The Future of Design Is Here — And It Looks a Lot Like Figma
“If this is the future of design, I’m changing careers.”
Sometimes one tiny comment can really stick with you. For the team at Figma, it’s a seven-year-old remark responding enthusiastically to the Designer News blog post introducing the company’s idea for a web-based product that would allow teams to access and work in the same design file at the same time.
“I always like to think about that, because we’ve gotten to the point now where we’re so ubiquitous across product design,” said Claire Butler, Figma’s head of community marketing.
Having an idea for a product that might actually cause more people to join the design community was exciting for the team. But getting an entire community to adjust from a world where people were used to running design software directly on their computers wasn’t easy. It would be a major redefinition of the design software ecosystem, but one that made fundamental sense to Figma’s director of product, Sho Kuwamoto.
“Because design is something where you, almost by definition, are working with other people — you’re getting ideas, you’re getting feedback — we thought it was really important to bring that online and onto the web,” he explained. “We had this idea that Figma was going to change the way that people did product design.” By opening up more seats at the design table, users would be able to solve design challenges more effectively.
Fast forward seven years and the industry has since adapted to this new way of work. Companies like Google, The New York Times and Airbnb now use the collaborative tool to create their own products. “That shift has really permeated not just product design, but also how teams collaborate with each other in a more open way that they weren’t doing back in 2015,” said Butler.
In an era where distributed teams and asynchronous work are becoming the norm, Figma’s dream of creating an accessible, streamlined place for real-time collaboration sounds like a no-brainer. But the idea wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms following its closed beta release in late 2015. Hesitation lingered because this wasn’t how design flow worked. “There was this idea that online collaboration was actually going to make everybody’s jobs harder,” said Kuwamoto. How would feedback fit into the process? How would stakeholders remain invested in the final product if they could see its incremental development? “Having everybody jam on stuff is clearly the faster way to go, but back then, it wasn’t clear at all.”
From Butler’s perspective as a marketer, the change was a welcome one in comparison to the old-school process of receiving a PDF, sharing feedback in bullet points and waiting. But to incorporate flow into the process by collaborating in real time to eliminate the stop-and-go of feedback and edits? “It instantly made sense to me,” she said. “I didn’t have any real experience in design myself before coming to Figma, but every other way that we were working was collaborative.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t a little learning curve even within Figma’s team. “In the early days, a lot of our designers were still used to perfecting their mocks before sharing them out. It took some encouragement to get our team to work in the open,” said Engineering Director Jessica Liu. She compared the eventual shift in mindset to the team’s collective comfort with text editors like Google Docs and Dropbox Paper: “We’re used to watching each other type and make typos, and that’s not a weird thing anymore. But a lot of designers have never really seen other people in the same file as them while they work. Now it’s a comfortable and normal experience.”
Setting the Scene: Decade of Design
Figma operates on the idea that we’re in the “decade of design” — an era where good design isn’t an option so much as it is a necessity, an expectation.
To Figma’s director of product, this refers to both the importance of design and the people involved in creating it. As someone who has worked in the software industry for more than two decades, Kuwamoto’s seen it all: “In the old days, you used to think design was this magic thing. Designers would go off into their secret room and they’d come back and give us a design. Now everybody understands that design is actually this thing that everybody participates in.”
Design is the heart of what makes a product good.”
Figma’s team also hopes their work will finally quash the idea that design is an afterthought when compared to product functionality. It’s not only that companies that invest in good design give themselves an edge against their competitors. As Kuwamoto pointed out, “Everybody now recognizes that design is the heart of what makes a product good — and people respond to that. As a result, everybody cares about the design that goes into their products.”
What design really asks, according to Kuwamoto, is: “How do we make sure that we’re building the best thing — the thing that solves the problem the best, or what people resonate with the most?”
Building a User-First Product
Figma’s goal of making design accessible to all sets the team apart. “We’re building the software so that people can do design together online. And it plays into this shift we’re seeing,” said Kuwamoto.
Because the company’s tool offers a place where the skills of designers and non-designers can intersect, it bridges communication and collaboration gaps and provides a way for non-traditional roles to impact design.
“Design background is such a varied thing,” explained Liu. “On the engineering side, most people who participate in the product development process are users of Figma, in some way or another, even if they’re not designers.”
“Our products are applicable to so many other people outside of product design,” added Butler. “I’m a marketer. I use Figma every day, whether I’m using FigJam to brainstorm or making slide decks in Figma. It’s a way of working and problem solving that extends so much further outside of just product design.”
Given the range of roles engaging with the platform, it only makes sense that the team would build from a user-first perspective. So what does that look like for their engineers?
From a back-end perspective, Figma is operating an extremely complicated platform. With a constant flow of documents and simultaneous edits, developers are left with some “really interesting engineering problems,” as Kuwamoto put it, which lead to exciting challenges.
“There are very few web apps out there that are as complex and performant as Figma. Our team faces unique technical challenges in leveraging the latest browser technology to build a professional design tool on the web,” said Liu. She added that it’s also important to build with reliability and performance in mind: “We need to make sure our infrastructure supports millions of users collaborating on our platform every week.”
Building for a designer audience also means our quality bar is extremely high — designers notice all the details!”
Of course, that’s not where the challenges stop: “Building for a designer audience also means our quality bar is extremely high when it comes to getting UI and UX details right — designers notice all the details! Because our users are spending most of their days in Figma, we try really hard to make sure their workflows feel efficient and delightful,” Liu said.
Though the question of “who is a designer” remains unanswered, that might be just fine. Maybe the truth of the matter is that, in some way or another, we’re all designers now. When Butler sees questionable kerning in the wild, it absolutely catches her attention. “I’m not a designer, but some of the stuff does rub off on you. It definitely starts to permeate how you see things, and that’s kind of fun.”
After all, design is all around us — from the cover of a book to the layout of a kitchen to the flow of a grocery store. “Literally everything in the world was designed. This idea of helping to make a better experience or to create better results for people, at the most abstract level, is what we’re all excited about,” said Kuwamoto.
Nothing Great Is Made Alone
The excitement for Figma’s product is felt and celebrated across the organization. When asked what sets the company apart, Butler was quick to call out passionate, collaborative coworkers who bring a variety of backgrounds and perspectives to the table: “Everybody has really obviously defined job descriptions and roles, but people also care about creating the best thing for our users.”
Collaboration between teams is on display twice a year during Maker Week, an internal event that grants Figmates the opportunity to step outside of their roles and collaborate on a project with anyone across the organization. But the high value placed on teamwork is also obvious on a typical work day. “It’s pretty common to see people stretch outside of just their core job responsibilities into other areas where they have passions and interests,” said Liu, recalling a project Kuwamoto worked on with an engineer and designer. “The three of them were all writing code and building prototypes together at the early stage of the project, and by the end, we had the engineer — who had some design skills and interests — in the same file with the designer creating riffs on the mock.”
Our community is core to everything we do and build.”
The company’s collaborative culture reaches into the wider design society as well. “Our community is core to everything we do and build. They help define our roadmap and even shape how we operate,” said Butler. “Beyond the conception of the Figma editor, it’s pretty tough to name a product or feature in Figma that didn’t start as an ask from our community.”
Liu considers Figma’s customers to be a collaborative extension of the team. They participate in a myriad of ways, including alpha and beta programs to develop new features, Slack channels to offer continuous feedback, and dedicated debugging work. “It’s been really amazing to see how much time our customers are willing to spend with us to make Figma better,” said Liu. “That’s helped us build a lot of empathy for the folks that we’re working with — and for designers in general.”
That’s why “build community” is one of Figma’s core values. “We’re always striving to build bridges and create connections with our users, in our products and with each other,” said Butler.
Figma Going Forward
In thinking about where Figma has seen growth, Butler recalled the annual user conference, Config. It was a moving experience to see — both in person and later, virtually — how passionate and excited their community really was.
A Fragment of Figma’s Growth
Whether at Config or through other channels, users often tell the team that Figma helps work days feel more full of community and delight — especially through the pandemic. “We’re able to take this idea of working in the open and collaborating and add things like high-fiving your coworker in a file or dropping in memes to bring more fun to your day,” explained Butler.
While creating multiple feedback loops has been important for growing its user base, Figma’s brand development wouldn’t have been possible without the growth of their own team — and the company’s culture — behind the scenes. As Liu, Kuwamoto and Butler are all people managers, they’ve shared a long-held goal to build a diverse and inclusive team. “I’m really proud of the culture that we’ve built,” said Liu. “I’ve always been as excited, if not more excited, about the prospect of growing our company and our team as the impact that we’re making with our product.”
Early on, when Figma’s headcount was closer to 10 than 500, Liu told Kuwamoto, “I want to build the kind of company that I want to be at.” It really hit home for him then, but what’s even cooler now is the recognition that it’s something they’ve actually accomplished.
And now, what started as a “magical” idea to bring traditional design software to the web for collaborative use has flourished into a familiar industry tool. “I remember the first time we saw Figma on someone’s resume,” recalls Liu. “That was really exciting — that being able to use and become comfortable with Figma became a qualification in other people’s careers.”
So where do they go from here? Today, the team is focused on their mission of making design accessible to all. Whether that means improving existing features for their core community of designers or shipping new products that spark collaboration between teams, Figma is redefining what it means to design.