Designers

Design-Led Companies: How Designers Became Hackers + Changed Everything

What does it mean to be a design led company? Learn how designers are becoming the modern-day hackers and leading customer-first companies.

Have you ever been inexplicably drawn to a specific company, brand, or organization? Design-led companies use captivating design to influence and build trust with their target base—and most of the time, they do it without our knowledge! 

For example, Nest transformed something as boring as the old thermostat into the beautiful pulse of millions of homes. How did they do that? 

To explore this idea, I thought of a recent night out, for which I was running very late. 

A few Saturdays ago, running late for drinks at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, I frantically texted my friends. Ani was already waiting by the pool. I had dozens of messages on Slack, WhatsApp and Twitter to coordinate who was arriving when, and most importantly, what everyone wanted to drink.

On my way up the elevator, I had the strangest thought: “I have NO idea what my friends look like…”

I had spent hours on the phone with them over the past few months. They gave me really meaningful advice that inspired new companies, unexpected collaborations, and my own new fund Worklife.

Here’s the catch, we’d never met in person.

The Future of Work is Led By Design 

This whole collective of creatives was connected through an invite-only chat room started by a mysteriously cool guy in Scotland named Marty Bell. The founder of the famous Poolside.fm and the sunglasses company Tens, Marty was the genius behind plenty of other projects responsible for breaking the internet. 

As the night went on, I was reminded of how this interaction represents the shifting gravity of technology. Companies are increasingly distributed. Folks are choosing smaller, selective social networks for our personal and professional lives. Finally, tech is moving further and further away from Silicon Valley—and that only further inspires limitless design-led thinking. 

How Design-Led Companies Start: An Exchange of Ideas  

In many ways, my experience was similar to the early days of Silicon Valley. As we gathered on The Ace’s rooftop, my mind wandered to those curious minds assembled in a non-descript garage in Menlo Park. There were no membership requirements, no minimum dues, and no elections of officers.

Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution describes their earliest meetings:

“It was a club of young people—every one of them could have been an entrepreneur—the sort of people that liked to put together gadgets at home and make them work.” - Steve Wozniak*
Black and white image of three members of the homebrew computer club. Member in foreground is looking down at a computer keyboard.
Photo of the Homebrew Computer Club

While design led companies might not be a phrase we’re all familiar with off the bat, we have experienced the feelings they elicit. 

This is the exact work that was brewing in that same garage, as the Homebrew Computer Club met to exchange and grow ideas that would transform the world.

Design thinking touches everything in a design-led organization. No email is written, no press release is distributed, and no single tweet is published without considering the nucleus of the company. 

Some classic design-led companies include: 

These companies have a few things in common. They revolutionized their spaces, they never fear innovating beyond the wildest reaches of the imagination, and they put design and design thinking at the forefront of every single thing they do. 

In short, design led organizations aren’t afraid to do it differently with the end goal of doing it better—way, way better. 

This is how I describe the future of work: it’s creative, collaborative and more flexible than ever.  

In my case, what started with a late arrival, long lines at the bar and random banter with internet friends by the pool evolved into an early preview of Ani’s new Amazon Dating site, Marty’s new creative campaign for Tens, and our unannounced collaboration coming soon. 

The first gathering of our “club” was about to make huge changes, too—and I couldn’t have been more excited. 

The Rise of Design-Driven Companies 

Iconic companies are a combination of great technology and internal culture.

Design led organizations are not driven by aesthetics and physical products alone. Rather, design led organizations center the human experience—both within their company culture and in every product or service they produce. 

The story of the “founding hackers” is familiar. A handful of engineers working out of a garage eventually strike genius, and go on to launch the next big thing. These companies are decidedly engineering-led, with a focus on technical excellence. Think Larry Page and Sergey Brin with Google.

Photo of Sergey Brin and Larry Page in Susan Wojcicki’s garage
Photo of Sergey Brin and Larry Page in Susan Wojcicki’s garage

In Sachin Rekhi’s “Finding Product Culture Fit” he discusses engineering-driven companies like Google and Microsoft:

“Engineering-driven product cultures often start with a unique technical insight that becomes the basis for their products. Larry Page and Sergey Brin's Page Rank algorithm, for example, was the unique insight that enabled them to build the world's most successful search engine.”

On the other hand, design-driven companies like Apple and Airbnb are decidedly different:

Design-driven product cultures obsess over every detail of the user experience.

In the case of Airbnb, Everlane, Webflow, Zendesk and other design-driven companies, design thinking and an emphasis on building a strong internal culture are influenced by the background of the founders and the structure of the executive team.

Some focuses of design-led companies include:

  • Intentionality in every aspect of the business—from a well-designed business card to a personal customer service interaction
  • An emphasis on experience—wherein every interaction, every space, and every event feels specifically designed
  • Story-based vision, which explains, solidifies, and reiterates the purpose and the mission at every touchpoint

On a recent private tour of Airbnb, Brian Chesky shared some early lessons with Worklife portfolio companies including the importance of having a design leader report to the CEO.

This is especially important as a company starts to scale and the role of the CEO becomes increasingly tied to board meetings, reporting financials and ultimately public earnings calls, he said.

The creative voice that serves as a champion for the customer will continue to push the product and user experience and, increasingly, the employee experience, into new and innovative directions.

Worklife team and Brian Chesky

How to Use Design as a Core Philosophy

Founding members of Airbnb, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, attended the Rhode Island School of Design. There, they infused design-thinking into every part of the company. 

Uncoincidentally, Airbnb is now regarded as one of the top design-driven companies, making way for more designer founders.

While many organizations brag about putting their customers first, design-led companies take this ethos much further. 

As CEOs of growing companies become bogged down in fundraising and logistics, design-led companies have already created a core that cannot be distracted from its purpose to serve their base. 

According to McKinsey’s 2018 “The Business Value of design” report, design-based organizations of all sizes outperform their counterparts by an exhaustive dedication to continued learning. 

Design-led companies learn through these methods:

  • Prototyping + iterative learning 
  • Data analysis + insights 
  • Computational design
  • Mapping the entire customer journey 

While these methods have been proven successful by a number of unicorns, Brian Chesky and Jon Gebbia’s backgrounds in design were considered a weakness in the beginning:

"When we came to the Valley, no one even wanted to invest in Airbnb. One of the reasons was they thought the idea was crazy...But the other reason is that they didn't think a designer could build and run a company." - Brian Chesky*

This attitude has shifted, with companies like Dropbox as part of a pack of design-driven companies. It turns out these companies also make business sense; McKinsey linked design-driven companies with superior business performance, specifically 32% higher revenue growth and greater returns to shareholders.

How Design Thinking Transforms Designers into Hackers

Hacker culture in its purest form still exists today, with makers like Simone Giertz emerging as the new face of hardware. Local hackathons from London to Lagos assemble based on programming languages like Javascript and React.

Conversations and collaboration are less exclusive and more distributed with online communities like Hacker News, Dev.to, and Stack Overflow. The open source community continues to grow exponentially, with 10M+ new contributors over the last year and 44M+ new repositories on GitHub.

In addition to the traditional technical hacker culture, I’m excited to see a new class of hackers that use both art and science to create iconic experiences inside tech companies and online: designers.

How designers are using their skills and growing influence to transform the tech industry one pixel at time:

  • Founding + leading startups 
  • Influencing early decision-making
  • Experimenting with an emerging set of design tools
  • Developing cult-followings with side projects
  • Transforming stale organizations into design-led companies
  • Continuously collaborating 

Just as “the first engineer” was a key distinction, we’re seeing the rise of “the first designer.” First Round’s Designer Track, underscores the increasing importance of a startup’s first design hire with instruction from folks like Jessica Ko, the First Designer at Opendoor, and Davey Nguyen, the First Designer at Gusto.

Designers aren’t simply contributing to small product features at companies as employee number 100 or 1000. They’re founding their own companies and joining startups in their earliest days. In doing so, they’re pulling influence from engineers in steering product and diverting clout from marketers in defining brand.

As people try new tools, we’ll increasingly hear “who designed this?” rather than “who built this?” With hybrid roles like UI Engineering or “designers who can code” taking a foothold in tech companies, the answer to both questions will often be the same.

As the influence and importance of design continues to grow, dollar signs will follow. 

Just as the best hackers command high salaries and set off bidding wars, we’ll see design wages rise—inching closer to parity with software developers—and cults of personality build around an increasing number of talented designers.

The New Design Stack: How Designers Problem-Solve from End to End

Homebrew hackers like Steve Dompier tinkered with the Altair to make it play “Fool on the Hill” by The Beatles. 

Just like designers are problem-solvers, so are hackers. In fact, modern-day hackers like Jane Manchun Wong reverse engineer apps to find hidden features and security vulnerabilities.

Designers are doing their own tinkering, using a range of emerging tools in the process.

With the rise of no-code tools, designers have been empowered to do their own hacking, creating functioning prototypes and live sites without writing a single line of code. 

1. Webflow’s Cloneable Templates

Designers who’ve caught the experimentation bug are putting their skills to work creating Webflow cloneable templates of popular web properties like Airbnb listings or Facebook.

Screenshow showing Webflow cloneable template of Airbnb site

Screenshow showing Webflow cloneable template of Facebook site

2. Rive’s Sophisticated Interactions

Engineers continue to be cut out of design workflows with tools like Rive that allosdesigners and illustrators to create sophisticated interactions and animations without writing code.

Instead of working on as many iterations as needed to get it just right on a new game or app, it’s all done on a browser. The speed, performance, and the convenience of browser-based tools are driving massive productivity gains in the design world.

GIF of Thinko's Animation Studio

3. Thinko’s Instant Animations 

Similarly, Thinko’s Animation Studio is building Mr. Puppet, a hardware tool that uses puppetry to give artists greater creativity and control by letting them animate their creations instantly.

4. Figma Valentine’s Creativity for Beginners 

Of course, design hacking isn’t only for experts—beginners and amateurs alike can play around with Figma to do anything from creating Valentine’s Templates to re-creating all of Silicon Valley. Why not? 

As new dev tools and languages are created, the number of software enthusiasts grows. With that, the new generation of design-thinking hackers grows. 

Other design-based innovations that allow a frictonless, engindeer-free design process include:

With the design gold rush, we’ll see a new class of designer hackers who solve interesting problems with design-thinking and, define new styles for product design that shape the next generation of apps. 

In addition to that, they’ll bring a playful hacker spirit to everything from prototyping to wireframing. Design hackers can transform the most tedious tasks into a creative design. 

Designers Funnel Curiosity into Side Projects 

Surely, a drawback to “doing what you love” is mixing your passions with your work to the point that you no longer have passions. 

Suddenly, everything is work. 

This is precisely the reason that side projects are so integral

Hacking together side projects is an outlet for curiosity and creativity, but it’s also a way to get noticed by people you admire and attract new opportunities. 

This was true of why members joined the Homebrew Computer Club:

“This was my way of socializing and getting recognized,” Woz wrote.

“I had to build something to show other people.”

In the new American Dream, I shared how creative expression, online influence and extreme optionality is changing how Americans define success. Extreme optionality is leading to greater societal expectation for creative outlets.

Why side projects are important:

  • They provide a testing space to try out solving problems.
  • They allow a designer to showcase and expand their talents, on their terms.
  • They free designers from “work-mode”, allowing them to reach a flow state. 
  • They allow for uninhibited discovery.

Side projects are an opportunity to showcase inventiveness because they avoid the trap of creativity under the gun. While the trope of coming up with the perfect solution in the 11th hour is ever present, people tend to think less creatively when they’re under pressure. In fact, it generally leads to feelings of being “overworked, fragmented, and burned out”.

The Time-Pressure/Creativity Matrix chart.

Instead, individuals perform their most creative work when they have space. Creatives work best when they have ample time and runway to explore ideas. For many of us, this is during evenings or weekends.

Creative Side Projects That (Unexpectedly) Soared 

A side project shared across Twitter, Product Hunt, and Hacker News can net a brand new following, a business with revenue and profits, or job offers at a FAANG or high-growth startup. Hackers have always embraced the power of the side project.

1. The Email Journal 

Inspired by a Paul Graham tweet, 16 year-old Samarth Jajoo built an app that lets you keep a private journal over email.

Screenshot of Amazon Dating.

2. Amazon Dating

Amazon Dating, created by Ani Acopian and Suzy Shinn is a satirical site remixing Amazon with the concept of finding a date – complete with a rating system, details on love languages, and Amazon prime delivery. The side project garnered press from publications like Dazed, Fast Company, New York Post, and Refinery29.

Screenshot of Pablo Stanley's Open Doodles.

3. Open Doodles

Pablo Stanley, a designer at InVision, controversially launched Open Doodles as an Open Design side project to help anyone to “copy, edit, remix, share, or redraw” illustrations without restriction. In hacker spirit, the project encourages collaboration.

Designer-led side projects take countless forms ranging from memes to parody accounts that manage to go viral and blow up the internet for the day or week. 

Why side projects rule: 

  • They are characterized by limitless creativity 
  • They are based in irreverence or a deep commentary 
  • They feature a bold style 
  • They inspire an even bigger (and often unexpected) ideas 

Even venture capitalists at top-tier firms are using creative hacks to win friends and influence people (founders) with their own personal flare.

Screenshot of LInkedin post from Dave Gerhardt

The Value of Collaborative Side Projects

Side projects are better together. Any design-led company should encourage and empower their employees to explore (and surpass) their wildest ideas. This is where innovation happens. Using collaborative tools like bubbles, team members can creatively collaborate in real-time. 

Having a group of peers to bounce ideas off of can help with everything from accountability to finding collaborative partners. Collaborative work also helps to incubate more inclusive design

Designers and creatives are creating their own Homebrew-eque collectives to share what they’re working on. Exclusive online memberships like Jacuzzi Club include creatives from companies like Airbnb, TikTok, and Poolside FM with discussions about creative projects or job opportunities.

Similarly, teamLab, a collective of artists, programmers, animators, mathematicians, and architects bringing tech-art experiences to cities around the world is reimagining the museum experience with video game elements for Gen Z and Instagram-worthy moments for Millennials.

Photo of Infinity Mirror art installation by Yayoi Kusama

In 12 months, teamLab’s Tokyo Museum has become the world’s most popular single-artist destination, surpassing the Van Gogh Museum.

This is just the beginning of design hacking in the public sphere. We’ll see more public art space and new uses for retail, such as Sandbox VR, where interactive experiences will replace physical stores that have moved online or been replaced by modern brands.

The Homebrew Computer Club’s collective of hackers was described as “a mélange of professionals too passionate to leave computing at their jobs” and “amateurs transfixed by the possibilities of technology”.

We’re seeing the same spirit in today’s new cohort of designers. These hacker-designers are unsatisfied with simply shaping products at their day jobs. 

Instead, they’re branching out and starting companies. They’re bringing their design-thinking to early stage startups. They’re tinkering with design tools in their off-time to keep their creativity buzzing. They’re envisioning and executing on design side-projects that will soon make the internet a better and brighter place—one that’s much nicer to look at. 

If you’re a designer who is thinking about your next move or want to show off a side project, say hi on Twitter: @WorklifeVC

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