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Design Ecosystem in San Francisco

Nick Budden

Designer, and sometimes-writer. Canadian in Taiwan ✈ Berlin. Trying to help people enjoy being creative.

City of Designer's Individualism

In our series Design Ecosystems, we have already been to the East Coast of the US, exactly in New York. Now it’s time to check one of the most tech-advanced cities in the world – San Francisco. With HQs of companies like Twitter, Uber, and many, many others, the city is one of the most interesting places for designers to be.

Let’s see how is it to be a designer in a place surrounded by world’s biggest companies.

Working as a Designer in San Francisco

When you live in San Francisco, you have to be aware that the city is full of people like you – working for startups, and trying to show off their skills from the best possible side. You have to put a little more effort into self-promotion.

Being a designer in San Francisco Is like being a chef. You know all the “rules” to design, you know the recipes but what makes you a good designer and what makes you stand out is when you add your own flare. Being in the city I’ve learned to develop my own style, my own flare. It’s what separates you from the rest. It’s what makes a five-star restaurant. The city is full of inspiration and color, but they are just stepping stones to making your own art.
Bethany Mitchell, UI/UX Design Student

Individualism is a big part of being a designer in San Francisco. This is also something that was pointed out to us by Andrew:

Being a designer in SF makes you focus on your individual growth since you’re typically a team of one, but knowing that there is a network of designers in SF all struggling with the same problems helps you understand that you’re not alone.
Andrew Tolentino, Product Design @ Credit Karma

At the same time, working in SF means that you're as close to the design industry and what's happening within it as possible:

It's pretty great; it's a very different environment and culture than many other places I've lived. It's a more crowded field of highly skilled designers, many working on digital products, so there's always a sense of needing to "up your game".

Plus there's a lot going on, so there's definitely more of an established design community here in SF. You don't feel so detached from what's going on in the industry.
Peter Booty, Product Designer @ Neptune Financial

On the other side, people in San Francisco truly understand what’s the role of design. It opens a lot of possibilities because you can work with people who get you and what you want to achieve with your work.

Being a designer in San Francisco has been very rewarding. To provide better contrast, I graduated from WKU in Kentucky, where there were only a handful of design jobs available for designers in the area. None of them were digital design jobs, but rather print and graphic design roles.

Living in a city like SF opens up an entire world of possibilities - you are no longer limited by your environments lack of design culture. Frankly, if you are looking to get into digital product design, I would consider the SF Bay Area as the top place in the world to live at.

Wilián Iralzabal, Product Designer


The Design Community of San Francisco

The big community of designers in San Francisco is also a pretty active one. There are tons of meetups taking place in the city. Wilián recommended us a few, like RETHINK, Build Better Products, Lean UX SF, and Lean Product & Lean UX Silicon Valley.

He also points out that these events are a great opportunity to meet designers that you may already know and admire:

Aside from the many talented designers that are willing to grab coffee with you, there is a very unique opportunity to join any/all of the design meetups in the area. I remember when I first moved into the area, I would reach out to random designers that I admired and asked them if they would go grab a coffee with me. The majority of them said yes and we continue to be good friends to this day.

Now that I’m more experienced, I pay it forward by answering every question that comes my way. In fact, I started a hashtag on Instagram #OneMinuteDesigner where I answer design related questions for my followers in a vlog format. Here is a linkto all of the posts if you’re curious.

Overall, the community is very willing to provide guidance. If you’re reading this and are just starting out, feel free to reach out. I’ve got your back 🙂
Wilián Iralzabal, Product Designer

You can find even more great meetups on Lauren’s website:

There’s the usual designers and geeks. I tend to lend more towards product and growth as my day to day role in the product. I’ve created this listover the years to share with friends and mentees. Pardon the website, it’s super outdated.
Lauren Nham, Product Lead @ SutherlandLabs

You should also check out SF Design Week:

Well every year we have the SF Design Week, when offices are open for visitors and it’s not just a great chance to build your network, but also to meet new friends. Besides that, Eventbrite always have tons of meetups that you can find and attend for free through the year.
Thiago Duarte, Product @ Elephant

Gleb also points out on how active the local community is:

SF design community is very proactive. There are many educational events happening. At many places, you can meet people and get new connections which are really priceless in the design industry across the world.
Gleb Kuznetsov, Director of Product Design @ Milkinside

What’s also great regarding the SF design community is that it’s not focused just on one thing – it’s very progressive and adjustable.

Definitely first rate with NYC a close second. One metric of a community is the breadth and depth of meetups and conferences held by the community and it’s by all measures extremely active. Additionally, the community tends to tie itself to adjacent sectors, including sustainability, civic tech and a great deal of user psychology, lending itself to progressive pushes in business model innovation and across service and experience design.
Lauren Nham, Product Lead @ SutherlandLabs


Where to work from in San Francisco?

As you may imagine, the city as packed with startups as San Francisco also has to have a lot of coworking spaces for them, and that’s of course true. The most recommended ones include Covo, Canopy, Bespoke, and Impact Hub.

And two more great recommendations from Wilián:

There are so many awesome places to work in SF. You can find me at a local WeWork or any given coffee shop around town. Must check out: Workshop Cafe FiDi.
Wilián Iralzabal, Product Designer

If you’re more of a coffee places person, you can find a bunch of pretty nice cáfes suited for working, like Mercury, Philz, Coffee Bar, or Java Beach Cafe.

We also got a few great recommendations from Victor:

I stopped drinking coffee about three months ago and tend to not work as much from coffee shops. If you are into that, I’d say any of the three SightGlass locations are a good starting point. Their interior design is beautiful and they roast their owns beans at the location in SOMA (South of Market). Also, most Blue Bottle locations tend to be busy, so if you’re looking for something quieter then more boutique style coffee shops would be better. There are a few in Hayes Valley like Arlequin Cafe and Ritual Coffee Roasters, if you want the option of working outdoors as well.
Victor Kernes, UX Designer @ Virta

Here you have it – the designers’ perspective of the World’s capital of startups. If you are also based in the city, welcome to share your perspective with us on Twitter. We have also created a list of local designers – be sure to give it a look.

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