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Tech industry's future rooted in blend of design, computer science

An upswell of acquisitions and shifts in company culture are changing how Silicon Valley looks at design. And that's reshaping the tech industry, one of the leading design experts says at SXSW.

Computer scientist and graphic designer John Maeda was the first ever design partner in Silicon Valley's venture capital industry. Mona T. Brooks / KCPB

While the world's first coders helped build the tech industry, its designers will define the industry's future, said graphic designer and computer scientist John Maeda.

Maeda spoke Sunday at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where he issued the findings of his #DesignInTech report. Before 2010, Maeda said, design played a secondary role in the technology industry. How a product or service looked or worked, and the ways users interacted with it, were typically an after-thought that focused mostly on cosmetics. Design only ever grabbed attention when companies like Apple pushed outside the norm.

But that's changing fast. Startups and large tech firms all recognize that their products need to be both visually appealing and deliver great user experiences -- and that means thinking about design from the beginning. It also means the industry needs people who can communicate those ideas and create more satisfying experiences. In other words, it needs designers who contribute from the start of a project -- not the end.

"Twenty-seven startups co-founded by designers and 10 creative agencies were acquired by tech in the last four years," Maeda said.

The former president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Maeda joined the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers last year as Silicon Valley's first ever design partner. Since he joined KPCB, he said, six other venture capital firms have brought on designers to help scout new talent and incorporate design into their portfolio companies 'products.

Take Airbnb, Maeda said. Founded in 2008, the company makes it easy for people to rent out their homes or a single room to those looking for a place a stay. It was dreamed up by designers Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, both RISD graduates, after the two attended an industrial design conference.

"[Silicon Valley] didn't think a designer could build and run a company. They were straight up about it. We weren't MBAs, we weren't two Ph.D. students from Stanford. Being designers they thought we were people that worked for people that ran companies," Chesky told Dezeen magazine in January 2014.

Maeda also pointed to Dropbox's 2013 acquisition of Orchestra, the makers of sleek email app Mailbox, for $100 million. That deal brought former IDEO designer Gentry Underwood to the cloud storage company as head of design. Microsoft, too, has acquired design talent in the mobile app space with its purchases of email app Acompli and calendar app Sunrise. Both products had been hailed for their design and experience.

In his report, Maeda also points out the growing need for designers who double as programmers. Dropbox's Underwood, for instance, holds both a Stanford degree in human-computer interaction as well as degrees in psychology and anthropology.

Maeda found that more than a third of 110 surveyed designers in the tech industry had formal engineering training and over half had formal art or design training. In a survey of 370 designers, 93.5 percent described the ability to code as useful and at some times essential. Intriguingly, not all of those designers work in the tech industry.