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How did Figma Succeed? A Brief History

This week, Adobe acquired Figma for $20B. Now, it’s time for pundits to tell you what combination of business savvy, luck, unfair advantage, and/or evil machinations led to Figma’s success. Including me!

Seriously: I’ve never worked for Figma. Or any of its competitors. But the analysis I’ve seen so far lacks some interesting bit of the story as I see it and, since I’ve been in software design for a quarter century and have some perspective, here’s my take.

In the Beginning…

Rewind farther back than 2013 and you’ll find almost any product designer working in Adobe products: Photoshop and Illustrator. Neither was built with product design in mind, so there was a lot of unnecessary functionality in the way, and a lot lacking. But they got the job done and, especially in the early 2000s, they were efficient tools that allowed me to work efficiently.

Photoshop dealt in pixels, Illustrator in shapes and objects. That made Photoshop best for fine detail, Illustrator for easy modification and layout. Which was best? It depended on what you were designing. For iPhone, though, you really needed Photoshop: all those glossy buttons and linen textures required its high level of pixel control.

They weren’t cheap: the last non-subscription version of Creative Suite cost $1300. But there weren’t robust alternatives. Bohemian Coding’s Sketch served as a simple, cheaper ($100) alternative to Illustrator but felt a little thin to me.

The Great Flattening

In 2013 Apple announced iOS 7, a massive change to its look & feel. It abolished the glossy buttons, linen textures, and leather stitching in favor of a much simpler, flatter look. And where Apple goes visually, so goes the industry; so suddenly everything was flat, and we were all subjected to lengthy think pieces on “flat design” and how it was the One True Way and glossy buttons were evil. (Few remember that the pioneer of flat design was not, in fact, Apple, but Microsoft with the Xbox. Microsoft rarely gets credit for these things.)

iOS6 (left) vs. iOS7 (right). Image via Business Insider.

Screen resolutions were also increasing: Apple introduced its Retina Display with the iPhone 4 in 2010, doubling the number of pixels per square inch. Why does that matter? Because the more pixels you have, the less each one matters. At 72 dpi, an icon designer needs to adjust every pixel to ensure the icon isn’t “fuzzy;” double or triple that, and the fuzziness is so small you don’t see it. Flatter designs are easier at higher resolutions: all those textures add a level of polish that isn’t possible when it’s just boxes and text. So to some extent, higher resolutions were a prerequisite for iOS7.

Suddenly, Photoshop was serious overkill for product design. Illustrator, which doesn’t deal in pixels, was more appropriate but again, overkill. Meanwhile, Sketch’s narrower feature set was looking pretty robust for modern apps. And Sketch noticed: they shifted their focus onto product design and, in the following few years, became the first mainstream product-design tool.

To put this in perspective: you can design modern web and mobile apps in Illustrator or Photoshop. But you can’t design pre-2013 apps in Sketch or Figma.

Market Opportunities

Figma was founded in 2012 and launched in 2016. I don’t know when they decided to focus primarily on product design, but they surely noticed what was happening with Adobe and Sketch. (For the founders out there, I will also call attention to that four-year timeline. “We’re not going to launch anything for four years while we build a great product” flies in the face of conventional Lean-Startup-influenced wisdom.)

From the beginning, Figma focused on collaboration. Collaboration in real time among designers, handoffs between designers and engineers, collaboration with other stakeholders. This was new, and well-timed: much earlier and the tech just wouldn’t have been there. As a user, I was skeptical of this focus because of all the additional design-tool functionality I wanted, but looking back I can see I was wrong: it was absolutely the right focus at the right time. From a product standpoint, it removed a lot of friction around design as a necessarily cross-functional endeavor; from a go-to-market standpoint it allowed for intra-organizational (and sometimes inter-organizational) virality. Sketch didn’t have this. Adobe didn’t have this. It’s a lot like Google Docs: collaboration that requires multiple versions of a file, an explicit export, etc., is painful enough that users will forgive other functional degradation to avoid it.

Figma was browser-based — and again, this wasn’t something that would have worked, technically, even a couple years prior. I suspect that mattered for ease of adoption: nothing to download and install. But it’s also important to remember that Windows is the dominant operating system on the planet, and Sketch was (and still is) Mac-only.

And Figma was free to use. Compared to Sketch’s $100, that’s already significant. Compared with Adobe’s $600 per year, it’s huge. Especially because that $600 didn’t get you something better. Post-iOS7, Illustrator and Photoshop were not only ill-suited to the task; they’d become increasingly cumbersome, slow, and resource-intensive. It’s been a long time since either has felt like the efficient pro tool it was in the early 2000s. So…a tool that does the job for free, or one that kinda doesn’t do the job for $600?

Recent History

In recent years, Figma has led the charge in adapting design workflows to modern apps. For example: as screen sizes have proliferated, it’s been increasingly impractical to mock up designs screen size by screen size. Every phone, every laptop, every browser window is a different size; we needed tools that acknowledged that and Figma delivered.

Adobe launched XD in 2016 — so actually in response to Sketch rather than Figma — and while it has some unique features, it’s always felt a step behind Sketch and Figma. The designers I’ve encountered who like it have switched directly from Photoshop or Illustrator and aren’t comparing it to Figma. (In some cases, that’s because of tight larger-company IT policies.)

What’s Next?

I fear for Figma as a product. The evolution of Adobe’s creative apps in recent years has driven me to seek alternatives — Affinity offers an increasingly capable alternative to Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign at much lower prices and without all the bloat and inefficiency. I worry about what will happen as Figma gets integrated into that ecosystem.

Because designs are somewhat ephemeral (once it’s built, you kinda care about keeping it around but not really), design tools don’t benefit from the kind of lock-in a tool like Notion enjoys. Yes, there’s a learning curve — and Figma’s collaborative nature makes that greater — but we went from Adobe to Sketch to Figma in the space of nine years. Adobe’s newfound dominance is far from guaranteed.

So I don’t fear for design tools. Established competitors like Sketch and Framer continue to evolve. Competitive pressure will be good for Figma. It seems like a new design tool comes along every day with a slightly different take. And nobody (including Figma) has cracked the biggest problem: how to bring engineers and designers together seamlessly in one hybrid design-development system. But a lot of smart people are trying.

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Dave Feldman

Dave Feldman

CEO & Founder at Miter—run better meetings at miter.co. Alum of Google, Heap, Facebook, Emu. Product designer, behavioral science enthusiast.