For years, Twitter has faced criticism for enabling harassment and the spread of misinformation and, in recent months, the company has shown signs of trying to right its course. With an important election in balance, the company banned political ads, flagged Donald Trump’s tweets as disputed, and used its interface to nudge people to read and comment on stories before retweeting them. Last week, it banned Trump from its platform outright.
Many of these efforts can be attributed, at least in part, to the leadership of Twitter’s first Chief Design Officer Dantley Davis, who has told us that recruiting new talent—to both address Twitter’s shortcomings and expand its capabilities—is a top priority for his team. And last week, Twitter revealed that it’s putting its money where its mouth is: The company acquired its very first creative design agency, Ueno.
Design studio acquisitions are common in the corporate world, and social media companies are no exception; Facebook has acquired design firms including Sofa, Hot Studio, and Teehan+Lax in the past. Ueno is known for working on apps for Uber and Reuters, while helping launch projects like ESPN’s nude Body Issue. Twitter has been a client of Ueno’s in the past. According to a Twitter spokesperson, the Ueno team won’t stay as a standalone group internally, but will be embedded across many different teams within Twitter’s design and research groups to “accelerate our work and broaden the spectrums of conversations people can have on Twitter.”
Davis has been forthright in sharing his vision for Twitter, which sounds more complex and nuanced than the current algorithmically driven feed. “Communities and dedicated spaces for people to talk about what’s happening will be at the forefront,” he told Co.Design in late 2020. “These community spaces will be safe and have a multitude of controls. Successful social media services will be those where people feel safe, comfortable, heard, and connected within their communities.”
He also emphasized the need for Twitter to become a more globally accessible tool, and for Twitter to open up its own platform for other developers to build custom experiences. I imagine Twitter getting something akin to its own App Store, or a suite of Firefox-style plugins, for users to customize the service in different ways.
Such a grand vision for the platform will require a sizable design and development staff, and companies like Google and Facebook often acquire companies while they are in growth stages. While Twitter declined to break out the headcount of its own design team or the amount of Ueno employees coming on board, Twitter is a relatively small company given its sizable impact on public discourse, with only 4,500 employees (it’s less than one tenth the size of Facebook, though nearly twice the size of Snap). Ueno is the first design firm that Twitter has acquired. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the last.