This past week the Designers Fund, a Silicon Valley fund that seeks to help designers become entrepreneurs, filled the spotlight for a moment much as it did when it made its debut less than a year and a half ago. That’s because on August 8, word got out that Ben Blumenfeld, a top designer at Facebook, was leaving his job and joining the organization. While this personnel change was certainly big enough news on its own, the announcement and the coverage around it is likely to spark a larger conversation. That would be a discussion on the role designers play in the innovation landscape in general.
On the Designer Fund’s blog, Blumenfeld relayed a message he sent internally to his buddies at Facebook before leaving. Yes, the post articulates what he and his colleagues hope to accomplish at the Designers Fund–and it’s likely to get designers, engineers, and investors to consider how design skills and innovation aspirations can affect humanity, versus just the bottom line.
(Although on its Web site, the Designers Fund illustrates why it’s important to encourage designers to become entrepreneurs with this thought: many top, commercially successful or much-hyped tech or social media companies as YouTube and Etsy were created with a design-trained founder or co-founder. See the infographic it provides to make its point, also above.)
“Our mission is to invest in designers who create businesses with positive social impact. The reason we want to do this is that we believe the next generation of world changing companies will need to have design as a core part of their DNA,” Blumenfeld wrote in the message he posted on the Designers Fund blog. “We also believe one of the best ways for that to happen is for a designer who can build a thriving design team and culture to be there at the start.”
“To fulfill our mission we need to get more designers taking the path of entrepreneurship, thinking about big and meaningful problems, and acquiring the skills and resources they need to succeed,” he continued. “Additionally, we need to share the success stories about start-up designers, match designers with amazing engineers and investors, and even rethink design education world wide.”
In other words, Blumenfeld and his colleagues believe design and designers are most powerful when they offer ways to improve lives–and not just the bank accounts of start-up founders and investors.
As Blumenfeld told Co.Design’s Mark Wilson, “There’s nothing wrong with creating the next Facebook, I just think there are too many people focused on that. But if you take 10% to 20% of the designers focused on that problem and put them in education or health care, you’d get huge leaps in those sectors.”
The Designers Fund offers monetary support for start-ups, of course, but perhaps the most valuable contributions to the careers of “designer founders” of new businesses are advice and introductions to its investment partners at top venture capital firms such as Khosla Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, as well as angels. Again, it’s not because of the money, necessarily, but because of the resources that could make a life-improving idea happen.
As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reported in a detailed look at Blumenfeld’s career and his new role at Designers Fund, the fund has supported start-ups such as Neighborland, a platform that connects communities to organize events and spark positive change among citizens, and Angaza Design, which creates solar-powered household lighting for African markets.
These companies, founded and led by designers, aren’t likely to become global household names as Facebook, or have the type of recognition that the Designers Fund has in hip design-conscious circles. But in the individual homes where their services are used across the U.S. and around the world, they are likely to have made as much of, or perhaps even more, of a lasting impression.
Image: The Designers Fund