It’s become increasingly clear in recent years that web and mobile startups need great design, but it’s still not clear for many startups how to develop those design chops and use design to create more compelling product experiences. That’s why venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers announced on Wednesday that it’s launching a program to help its startups — across consumer, enterprise and digital health sectors — become more design-driven and develop product experiences.
The program, dubbed KPCB ProductWorks, will offer the usual mentoring, recruiting and technical help that the firm’s startups have come to expect, but the new program sets up a formal process for working on product development. The program also will make use of Kleiner’s new design partner, John Maeda, who is leaving his post as the president of the Rhode Island School of Design to start work with the venture capital firm in January.
Maeda, who was once a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, has gained prominence as a champion of merging technology with design and spoke at Gigaom’s Roadmap conference over the past two years. During a lunch with reporters on Wednesday, Maeda said his role at Kleiner will be a combination of what he did at MIT and Rhode Island: looking for talent and ideas and helping launch them into the world. He added that while design isn’t a new idea in technology development, it’s often not given the same weight as, say, engineering, because not enough consideration is given to creating a great experience for those who will actually buy and use the product.
But that is changing as more people see successes of design-driven companies like Apple. One of Kleiner’s portfolio companies, Nest Labs, has won kudos for bringing cutting-edge design into the otherwise drab world of boxy thermostats and smoke detectors.
“Technologists are getting bored of what they can do. It’s easy to make things at scale,” Maeda said. “It’s a passion for things that are not for technology’s sake but for the human side of the equation.”
The idea of emphasizing the importance of both design and engineering isn’t terribly new. A number of venture capital firms, public companies, startups and accelerator groups all have added designers and have created design programs in recent years. In fact, just over a year ago, Kleiner launched a design fellows program, which will now be part of the new ProductWorks program.
Kleiner’s general partner, Bing Gordon, will lead the new program and has taken on the title of Chief Product Officer. Two other Kleiner folks, Mike Abbott, who was the vice president of engineering at Twitter, and Megan Quinn, who was the head of product at Square, will also be involved in the program.
The program will offer product reviews and workshops, meet-ups with designers, engineers and product people in the San Francisco Bay Area and from universities across the country. And there will also be a blog penned by Kleiner partners.