Gina Trapani It’s interesting, it sounds to me— and you have an engineering background.
Dylan Field Uh yeah, I do, but not— I wouldn’t probably be hired into Figma today. So [both laugh]—
GT You know that’s a really weird place to get to—
DF It’s pretty cool.
GT — when you’re like— when you’re in a leadership position you go, “Wow! If I applied today—That— I am in a position, I’m not sure I would be [laughing] hired”.
DF It’s kind of awesome. Like—
GT It is. When your team is smarter than you are it’s a good—
DF Yeah, before this I was talking with a new grad from Cal Tech and was like, “She’s so smart.” [Gina laughs] It was awesome [music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down].
GT Hello and a warm welcome to Track Changes, a podcast by Postlight. I am neither Rich nor Paul. I’m Gina Trapani, a managing partner here at Postlight. I’m very excited about our episode today and very excited about my co-host sitting to my right.
Skylar Belvis Hello! I’m Skylar Belvis, Director of Product Design here at Postlight.
GT This is gonna be a good, good episode. We’re gonna get to talk about product design and a product that we really love uh with the founder who I very much love. I wanna welcome to the podcast, to the episode, Dylan Field.
DF Hey, Gina.
GT It’s great to have you. I’m gonna let you introduce yourself.
DF I’m Dylan Field, I’m the CEO and co-founder of Figma which is a collaborative interface design tool.
GT So I’ve heard Figma described as Google Docs for designing apps [mm hmm]. That might be really reductive.
DF Yeah, so a ton of people are using products like Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, or even a a stage [?] CSS to design the next generation of digital interfaces and Figma is a way to do that, in your browser, collaboratively with other people on your team. We’ve realized that as we were looking at the way that designers work today, designers are working in super collaborative roles; they’re working with other designers, engineers, brock managers, marketing people but their tools were sort of stuck in the stone ages and they were all offline and single player. So we thought what if you could make it more like a Google Doc? And that’s where the impetus and origin of Figma was.
GT Right, you’ve described it as kind of a multi player— multi player [yeah, exactly] tool. I— I like that description.
SB We’ve used Figma on several projects and I think my favorite thing is when somebody is in an internal meeting presenting something in Figma and I’m not in that meeting—
DF Mm hmm.
SB— and I open the Figma file and I just type in like really hot pink Comic Sans, “Hi everyone!” And I can hear them from across the office. That’s one of my favorite moments.
DF [Laughs] That’s awesome.
GT Yeah, we often are working with, you know, our internal client teams as well. So it’s like such— it’s— it’s a lot easier to share a link to file than be like, “Ok, I uploaded the thing,” and, “Ok, now you can download it,” “Wait, that’s not the right version.”
SB It’s really helpful to never have to worry about [chuckling] version control.
GT I mean you made this like fundamental decision at the beginning of the product or building Figma that it was gonna be browser-based. That was a pretty risky and ambitious decision to make. I mean even at the time you made it. So Figma’s what? Two years old?
DF So we launched two years ago but we actually started working on it in August 2012 and we went full-time sort of in this direction in June 2013. And originally, in June— in August 2012 we were going, “Ok, we really believe in webGL,” which is a way to use the GPU in your browser. And we thought, “Ok, this is gonna be the future of creative tools.” And at first we thought that you’d make it more accessible, make it so that anyone could use a creative tool just by going to a link [mm hmm]. We didn’t really figure out the collaboration part til later and we looked at combinational photography. So think like the typical word Photoshopping or swapping faces or, you know, making selections, stuff like that [mm hmm]. Looked at photo editing for a bit [mm hmm], then we kind of zoomed out and went, “Wait a second, why would you do photo editing on desktop when everyone’s taking pictures on mobile?” And then we went—
GT Right. And that doesn’t make sense cuz that was [exactly] kinda like the era of native— of native apps, actually. Native mobile apps. Like 2012 to 2013. So—
DF So we kinda built this like simPRO lightroom in the browser and we knew we could do like basically anything with webGL and the question was what and then we kind of went, “Well, ok, photo editing to Photoshop,” and we went, “Ok, actually there’s a million use cases for Photoshop,” and we focused on interface design . . . as a case that we really cared deeply about. And that— and then we kind of realized as part of that that the— the key part was collaboration, not accessibility. Accessibility was secondary to collaboration.
GT So accessibility was the first principle but then you came [exactly] to, “Oh but this actually—”
DF Yeah, collaboration is even more important. The ability to like work in the cloud and not have to work with versions like you said. And that single source of truth in a link.
GT So, let’s back up just a little bit: what is webGL?
DF So, before Figma, before webGL, there were people that made tons of creative tools in the browser. So Aviary, for example, which is also New York based [yes] was one of the companies that did that and they had an entire suite around it but I think they were limited by the technologies of their time.
DF So they were doing things like building stuff that [?] easy in the Adobe Creative Suite but doing it with Flash and it just wasn’t powerful enough. They were in this awkward place of like the technology wasn’t powerful enough but the design wasn’t for consumers, it was for professionals.
DF And so you got like sort of some weird intersection between those two audiences [mm hmm] that didn’t quite work. And then uh I think everyone thought, “Ok, there’s no way you can do creative tools in the browser.”
DF And then my co-founder and I were naive enough to be like, “No, no, like we’re pretty sure you can.” [All laugh]
GT I mean I think that this would’ve felt like the biggest risk to me, at that time, for you to say, “Ok, we’re gonna do this in the browser,” because on one hand I’m like the target customer, and tell me if I’m wrong [mm hmm] is— is— is a professional—
DF Professional designer. Yeah.
GT— who’s gonna be willing to download an app [yup] and then I would just worry so much about just running up against the limitations of the platform which is the browser, right? WebGL is actually— is an API, right? Inside [mm hmm] modern browsers.
DF Effectively, it like uses Canvas as a backing.
GT But you weren’t scared, you were like, “This is— this is just the way.”
DF I mean I was also fortunate to work with my co-founder who’s absolutely amazing. His name is Evan Wallace and you can see his work at madebyevan.com [mm hmm] and so you might have seen, if you were paying attention on Hacker News, like over the past five, six years, every six months or so he has this one demo which is a ball in a pool of water [uh huh] and you move the ball around and the water ripples and it’s absolutely gorgeous, and Evan’s like made it in an afternoon. Uh which makes everybody else in the world feel insecure but that’s just how it is [others laugh]. And he’s like the most humble guy, he’s also the sweetest person. And so I was not really believing it was possible either, and Evan was pretty bullish that it was possible, and so we started a dRisk unit and just kind of breaking it down into its pieces and seeing ok. We sorted the idea that you should be able to do this, the more limitations we would run into. Found pretty quickly that the limitations were things like you can’t access fonts in the browser. We were starting to run into some memory and um like—
GT I’m sure [laughs]. That sounds like an understatement.
DF I think— but actually— well, we got really lucky um and [?] was starting to be developed around the same time period by Mozilla [mm hmm] and then what’s now Assembly— sort of the— the breadcrumbs were being laid towards that.
GT But do you feel kind of a little bit at the mercy of where browsers are going? Or like what— what will available and how? Or do you feel like this is a forcing function that makes us be more creative?
DF Yeah, I think constraints give you creativity for sure. Looking back there are probably more things than we realized that could’ve been issues but now looking forward, we have a really good relationship with like Chrome, for example, and Mozilla.
GT I bet, yeah.
DF And, you know, we’re in good contact with them and they actually prioritize things that affect our customers sometimes. For example like there’s an open issue for being able to figure out how to access fonts potentially that Chrome might be working on, as a prevention based API. It has a long history of fingerprinting and, you know, that’s why you don’t want to make it so that as you go around the internet, you don’t want people to see all the fonts that are installed on your computer [right] cuz that could be a privacy issue [mm hmm]. But then Figma, in order to create a professional design tool, you have to access fonts [right]. So what do you do? You know, you can use a desktop app or you can make it so that people install software natively that SM access the fonts and we chose to do both but the real solution would be to have the browser make an API, once you press “allow, yes, Figma can access my fonts,” and it serves it up from the computer instead [right], and gives you the outlines and gives you a list of all the fonts.
GT Right. So you’re actually helping to shape [music fades in] what the future— the road map for—
DF Hopefully, yeah.
GT— where— where browsers are going [music plays alone for seven seconds, ramps down].
Paul Ford Hey, Rich, [music fades out] let’s interrupt for a second and tell people that if they need to solve complexity in their own organization.
Rich Ziade And want to build something really sophisticated that would really in other— in many instances, demand complexity, they should get in touch with us.
PF We will take really, really baffling stuff and make it simple for you to build new things.
RZ And simple to use.
PF That’s right.
RZ We’ve got great designers as well.
PF And then we’ll hand it off to your engineering team or your in-house product team and they’ll feel really good about it.
PF That’s how we work. We’re Postlight. And you can send an email to us at [email protected], that goes to me [music fades back in] and Rich and we like gettin’ them. Let’s get back to the show [music ramps up, plays alone for eight seconds, ramps down].
GT Um, so you have an engineering background and your— your [music fades out] co-founder does and it sounds like this was a little bit of like a prove you wrong situation. Like you all are saying you can’t do— like it was like an engineering challenge [yeah] that you wanted to— that you wanted to solve. I like that a lot.
DF Exactly. And also, I mean, it’s a rendering challenge too. Right? So uh there are ways to potentially make like a render engine that’s faster than current solutions if you really know what you’re rendering. And so by being opinionated about that, you know, we don’t have to go to the legacy of all the raster stuff that everyone else does.
GT Yup. What’s it like coming from kind of an engineering background and making a tool like for designers?
DF I think it’s pretty fun. It’s very meta. I was doing some design work before Figma too. So it wasn’t like I was coming from nothing but I definitely was not— not like in a professional design role before Figma. I was pretty surprised when I started doing design— a design internship . . . cuz I kind of uh took a semester off of college and I thought, “Maybe I’ll go into engineering, maybe I’ll go into design, maybe product. Like I don’t really know. I’m confused. I’ll try to sort it out outside of school so I don’t like waste money.” And I was just— I showed up and started using Fireworks on a day to day basis and Fireworks was like the best tool by far, when I looked at Photoshop and Illustrator as comparison points and Sketch was— no one knew about that then. And Fireworks would crash all the time, you know, it was still the best tool for the job. But then we’d have like this Dropbox folder of all these mockups and no one really knew what to do with them, and furthermore, if I wanted to edit someone else’s work, I’d have to like recreate it every single time.
GT Right. Right.
DF And so I— I think we had a sense of the pain points and then as we talked to more and more designers, we started hearing all these things like, “Well, it’d be amazing if . . . dot dot dot but that would never be possible, right?” And like when you start hearing that a lot uh and really drilling into the fundamental problems then also looking at comparable industries like— like you mentioned Google Docs, that’s a really good one [mm hmm]. Some of this stuff isn’t actually rocket science in terms of like it’s pretty useful if you can make it and the question is like well how useful? How much of the time?
DF And so multiplayer was an interesting one where, you know, it’s not like people are constantly— in most situations, they’re not constantly editing together [right]. But when you want to, you really want to.
GT [Laughs] Right.
DF And— and furthermore, I think it’s more about like not having to worry about versions, or not having to worry about what happens if someone opens your file while you’re in it [right], uh will that corrupt it? Like you don’t really know, it’s this kinda constant fear you have to deal with [mm hmm] and to do all the work without anxiety I think is a pretty great thing.
SB There’s also like a funny thing that happens when you are collaborating with somebody else in a file where you— you develop a set of etiquette around [yeah] that too where you may have never spoken to this person before but you’ll both kind of agree like, “Here’s my cursor, there’s your cursor. We’re gonna like hover over them for a second [Dylan laughs] and then we’re gonna just like go our separate ways and come back,” and like it— it’s a really nice balance that just sort of naturally happens because everybody is on the same playing field. One of the— the other projects I had worked on here at Postlight where we had a collaboration with a designer, we were not using Figma and there were three of us huddled around my laptop and we were all trying to find the right gradient. And it’s really hard to have three sets of hands on one keyboard—
GT Oh yeah.
DF Mm hmm.
SB— working on figuring out like the perfect gradient for anything. And I think if we had had that kind of tool, we all could’ve been separately figuring out, “Well, ok, what’s the best gradient for this kind of thing? I’m thinking about it in this kind of way.” We could’ve been able to— to diverge and converge a little bit more in— in a balanced way.
DF Totally. Yeah so when the times like looking back when I was doing individual design work . . . that I felt like I both learned the most but also got to the best solutions were when I was collaborating with other people like in that setup where I was working with somebody directly. One person in particular was my mentor at Flipboard, [?], who’s now at Uber but yeah, we would just like. He’s like, “Hey, can I drive for a second?” “Yeah, of course you can drive. Go for it.” [Laughs] And it’s just like you learn so much by watching other people work.
GT Are there other creation tools kind of on the market now that you find like inspirational or aspirational or interesting in— in any way?
DF One that I’ve been following for a long time that I really like is ScreenFlow.
DF I think it’s been out for at least five years now.
GT Yeah, yeah and it’s a screencast and screen recording tool. Yeah.
DF Exactly, it just keeps getting better and it’s not— it’s not like in the browser. I think another video one that I like is Loom. It’s interesting. It’s very simple. Coda is interesting.
GT Yeah. Yeah.
DF As is Notion.
GT Oh yeah Notion is a really interesting product.
DF Mm hmm. And uh Repl is another one that I think is kinda cool.
GT Oh I don’t— I don’t know that one. I’m gonna write that down.
DF Yeah. They’re really interesting. It’s repl.it. It’s uh— it’s early but they just I think raised around and it’s cool to see the way that they’re just reaching kids as well . . . who are purveying for the first time with their service.
DF Um and then I’ve seen a lot of people use Airtable recently.
GT Oh Airtable is fantastic. It’s also in heavy use here at [yeah] Postlight. Airtable’s really great. So, you’re making a product for people who make products and it’s all about collaboration. How does Figma interface and interact with their customers? And like how do you take feedback? And like ho— I’m sure that everyone who uses your product [laughing] has opinions about how it works. Um what’s— what’s that like?
DF It’s actually one of the coolest things because we have such great feedback that we get from customers and also I mean we all use it internally before it even goes out in the first place. So, everything that you ever see has already gone through, at minimum, one week of use by the team in our staging environment and then from there it’s usually a bunch more than week.
DF And we have a pretty robust support team, many of which are coming from backgrounds where they— you’re smiling, that means you’ve spent some time with them.
SB I’m smiling. I have— I have like a novel. So a shout out to Josh, thank you for helping me [laughing] with my work [Gina laughs].
DF It’s great! Josh is fantastic. And then we uh but we have like this great group of people in support and a lot of them are coming from— from a like bootcamp backgrounds where they’ve actually studied design or computer science and they’ve wanted to like learn more about it and uh and also we’re trying to do something where more of the team actually spends time with support when they go into the company as an onboarding step as well.
DF But yeah so then as people write in, you know, you’d be amazed at the— the detail in level of feedback. You’re not the only person who has written a novel. A lot of people have and it’s in this like very deep, insightful feedback and thoughts [yeah] about how things should work or not work. You might be not surprised to learn that designers are very opinionated.
SB What?!? [Chuckles]
DF I know! [Laughs] Right?! And it’s kinda cool because, you know, it’s not— not all designers will— as soon as people see the problems that are right in front of them, rather than sort of like a secondary or third level—
DF— of the problem. Like some still even though people are designers, sometimes it’s like their users too and your blinded by that.
DF But at the same time a lot of the things that like if we just were to follow exactly what our users said, sometimes I feel like we’d actually build something pretty good [mm hmm]. Uh after getting that first core insight right.
GT Right. Right.
DF Um so to challenge ourselves to, you know, try to think in more abstractions and figure out like where the things people are not asking for but really want.
GT Yeah. I mean this is something we have to deal with clients [laughs] constantly.
SB Yeah, all— all the time.
GT We get a client request to like move the rectangle and then someone like Skylar says, “Ok, let’s back up like three levels and talk about what we’re trying to solve for here.”
DF That’s right.
SB Right. Right.
GT So you’re getting— you’re getting— your users are not just asking to move the rectangle. Like move the rectangle and here’s why [laughs].
DF Well so here’s actually a great example that’s like literally move the rectangle um [Gina laughs] so uh one of the questions we ask ourselves is if you’re a designer who can code, what are the things that you can do faster in code than you can do in your design tool of choice? And there’s a lot [chuckling] of answers to that question. But all those things are opportunities for Figma. And so one example is— let’s say that you’ve got a list, you know, a bunch of list items [mm hmm] and you want to be able to rearrange those in the selection. Right now if you are in a design tool, you have to move one of those list items out of the way, move the other ones up, move those ones down, uh make sure all your spacing is correct. It’s like a bit of pain.
DF So we started to ask ourselves like well how do you solve this in code? Well you usually make some container for it and then you can like rearrange things that way. So we explored that for a bit and we thought, “Well wait a second, what if you— we want Figma to be free form. You don’t want to have to set it up all the time. What if instead if you can just make a selection and then you’re able to drag handles to rearrange things if it’s equally spaced?” We prototyped it, it seems really promising, so we started like a really rapid feedback loop around that with designers and engineers working closely together and we made it a lot better. Sent it out to some users, got some early feedback, and it got to the point where we now have this thing we call smart selections which really helps you move rectangles, going back to your point [laughs].
GT Right. Right. Yeah.
DF But it, you know, and it’s such a simple thing but it can save, you know, minutes at a time and added up that can be, you know, hours and hours and hours that you get back [yeah] and furthermore, like it’s kind of this unceded cost of all the time that you have to move rectangles around or it’s time that you’re not in a direct feedback loop with your tool [right] and you’re not able to just get thoughts out of your head onto paper. So how do we make it easier for you to get those thoughts onto paper to be able to work?
GT So you’ve been at a few different places [mm hmm] in your career: Microsoft Research, LinkedIn, Flipboard. I’m interested to hear like what being the CEO has been like for you. Like what’s been surprising? What did you bring along with you from other places that you were at that you really liked? Um cuz I feel like building culture and building team is one of the toughest challenges of being a leader and when you grow at the rate that you have, in the short— short amount of time like your role shifts.
DF Totally. I hope! Figma is a very warm place. Um actually someone was just describing to me as wholesome which I thought was really interesting.
GT Aww! [Laughs]
DF And I was like—
GT I’d take that as a compliment.
DF I took it as a huge compliment.
GT Yeah. Yeah.
DF I was like, “Wow this is awesome.” It’s very collaborative which maybe is not a surprise [others laugh], um very humble. We have lot of really brilliant people and I’ll brag for them. You know I think most people also are unafraid of like taking pretty bold bets and trying stuff that’s pretty out there in terms of the product and in terms of like, you know, areas and directions they wanna head [yup]. And so in terms of getting there— also we’re also pretty customer obsessed and like I think that’s something that definitely started early on. Um one of the other things is honestly I mean there’s sort of my role is that I get to create these feedback loops where if I think that something is a desirable cultural trait that we should keep going on, you know, I’ll reward it. I will highlight it. And I’ll elevate it. But, you know, or I’ll take you aside in private and say, “Hey, like I think that was not something you should’ve done.” If it’s something that’s like very counter to our culture. But I think most of it is just hiring the right people [yeah]. And once you— in recognizing what and labelling what’s happening once you have some momentum culturally about what— the way you’re doing things, [mm hmm] uh figuring out how to label it, and then like identify it to everybody else, and create a language around that [right], and then you continue to highlight it. It’s kind of like this interesting feedback loop that starts to happen.
GT Right. What does the next couple of years for Figma look like?
DF I mean to me it’s the sort of north star of Figma is how to make it so that anyone uh can create software. It’s really democratizing software. So in terms of like how to get there, I think of it in terms of three planks. The first is the tool. We have to make it so the tool is accessible, yet powerful. It’s a really hard balance to strike. You know, usually when you add more power to a piece of software, it also grows more complex.
GT Yes. Absolutely. More settings.
GT More and more settings and more and more configuration. That’s a very tough balance to strike.
DF One other example is sometimes when you have, you know, it’s so tempting to wanna say, “Uh I have x and I have y, if I just merely combine x and y, it’ll be amazing.”
DF And sometimes that’s true but a lot of times it actually makes the product so much more complex because of irreducible complexity and issues that arise three levels down that are hard to predict. And so just trying to be really brutally honest about the addition of new feature and the combinatorial explosion of complexity that can create. And then also just like how do we keep the quality really high [right] as we add more things and make sure that we constantly are improving performance. And then the second plank for me is community. And so part of that is community within teams and part of that is community across the world [mm hmm]. You know, we all come from communities where we’ve been inspired to go down the path of software.
DF But how do we create communities or partner with communities across the world that make it so that more people can go down that path as well? And I think also within the context of a team, how do you make it so that more people have awareness of what’s happening with design?
GT That sounds like a big challenge, though, targeting both kind of pro users and [yup] onboarding people who haven’t, you know, worked with software.
DF Absolutely. I mean right now we’re really based on pro [right] and we’re able to use it if you’re a designer who’s an individual, and we have a ton of people that do. But that’s not who we’re necessarily marketing towards. But eighty percent of our weekly active users, eight percent, are outside the United States.
DF Fifty-six percent of our paid teams are outside the United States. And so there’s this huge global thing that’s happening here [mm hmm] and so we’ll pull up domains of the teams that just start paying us and I’ll be like, “Look who paid us in the last week.” [Others chuckle] And it’ll be the most random companies [right]. And I think that’s just something that’s happening globally right now is that we’re— we’re seeing software enable the entire economy. And that trend has been happening for a long time but I think it’s underappreciated how much it’s happening right now [right]. And I think until you start to see the diversity of areas of the economy that are— that’s happening with and also geographies that’s happening in, uh can you fully like appreciate that.
GT Yeah, absolutely.
DF The third plank, though, uh for making a setting where you can create software I think is resources. So how do you make outset those communities once they form? You can also make the resources that make it easier to create things in a tool in the first place.
GT What do you mean by resources?
DF I think that it’s more about content.
DF So um, you know, in development and engineering we have this concept of open source.
DF Which hasn’t really translated to design yet.
GT Yet. Do you think it will? [Stammers] How will that happen?
DF I think it could. I think um there’s a lot of work that people recreate everyday.
GT Yes. That’s true.
DF And I think that if we made so that there was a better ability for people to reuse work [mm hmm] across the world, we’d actually have more design jobs rather than less.
SB Everybody’s looking at me [laughs]. Yes. [Others laughing] That sounds great. Let’s do it!
GT Dylan and I just turned and glanced meaningfully at Skyler [laughs with Skylar].
DF The reason why is I think that designers they’re, you know, yes, like we make the best of icons but for a UX designer, I don’t think that like that’s really what you’re measured on. It’s more about how do you comprise these visual assets into flows and um and language that people can interact with? I think that we can create more ability for people to do that and therefore more jobs because I guess across the board like actually IBM is a really good example. Like five years ago, back in 2012, they were at 76 engineers to every one designer across their company. And last year when we looked at the data, they were at eight engineers to every one designer across the company. Now mobile, they’re at three engineers to every one designer across the company.
GT Yeah that’s a big shift.
DF A huge shift!
DF That’s happening across the board at all these different companies because I think as AWS and software development makes things easier to build [yeah], it’s not enough just to build something.
GT No it’s not.
DF It has to work in a really great way. And that’s the designer’s job and we need more people that are designers.
GT Mm hmm. Yup.
DF And so whether people know it or not yet, the demand is there.
GT So if one our listeners is an aspiring product designer or a designer in general, what— how would you tell them to get started?
DF I think figuring out a problem that you care about [music fades in] or find a business in your area is a good way to start to dig your teeth in and then to try to figure out how to make software to suit their needs. Another thing that I think no one seems to be doing but is a really good way to build a portfolio up is actually to look at the open source world. A lot of open source projects really need designers.
GT That— there’s no truer statement than that [all laugh]. That is very, very true.
DF And— and I think most open source developers will like welcome you with open arms if you show up at their doorstep.
GT Yes, that’s true. Open source, though! So many open source projects are just so hard to approach though.
DF That’s right.
GT Cuz like, you know, you’re getting a link to like a GitHub repository or—
DF Yeah, if you could do that, you could definitely survive in a corporate environment.
GT [Laughs] That’s true! [Music ramps up, plays alone for four seconds, fades out to end.]