Employing a mixed bag of childhood anecdotes, cartoon graphics and pop culture references, John Maeda, design partner of Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers delivered a Design in Tech report on Monday at Rice University.
Maeda addressed the expanding role of design in consumer technologies as demonstrated by data trends over history, current examples in the industry and personal experience.
According to him, design is not only creating logos, contrary to popular belief.
"Take Rochelle King, the vice president of design at Spotify, an art history major who earned graduate degrees in engineering, worked in semiconductors and structural engineering and later on become a head designer," Maeda said. “When you think of [a] designer, you think of people that went to design school. It turns out that in the tech industry, a third of them have engineering and science credentials. If you don’t know how to take the technology apart, you won’t make a good product.”
Maeda said design has taken a dominant role in all aspects of the technology industry, from aspiring students in top business schools, of which 70 percent have design clubs, to early-stage start-ups, where one study reports a ratio of one designer for every four engineers.
“At IBM Design, [it’s] one to 64,” Maeda said. “They’re moving that to one to eight. Design is moving from a cost to an investment.”
According to Maeda, the reason for these changes in the technology industry is an increase in the user base. In the past, most computer users would log on only around twice a day. Today, Android reports that average mobile phone users unlock their phones 150 times a day.
“Twenty years ago, we used technology that was poorly designed for people,” Maeda said. “It was designed for technologists. Only recently, we’re all using it, and we non-nerds don’t like stuff that doesn’t feel right … Now, companies like Facebook know they are consumer-facing, not tech-facing.”
However, according to Maeda, this correlation between usage and design is not new, but rather rooted in historical precedent.
“When usage increases dramatically like this, design’s strategic value is leveraged,” Maeda said. “After looking at the changes with computers, I looked at the car industry. GM was the first company to have this position, vice president of design, because President Eisenhower implemented the Federal Highway Act in 1952. You suddenly were in the car a lot longer, and the car designs improved. Usage increased. Users increased. Today, you can’t imagine buying a car with no design.”
In conclusion, Maeda said that design is an ongoing process.
“I’m trying to show more audiences, more investors that design is an old idea,” Maeda said. “There’s new companies, like Apple, but the idea’s not that new. It’s about the old and new combination that creates new opportunities.”