How Figma Closes the Gap Between Imagination and Reality

Over the last dozen years, Dylan Field has built Figma into an iconic company by delivering on its vision to “make design accessible to all.”

But long ago — before Dylan started brainstorming ideas for a company with fellow Brown University student Evan Wallace; before Dylan famously dropped out of college to take a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship that got Figma rolling; before he and Evan proved skeptics wrong by showing that a collaborative, web-based design platform was not only viable, but also could win the hearts and minds of vast swaths of the design community; and before Adobe offered to buy Figma for $20 billion in a deal that was ultimately scuttled by regulators — Dylan had in mind a different, and arguably more ambitious, mission in mind: to eliminate the gap between imagination and reality.

“For us, the intention was always to decrease the time it takes to go from something in your head to something on the screen,” whether it’s a website or a fully functional app, Dylan says.

But the lofty mission initially landed with a thud.

In 2013, when then-20-year-old Dylan pitched up and down Sand Hill Road, investors said it was too confusing, too vague, too broad. For many, it was a head scratcher that, they argued, would make recruiting talent unnecessarily difficult.

So Dylan replaced his abstract idea with the more concrete goal of democratizing design. With millions of designers and developers using Figma to create websites, apps, and digital experiences — and a list of customers that includes the likes of Airbnb, Google, The New York Times, Patagonia, and Volkswagen — Dylan can credibly say he’s well on his way to achieving that goal.

But Dylan never gave up on the original mission. And he now believes the opportunity to shrink the gap between imagination and reality — and for Figma to help lead that journey — is greater than ever. That’s both because of Figma’s rapidly expanding platform and because of the advent of AI.

“Figma’s approach has really evolved from how to make the best tool for design to really supporting the entire process of how you build software — everything from starting with an idea and getting it all the way to code and production,” Dylan says.

That shift is evident in the company’s core offerings. Today, Figma’s full suite of products includes FigJam, which allows creators to collaboratively whiteboard and brainstorm, Figma, which allows them to create mock designs and prototypes, and Dev Mode, which helps developers translate those designs into code.

Meanwhile, AI is beginning to make every part of the software creation process faster, a trend that will lead to an explosion of growth in the number of apps and digital tools that come to market.

And in a world where software is everywhere, he says, “design is the differentiator that is going to separate great products from obvious solutions.”

A long and winding road

Back in the early 2010s, the idea of a web-based, professional-grade design tool that would support real-time collaboration and eliminate the need to pass design files back-and-forth seemed far-fetched. Early web collaboration tools like Google Docs were gaining popularity, but offering the same kind of seamless experience with data-hungry design files — in real time and without any visual lag — would require an improbably large leap forward. Dylan and Evan decided that improbable didn’t mean impossible. Working with a small but growing team, they toiled for three and a half years until they had a working product.

Snagging Figma’s first enterprise customer would take an additional 18 months — not to mention some scrappy biz dev by Dylan. Scraping Twitter, he built a social graph of designers so he could identify the most influential among them. Then, he reached out individually with an offer to buy them coffee so he could demo the product. The approach paid off in 2016 when Shishir Mehrotra, co-founder and CEO of collaboration software maker Coda, agreed to adopt Figma as his company’s design tool. Shishir would later find out that he was Figma’s first customer in a random meeting with Dylan. “Reaching out to your heroes sometimes works,” Dylan quips.

Just as Figma’s engineering team navigated the road to V1, Dylan himself was busy learning on the job. Before co-founding Figma and becoming its CEO, his entire professional experience consisted of three internships. He readily admits to early CEO mistakes, like being too slow to hire, or being too focused on details he should have delegated to others. Meanwhile, the pressures to get the product out and indecision about when the product would be good enough to ship were having a deleterious impact on Figma’s culture. No one at the company, Dylan says, was having any fun.

Things kicked into gear when the company brought in Sho Kuwamoto, a veteran of Adobe, who pushed the team to finish and release a test version of Figma. This gave Dylan space to focus on culture, and lead the development of a set of company values that became Figma’s North Star.

While many designers lined up to be admitted to Figma’s closed beta, the product wasn’t an immediate hit. “Tripping over each other on one artboard is an extremely hostile assault on our visual system and workflow,” one designer complained. Another warned that, “if this is the future of design, I’m changing careers.” But little by little, the design community warmed up to the benefits of real-time collaboration on a web-based app that was both powerful and easy to use. The team-based experience brought more people into the design process, workflows accelerated, and Figma became the standard for collaborating across company walls.

By the time Figma held its first user conference, Config, in February 2020, just weeks before the first pandemic shutdowns, 1,000 designers converged on San Francisco for the event. The second in-person Config had to wait till 2023. By then, 8,500 people attended. In the years between, Figma vastly improved the capabilities of its core product, and the new FigJam was quickly gaining popularity as a tool for collaborative brainstorming.

In September 2022, Figma’s startup days suddenly appeared to be over as Adobe offered $20 billion to acquire the company. But the would-be blockbuster was held up by antitrust regulators. After 15 months of challenging discussions, the companies decided to abandon the deal. The whiplash could have been devastating for just about any startup. But presciently, Dylan and his leadership team had made sure that Figmates — the internal name for company employees — never abandoned their focus or took their foot off the pedal.

“We picked up our pace during the deal review period,” Dylan says. To wit: With the deal still pending, Figma introduced Dev Mode, a new product whose creation had been in the works for many years and demanded significant research and development.

AI helps shrink the gap

Dylan’s plan to keep furthering his vision was on display at Config 2024, held in late June. This time, attendance had grown to 10,000 — the kind of crowd that rivals developer conferences hosted by the likes of Apple or Google. As Dylan sauntered onto the stage in the cavernous main hall at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, he was greeted like a rockstar.

Amid cheers from designers and developers, Dylan delivered a string of announcements: changes to Figma’s core interface and new features that will reduce the platform’s complexity; Figma Slides, a new product that brings Figma’s marquee collaborative, design-forward approach to the creation of slide decks; and improvements that make Dev Mode more powerful.

But the main focus, not surprisingly, was generative AI, as Dylan announced the company’s first major push to embed the technology into Figma’s core design product. In its first iteration, he said, the company will roll out AI capabilities to address key pain points for designers such as getting started on a project, finding things they need, and staying in the flow of the creative process.

Dylan, who wore a “now with AI” T-shirt, dazzled the audience with a series of demos showing how AI could help designers to easily find previously created design assets, and soon, to search through vast libraries of content shared by the Figma community; how it could automatically connect related designs into a functioning prototype; translate, shorten, or rewrite text with a click; save designers countless hours of monotonous work by renaming and organizing the structure of their files; and how it could instantly generate UI components through a text prompt, giving designers a quick way to get to a first draft. “This is just a start,” Dylan said.

Dylan’s demonstration of Gen AI’s power is just the kind of thing that has many creative professionals fretting about whether their jobs will disappear. Dylan doesn’t see it this way. “AI lowers the floor, but raises the ceiling,” he says. “We can help you get something onto a screen faster, addressing the ‘blank page’ problem.”

But good design is much more than that, and more important than ever, Dylan says. A designer creating an app needs to understand how humans interact with software, what feelings, challenges, or emotions they might experience, the context they’re in, the strategic goals of a business, and the characteristics of the brand they’re helping to create. AI, Dylan says, is bad at all these things. “The gap is just so large between what these models can do and how good designers think and what they work through to actually create amazing experiences,” he says.

In other words, even in a world where Figma makes it so much easier to go from imagination to reality, good design will be the hallmark of a truly differentiated product. “Craft,” Dylan says, “will always win.”