What's Next, A Design Bubble?

 

 
The United States of Design
Photo by Jeff Singer

Enrique Allen aims to help designers "become more startup-y." | Photo by Jeff Singer

What's Next, A Design Bubble?

By Cliff Kuang

Venture capitalists are ready to invest in design startups.

If Silicon Valley is like a sprawling mafia family in khakis, then designers are like the half-Irish foot soldiers—never quite accepted, no matter how invaluable. Even though designers have defined countless Valley companies from Apple to Twitter, the archetype of success is Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg on a coding bender. As designer and entrepreneur Enrique Allen puts it: "Designers don't control the narrative. We're always just asked to put lipstick on a pig."

Allen aims to fix that with the Designer Fund, born of the 500 Startups seed fund, which invests in nascent business ideas. But unlike 500 Startups, the Designer Fund is a not-for-profit: For now, it focuses on matchmaking. (In the future, it might begin making equity investments.) Allen vets fund applicants, then introduces those selected to a network of mentors and angels, such as John Zeratsky, a former YouTube designer, and Ben Blumenfeld, design lead at Facebook. Mentors then help guide designers toward setting up their businesses.

The fund was inspired by Allen's own frustrations as a designer for startups that Facebook and Venrock had invested in. For dozens of them, he tried to impart lessons in design thinking, from deep field research to building prototypes. It seldom took hold. Then it hit him—during a meditation session—that for designers to get their due, they'd have to head their own companies.

"It's really a cultural paradigm," says Allen. "Investors saw big hits like Google and Facebook created by engineers and wanted more just like them. Engineers are great at scratching their own itches and building what they think is cool. But if you're trying to create a breakthrough, you need a broader vision."

The Designer Fund has already spawned two startups: CulturekitchenSF.com connects immigrants with foodies looking to learn home-cooking secrets, and the platform Storytree.me allows families to archive and share life stories. Explains Allen: "In order for designers to prove that their methods lead to innovation, the businesses we start have to have meaningful impact on people's lives. We have to create more than Apple accessories."

iPad Promo

SHARE

StumbleUpon LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
 
Co.Design 50

SLIDESHOW: The Co.Design 50

The most influential designers in America, chosen by the editors of Fastcodesign.com PLAY

 
The Spirit Of '76

ESSAY: The Spirit Of '76

To celebrate a rekindled frontier spirit, we found the 76 best domestically-made products.READ

    NEXT Next Slideshow
 
The New Masters

SLIDESHOW: The New Masters

Five stars of America's Design renaissance show us the places that speak to them now. PLAY

 
For Every IPod Is A Pair Of MC Hammer Pants

SLIDESHOW: For Every IPod Is A Pair Of Hammer Pants

American design isn't perfect. Here are some highs and lows of classic American design.PLAY

 
Modern Americana

SLIDESHOW: Modern Americana

From a red white, and blue blanket to a Gibson guitar, a portfolio of products proudly—and meticulously—designed and made in the U.S.A. PLAY

    NEXT Next Slideshow
Facebook
 
The United States Of Design

The United States Of Design

From GM to 3M, design matters more than ever. Around the globe, American designers have never been more influential. READ MORE

Add New Comment

4 Comments

  • Michael Turri

    It should be made clear that both Storytree AND Culture Kitchen SF were actually spawned from the Stanford Graduate Design Program before moving into The Designer Fund.

  • Anne-Louise Monfort

    It would be great for design education programs to incorporate more business & entrepreneurial classes into their curriculum so that designers feel more empowered to take their ideas out into the world instead of relying on business managers to see their brilliance. 

  • Michael Turri

    Stanford's program does a great job with this and incorporates a lot of entrepreneurial/business education into its Master's program, particularly in during the 2nd year thesis/capstone project.