Three Longs & Three Shorts

“The Decade of Design”: How the last 10 years transformed design’s role in tech

One of the most interesting aspects of professional life is that whatever skill is currently the rage – the skill that everybody and their parents want to learn – is highly likely to be a commoditised skill five years hence. Conversely, skills which are not just rare today but also are generally harder to acquire – and these tend to be softer skills which take a very long time to master – are most likely to become incredibly valuable five years hence. We had written on this subject in July 2019 in the context of the hype around big data (see However, this “Decade of Design” piece from the Editor of Figma is the final word on this subject. The piece brilliantly highlights how design, more than technology, how defines our use and perception of technology.
It all started a decade ago when, “…As mobile upended the way products were built, designers were called to action. Their expertise made them particularly well-suited to the challenge of distilling complex technical systems to essential interactions. Companies that had previously ran on as little design resources as possible began hiring in spades. (In one memorable run, the IBMs of the world acquired over 35 design agencies in two years.) Silicon Valley, which had long exalted the engineer, finally began to appreciate the power of the designer too.”
The company which design to the forefront of our lives is, you guessed it, Apple: “The tipping point that transformed design’s role in tech was — what else? — the iPhone. Although Apple technically introduced it last decade (2007), it didn’t enable in-app purchases until 2009 or launch the iPad until 2010. So its biggest effects were felt in the last 10 years, as mobile spread throughout the world, reshaping consumer preferences and the design that powers them. People we spoke with named many different ways the iPhone (and resulting smartphone trend) changed UX/UI design.”
So why has Apple’s design-led disruption been so influential? What did Steve Jobs spot that no one else could? Actually, lots of things. So that you read the underlying article we won’t give you the full list. Here is an example: “Mobile made everything more complicated. The screens were smaller than on desktop, and more varied in terms of size. They weren’t just clicking buttons with a mouse — they were using their fingers to swipe, tap, and hold, often while in motion. They might be walking, driving, standing in line at the airport…
“Mobile normalized the idea of computing beyond the screen,” said Josh Clark, the creator of the popular running app Couch to 5K and founder of the design studio Big Medium. “Our phones became the main event, the computers we use most throughout the day.”
All these factors meant companies had to make tough decisions about what functionality to prioritize — a task designers were uniquely suited for.”
In addition, the rise of big data allowed design itself to become data driven: “People used their phones constantly, resulting in what technologist Jon Gold called “infinitely more data than anything we’d seen in 2.5 decades of software development.”
Product teams started running constant A/B tests on UI variations. They’d experiment with button color or text, seeing how it impacted sign ups, purchases, shares, or other behavior. Companies — with Facebook leading the charge — started hiring more designers to power these experiments, and data-driven design became its own discipline.
“They’re constantly nudging stuff for growth, and I don’t remember that being a job 20 years ago,” said May-Li Khoe, former VP of Design at Khan Academy.”
Now, many Silicon Valley gurus feel that design today is where programming was a decade ago i.e. with programming skills being easy to access, with everybody’s servers now on AWS or Azure, with VC funding abundantly available to lots of start-ups, design will be what will make or break a product or an app: “GitHub investor Peter Levine led Andreessen Horowitz’s $100 million Series A in the company. He sees a lot of parallels between programming’s expansion in previous decade and what’s happening in design today.
“Design represents a fundamental shift in competitive advantage,” he said. “Ten-plus years ago it was all about the code. Now it will be about the elegance of design as a first principle of software development.””
No prizes for guessing what will happen next. Demand for designers is rocketing and then courses for designers will mushroom. Universities like UC Berkeley are following the age-old pattern that we have seen in India for our entire lifetime – once a skills comes into high demand, the educational system starts offering courses in it: “Berkeley’s moves, although welcomed by students and employers alike, raise an age old debate: Should the job market really dictate education curriculum? May-Li Khoe urged schools developing design programs to take a thoughtful approach (especially in regards to ethics), and not just teach it as an empty skill.
“Both coding and design have many aspects beyond vocational training,” she said. “They can shape how you think, how you see the world, how you create, how you express, how you problem solve.””
Just like you don’t become a great artist by going to a prestigious college, the most successful designers seem to be self-taught: “In 2014, design leader Meng To released a self-published book called Design + Code, which rose to prominence quickly. He eventually hired a team and developed it into a full-blown educational website.
“I think students are starting to realize that in order to be successful, they need to use the latest tools and techniques,” said Meng. “Traditional schools simply don’t work if you are in tech.”
Many UX/UI designers found their way into the career through these kinds of sideways avenues. Front-end programmers read classic design theory books and studied basic usability principles. Graphic designers taught themselves to code. Classically trained graduates from design colleges created websites for local businesses.
It’s no wonder then that as design matures in the industry, it’s splintering into many specializations, from research, to design systems, to UX writing, to growth.”