How engineers and designers can work together in Silicon Valley

Building a design culture at an engineering company isn’t just about hiring a bunch of designers. The reason Apple is heralded as a creative force is because it hired people at all levels – from product managers to human resources – who believe that design is critical to the core business of the company, said Mark Kawano, a former Apple designer who is now co-founder and CEO of Storehouse.

In a panel discussion at Gigaom’s Roadmap conference Wednesday, Kawano, Uber creative director Shalin Amin and Facebook product design director Julie Zhuo readily recognized that design is beginning to permeate Silicon Valley, but there are still conflicts to resolve and lessons to learn as design culture and engineering culture meet.

Julie Zhou, Head of Design, Facebook; Mark Kawano, Co-Founder and CEO, Storehouse; Shalin Amin, Creative Director, Uber

Julie Zhuo, product design director, Facebook; Mark Kawano, Co-Founder and CEO, Storehouse; Shalin Amin, Creative Director, Uber

It’s a mistake to think of the two as separate, Zhuo said. Engineers have to be paired with the right designers, while product managers have to be focused on both aspects equally. At the same time, Amin pointed out, engineering goals and design goals are often different. Engineering goals tend to be evaluated in terms of functionality, while design goals are more difficult to quantify, aiming for an emotional investment.

Function and design, however, can appear to clash even when they’re working in sync, Zhuo said. She cited the example of Facebook’s News Feed redesign, which experimented with larger stories and a more open format, but was eventually nixed because it was ungainly when viewed on smaller screens. While Facebook was criticized for sacrificing design, Zhuo said, the company has to design for its users around the world — not just for Silicon Valley.

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Photo by Jakub Mosur. This post was updated on Thursday to correct Julie Zhuo’s name spelling and title.