John Maeda’s 2016 Design in Tech Report

The estimable John Maeda, who has been a design partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for the past few years, has published his latest Design in Tech Report, a survey of the impact that the craft of design has made on the tech sector. It’s basically a vision of design through the lens of the venture capital industry, emphasizing not just how design figures into the success of companies, but also the quickening pace of mergers and acquisitions of design-led companies. While it makes some effort to present a sober view of the state of the industry, overall it has a bias towards the sanguine, and is not that particularly penetrating on the potential downsides of this current design-in-tech boom. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating and more than a worthwhile contribution to our collective understanding of the industry.

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Update 2016-03-17 A few folks on Twitter have asked me to elaborate on what I referred to, admittedly obliquely, as “the potential downsides of this current design-in-tech boom.” Here are a few that come to mind:

  • What is the relative risk—or rate of failure—of design-led startups/products?
  • What has the success rate of designer founders been in raising capital? How has that compared to the mean?
  • What has the inflationary impact been on design salaries and the total cost of employing a designer? Are we able to quantify that versus the value that design talent brings?
  • How many designers have risen to C-suite positions at public companies, and how does that compare historically?
  • How is the design-in-tech segment of the profession faring in diversity, especially versus other segments of design?
  • How is design being commoditized by offshore talent pools during this boom, if at all?
  • How has this boom affected the employment rate of recent design grads, and what are the long-term employability trends for designers in tech, especially with regard to age and ethnicity?

By no means am I faulting Maeda’s report for not covering all of these issues, or for not providing a truly comprehensive assessment of the industry. As I said, it’s valuable work. My hope would be that next year’s report drills a bit deeper into some of the less clearly rosy aspects of the overlap between design and technology. And it’s not even accurate to say that all of these issues are necessarily even “downsides.” They’re just intended to expand on what the report has begun to do so well already: give us a clearer picture of how our profession is evolving.