For the past three years, Dylan Field and Evan Wallace have been developing what you might call a Google Doc for user interface designers. Figma, which launched last week with $14 million in funding, is an online tool for interface designers that allows people to collaborate on projects in real-time. Its multiplayer editing capabilities give it a leg up on design-tool giant Adobe, but Field and Wallace have an even grander long-term vision for the technology: to create an open community for sharing files and assets, like a Github for designers.
“Engineers can license libraries and apps to GitHub and, build their own brand by showing what they’ve created,” says 23-year-old Field, one of Peter Thiel’s 20-Under-20 fellows. “If designers could do that–share files and assets–it will open a lot of opportunities for designers to get their work out there. It will evangelize design in the same way Github evangelized code.”
In recent years, the open-source code repository GitHub has completely remade the way coders build software. On the site, a community of almost nine million developers shares, shapes, and collaborates on code. All the biggest tech companies–Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft–house their code on GitHub, both publicly and privately, and teachers are using the site as an educational tool to train a whole new generation of software developers.
Field thinks the time is right for a similar open-source community for interface designers.
“The role of the designer is more cross-functional than ever before,” Field writes in a piece on Medium. “Designers are at the center of the organization: on any given day they might find themselves sharing assets with another designer, adjusting copy for marketing or making redlines for an engineer. While engineers have built all sorts of tools which make it easy for them to work as a team, designers are still in the dark ages when it comes to collaborative workflows.”
In other words, as the role of design shifts from an after-thought to a key aspect of every stage of product development, so too should designers be able to share, modify, and build on their work. As Figma develops, it could be valuable not just for team members internally, but for the design community in a broader sense. Imagine, for example, how much designers could learn from each other if they shared not just the their final interface design, but also all of the iterations they went through to get there.
For now, Figma is carrying out its plan in a series of stages, starting with a preview program on the site, which anyone can try for free. Essentially a browser-based Photoshop, the platform in its current state saves designs automatically to the cloud, and lets users rewind a project to previous stages of design using version control. In 2016, it will start to role out its multiplayer functionality so that teams review, edit, and comment on designs simultaneously.
According to Field, this will give Figma capabilities that other creative tools for designers on the market don’t have. Adobe Cloud (which Field says “is really cloud in name only”) offers design tools but not seamless collaboration. Other tools like Sketch and Invision are also offline and single-player. Instead of having to save changes to a file and then constantly email or Dropbox the latest version, Figma manages workflow in a single file.
The vision that Field has for Figma is promising, but it’s hard to tell how it racks up against other design tools without the multiplayer functionality fully built out. As for building a community on par with GitHub, that will depend on how widely the tool is adopted. If a company like Apple shared their corporate ideas on Figma (similarly to how Google and Microsoft use GitHub), designers could learn a lot from both their successes and their failures. But Apple is notoriously secretive about what it’s working on–a policy echoed throughout a historically proprietary design world. If something like Figma were to work, designers would have to be much more open about sharing their interfaces before releasing the final, polished product.
Field is hopeful that that will change as designers become more integral to businesses at every level. For now, he wants to at least facilitate sharing internally. “I think that companies across the tech industry are universally considering how important designers are,” Field says. “More people than ever are working with designers–engineers, management–and despite that the tools like Adobe and Sketch are still offline and single players. There needed to be a better collaborative tool for interface design.”