Golden Gate Bridge

Blog Post

Design in SF: A Language Primer

A month ago, I moved to San Francisco from Chicago. I knew it would be different here, but I didn’t know the details. Design here has its own language and I’ve been meaning to document it.

(n., San Francisco) website, mobile app, or other digital creation.

When I started out as a graphic designer in DC, I never thought about “product.” I was decidedly 2D in my approach to design, so I didn’t put energy into learning how to design a third dimension, an amorphous field I didn’t understand.

In graduate school in Chicago, I took classes with a slew of industrial designers and environmental/interior designers and I studied product design and prototyping with  IDEO-alum and Chicago hero, Marty Thaler. I didn’t embrace industrial design and product design; but, I did grow to really respect this work and finally learned what CMF meant. Product in Chicago meant three dimensional objects with digital and/or analog components.

San Francisco, a city full of digital based startups (more on that later), uses the term in a loose way. Products are “shipped” for use by consumers or businesses on a screen. Designers here work on products for Ebay and Google and some other massive company, or work at a healthcare startup making medication management products for iOS. Somewhere along the way, it seems that product lost a dimension again.

(n. San Francisco) a philosophy or way of life; where the action is; a choice.

I had the opportunity to go to school next door to 1871, the famous Chicago business incubator. Before that, I had heard of “startups” and the entrepreneurial world inhabited by VCs and the like. But in Chicago, I was finally meeting these ambitious guys looking to start something big.

But, if only I had realized just how important startups are to San Francisco. I’ve learned that the city is split between big companies and startups. Startups run lean and aim high to solve problems that founders believe no one else has solved correctly. They all seem to be developing digital products (see definition above). Free lunches or beer seems to abound at both company types, but at a much different scale. To be a member of a startup, you might be hoping for the IPO day and a big payoff or feel like a hero fighting the archaic and slow big company way to progress and innovation.

I’ve talked to several people who’ve advised me on my job search to go to a startup. There, I can do everything I want, be it strategy or user experience. My mind hasn’t decided yet, but I’m sure it won’t be the last time I hear this advice, especially in San Francisco.

(n., San Francisco) fast, team-based projects that result in a working digital product, often by originating an idea and creating a functioning prototype in less than 48 hours.

“Hackathons” and startups fill the same mental space in my brain; I knew they existed, but could not fathom their full impact on the design community. What always struck me about these events is the focus on coding might to make something quickly. I didn’t necessarily think they could support the user-centered design process as I’ve learned it.

Since being in San Francisco, I’ve learned that designers attend hackathons to enter the startup world (see definition above) and develop portfolio pieces. They are about networking, getting in on the next big thing early on, and building your professional world.

Just about every lecture, talk or networking event that I’ve attended has at least one person talking about the hackathon that they just participated in or someone advising me to put an upcoming hackathon on my calendar. I haven’t participated in one yet, but I might just have to for a true San Francisco immersion.