Design, culture and tech’s turn to minimalism

In the mid-20th century, designers turned away from heavy concrete to embrace lighter, more subtle materials. A similar shift is underway in the tech industry right now, as companies are adopting minimalism as a way to overcome the demands posed by small screens and powerful processors.

That’s one observation from Jeff Veen, an [company]Adobe[/company] executive who has worked to elevate design to the forefront of company decision-making, and to treat it as a form of problem solving rather than as a marketing add-on.

Speaking to Om Malik at Gigaom’s Roadmap event in San Francisco Tuesday, Veen explained how he was able to persuade Adobe to turn the corporate website into a product rather just a store. This included introducing a look that draws in customers through a series of tools, instead of just flashing a big “BUY” button all over the site.

Such decisions can be risky for bigger firms where revenue pressures are paramount, and design change can be unnerving, Om suggested. But Veen said it is change, not design, that is risky.

“I don’t think design is a risk — it mitigates risk when practiced as a full stack,” said Veen, who argues that, in big companies, the way to success is to begin by presenting the finished product and working backward from there. At Adobe, for instance, he was able to use only three pictures to present the larger design vision, and obtain permission from top executives and the Board to implement it.

Veen’s confidence comes no doubt from his experience at his own smaller companies, like Typekit and design firm Adaptive Path, where he oversaw the look and feel of the dashboard for Google Analytics. But he claims that the design-first mentality is now possible at big and small firms alike because, unlike 15 years ago, designers have a seat at the table. He also gives credit to Stewart Brand’s pace layers of change for introducing a common vocabulary for discussing design.

Other highlights of Veen’s talk included examples of design hierarchies in everyday life. These include the current “lumberjack” and Golden Girls aesthetic of Valencia Street hipsters, who are expressing larger cultural ideas, and whose style choices will inevitably trickle down to the Gap and JCPenney.

This article has been corrected to note the name of Veen’s company is Typekit, not Typepad.  

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