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John Maeda says design is winning in Silicon Valley

AUSTIN — The wall is breaking down between design and technology, according to John Maeda, a design partner at Kleiner Perkins.

Speaking at SXSW Interactive Festival Sunday in Austin, he credited the smartphone era with thrusting design into the spotlight. The former president of the Rhode Island School of Design released his Design in Tech 2015 report, which highlighted how vital good design has become.

“It’s moving from a nice-to-have competency to a need-to-have competency,” Maeda said. “It’s the golden age of design in the technology industry for products that are consumer facing at a high user count.”

With the average user unlocking his or her smartphone 150 times a day, there’s less tolerance for a bad experience. Clunky design may have been forgivable when we used computers only a few times a day. But the shift of technology from our desks to our hands and wrists has made design essential, and the tech world is realizing it.

Maeda noted that 27 start-ups that were co-founded by designers have been acquired since 2010 by companies such as Google, Facebook Adobe, LinkedIn, Dropbox and Yahoo. Based on Businessweek and Financial Times rankings, 70 percent of the top 10 business schools have student-led design clubs.

Maeda considers this a revolution that struck consumer products first and will affect enterprise software as well. He highlighted Slack, a popular communication platform that has emerged for businesses.

“Why is Slack so successful? It’s an enterprise software system that was designed for consumers,” he said. “But now enterprises have to use.”

According to Maeda’s research, 20 percent of the top cumulative-funded venture-capital investments that have raised additional money since 2013 have designer co-founders. Those are, Pinterest, Airbnb, Vice Media and

Maeda noted that there were no designers on Sand Hill Road — where Silicon Valley venture capitalists are centered — until he joined Kleiner Perkins in January 2014. He says designers have since joined firms such as Google Ventures, Sequoia and Khosla Ventures

Maeda also reported that what it means to be a designer is changing. In a survey of designers, he found that 93.5 percent were in favor of designers learning to code, which wasn’t the case when he first entered design.