John Maeda, Automattic’s Global Head of Computational Design and Inclusion, presented his third annual “Design in Tech” report at SXSW over the weekend. The previous reports have received more than two million views and this one is equally loaded with thought-provoking information about the future of the design industry.
“Design isn’t just about beauty; it’s about market relevance and meaningful results,” Maeda said. He highlighted how design leaders are increasingly top hires at major corporations, due to market demand. Businesses are beginning to embrace design as a fundamental tool for success. Design used to be relegated to extra-curricular clubs in business schools, but many schools are shifting to include design in the curriculum.
Constant connectivity in the digital era has brought the idea of “computational design” to the forefront, which Maeda describes as “designing for billions of individual people and in realtime.” Designing at this scale requires an approach that is inclusive of the widest number of consumers, essentially designing for everyone.
Maeda believes that “design and inclusion are inseparable” and he is on a mission to prove that inclusive design is good business.
“When we separate inclusion into essentially an HR compliance topic, it loses its energy,” Maeda said. “It’s important, of course, but it loses the creativity that’s intrinsic to inclusion.” His 2017 Design in Tech report focuses on how inclusion matters in business. Maeda admits there are not many examples of how inclusion drives better financial outcomes, but one of his professional aims is to demonstrate how inclusive design can make a financial difference.
“That’s why I joined Automattic,” Maeda said. “My hope is that this approach can lead to better business outcomes for the WordPress ecosystem. I don’t know if it will be possible but that’s my goal. I want to show that it’s possible numerically.”
Making inclusive design profitable hinges on the principle that if you want to reach a larger market, you have to reach people you’re not already reaching by being inclusive. This new frontier of design requires some technical understanding outside of purely classical design. The hybrid designer/developer, often referred to as a “unicorn” in the tech industry, is often relied upon to bridge that gap.
“The world is moving, and moving with the world is what designers do,” Maeda said. He also made a bold recommendation for those who are maintaining a design-only skill set:
“I encourage you, if you’re a pure pure designer, to ‘impurify yourself,’ because it’s a whole new world and there’s a lot to learn,” Maeda said. “Anyone who’s in this game, if you aren’t watching videos and learning, you get behind in two months.”
Maeda also encouraged listeners to shed biases that prevent them from seeing important trends and changes on the web. He addressed misconceptions about how products “made in China” are often thought of as something cheap or copycat, but China is moving forward in the mobile revolution in a far more advanced way than many other countries. He highlighted some major design trends pioneered by Chinese designers and how they are impacting the tech industry.
Maeda closely monitors design-related M&A activity and funds that are design and/or inclusion oriented. His data shows that tech companies are finding more value in design tool companies and design community platforms, with acquisitions steadily increasing every year. The value of design companies is especially evident in China where Maeda noted three designer co-founded Chinese companies have a combined market cap of over $300 billion.
He also shared what he has learned about designers since taking his position at Automattic, which employs more than 500 people working remotely across 50 countries.
“People want to have challenging work; they want to make change happen,” Maeda said. “With creative people this is their main driver. If that can’t be sated, they get unhappy and they leave. The problem is this kind of work is the kind that seems like bonus work, not the main work. So my question as a manager is, ‘How do I put the two together in some constructive way?’ How do you make time to learn and grow? That’s something I didn’t know was pervasive in a busy busy tech company.”
Maeda concludes that it is a good time to be a designer, especially if you’re willing to make up for the design education gap and teach yourself new skills online. His 2017 Design in Tech report is a must-read, not just for designers but for anyone working in tech or hiring tech talent. Check out the full report on WordPress.com. You can also listen to the audio of Maeda’s presentation while viewing the slides.