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Meet us in the browser

When my co-founder Evan and I launched Figma in closed beta five years ago, we bet everything on the browser. Like many others that used Google Docs at school and then returned home to virtual worlds, we intuitively understood that Internet native software embodies values like collaboration, transparency and access. Pretty much everyone around us — friends, classmates, coworkers we had interned with — shared these values, so we assumed they were self-evident.

We didn’t realize that launching Figma was heresy, a generational assault on top-down, siloed models of decision making and a challenge to the identity of many designers. While some immediately understood the potential of building design software in the browser, our vision elicited an immediate and negative reaction from others. Some even told us that if this was the future of design, they were changing careers.

Feeling threatened by change is part of being human. It was only natural that moving what had previously been an offline, single-player experience into the browser would be a shock to many. The fears were sensible. I think many designers felt that more transparency would lead to an over-demystification of the design process, more micromanagement and tighter deadlines. For many, inviting others into Figma represents an implicit loss of control. (And if you’ve ever looked at how designers structure their layers, then you know how much designers like control!) Finally, increased access brings with it the most existential question of all: if anyone can design, what does it mean to be a designer?

Initially I didn’t understand the negative reactions to Figma’s closed beta launch. I only saw the obvious benefits: a single source of truth for files, cross platform support, and multiplayer editing. Now I understand that the power of the browser lies in the broader cultural change it delivers — and this change can be scary. The browser is natively multiplayer. It forces a mindset shift on access. It strips away the need for expensive hardware. And it pushes us to embrace working together, especially when we are blocked and our default might be to hide.

One of the best parts of my job as CEO of Figma is playing anthropologist. Over the past five years, I’ve seen firsthand how working in a collaborative digital space moves teams from a mindset of “my ideas” to “our ideas.” This requires a radical shift — a level of trust and transparency that many of us are still catching up to. In many ways, design is deeply personal, and opening up that work to others to build on and remix can feel like opening up a part of yourself. But that’s why this change is so important.

Zooming out, the browser isn’t just about better workflows or improved collaboration. Working in the browser is part of a multi-decade global shift from physical spaces to digital spaces, massively accelerated by COVID-19. Like physical spaces, digital spaces help us connect to one another. Unlike physical spaces, digital spaces have no walls: by default they are non-hierarchical. Everyone is invited to brainstorm, build, and play together.

In Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan writes about how “all technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems.” But at its best, Figma is much more than a digital extension of our physical self—it’s an invitation to leave ego at the door and create shared consciousness with others. It’s an opportunity to embrace the messy bits of creativity, to celebrate failure and bring more people into the process along the way.

Figma’s vision is to make design accessible to all. If we succeed, putting Figma as a skill on a resume will be as absurd as highlighting Google Docs proficiency. The browser brings us closer to this vision, but we have a lot of work still ahead. We hope Figma can support every role, in every part of the design process — from ideation to production, imagination to reality.

I hope this level of openness and access will extend far beyond design and product development. We can’t allow hardware, specialized tools and titles to block that progress. As technologists, we have a responsibility to make it so that more people can use our platforms, not fewer. What I’ve seen over these past five years is that the browser is the medium to ignite that impact. If you make software, I challenge you to build with this ethos. Our teams and our products — dare I say our society — will be better for it.

Thank you to Alia Fite, Craig Mod, John Lilly and Kevin Kwok for their help and feedback on this post.