Canva, a Sydney-based graphic design start-up, has become Australia’s latest tech “unicorn”, after closing a funding round valuing its operations at $US1 billion ($1.3 billion).
The company on Tuesday announced it had raised $US40 million from investors including the Chinese arm of vaunted Silicon Valley investment firm Sequoia Capital and existing shareholders Blackbird Ventures and Felicis Ventures.
Sydney-based Melanie Perkins has turned her graphic design start-up into a billion dollar business.
Co-founder Melanie Perkins said the company was profitable and didn’t need the money but was offered terms too good to refuse.
The startup, whose apps help advertisers and companies create banners, logos and presentations, plans to double its workforce of 250 staff over the next year, she added.
“It’d be crazy not to take it,” she said.
“We can grow our team as rapidly as we can and know that we’ve got the financial backing to make those decisions very easily.”
Canva’s latest round of funding makes it a ‘unicorn’, a private company valued at $US1 billion or more. That’s a rare startup success for Australia’s technology scene: only eight of its listed technology companies are worth more than $US1 billion compared with 18 companies in metals and mining alone, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“The second day I went to San Francisco, I pitched him the idea for Canva, literally on paper pitch decks,” Perkins said.
We can grow our team as rapidly as we can and know that we’ve got the financial backing to make those decisions very easily
Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins
“Fortunately rather than thinking I was crazy, he helped us comb over resumes of all the people that were trying to get into our tech team, and he rejected every last one of them,”
According to Canva’s website, the service has more than 10 million users, who upload photos or select stock images and use preset filters and fonts to customise designs. It also links with printing providers who can create actual physical banners and displays.
Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes. Photo: Josh Robenstone
According to financial records lodged with the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, Canva more than tripled revenue to $23.5 million and narrowed after-tax losses to $3.3 million in the 12 months ended June 2017.
“What this round really enables us to do is to have the jet power just to do absolutely anything that we need to do to make Canva awesome,” she said.
Is Dyslexia a weakness or a strength? Designers Ab Rogers and Jim Rokosdiscuss how they feel dyslexia enables them to think differently and how, in a moment when the work industry is more threatened than ever by the growing power of the intelligent computer, the non-linear, non-binary mind may be coming into its own.
Interview by Philippa Wyatt
There is little argument to contradict the fact that historically dyslexia is treated as a problem in school. Designer Jim Rokos confirms this from his own experience.
JR: “Dyslexia is treated as something to fix, rather than something that is great in itself.”
Dyslexic children are given extra help and taught methods to compensate for the problems it can bring in mainstream education – most commonly – with reading and writing. But what if it is not as simple as a ‘disorder’ to be overcome?
AR: “At school you are taught what is good and what is bad. The world is skewed to the non-dyslexic mind. One could always say that ‘non-dyslexics are very bad at 3d visualisation’ for example, but no one ever sees it like that. Rather than celebrating the creativity that comes with a dyslexic brain, one is criticised for not being able to spell ‘dyslexic’. For me education has a responsibility to build confidence and unlock potential but currently it is not structured to bring out what is unique but rather focused on how it can make everyone the same and this narrow view not only lets down children with dyslexia but anyone who thinks differently.”
For Ab the problems associated with dyslexia are the result of a non-linear thought process that can be mis-understood as a weakness, rather than explored as strength, because the path followed cannot always be easily explained.
AR: “My thought process is more meandering, which is good because I come across things along the way which are potentially unexpected and all the more exciting. Sometimes you take longer to get somewhere and sometimes you jump straight there without knowing how, to an idea fully formed.”
Equally this non-linearity allows for cognitive leaps and connections to be made that have a focus and clarity that lend itself to design and creativity.
AR: “I find my dyslexia gives me a kind of intense focus. I can see through things, dissecting them and editing out what others may be distracted by. This can give me confidence in an idea because for me it is very clear when something is right. If I can visualise something I know it’s right. If I can’t see it, it’s a disaster.”
Because the architecture of a dyslexic brain is different to that of a non-dyslexic one, in some cases neurological pathways that are open to the majority are not available to dyslexics, leading them to make different connections and to navigate problems in unusual ways.
Jim believes the way dyslexics process information can contribute to the development of an idiosyncratic design style.
JR: “I think so. It’s a hunch.” He qualifies this by explaining that these off beat ideas are “no more difficult to conceive than more conventional ideas. More the product of a different perspective beyond design style – an urge to test boundaries, to keep finding new ways of working. It can feel risky,” he confirms “but now, through experience, I can keep reminding myself that if it’s off the wall its probably going to be a good thing to do.”
He believes the compensatory strategies developed by dyslexics navigating a non-dyslexic world can create strengths that are particularly suited to design.
JR: “Because our memory process is different, more eccentric, triggered by different things and distracted by others, we are forever being detectives and trying to figure things out from fragments of evidence the whole time – which just builds on our creative side.”
This deductive process can allow dyslexics to reach conclusions quickly, encouraging them to follow intuition and trust instinct when other more solid, predictable routes are closed.
AR: “I had this sudden realisation that if I tried to design a chair then I was competing against everyone else who was designing chairs, but if I could reinvent the typology so that you didn’t need a chair then I could come up with my own niche. And my mind was much better at coming up with new typologies than it was at re-crafting existing typologies, such as a chair that grows out of a ladder that become the ladder that likes the wall.”
Being unafraid to see the world differently and understanding the value of this unique approach can give dyslexics the freedom to ask different questions and seek unconventional solutions, giving rise to the kind of innovation so prized in design.
AR: “When you are teaching students, if you ask them to design a table they will surely design a table. If you ask them to design a surface to put things on – they are much more likely to come up with a different answer to that same question.”
In an industry where dyslexics and non-dyslexics alike must produce concepts that are as functional as they are beautiful, the need to follow your mind down whatever rabbit hole it leads you to must be married with the ability to generate designs – whether for products or spaces – that tell a story, delivering a unique experience.
AR: “I think it [dyslexia] can be about a sense of narrative. Like when you tell the story behind the design of your [Jim’s] decanter – where the more that is drunk the more the decanter leans over – it is that sense of poetic narrative that relates in my experience to people who have dyslexia.”
This abstract poetry and feel for narrative embellishment, this unexpected way of seeing things – whether too close up, or too far away – holds its own intrinsic value. And this value, the preciousness of its very limitations, is becoming more widely recognised in the face of artificial intelligence and its replacement of human beings in production. When we discuss this idea Ab says, with some pride –
AR: “You can’t design a dyslexic computer.”
And if it is true that ‘the most consistent thing about a dyslexic is their inconsistencies’ then this is easy to believe and, in a world where the unique and the unusual are still prized, nowhere more so than in design and the arts, perhaps, for a dyslexic designer, it is their inimitable idiosyncrasies that are their greatest strength of all.
I just returned from a trip to China and wanted to write down a few reflections. The week began with a visit to Tsinghua University in Beijing with whom we’ve partnered to develop a design-thinking curriculum, and ended with a stop at IDEO’s Shanghai studio.
The people I met were mostly young entrepreneurial candidates for the design coursework. There’s an enormous entrepreneurial vein in China, and it’s not all about technology. I was interested to learn about the vast array of ideas they’re spinning up, from products and services to renewable energy to real estate to social entrepreneurship. The culture there is very commercial, but there was huge enthusiasm about how design could make them better business-builders.
And the faculty are listening: the Vice President and Provost of Tsinghua University expressed interest in bringing the latest on design thinking to China and incorporating design thinking into Tsinghua’s engineer education. It’s an exciting prospect to think that these graduates may be the next business leaders of China. This is a long play—it may take a decade—but eventually there’s going to be more people who are trying to solve problems through the lens of human beings and there’s a palpable enthusiasm about that shift.
Part of it will require transitioning from a “Made in China” to a “Created in China” sensibility. There’s evidence of a new focus on R&D: The 5-year plans that are coming out of the central government place innovation and climate change high on the agenda. And not a moment too soon, as other nations have taken up mass manufacturing and Chinese brands have to distinguish themselves not just on price point, but also on quality and new ideas.
Take DJI, the drone company. China’s scale propelled their business initially, but they now own about 70 percent of the global world market, according to the Financial Times, because they’ve invested in innovation and international growth. Other major players like Huawei and Tencent know, too, that they can’t just be a domestic play. That global mindedness represents both an opportunity and a challenge. Chinese companies can’t be run algorithmically anymore, they need to get creative about expanding their market.
One thing that left me breathless while I was there was how China has the ability to leapfrog systems solutions. I rode high-speed rail from Beijing to Shanghai and sitting in the station on one of the pristine trains you look out the window and see a white polished marble platform that stretches to infinity. They travel at a ridiculous speed completely silently and run with Swiss precision. We had seats in a business class cabin that was more comfortable than any airline I’ve ever flown. Compare it to dark, dank Penn Station and it puts American rail to shame.
If the Chinese can do that with trains I can only imagine what hospitals and cities could become if the human-centered design is practiced at scale here.
From what I saw, and granted it was a limited view, the appetite is there to learn those tools of creativity. They don’t want to understand design to become more like America. They want to understand design to become a better version of China.
The upside: Designers thrive on questioning convention–on unearthing solutions to seemingly intractable problems. If 2017 revealed anything, it’s that good design has never mattered more; it’s just the parameters of “good design” that have changed.
With a nod to Braun legend Dieter Rams–whose 10 principles for good design remain indispensable, though somewhat narrowly concerned with the particulars of industrial design–here are 10 new principles for good design.
GOOD DESIGN IS TRANSPARENT
User-friendly design has been the dominant paradigm in human-computer interaction for decades, and for good reason: It reduces complex code into a simple language anyone can understand. But today, amid a string of high-profile data breaches and opaque algorithms that threaten the very bedrock of democracy, consumers have grown wary of slick interfaces that hide their inner workings. “For years there was such a huge UX trend toward seamlessness and concealing as much as possible in the interest of making things user-friendly,” Ame Elliott, design director of the nonprofit Simply Secure, said earlier this year. “Now, as discipline, interaction designers and UX experts have a lot of hard work to do to think about how to expose those seams in appropriate ways.”
Another problem with user-friendly design: In focusing on the immediate needs of users, it often fails to consider long-term consequences. Take Facebook’s echo chamber, Airbnb’s deleterious impact on affordable housing, or the smartphone, which is literally changing people’s brains and has spawned an entire generation of teenage automatons.
Good design chases more than clicks. It’s mindful of potential impact–whether economic, social, cultural, or environmental–and it’s mindful of that impact over time. There’s one simple test, according to Rob Girling and Emilia Palaveeva of the design consultancy Artefact: “Don’t just ask ‘how might we?’” they write, invoking a common term of art in design thinking. “Ask, ‘At what cost?’”
GOOD DESIGN IS SLOW
For the past 20 years, tech has embraced a “move fast and break things” mantra. That was fine when software had a relatively small impact on the world. But today, it shapes nearly every aspect of our lives, from what we read to whom we date to how we spend money–and it’s largely optimized to benefit corporations, not users. The stakes have changed, the methods haven’t.
This is one of Rams’s tenets, but it bears repeating at a time when dark patterns abound and corporations treat UX like a weapon. Uber is the most flagrant example. The company built its business on a seamless front-end user experience (hail a ride, without ever pulling out your wallet!)) while playing puppet master with both users and drivers. The company’s fall from grace–culminating in CEO Travis Kalanick’s ousting last year–underscores the shortsightedness of this approach.
Good design “does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is,” Rams writes. “It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.”
GOOD DESIGN IS POLITICAL
“If you work in software or design… you also work in politics.” That was British designer Richard Pope writing at the end of 2016 after the surprise election of Donald Trump, but the point remains relevant more than a year later: Politics is about the distribution of power, and few things distribute power more broadly and rapidly in the 21st century than code and design. Facebook’s role in shaping the outcome of the presidential election is one obvious example. But subtler examples are all over the place, from ads targeting men for higher paying jobs to predictive policing software that indicts black people more than white people.
Good design is upfront about its potential to shape the political landscape.
GOOD DESIGN IS MINDFUL OF SYSTEMS
Systems thinking is a lofty term for a relatively simple idea: Everything is connected, and designers and developers should strategize accordingly. Systems thinking has taken on even greater import over the past few years, as the world becomes more complex and intertwined. Consider that we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a year, more than 90% of which was created in just the past two years. Today, nearly half of all adults own a smartphone; by 2020, that figure is expected to rise to 80%.
Good design, then, is no longer about solving discrete problems: It’s about considering the sum of the parts. “The challenge is to rise above the distraction of the details and widen your field of vision,” writes Foundation Capital partner Steve Vassallo. “Try to see the whole world at once and make sense of it. It’s a heady challenge, but you either design the system or you get designed by the system.”
GOOD DESIGN IS GOOD WRITING
In his “2017 Design in Tech Report,” author John Maeda anointed writing as design’s newest unicorn skill. It’s easy to see why. With the rise of chatbots and conversational UI, writing is often the primary interface through which users interact with a product or service. (Siri’s dad jokes had to be written by someone.) But even designers who don’t work on interface copy should be able to articulate their ideas clearly. The better their writing, the better their chances of selling an idea.
GOOD DESIGN IS MULTIFACETED
The days of brands peddling a single identity are gone. The Emotional Intelligence Agency, a U.K.-based branding firm, analyzed the brands that more than 5,000 people said they sought out. The results were surprisingly consistent. Top brands, from Victoria’s Secret to Taco Bell, had four seemingly disparate traits: humor, usefulness, beauty, and inspiration. The takeaway? In an increasingly complex retail landscape, brands must adopt multifaceted personalities to connect emotionally with consumers.
GOOD DESIGN TAKES RISKS
Ideo studied more than 100 companies in an attempt to quantify innovation and came away with six key insights. Among them? Challenging the status quo has real business benefits. According to the study, chances of a failed product launch decreased by 16.67% when people felt comfortable acting with autonomy.
GOOD DESIGN IS FOR PEOPLE–AND MACHINES.
Historically, computers have been designed for human users. But as machines grow smarter and artificial intelligence takes root in people’s daily lives, designers will have to build for a new type of user: the human-machine hybrid. So suggests Normative CEO Matthew Milan, who argues that hybrids can do more than any person or computer could accomplish alone, like navigate traffic or compete in superpowered chess games.
Looking ahead, good design will help people trust a system–even when they know they don’t have much agency within it.