Roben Kleene

The Google Docs of Design

Inc. has a feature on Figma’s founders for their 30 Under 30 list by Michelle Cheng called “Figma Wants to Be the Google Docs of Digital Design”. I’m not sure people realize how big a deal Figma is; Figma could be the tipping point that ends native desktop apps for creative professionals. Figma is a web-based design tool, and according to’s data, it’s the second most popular design tool after the fully native (and Mac-only) Sketch.

The title “the Google Docs of Digital Design”, captures Figma’s potential impact: The Google Docs approach, of having a document anyone can view and edit at anytime, has huge benefits.

But design is different than an office suite. Google Docs is “zero-skill” software. Almost anyone can use Google Docs without training, and almost no one spends their whole day in it. Design is the opposite, it’s highly skilled work, not just requiring design expertise, but simply using the tool itself requires expertise, and the people who do it usually spend their whole day in their design tool. This is a perfect match for native apps: Native apps can be more responsive, by being implemented closer to the hardware, and quality distinctions like an being more Mac-like are more important when you’re spending all-day in a tool.

But the elephant in the room for design is version control. Design is still stuck in the dark ages of document management1; lots of similar filenames float around in email with version numbers appended2. I don’t see how that’s a solvable problem without moving to a tool that’s web-based, where a central repository is always the source of truth3. And if that’s true for design why isn’t it also true for video editing? Or 3D modeling, animation, audio editing, or any of the other creative jobs that are still dominated by native apps?

  1. Cloud sync services like Dropbox have helped, but not alleviated, the problem. ↩︎

  2. Paul Ford and Rich Ziade have a great discussion about version control and document management on the Track Changes podcast. ↩︎

  3. The technical overhead of doing editing in a native app locally and automatically syncing changes is just not worth it. ↩︎