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Interview with CEO of Figma, Dylan Field

An exclusive interview with Dylan Field, CEO and Co-founder of Figma, about the company’s beginnings and his take on the future of design.

Dylan speaking at our recent Figma Design Talk event

What’s the story behind how Figma started?

It first started when my co-founder Evan showed me a demo of WebGL that he had built involving a sphere in a pool of water. The power of this new technology immediately got both of us thinking about what kind of companies we could build with it.

We spent some time looking around at possible applications like computational photography and photo-editing. Our lowest point was when we spent about a week exploring meme-generation, which we soon realized was a really embarrassing reason to drop out of Brown for.

A screenshot of WebGL Water, a project by Evan Wallace

Eventually, we started looking into interface design. We saw that even though design is inherently collaborative, popular design tools were single-player and offline at the time. We thought that if we could use WebGL and make a design tool similar to Google Docs, then we could take this market where there hasn’t been much innovation for decades.

What is the most controversial decision that was made at Figma?

It was actually the decision to focus on interface design. Before then, we hadn’t really determined our mission or purpose. We would just refer to what we were building as “Photoshop in the browser”, which was incredibly vague because Photoshop has a million different use cases. As a result, everyone in the company had a different vision for what we were trying to build at the time.

I remember this one day I had everyone in the company sit down and decide the focus of what we were building. During that one meeting, there were several features that we decided not to move forward with including animation, 3D design, photo editing, and painting. To have that clarity as a company was controversial, but once everyone was on the same page we were able to move much, much faster.

Sample interface designs created with Figma

What does the future of design look like to you?

I think the future of design is very much related to the future of front-end development. Over the next five years, I can see these two areas merging, and I think that the stuff that we call design today will look a lot like front-end development and vice versa.

I also think design will become even more collaborative as more and more people try to be involved in the design process. The ratios of designers to engineers has increased dramatically in the past five years alone, and these dramatic shifts are showing that people are recognizing how important design really is.

The ratio of designers to engineers has increased drastically since 2012

If you could start over what would you do differently?

Going into Figma, I wish I knew more about empowering and managing people. I think the worst kind of “not knowing” is not knowing what you don’t know. It’s quite embarrassing to say, but I didn’t know that management was a skill back in 2012. It’s a skill that I had to develop over time, and it’s something that I’m still trying very hard to improve on since I definitely can’t call myself a seasoned manager yet.

What keeps you up at night?

Honestly, just thinking about to scale Figma even further. We’re growing very rapidly right now, and when you grow, the processes you have will start to break. It happened when we grew from 5 to 10 people, and again when we grew to 25. When someone has to spend an extra hour on something because of miscommunication, or a broken process causes someone to stay late one night when they could be spending time with their family, that’s what keeps me up. I want people to come refreshed to the office and to bring their best self, and I want to make sure that we can provide the infrastructure to do that.

Thankfully, we have a great team that understands that things break when you’re a startup. But right now, I think we have to focus on good processes around how decisions are made, and to make sure all of our information is documented and communicated in the best possible way.

Best life hack?

I’m going to have to plug my friend’s app for this! It’s called SPAR, and it motivates you to do things that you might not otherwise be motivated to do. The idea involves setting up challenges you set up for you and your friends, and putting in some money into a pot. After some time, if you completed the most challenges among your friends, you get to take all the money in the pot.

It might sound stupid, but it’s hugely effective. It helped me go from not being able to run a mile to actually running a marathon in December, even though I‘m not proud of my time at all.

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