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
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
"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."