How creatives win friends, influence people and break the internet

The rise of design collectives, technical designers, no code + production-ready tools and viral side projects (e.g. Amazon Dating 💕)

A few Saturdays ago, I was running late for drinks at the Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. My friend Ani was already waiting by the pool. I had dozens of messages on Slack, WhatsApp and Twitter to coordinate who was arriving when, and most importantly, what everyone wanted to drink.

On my way up the elevator, I had the strangest thought: “I have NO idea what my friends look like…”

… 

After months of catching up, hours on the phone, and really meaningful advice that inspired new companies, cool collaborations and my own new fund Worklife

Here’s the catch, we’d never met in person.

This whole collective of creatives was connected through an invite-only chat room started by a mysteriously cool guy in Scotland named Marty Bell, the Founder of the famous Poolside.fm, sunglasses company Tens, and plenty of other projects that have broken the internet.

As the night went on, I was reminded of how this interaction represents the shifting gravity of technology. Companies are increasingly distributed, people are choosing smaller, selective social networks for our personal and professional lives, and tech is moving further and further away from Silicon Valley.  

In many ways, this experience was similar to the early days of Silicon Valley where curious minds assembled in a garage for meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park: no membership requirements, no minimum dues, no elections of officers.

Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution describes their earliest meetings: 

“It was a club of young people—every one of them could have been an entrepreneur—the sort of people that liked to put together gadgets at home and make them work.” – Steve Wozniak*

[Photo of the Homebrew Computer Club]

In my case, what started with a late arrival, long lines at the bar and random banter with internet friends by the pool evolved into an early preview of Ani’s new Amazon Dating site, Marty’s new creative campaign for Tens, and our unannounced collaboration coming soon. (Invites for newsletter subscribers coming soon 💌) 

This is how I describe the future of work: it’s creative, collaborative and more flexible than ever.   

Hacker culture in its purest form still exists today with makers like Simone Giertz emerging as the new face of hardware. Local hackathons from London to Lagos assemble based on programming languages like Javascript and React. 

Conversations and collaboration are less exclusive and more distributed with online communities like Hacker News, Dev.to, and Stack Overflow. The open source community continues to grow exponentially with 10M+ new contributors over the last year and 44M+ new repositories on GitHub.  

In addition to the traditional technical hacker culture, I’m excited to see a new class of hackers that use both art and science to create iconic experiences inside tech companies and online: designers.

From founding startups to experimenting with an emerging set of design tools to developing cult-followings with side projects, designers are using their skills and growing influence to transform the tech industry one pixel at time.

Let’s discuss:

  1. The rise of design driven companies: great tech & company culture = iconic companies
  2. The new design stack: editing apps for consumers & professional grade tools 🚀
  3. The design projects that win friends, influence people and break the internet 

The rise of design driven companies

Iconic companies are a combination of great technology and internal culture. 

The story of the “founding hackers” is familiar. A handful of engineers working out of a garage eventually strike genius, and go on to launch the next big thing. These companies are decidedly engineering-led, with a focus on technical excellence. Think Larry Page and Sergey Brin with Google. 

[Photo of Sergey Brin and Larry Page in Susan Wojcicki’s garage]

In Sachin Rekhi’s “Finding Product Culture Fit” he discusses engineering-driven companies like Google and Microsoft:

Engineering-driven product cultures often start with a unique technical insight that becomes the basis for their products. Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s Page Rank algorithm, for example, was the unique insight that enabled them to build the world’s most successful search engine.

On the other hand, design-driven like Apple and Airbnb are decidedly different:

Design-driven product cultures obsess over every detail of the user experience.

In the case of Airbnb, Everlane, Webflow, Zendesk and other design-driven companies, design thinking and an emphasis on building a strong internal culture are influenced by the background of the founders and the structure of the executive team. 

On a recent private tour of Airbnb, Brian Chesky shared some early lessons with Worklife portfolio companies including the importance of having a design leader report to the CEO. 

This is especially important as a company starts to scale and the role of the CEO becomes increasingly tied to board meetings, reporting financials and ultimately public earnings call, he said. 

The creative voice that serves as a champion for the customer will continue to push the product and user experience and, increasingly, the employee experience, into new and innovative directions. 

Design is a core competency, not an afterthought

Founding members of Airbnb, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, attended the Rhode Island School of Design and infused design-thinking into every part of the company. The company is now regarded as one of the top design-driven companies, making way for more designer founders. 

Yet, their backgrounds in design raised initial skepticism:

When we came to the Valley, no one even wanted to invest in Airbnb. One of the reasons was they thought the idea was crazy…But the other reason is that they didn’t think a designer could build and run a company.” – Brian Chesky*

This attitude has shifted, with companies like Dropbox as part of a pack of design driven companies. It turns out these companies also make business sense; McKinsey linked design-driven companies with superior business performance, specifically 32% higher revenue growth and greater returns to shareholders.  

Just as “the first engineer” was a key distinction, we’re seeing the rise of “the first designer”. First Round’s Designer Track, underscores the increasing importance of a startup’s first design hire with instruction from folks like Jessica Ko, the First Designer at Opendoor, and Davey Nguyen, the First Designer at Gusto. 

Designers aren’t simply contributing to small product features at companies as employee number 100 or 1000. They’re founding their own companies and joining startups in their earliest days. In doing so, they’re pulling influence from engineers in steering product and diverting clout from marketers in defining brand. 

As people try new tools, we’ll increasingly hear “who designed this?” rather than “who built this?” With hybrid roles like UI Engineering or “designers who can code” taking a foothold in tech companies, the answer to both questions will often be the same.

As the influence and importance of design continues to grow, dollar signs will follow. Just as the best hackers command high salaries and set off bidding wars, we’ll see design wages rise, inching closer to parity with software developers, and cults of personality build around an increasing number of talented designers.

The new design stack: editing apps for consumers & professional grade tools 🚀

Homebrew hackers like Steve Dompier tinkered with the Altair to make it play “Fool on the Hill” by The Beatles. Modern day hackers like Jane Manchun Wong reverse engineer apps to find hidden features and security vulnerabilities.

[Jane Manchun Wong discussing unreleased Instagram feature]

Designers are doing their own tinkering, using a range of emerging tools in the process. 

With the rise of no-code tools, designers have been empowered to do their own hacking, creating functioning prototypes and live sites without writing a single line of code. Designers who’ve caught the experimentation bug are putting their skills to work creating Webflow cloneable templates of popular web properties like Airbnb listings or Facebook

Engineers continue to be cut out of design workflows with tools like Rive that let designers and illustrators create sophisticated interactions and animations without writing code. 

That means working on as many iterations as needed to get it just right on a new game or app. Better yet, it’s all done on a browser. The speed, performance and the convenience of browser-based tools are driving massive productivity gains in the design world.

Similarly, Thinko’s Animation Studio is building Mr. Puppet, a hardware tool that uses puppetry to give artists greater creativity and control by letting them animate their creations instantly. 

Of course, design hacking isn’t only for experts – beginners and amateurs alike can play around with presets like Figma Valentine’s Templates as a creative outlet and an exercise in creativity within constraint. 

[Alex Muench’s popular Figma Valentine tweet]

As new dev tools and languages are created, the number of software enthusiasts grow and we see more hackers. With the rise of every day design for assets like flyers and Instagram posts, casual dabblers who start with consumer tools like Canva and Chroma Stories will eventually graduate to more complex hacking.

With the design gold rush, we’ll see a new class of designer hackers who solve interesting problems with design-thinking, define new styles for product design that shape the next generation of apps, and bring a playful hacker spirit to everything from prototyping to wireframing.

The side projects that win friends, influence people and break the internet 

Hacking together side projects is an outlet for curiosity and creativity, but it’s also a way to get noticed by people you admire and attract new opportunities. This was true of why members joined the Homebrew Computer Club:

“This was my way of socializing and getting recognized,” Woz wrote. 

“I had to build something to show other people.”

In the new American Dream, I shared how creative expression, online influence and extreme optionality is changing how Americans define success. Extreme optionality is leading to greater societal expectation for creative outlets.

Side projects are an opportunity to showcase inventiveness because they avoid the trap of creativity under the gun. While the trope of coming up with the perfect solution in the 11th hour is ever present, people tend to think less creatively when they’re under pressure. In fact, it generally leads to feelings of being “overworked, fragmented, and burned out”.

Instead, individuals perform their most creative work when they have less time pressure and feel like they have the time and space to explore ideas. For many of us, this is during evenings or weekends.

A side project shared across Twitter, Product Hunt, and Hacker News can net a brand new following, a business with revenue and profits, or job offers at a FAANG or high-growth startup. Hackers have always embraced the power of the side project. 

Inspired by a Paul Graham tweet, 16 year-old Samarth Jajoo built an app that lets you keep a private journal over email.

[Embed: Initial Paul Graham Tweet]

[Samarth Jajoo’s side project]

Designers and creatives embrace side project culture too.

Amazon Dating, created by Ani Acopian and Suzy Shinn is a satirical site remixing Amazon with the concept of finding a date – complete with a rating system, details on love languages, and Amazon prime delivery. The side project garnered press from publications like Dazed, Fast Company, New York Post, and Refinery29. 

[Screen capture of https://amazondating.co/

Pablo Stanley, a designer at InVision, controversially launched Open Doodles as an Open Design side project to help anyone to “copy, edit, remix, share, or redraw” illustrations without restriction. In hacker spirit, the project encourages collaboration.

[https://www.opendoodles.com/

Designer led side projects take countless forms ranging from memes to parody accounts that manage to go viral and blow up the internet for the day or week. Rather than kudos for technical complexity, they’re often complimented for creativity, irreverence, and style. 

Even venture capitals at top-tier firms are using creative hacks to win friends and influence people (founders) with their own personal flare. 

Side projects are better together. Having a group of peers to bounce ideas off of can help with everything from accountability to finding collaborative partners. Designers and creatives are creating their own Homebrew-eque collectives to share what they’re working on. Exclusive online memberships like Jacuzzi Club include creatives from companies like Airbnb, TikTok, and Poolside FM with discussions about creative projects or job opportunities. 

Similarly, teamLab, a collective of artists, programmers, animators, mathematicians, and architects bringing tech-art experiences to cities around the world is reimagining the museum experience with video game elements for Gen Z and Instagram-worthy moments for Millennials. 

In 12 months, teamLab’s Tokyo Museum has become the world’s most popular single-artist destination, surpassing the Van Gogh Museum. 

This is just the beginning of design hacking in the public sphere. We’ll see more public art space and new uses for retail, such as Sandbox VR, where interactive experiences will replace physical stores that have moved online or been replaced by modern brands.


The Homebrew Computer Club’s collective of hackers was described as “a mélange of professionals too passionate to leave computing at their jobs” and “amateurs transfixed by the possibilities of technology”. 

We’re seeing the same spirit in today’s new cohort of designer’s who are unsatisfied with simply shaping products at their day jobs. Instead they’re branching out and starting companies or bringing their influence to early stage startups, tinkering with design tools in their off-time, and envisioning and executing on design side-projects that make the internet a better and brighter place.

If you’re a designer who is thinking about your next move or want to show off a side project, say hi on Twitter: @briannekimmel

How Superhuman uses video game design to make work feel more like a game

The 4 components of a game-like experience featuring Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra

I recently sat down with Rahul Vohra, the founder and CEO of email client Superhuman, to discuss his unique approach to building products that turned email, one of the most routine and mundane daily tasks, into a game-like experience that’s fast, enjoyable, and worth sharing with friends.

With a computer science degree from Cambridge and a background as a video game designer, Vohra entered the tech scene in the early 2000s. During that time, he co-founded Rapportive, an email company that LinkedIn eventually acquired. At LinkedIn he led email integrations and witnessed rapid scaling at the company as it grew from 1,500 employees to more than 10,000. 

It was during this time that the idea for Superhuman was first formed. 

“When Gmail first came out in 2004, it was fast and clean and did one thing *email*really well,” he said.

“But over the years it became slow, started killing battery life, and was getting bogged down by extensions. That’s why we wanted to create something that would be like if you were to build Gmail from scratch, but with today’s technology that was blazingly fast, visually appealing, and keyboard-driven.”

But what would be the secret sauce that made all of this work?

Going back to his roots, Vohra started from first principle as if he were going to build a highly entertaining, maybe even slightly addictive, video game.

Game-like experiences will ride the next big wave in tech

Today, many companies are trying to build “Superhuman for X.”

But as Mehdi Boudoukhane pointed out, it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. 

In Vohra’s case, his background and focus have enabled him to successfully create the delightful experience we associate with Superhuman today: an invite only, $30/month email service with more than 220,000 people on its waitlist.

Superhuman provides a delightful experience all the way to inbox zero using a deep background in game design.

As one of the first productivity tools to emerge with a game-like experience, Superhuman is uniquely positioned to ride the next massive wave in tech as video games become a driving force for mainstream consumer culture.

I predict we’ll see more game-like experiences emerge as gaming goes mainstream and more developers, founders, STEM students will lean into gaming best practices as they create new products – in the same way Vohra has with Superhuman.

There are already early, promising shifts in how we learn, collaborate and ship new software experiences. Figma’s multi-player technology and Repl.it’s real-time collaborative coding are early examples for developer and design tools, however I believe this is just the beginning and more will emerge across different teams, sectors and use cases.

The proliferation of gaming culture

Before we dive into the core components of a game-like experience, let’s look at early signals of the massive wave to come in gaming.

The gaming industry is now bigger than Hollywood. Americans spent $43B on video games in 2018 alone. Gaming culture will be increasingly synonymous with mainstream culture as professional gamers become celebrities, award shows celebrate game creators and streamers, and an explosion of new jobs emerge to support the gaming ecosystem.

The gaming tech stack is growing and well-funded. New platforms, leagues, content studios and a whole ecosystem of analytics, performance coaching and new technologies are emerging to support consumers, prosumers and professional gamers. There are an estimated 759 gaming related startups today.

The end of ‘game shame.’ Gaming has long battled a negative social stigma of promoting violence, misogyny and an often misunderstood camaraderie for the loners and socially inept, however increasingly video games are used in school to teach STEM and provide an alternative to traditional sports.

Research suggests girls who play video games are 3x more likely to study STEM. As games become more age, gender and geographically diverse, we will see a more inclusive ecosystem and a shift in the traditional ‘gamer’ stereotype.

In the few years, we’ve seen an influx of coding bootcamps and original programs like Kode with Klossy, a code bootcamp designed for girls 13-18, create more inclusive opportunities for underrepresented groups to study STEM.

I’m excited to see (and fund) original content such as video games and software experiences, especially those designed for women and underrepresented groups to expand their technical abilities.

The four components of a game-like experience

Getting a bit more down into the details on Superhuman’s video game approach, we can see how the team leverages video game-like engagement hooks and rewards that tap into intrinsic motivations of users.

There are four key components to the Superhuman experience:

Goal: To get to inbox zero. 

During their one-to-one onboarding session with new users, the Superhuman team observes how an individual interacts with their inbox and identifies stressful patterns of behavior, which informs how they encourage new users to work towards inbox zero.

“Most companies worry about what users want or what they need. But we don’t worry about that at all. We obsess about how users feel. We make users feel is just as important as what we make. And what we actually make is joy, in software form,” Vohra said.

More than anything else, Superhuman is a direct result of an intense focus on the emotions behind the experience that ultimately lead to delight.

Control: Keyboard shortcuts. 

These controls are taught to the new user during an onboarding session and help them quickly navigate through the tool and execute tasks more quickly when using it.

While Superhuman didn’t invent shortcuts, it created a more approachable and popularized version of command line shortcuts that developers use daily.

I call this the “consumerization of the command line,” a shift in how users interact with their devices where a command line interface and use of keyboard shortcuts is used to remove distractions and increase productivity in a single session.

Since the launch of Superhuman, we’ve seen Command E, keyboard shortcuts to search and open any document, and Linear, a streamlined bug tracking tool and modern alternative to Jira.

Tutorials: Training.

This is the functional onboarding where the user gets to hang out with the Superhuman team, learn the controls, and is shown the goal, all within a safe environment with a friendly person who’ll help you as you try out the controls and use new moves.

Like any good game, many superfans have designed their own ‘cheat sheets’ and share their personal hacks on social media with other fans.

For games and most productivity tools, “just enough” training can be achieved through a few onboarding screens and a standalone Discord community for users to learn from self-serve education and other users.

Pace: Speed.

A good game flows smoothly and consistently builds momentum and speed as the user becomes more experienced, which is why Superhuman has focused so intensely on speed. They help users maintain a state of flow and focus with more speed and less cognitive load than other email clients. Users are immersed in the experience.

“With these elements in place, you have the perfect ingredients for what is essentially a video game–and then you can start to layer things on top of that. One of the ways we do this is the name itself: Superhuman. Users are the superhumans; they’re the main character in the game–and by playing it, they become brilliant at what they do,” Vohra said.

Conclusion: While video game design in the context of workplace productivity is still fairly new and experimental, the core components bring a refreshing approach to building better products at work.

Research suggests more than half of all employees are unhappy at work because of the software tools they’re using.

I hope to see more design elements inspire new tools and processes such as keyboard shortcuts and real-time collaboration that seamlessly integrates both “single player” and “multiplayer” modes to make work increasingly feel more like a game.

What’s next for Superhuman?

Looking ahead, Superhuman plans to double down on single player mode. 

The reason: Vohra is more interested in horizontal teams than vertical teams, and wants to see what it looks like when all of the executives and leadership roles within a company are using Superhuman. This means rather than focusing on building new team collaboration tools, their existing features may just be tweaked and marketed differently down the road.

“I’ve always believed it’s worth it (although probably harder) to absolutely nail the consumer single player use case before you start going into teams. So we’re very much like Dropbox and say, ‘Let’s nail that single player experience first,’” Vohra said.

In the future, the Superhuman team will spend about half of its time doubling down on the things that users love and the other half of the time systematically overcoming objections to adoption from the target market.

Watch the full discussion & please say hi on Twitter!

I’d love to get your thoughts and feedback.