Can Apple's former top evangelist 'democratize' design Down Under?

Guy Kawasaki, who played a supporting -- but very visible -- role promoting the adoption of Apple's Macintosh in the 1980s, wants to do something similar for Canva, a Sydney-based graphic design tech company.

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Canva's graphic design software Canva

Guy Kawasaki was on Apple's front line in the 1980s leading the charge to convince developers to use the Macintosh. A well-known figure in Silicon Valley, Kawasaki was the company's first chief evangelist, whose job it was to make sure the Mac stood a chance against incumbent IBM by winning the hearts and minds of applications developers.

Obviously, other factors helped put the Mac on the map. There was an elaborate launch keynote by a young Steve Jobs -- an early example of the kind of rousing presentation Apple's former chief executive would become famous for delivering. And don't forget the launch of Macworld, a magazine devoted to the machine, as well as a now-iconic Super Bowl ad called "1984" by director Ridley Scott.

But Kawasaki hopes he can repeat his success at Apple as the chief evangelist for a little-known, Sydney-based design tech company called Canva. The startup makes free software that lets people design graphics for use in blog posts, or on business cards, fliers, posters, or presentations. The company announced Kawasaki's appointment on Wednesday.

"Apple was my first platform to democratize something, which was computing," he said, referring to the Mac's role in bringing personal computing to mainstream consumers. "Now, this is the way to democratize design."

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Guy Kawasaki

Canva's software is in line with a greater trend that sees the Web catering to a do-it-yourself mentality, from the growing popularity of 3D printing with companies like MakerBot and Shapeways, to the online storefront network Etsy.

There are other graphic design tools, including Adobe Illustrator. Kawasaki said the goal isn't to snake away users from other software but to attract people who weren't doing any designing to begin with. "It's about making the pie bigger," he said.

Canva was co-founded in August 2012 by Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht, and Cameron Adams. Perkins and Obrecht originally ran an e-publishing platform for yearbooks, and spun out Canva from there. Since the product launched last summer, the company said it has 330,000 registered users who create 100,000 new designs a week and have collectively created more than 1.5 million designs on the site.

Kawasaki said he learned of Canva because a woman who helps handle his social media accounts was using it to create graphics for him. The company contacted him three weeks ago after seeing his name in its user database.

Outside of Apple, Kawasaki has written several books, founded the venture capital firm Garage.com, and started firms like the Mac database company ACIUS and Alltop, a news aggregation site. But he hasn't donned the evangelical title since working for Apple.

Why would Kawasaki get back in that saddle again? When asked, he paused, and the eloquent Kawasaki stammered for the only time during our conversation. "It's basically an emotional decision. Contrary to what many people believe, I think that something like this is falling in love," he said. Typically, he gets pitched on things constantly, then consults with his wife and friends, and brushes the projects off. "I can tell you with great honesty that this is the first time in my career that I didn't check with anybody before deciding to do it. Then I let all my best friends know."

The biggest difference between cheerleading a product now versus while he was at Apple is just how powerful the communication channels have become. In 1997, he had 44,000 email addresses on his email list -- nothing to scoff at. Now, he said he has more than 8 million followers across his social media networks. To get the word out about Canva, he plans to do things like writing blog posts on how to leverage the software and perform demos during speaking engagements.

While the software is intriguing, there's got to be something more to attract a Silicon Valley big wig like Kawasaki. After all, Apple didn't stop with the Mac and went on the create the iPod and iPhone. Kawasaki said Canva has plans for expansion, but he's mum about details. "Let's just say it's more than designing online," he said.

 

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