VCs continue to embrace design and young design talent

Tech companies aren’t the only groups embracing design these days. Their investors are also getting their feet wet in the design worlds, launching fellowship and internship programs, in an attempt to recruit young talent and tap into the emerging hot group of designer founders (learn more about these topics at our experience design conference RoadMap in November).

For investors, as well as tech startups, it’s all about merging the worlds of design and engineering — in many industries they’re completely separated. “In the academic realm there’s the X school of design and the Y school of engineering, and they’re not necessarily collaborating,” said Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Michael Abbott. Abbott says that companies like Twitter are breaking down these silos.

design fellows kpcb

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ 2013 Design Fellows

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm whose portfolio includes design-centered startups like Nest, Flipboard and Path, has been trying to close the gap between these academic and professional worlds, too, with its Design Fellows program. The program takes a dozen design students and offers them internships at Kleiner’s portfolio companies like Twitter, Square and Jawbone.

The first program just finished and KPCB is expecting to offer more design fellowships in the future. During the internship, the design students worked with engineers and other designers to see how design functions in the real-world companies.

The fellows also received mentorship by a Design Council, made up of design leaders both from and outside of KPCB’s portfolio. The council included the heads of a number of internet companies as well as academic design leaders like California College of the Arts President Stephen Beal and Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda (who will be speaking at RoadMap).


Programs like KPCB’s Design Fellows are part of a of a larger trend by VCs to focus on design. This fall New Enterprise Associates also concluded a design program that helped small design companies become more business savvy.

According to Abbott, who was formerly VP of engineering at Twitter, introducing select student designers into its portfolio companies helps the VC firm as well. The new design talent benefits KPCB companies, he said, and, when those designers go on to found their own companies, KPCB will already have a relationship with them for future investment.

As a whole, Abbott said, the program is meant to “help the next generation of designers become better entrepreneurs.” It might also get them some work, as “a number of the companies are planning full-time offers.”

KPCB will open its application process for the next round of Design Fellows summer internships this fall.