Changing attitudes to design in Silicon Valley


When we formed Six at the very end of 2007, we had no idea that San Francisco was to play such an important role in our business during the subsequent years.

We’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of exciting technological firms in the Bay area over the past eight years. Many of the businesses we branded and produced websites/UI/UX for have gone on to become very influential, and a number of them have been acquired by the likes of Google, Yahoo, Hired and IAC.

Since we started working with these companies we’ve seen a significant shift in attitude towards the value of brand, graphic and digital design. Both venture capital firms and the entrepreneurs they invest in now ‘get’ the benefits and importance of good design and how it can add desirability, function and, ultimately, traction and income to their businesses.

What’s caused the shift?

By championing and implementing good design, Google Design has been instrumental in paving the way for perception change – particularly in the tech sector.

Appointments like John Maeda, the eminent designer, at KPCB has further underlined the value now placed on design in VC firms. Several other leading VC companies have followed suit in appointing designers to their board of directors.

In the last few years a number of design firms in the USA have also been acquired by large tech firms. Teehan + Lax joining Facebook is a good example of a highly regarded independent creative agency being purchased by a silicon valley heavyweight, and its move highlights the growing importance being placed on design by tech leaders in the Bay.

Another influencing factor has been the success of tech firms with designers at the helm, rather than wall-to-wall engineers. Airbnb co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia are both graduates of RISD and have reached ‘unicorn’ status. With Airbnb’s last valuation being at $27 billion, it’s clear that good design is rooted in the culture of the business and this thinking has not been detrimental to its traction.

As the pace of technological advancement slows, design can become, and is becoming, the great differentiator. Both VC firms and entrepreneurs are fully aware of this and consequently time, money and effort is now being invested in making products and brands ‘feel’ right as the prior preoccupation with running speeds becomes less relevant.

Attracting talent

One of the key areas of interest for a new tech start-up in the Bay area is attracting talent. With the cream of engineering talent inevitably lured by the salaries and perks on offer at Google and other titans in the area, making a start-up appear desirable and competent to new hires is as important as appealing to new customers. “We’re not worried about income pipeline… We need to get the right talent” is something we’ve heard several times over the past few years when embarking on a new project.

Making a brand and website feel right, and utilising these tools to convey a positive image of the company, helps start-ups of all levels compete, to some degree, in the recruitment battle against the likes of Google and Facebook.

Integrating design into thinking

Much of our work for Silicon Valley firms in the early days was essentially cosmetic. In-house teams would have done all the ‘thinking’ and we were wheeled in to ‘polish’ what had already been done. This process was rarely successful. Thankfully, entrepreneurs are now far more tuned into the idea of integrating design at the beginning stage of a firm or product, enabling the creative to really make a difference to the overall brand perception.

As a brand agency working across a range of sectors, Six has always analogised the internet to real-world scenarios. The budgets that brands, particularly premium ones, spend on packaging, retail environments and other aspects of the customer experience, all help to form an emotional connection between consumer and client, and generate brand desirability. Until recently Silicon Valley’s belief was: “If it’s a good product, who cares what the store or bag looks like?”, but it’s clear that attitude has now thawed and good design, in all its forms, now has a place at the top table.