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10 May

Making design really simple for the world.

It’s 2007. Melanie Perkins is in her mom’s living room in Perth. Having enrolled at the University of Western Australia, she’s teaching fellow students basic computer design as a part of her communications and commerce studies.

While designing a poster, the sheer process of first composing it in Photoshop, converting it to the right size, and saving it as a PDF feels cumbersome and tedious to her.

This is where the moment of truth hits her. An epiphany.

“Can there not be an online tool that helps me do this quickly and easily without knowing a lot of design?”

Thus, Canva was born.

"Our company mission is to empower the world to design. And we really mean the whole world.”

The company began as a modest yearbook design tool. It then subsequently expanded to cater to other industries and design requirements.

But this piece isn't about Canva's growth story. It is about something more fundamental:

Spotting a shift in consumer needs at the right time, predicting second- and third-order effects, and then using technology tailwinds to make products that best serve that changing need.

Here's how it panned out in the case of Canva.

Essentially, Canva decided to bet on creating an easy to use design tool for non-designers. And it was built on this fundamental understanding of the changing landscape:

With social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, marketing increasingly shifted online. Now, the speed of execution and iteration started to matter more as compared to older days when a whole design and planning team used to work painstakingly on creating a TV or newspaper ad campaign from scratch, and once out in the world, they could only keep their fingers crossed and hope they didn't make a mistake.

With social media, you can easily make small changes to the design and copy, test versions of the same ad for different customer cohorts, have them in different form factors and sizes, and repeat this whole loop multiple times within the same week.

Online advertising is much faster-paced and a lot more targeted and customised. Increasingly, marketing teams couldn't afford specialist designers — be it in-house or from external agencies — to work from scratch on every iteration. They wanted a team of marketers to be able to make these design changes themselves. And although they are not graphic designers, they would need to have graphic designing abilities.

Now, Photoshop is a tool that works on the level of pixels and vectors; that kind of detail is unnecessary for a marketer once a template is created. Consequently, the kind of learning curve one has to undergo just to make a basic design change is too high.

Companies couldn't afford that. And the space for a much-needed easy-to-use design tool opened up. This need was felt even more by SMBs and teams who couldn't have a dedicated design team to work on every project.

This space is where Canva stepped in.

Photoshop could do everything these marketers wanted and much more, but it was too raw and designs need to be worked on and manipulated at the level of layers and pixels.

Canva, on the other hand, has templates and layouts built for specific purposes, while making it easy for users to add their own creativity, whether by putting in their own photos or using any of the many graphics and components made by the community.

It was lightweight editing — perfect for making many small changes like formatting for different social platforms — that made it ideal for people who were creating for social media.

Earlier, a marketing team of six used to create all printed handouts and digital assets for all its agents to promote events. Now, with Canva, all of the company's agents could create material for their own listings, faster and on their own time.

"It became quickly apparent that it was not just the tools themselves that were preventing people from creating great designs, but also people’s own belief that they can’t design.

In order for Canva to take off — we had to get every person who came into our product to have a great experience in a couple of minutes.

We needed to change their own self-belief about their design abilities, we needed to give them design needs and we needed to make them feel happy and confident clicking around. We needed to get them to explore and play in Canva. No short order! So we spent months perfecting the onboarding experience paying particular attention to users’ emotional journey."

What Canva realised was that with the increased speed of iteration, most users didn’t want to build from scratch or even possessed the eye for aesthetic design. With its marketplace that is seamlessly integrated into the tool itself, it created an entire ecosystem of pre-built components users can use, both free and paid.

And the ballsy decision here was to actually limit users' options to a few widely used specific templates instead of having them create theirs anew. Not only was it cognitively less challenging for users to get a poster designed, but for any customisation, they could use Canva's extensive ecosystem of add-ons.

And it is the add-ons that allow Canva to address the huge scale and varied needs of all its customers, far more than one company could ever do on its own. This makes it possible for each customer to use Canva in a way that will be personalized for exactly the use case and aesthetic they care about, even while working with limited template options!

Parting thoughts

Melanie Perkins was able to correctly capitalise on the direction the market was naturally going to move in as social media and online advertising gained steam.

And she was also able to correctly identify the root problem — design tools being too beginner unfriendly and having a huge learning curve — and came up with a product that was way more elementary and restricted, but that which gained mass adoption just because of how simple it was to use.

So, the next time you think that more features are better, think of Canva. And think again.

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