Thoughts on Design

Tel Aviv Edition

I’ve spent the past few weeks traveling and working in Israel. I’ve spoken with students, designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, investors and even dignitaries from Nairobi about the importance of design. Below are some insights and ideas this trip has helped crystalize. I would love for you to build on these ideas and add your comments below.

Entrepreneurs as Politicians

I was lucky enough to meet with two entrepreneurs turned politicians in Israel — the Education Minister, Naftali Bennett and the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat. Bennett started a security startup that he sold in 2005 and Barkat was a founder of an antivirus software company as well as a successful angel investor. We spoke about ways the government could bring in design and technology, be data-informed, iterate on what’s working, and even use MOOCs to supplement teaching shortages. We also discussed where the private sector was better suited to tackle problems and how they could best work with the private sector.

For me, these were very refreshing conversations. They also made me wonder:

What if more politicians had tech/entrepreneurial backgrounds?

Would we have better ways to interact with our government and our cities? Could government be more experimental? Leaner? More progressive? Having recently had a friend elected as a BART Director I believe more people in tech should consider public service as part of their career path and I’d love to see designers and engineers do more to help them get there.

Building Platforms to Connect Designers and Engineers to Domain Experts

During one of my talks here in Israel a woman asked me why we don’t see better designed products and services in healthcare. I quickly polled the room of 80 designers and engineers — how many of you have domain expertise or know someone who does in healthcare? After a few moments of silence and coughing, three hands went up. I decided to drive the point home — if we want to see better designed healthcare products we need to start by connecting designers and healthcare experts.

Though the response in that room is quite common there are people working on bringing together designers and engineers with domain experts to create change. One platform I particularly love is Code for America, an organization that wants to change how government delivers services. I recently met with a couple companies that started as Code for America projects and even early on their solutions are orders of magnitude better than currently available services which require navigating inefficient bureaucracy and working through outdated processes.

And I believe this is only the beginning. Recognizing that people were naturally forming companies after participating in the program, Code for America has now expanded their platform and built an accelerator and incubator to explicitly support developing great companies. If you’re interested in changing the way government works Code for America is a great place to start.

Similarly, design agencies can serve as these types of platforms as well. For example, Omada, a Designer Fund digital therapeutics company that is preventing people from getting diabetes, was created when curious, motivated people within IDEO explored the future of healthcare for a client. How many more great companies would we see if agencies were built to explicitly produce world-changing companies?

The challenge for us then is to create more of these platforms in various verticals. We need to make sure they are:

  1. Explicitly designed to launch great products and services and
  2. Designed to serve designers and engineers with an interest in but little to no domain expertise in their areas of focus.

I believe doing that will enable more designers and engineers to successfully tackle a much broader set of problems like healthcare, education, energy, and government.

Sharing Best Practices

In his post Learning from Twitter to Make Medium, Ev Williams talks about three types of product features: definitional features, improvements, and transformations. To build on that, I spoke at Aleph and presented 5 case studies of Transformative Design, design that has had a substantial impact on key company metrics.

The feedback has been extremely positive with many designers asking me where they can see a collection of these case studies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. We simply don’t have the equivalent of the HBS Case Study repository for the type of product design we want to see more of.

To help address this, Designer Fund will be sharing some of the examples we’ve collected and we would love to hear from companies and designers who want to contribute to this repository. Let’s share our learnings so we can build better designed products and services.

The Side Project

The startup ecosystem in Tel Aviv continues to thrive. There’s a blossoming of great companies, people, support organizations, and government support. Interestingly enough, you’re also now starting to see a burdgeoning ecosystem one hour east of Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem. The city that many associate with religion, history, and archeology is also quickly becoming a hub for startups and technology. For example, the number of new tech startups per year went from about 10 to over 140 in just a few years.

According to the mayor, this is largely due to making it a city young creatives want to live in by supporting things like city-wide light festivals, creating multi-use public spaces, and aggressively building public transportation.

One Jerusalem-based designer told me that Tel Aviv was too impersonal and that Jerusalem was a more intimate and supportive environment. This same designer a few years ago would have had to leave Israel to find a small and tightly knit startup community. Instead, she was able to stay in Israel and is now a major contributor to the ecosystem in Jerusalem.

I’ve seen this same strategy work at larger companies as well. By creating smaller groups or even grouping people at other geographic locations they can keep a larger and more diverse set of people. Quite often those smaller groups become pockets for innovation and experimentation. As examples Facebook Lite, Facebook’s Analog Lab, and Airbnb’s new branding were done employing this strategy. In fact, we even have a name for employing this strategy as individual designers: side projects.

I hope that we continue pushing companies, ecosystems, and ourselves to create nimble spaces for experimentation. Often it is in these pockets where creativity thrives and new ideas are born.

More thoughts on design can be found at