in a tech-dominated world,” he explains. “Technology is something that we all know what it can do, but we need to know how it can make someone feel,” as he puts it. “That competency is not usually seen as one of the core ingredients in Silicon Valley.”

It is, however, a skill nurtured in art and design schools, one that design students could bring to the startup table. And the skills of designers aren’t so far from what the startup world has been looking for all along, as Maeda notes in a blog:

Designers are not afraid to get their hands dirty and to go deep in their work–exactly what a startup environment demands. The fluid structures and rigorous work ethic that can seem daunting to those of another mindset will feel like home to those with a creative bent.

The link between designers and entrepreneurship isn’t new–where would Apple be without Jony Ive?–but Silicon Valley as an employment hub tends to be synonymous with programming and engineering. Art and design, less so, though that is changing. For last year’s cohort, the matchup seems to be working out. According to Christina Lee, KPCB’s communications head, more than 90% of last year’s fellows (12 in design and 35 in engineering) received a full-time employment offer afterward. The startups, in turn, got a shot at luring the next Marcos Weskamp or Brian Chesky to their company–a designer who can create, as Maeda frames it, a product that not only “looks cool, but one that moves your heart.”

Courtesy of Shaunacy Ferro, fastcodesign.com