What’s Wrong with Apple’s New Headquarters

The new headquarters Apple is building in Cupertino has the absolute best door handles. The greatest! They are, as my colleague Steven Levy writes, precision-milled aluminum rails that attach to glass doors—sliding and swinging alike—with no visible bolts.

Everything in this building is the best. The toroid glass of the roof curves scientifically to shed rainwater. And if it never rains again (this being California), well, an arborist selected thousands of drought-tolerant new trees for the 175-acre site. Not every Apple employee will get to work in the new building—ouch!—but 12,000 will. Of course, it only has 9,000 parking spaces, but that’s supposed to encourage people to take an Apple shuttle to work. And once they arrive, they’re not going to want to leave. The fitness center has a climbing wall with pre-distressed stone. The concrete edges of the parking lot walls are rounded. The fire suppression systems come from yachts. Craftspeople harvested the wood paneling at the exact time of year the late Steve Jobs demanded—mid-winter—so the sap content wouldn’t be ruinously high. Come on! You don’t want sappy wood panels. This isn’t, like, Microsoft.

Whether you call it the Ring (too JRR Tolkien), the Death Star (too George Lucas), or the Spaceship (too Buckminster Fuller), something has alighted in Cupertino. And no one could possibly question the elegance of its design and architecture. This building is $5 billion and 2.8 million square feet of Steve Jobsian-Jony Ivesian-Norman Fosterian genius. WIRED already said all that.

But … one more one more thing. You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to 21st-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood.

The Architecture

Apple Park isn’t the first high-end, suburban corporate headquarters. In fact, that used to be the norm. Look back at the 1950s and 1960s and, for example, the Connecticut General Life Insurance HQ in Hartford or John Deere’s headquarters in Moline, Illinois. “They were stunningly beautiful, high modernist buildings by quality architects using cutting-edge technology to create buildings sheathed in glass with a seamless relationship between inside and outside, dependent on the automobile to move employees to the site,” says Louise Mozingo, a landscape architect at UC Berkeley and author of Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. “There was a kind of splendid isolation that was seen as productive, capturing the employees for an entire day and in the process reinforcing an insular corporate culture.”

By moving out of downtown skyscrapers and building in the suburbs, corporations were reflecting 1950s ideas about cities—they were dirty, crowded, and unpleasantly diverse. The suburbs, though, were exclusive, aspirational, and architectural blank slates. (Also, buildings there are easier to secure and workers don’t go out for lunch where they might hear about other, better jobs.) It was corporatized white flight. (Mozingo, I should add, speaks to this retrograde notion in Levy’s WIRED story.)

Silicon Valley, though, never really played by these rules. IBM built a couple of research sites modeled on its East Coast redoubts, but in general, “Silicon Valley has thrived on using rather interchangeable buildings for their workplaces,” Mozingo says. You start in a garage, take over half a floor in a crummy office park, then take over the full floor, then the building, then get some venture capital and move to a better office park. “Suddenly you’re Google, and you have this empire of office buildings along 101.”

And then when a bust comes or your new widget won’t widge, you let some leases lapse or sell some real estate. More than half of the lot where Apple sited its new home used to be Hewlett Packard. The Googleplex used to be Silicon Graphics. It’s the circuit of life.

Except when you have a statement building like the Spaceship, the circuit can’t complete. If Apple ever goes out of business, what would happen to the building? The same thing that happened to Union Carbide’s. That’s why nobody builds these things anymore. Successful buildings engage with their surroundings—and to be clear, Apple isn’t in some suburban arcadia. It’s in a real live city, across the street from houses and retail, near two freeway onramps.

Except the Ring is mostly hidden behind artificial berms, like Space Mountain at Disneyland. “They’re all these white elephants. Nobody knows what the hell to do with them. They’re iconic, high-end buildings, and who cares?” Mozingo says. “You have a $5 billion office building, incredibly idiosyncratic, impossible to purpose for somebody else. Nobody’s going to move into Steve Jobs’ old building.”

The Landscape

But that’s all future-Apple’s problem. Today-Apple’s problem is how the campus fits into Cupertino and crowded, congested, expensive Silicon Valley.

Between 2010 and 2015 the San Francisco Bay Area added 640,000 jobs, with more than a third of that growth in tech. But the region didn’t add nearly enough housing; with the exception of a spike during the boom years leading up to the 2008 recession, the number of new housing units built in the city of San Francisco has trended steadily downward, and the same is true for other Bay Area cities. Here’s what happens when supply fails to meet demand: The median price for a home in the Bay Area has climbed to $800,000. It’s even higher in Silicon Valley.

That’s starting to change. San Francisco has 62,000 units in the pipeline, and San Jose is adding thousands every year, too. (To be clear, those numbers are still far lower than places like Houston and Atlanta.) But the towns along the 101 and 280, the homes of companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook? Nope. Cupertino, Mountain View, and Palo Alto all have tens of thousands of workers in the tech business, adding more and more all the time, but those cities have been reluctant to build new houses or apartments.

How is this Apple’s problem? “Apple’s obviously very important to the city, and when they came in with that plan, we understood this wasn’t going to be just any development,” says Aarti Shrivastava, Cupertino’s assistant city manager. “They had certain needs.” Heightened sensitivity to security was one of them, which meant no public access—and even closing a major road.

In the early days of the project, reports suggest Apple wasn’t willing to participate in “community benefits,” financial or otherwise, and Cupertino’s city council didn’t seem too willing to push one of the city’s biggest employers and taxpayers. The mayor at the time tried to propose higher taxes on the company, but the city council didn’t support the move.

Over time, though, Apple committed to giving the city some money to help with traffic and parking. “We had to bring them into our world. They don’t do urban design. They don’t do planning. We needed to talk to each other,” Shrivastava says.

In its HP incarnation, the site had about 5,000 workers; the new Apple complex will more than double that. Just 10 percent of them live in Cupertino, but according to an Environmental Impact Report on the project that an Apple spokesperson sent me, that still means that demand for Cupertino housing will increase by 284 percent. Apple is paying a “Housing Mitigation Fee” to the city. It’s based on overall square footage, but it turns out Apple is only adding about 800,000 square feet of building over what used to be on the site. So the company agreed to double the usual fee. But since the city had already halved the fee, so Apple is just paying … the fee. It’ll be about $5 million.

You can do math: Ten percent of people working in Cupertino means that 90 percent of the people in the Spaceship will commute. Most of them live in San Jose (10 miles east) and San Francisco (45 miles north). The lack of a cohesive regional transportation network in the Bay Area privileges cars, which is why Google and other tech companies started fielding their own buses in the last few years. (In 2014, San Franciscans angry about gentrification met Google’s buses with resistance.)

Apple has shuttles that range the entire peninsula and into the East Bay and has committed to raising the number of trips to its headquarters not in single-occupancy vehicles to 34 percent. According to the EIR, just 1.5 percent of commute trips to Apple’s existing facilities are on public transit; by that calculation, the company says, the public bus system’s plenty robust enough. That logic is as circular as the building; if you don’t build it, they won’t come.

Of course that wasn’t all Apple worked on with Cupertino. Because part of the new campus subsumed what was going to be public space, Apple paid $8.2 million so Cupertino could build a park somewhere else. And the company agreed to help address the community’s major concern: traffic. Cupertino already had big plans for walkability and bikability; Apple is paying for a lot of those efforts around its campus. It ponied up $250,000 for a feasibility study on improving one of the nearby intersections, and an extra $1 million for another. Recognizing that not having enough parking for everyone on site meant that people were going to park in nearby neighborhoods, Apple is paying $250,000 to Santa Clara and $500,000 to Sunnyvale in parking restitution. “We worked very hard with both cities to figure out what amount would be OK, and Apple was very open to that,” Shrivastava says.

Oh, and two big ones: Apple is one of Cupertino’s biggest sources of tax revenue, but the city used to forgive all of Apple’s business-to-business sales tax. Now the city will get 65 percent of it. And the company built, at a cost of around $5 million, a system to bring recycled water from Sunnyvale to hydrate the new landscape. That’s not a direct community benefit, but developments at two more sites, the Hamptons and the old Vallco Mall, will also use that water if and when they get built.

Still, though…Apple has $250 billion in cash. Against that, these community benefits feel small. The company could have chipped in to double the frequency of CalTrain’s commuter rail. It could have built a transit center in Cupertino, which, unlike Mountain View and Palo Alto, has none. “Apple could have done anything. Money was no object,” says Allison Arieff, editorial director for the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association and lead author of its recent report on corporate campuses. “They want to be innovative in everything, and they’re not innovative in this thing.” Apple is instead making significant improvements to roads and highways. “If the intractable problems of the region are housing and congestion, they’re giving the finger to all that,” Arieff says.

The problems in the Bay Area (and Los Angeles and many other cities) are a lot more complicated than an Apple building, of course. Cities all have to balance how they feel about adding jobs, which can be an economic benefit, and adding housing, which also requires adding expensive services like schools and transit. Things are especially tough in California, where a 1978 law called Proposition 13 radically limits the amount that the state can raise property taxes yearly. Not only did its passage gut basic services the state used to excel at, like education, but it also turned real estate into the primary way Californians accrued and preserved personal wealth. If you bought a cheap house in the 1970s in the Bay Area, today it’s a gold mine—and you are disincentivized from doing anything that would reduce its value, like, say, allowing an apartment building to be built anywhere within view.

Meanwhile California cities also have to figure out how to pay for their past employees’ pensions, an ever-increasing percentage of city budgets. Since they can’t tax old homes and can’t build new ones, commercial real estate and tech booms look pretty good. “It’s a lot to ask a corporate campus to fix those problems,” Arieff says.

But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t try. Some companies are: The main building of the cloud storage company Box, for example, is across the street from the Redwood City CalTrain station, and the company lets people downtown park in its lot on weekends. “The architecture is neither here nor there, but it’s a billion times more effective than the Apple campus,” Arieff says. That’s a more contemporary approach than building behind hills, away from transit.

When those companies are transnational technology corporations, it’s even harder to make that case. “Tech tends to be remarkably detached from local conditions, primarily because they’re selling globally,” says Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economist who studies cities. “They’re not particularly tied to local suppliers or local customers.” So it’s hard to get them to help fix local problems. They have even less of an incentive to solve planning problems than California homeowners do. “Even if they see the problem and the solution, there’s not a way to sell that. This is why there are government services,” Arieff says. “You can’t solve a problem like CalTrain frequency or the jobs-to-housing ratio with a market-based solution.”

Cities are changing; a more contemporary approach to commercial architecture builds up instead of out, as the planning association’s report says. Apple’s ring sites 2.5 million square feet on 175 acres of rolling hills and trees meant to evoke the Stanford campus. The 60-story tall Salesforce Tower in San Francisco has 1.5 million square feet, takes up about an acre, has a direct connection to a major transit station—the new Transbay Terminal—and cost a fifth of the Apple ring. Stipulated, the door handles probably aren’t as nice, but the views are killer.

The Future

Cupertino is the kind of town that technology writers tend to describe as “once-sleepy” or even, and this should really set off your cliche alarm, “nondescript.” But Shrivastava had me meet her for coffee at Main Street Cupertino, a new development that—unlike the rotten strip malls along Stevens Creek Blvd—combines cute restaurants and shops with multi-story residential development and a few hundred square feet of grass that almost nearly sort of works as a town square.

Across the actual street from Main Street, the old Vallco Mall—one of those medieval fortress-like shopping centers with a Christmas-sized parking lot for a moat—has become now Cupertino’s most hotly debated site for new development. (The company that built Main Street owns it.) Like all the other once-sleepy, nondescript towns in Silicon Valley, Cupertino knows it has to change. Shrivastava knows that change takes time.

It takes even longer, though, if businesses are reluctant partners. In the early 20th century, when industrial capitalists were first starting to get really, really rich, they noticed that publicly financed infrastructure would help them get richer. If you own land that you want to develop into real estate, you want a train that gets there and trolleys that connect it to a downtown and water and power for the houses you’re going to build. Maybe you want libraries and schools to induce families to live there. So you team up with government. “In most parts of the US, you open a tap and drink the water and it won’t kill you. There was a moment when this was a goal of both government and capital,” Mozingo says. “Early air pollution and water pollution regulations were an agreement between capitalism and government.”

Again, in the 1930s and 1940s, burgeoning California Bay Area businesses realized they’d need a regional transit network. They worked for 30 years alongside communities and planners to build what became BART, still today a strange hybrid between regional connector and urban subway.

Tech companies are taking baby steps in this same direction. Google added housing to the package deal surrounding the construction of its new HQ in the North Bayshore area—nearly 10,000 apartments. (That HQ is a collection of fancy pavilion-like structures from famed architect Bjarke Ingels.) Facebook’s new headquarters (from famed architect Frank Gehry) is supposed to be more open to the community, maybe even with a farmers’ market. Amazon’s new headquarters in downtown Seattle, some of 10 million square feet of office space the company has there, comes with terrarium-like domes that look like a good version of Passengers.

So what could Apple have built? Something taller, with mixed-use development around it? Cupertino would never have allowed it. But putting form factor aside, the best, smartest designers and architects in the world could have tried something new. Instead it produced a building roughly the shape of a navel, and then gazed into it.

Steven Levy wrote that the headquarters was Steve Jobs’ last great project, an expression of the way he saw his domain. It may look like a circle, but it’s actually a pyramid—a monument, more suited to a vanished past than a complicated future.

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Ai Weiwei Gets Artsy-Fartsy About Surveillance

Walk down the street in New York City and your likeness will be captured on camera dozens of times. You’ll pass cameras affixed to buildings and traffic lights; on the subway platform, more than 4,000 closed circuit cameras will track your every move. There are security gadgets planted in elevators and lobbies, coffee shops and convenience stores, all of which keep a watchful eye.

An estimated 62 million security cameras monitor the United States alone, which means that at any given moment, you’re probably being watched without even knowing it. It’s almost like a dystopian version of Hansel and Gretel, where everywhere you go, you leave a path of digital breadcrumbs in your wake.

We often don’t see or think about these cameras, but a new exhibition at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory puts the surveillance state overtly on display. For Hansel and Gretel, artist Ai WeiWei and Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, transformed the Armory’s cavernous drill hall into a surveillance park. A series of 56 tiny computers attached to infrared cameras and projectors hang from the rafters. Meanwhile, a handful of tethered drones buzz overhead, taking footage of the visitors and feeding it back into a live stream.

As visitors wander through the dark room, cameras capture their likeness and cast ghostly renderings onto the floor. A grid of projected red boxes and white lines frame each person as an unspoken acknowledgement of technology’s ability to precisely pinpoint your location. “It’s the physicalization of surveillance,” says Herzog, who with de Meuron and Ai aimed to create an interactive surveillance state. The concept? People should see firsthand the kind of technology that tracks them on a daily basis.

Surveillance on Display

Watchdog technology has proven a rich area for artists to mine, both because it’s so pervasive and so invisible.

The knee-jerk response is for artists to use it as a tool to elicit shock—a bait and switch that reveals the delayed truth that something’s been watching you and you didn’t know it. With Hansel and Gretel, the artists seemed to sidestepped that idea, instead making the technology an obvious component of the experience. The fact that you were being monitored was no secret, which made it easy to work the technology in your favor. All around the hall, people paused for eerie photo shoots; posing, smartphone in hand, as the cameras above snapped their picture and replicated it on the ground.

Despite the darkness, the flashing lights, and the ominous mood in the space itself, the environment felt almost convivial. Rather than inducing fear and paranoia, the installation turned surveillance into selfie culture. “There seems to be an ambivalence [towards surveillance],” says Tom Eccles, the show’s curator. “Maybe that’s the way the world has changed.”

After exiting the main hall, visitors shuffle toward another entrance at the Armory where an usher greets them. “Hi there, could you put your toes on the line and look straight ahead for me?” he cheerfully asks. Straight ahead is another camera, this one capturing a straight-on headshot that minutes later will be projected onto the digital frames that line the Armory’s walls. On the tables below the frames, a row of iPads invite visitors to take another selfie, which gets fed into facial recognition software that searches for a matching image. Within seconds, my face pops up in the photo taken just moments ago. The computer’s software is 52% confident it’s me.

For some people, the immediacy of this recognition will be jarring. But the creep factor quickly subsides when a pop-up box emerges on screen. For $10, you can buy a print of the photo, available in the museum’s gift shop.

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Apple Architect Norman Foster Says the Future of Offices Must Be Flexible

Urs Hölzle has a big job. As senior vice president of technical infrastructure at Google, he’s in charge of the hundreds of thousands of servers in data centers spread across the planet to power the company’s ever widening range of services.

He’s also the person that the company’s engineers turn to when all that computing power turns out not to be enough.

Today at the 2017 Wired Business Conference in New York, Hölze explained that even with its enormous resources, Google has had to find ways to economize its operations in order to meet its ambitious goals. Most recently, he said, the company was forced to start building its own artificial intelligence chips because the company’s existing infrastructure just wouldn’t cut it.

Around five years ago, Jeff Dean, who ran Google’s artificial intelligence group, realized that his team’s technique for speech recognition was getting really good. So good in fact, that he thought it was ready to move from the lab to the real world by powering Android’s voice-control system.

But when Dean and Hölzle ran the numbers, they realized that if every Android user in the world used about three minutes of voice recognition time per day, Google would need twice as much computing power to handle it all. The world’s largest computing infrastructure, in other words, would have to double in size.

“Even for Google that is not something you can afford, because Android is free, Android speech recognition is free, and you want to keep it free, and you can’t double your infrastructure to do that,” Hölzle says.

What Google decided to do instead, Hölzle said, is create a whole new type of chip specialized exclusively for machine learning. He likens traditional CPU chips to everyday cars—they have to do a lot of things relatively well to make sure you get where you’r going. An AI chip, on the other hand, has to do just one thing exceptionally well.

“What we built was the equivalent of a drag race car, it can only do one thing, go straight as fast as it can,” he says. “Everything else it is really, really bad at, but this one thing it is super good at.”

Google’s custom chips could handle AI tasks far more efficiently than traditional chips, which meant the company could support not just voice recognition, but a broad range of other tasks as well without breaking the bank.

Pattern Recognition

This pattern has repeated itself again and again during Hölzle’s time at Google. He says that when he started at the company in 1999 (he was somewhere between the seventh and 11th employee hired by Google, depending on how you count), Google only had around 50 servers and was straining to support the number of search queries it received each day. But even with $25 million in venture funding, the company couldn’t afford to buy enough ready-made servers to meet its growing demand.

“If we had done it with the machines, the servers, that people were using, professional servers, real servers, that would have blown our $25 million in an instant,” he says. “It really was not an option, so we were forced to look for other ways to do the same thing more cheaply.”

So Hölzle and company built their own servers out of cheap parts. Each individual server was less powerful and reliable than a professional-grade machine, but together the clusters of computers they assembled was more powerful and reliable than what they could purchased otherwise. Google didn’t invent the idea of using big clusters of cheap machines in lieu of more expensive hardware—that honor might go to the nearly forgotten search engine Inktomi—but it did popularize the model by proving that it could work on a massive scale.

Hölzle and his team had to do something similar years later when it found that off-the-shelf networking gear no longer met its needs. So few companies needed switches that could support the number machines Google had that no established networking company was interested in producing them. So, once again, Hölzle and his team had to build their own gear—something that other companies, like Facebook, now do as well.

“These decisions become a lot easier if all the other alternatives are non-viable,” Hölzle says. “It’s not necessarily that we’re somehow bolder or more insightful, but it’s actually that for many of these things in our history, it was almost a forced choice, you didn’t really have a viable alternative that you could buy.”

But Hölzle probably isn’t giving himself enough credit. Most people, after exhausting all the viable options, would conclude that their task is impossible. When Hölzle ran out of options, he created new ones.

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Humanscale, the Classic Design Tool, Gets a Second Life

Apple messed with a cardinal rule of industrial design when it made the iPhone 6. The glassy screen, 5.5 inches on the diagonal, was too large for people with small hands to reach the top. To compensate, the company introduced Reachability—a quick double tap of the home button that shifts the screen’s apps downward two inches, into the range of tiny hands.

The feature wasn’t so much a salve for ergonomic oversight as it was an acknowledgement of an unfortunate truth: When building something for millions of people, one size can’t fit all. “The double tap is the most obvious human factors workaround,” says Luke Westra, a designer at Chicago design studio IA Collaborative.

When Westra talks about human factors, he’s referring to a field of design concerned primarily with how people’s bodies interact with their physical environments, also known as ergonomics. All good designers think about human factors when developing a product. Those that don’t end up with stools too short for the table or office chairs that give employees back aches.

IA Collaborative

Steve Jobs and Jony Ive used computers and CAD software to shape the final form of the iPhone, but decades before the smartphone hit the market, designers relied on an analog tool to help them better understand the human body. This tool, called Humanscale, was a set of nine rotating disks filled with more than 60,000 data points. Spin the selector in any direction and a series of numbers align in the windows to show you the correct measurement values for the subject you happened to be designing for.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, industrial designers used the reference tool as a cheat sheet to get quick data points. But after MIT Press stopped printing them in the mid 1980s, they became something of a collectors item, selling for upwards of $2,000 on eBay. Now Humanscale is back thanks to Westra and a team at IA Collaborative’s Venture arm, who are creating reprints of the classic design tool for $79 per print or $199 for the complete set.

Humanscale was the product of Henry Dreyfuss & Associates (HDA), the design firm behind iconic objects like the Honeywell thermostat and Bell’s tabletop telephone. Its founder, Henry Dreyfuss, was an early champion of ergonomic design, and his studio approached its practice like a science. Form followed function, and function followed data. Lots and lots of data.

No product was made without first consulting a laundry list of bodily statistics—things like average height, arm span, sitting hip width, and viewing angle from a desk. “The big problem back then was that data wasn’t necessary in a nice, easily usable form,” says Bill Crookes, who worked at HDA from the early ‘70s until its closing in the early 2000.

Data existed, but in piecemeal. If you wanted to know the dimensions of the average North American man’s leg, you could reference military records. If you wanted to know the maximum decibel comfortable to the human ear, you could look up statistics from the EPA. One of the firm’s partners, Niels Diffrient, was determined to consolidate this ergonomic data into a single, easy-to-use tool that designers could bring with them into the field.

Diffrient and his team, including Crookes, spent years tediously gathering human engineering data. They learned, for example, that the average height of a fedora was 2 inches—important when taking door measurements into consideration. They combed official sources for information on the height of wheelchair-bound men and women. They measured the differences in gripping posture when holding a cylinder, ball, or pencil, and then organized all of this data onto Humanscale’s themed disks. “They laid out every little bit of info on these tools by hand with a square triangle and a compass on a drafting table,” says Nathan Ritter, a design researcher at IA Collaborative.

Illustrations on the front and back of the disks showed humans and their body parts in various positions, with arrows annotating dozens of measurement points. Rotating the disks filtered the data sets so you could see information specific to women, men, and children at their various percentiles.

Humanscale was a masterpiece of information design, and arguably one of the first interactive data visualizations. It’s a relic, but it’s also regarded among industrial designers as the gold standard of human engineering statistics. Today, the disks have been replaced by more technologically advanced tools, like proprietary digital ergonomics databases that design firms can license for thousands of dollars.

For IA Collaborative, letting the Humanscale disks fade into obscurity would have been a missed opportunity. “They’re still just as relevant today as when they were just launched,” Ritter says. The designers are starting with reissuing the original disks and books, but eventually they plan to digitize the information and create an interactive interface for the data. They figure most designers could use an easy tool for making their designs be more about the people they’re designing for. “You can design anything in the vacuum,” Westra says. “But if you’re not considering the people who are going to use it, they’re not going to have a great experience.”

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Figma Wants Designers to Collaborate Google-Docs Style

Screens were different a decade ago; thicker, wider, tethered to walls. There were screens in our pockets back then as well, though they weren’t yet as hungry for eyes.

Today’s screens are far more advanced than the ones from 2007, but many of the tools graphic designers use to fill them with digital interfaces haven’t changed much. In fact, a lot of designers still use Photoshop—the industry standard since before the iPhone days—to design the look of your Slack notifications and the layout of your Instagram feed.

In the past few years, a crop of nimble newcomers has emerged to woo graphic designers away from Adobe’s brawny graphics editor. The most popular is a tool called Sketch, which offers many of Photoshop’s features but is easier to use and specifically made for interface designers. Competition has become so fierce that Adobe last year released a beta version of its own purpose-built interface-design tool, the straightforwardly named Adobe Experience Design CC (aka Adobe XD).

This is all a little inside-baseball and maybe a little boring, I’ll admit. But consider that these tools are actually locked in a battle for the loyalties of designers at today’s most powerful companies—designers who will use the winning app to develop digital products for years to come.

Today, that melee gets more interesting as an interface design tool called Figma takes a significant step toward the center of the ring. The browser-based tool helps designers make digital products as a group, letting multiple people collaborate in real time as they draw, drag, and edit elements on the screen. Figma technically launched last September, and since then, has made paying clients out of big fish like Microsoft, Uber, and Slack. But today, the startup unveiled two key features that should give Sketch and Adobe pause—and will likely earn it a few more companies for its trophy wall.

The first enhancement, “code mode,” gives developers access to the code that underlies a project’s look and feel. The second, “prototype mode,” lets designers build, present, and modify working prototypes of digital products. Both modes work from directly inside Figma, a choice meant to ease tensions that can emerge between designers and the code-minded non-designers they collaborate with.

Code mode allows engineers to inspect Figma projects in view-only mode, comment on design decisions, and copy the code they need to build the product.

Figma

When it launched last year, Figma captured designers’ attentions with two features: Live collaboration and version control. The same way you can work in Google Docs with multiple people simultaneously, lots of folks can join forces on a project in Figma. Tweaks and edits save immediately to the cloud, preserving a detailed record of each project’s history and keeping collaborators from overwriting each others’ work.

This real-time, all-in-one environment is a boon for design professionals, who have long relied on cobbled-together workflows involving multiple programs, plug-ins, and cloud services. You might design a screen in Photoshop, save it to the cloud using Dropbox, then share a link to that Dropbox folder with your collaborators—who then have to go through the same steps to share their revisions with you.

Figma’s new prototyping mode allows multiple designers to develop, modify, and demonstrate working prototypes without leaving Figma’s browser-based application. Here, a designer connects different frames of an app with flow lines that will later allow them to demonstrate its functionality.

Figma

“The first time I used Figma was in a design review,” says Trello product designer Adam Simms, who uses the tool to create extensions for his company’s popular project management app. “I sent ten developers a preview link to my project, and they all jumped into a live demonstration of the design. When they realized they were looking at the source files, and they could follow me around on screen, the experience completely changed. It turned into this interactive feedback loop, where they were able to comment on things as I was going through them.”

Collaboration isn’t Figma’s only strong suit. A browser-based app, it works whether your collaborators are using Macs, Windows PCs, or Linux laptops. (Adobe XD only runs on Windows and Mac, and Sketch is Mac-only.) On the other hand, Sketch and Adobe are better at working offline. The former benefits from a rich network of third party plug-ins, the latter from integration with Adobe’s suite of products—not to mention the company’s design heritage.

In any case, the most salient news is that competition has spurred all of these companies to address workflow issues that have bedeviled designers for years. But the battle for the hearts and minds of Silicon Valley’s designers is in its early days. The features they’ll prize most, and who will provide them first, is still being figured out.

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