Ollie Barker was on a call with his design team at payroll company Pento when the Adobe-Figma acquisition news broke. At first, Barker thought it was a joke. As the team realized it was real, the mood on the call grew grim.
“We joked that we were all going to start wearing black,” Barker, who’s based in England, said. “I’m hearing all these jokes over here now that we lost the Queen last week, and we’re losing Figma this week.”
Figma has been a constant companion to designers over the past few years, exploding in popularity over the course of the pandemic. The browser-based software made UX/UI collaboration seamless. Plus, under the leadership of CEO Dylan Field, Figma made a point of relentlessly connecting with customers — Field’s conversations with users eventually led to collaborative whiteboard product FigJam.
Adobe, while the stalwart in the design industry, was clunkier when it came to collaboration on its Creative Cloud products. The company has a reputation for mistreating customers when it comes to canceling subscriptions. Prices for Creative Cloud kept increasing. “There was a joke that if you lived in Australia, it was cheaper to fly to the States to buy the software and stay for a holiday and then fly home, than it was to just buy the software in Australia,” Barker said.
Given this context, it’s unsurprising that design Twitter was ablaze in the wake of the announcement. The news is divisive to say the least, and people have been posting memesgalore. Michael McWatters, director of product design at HBO Max, said the deal makes sense to him, though it is surprising that the startup with the “Adobe killer” mantra was now going to become part of Adobe. He shares designers’ concerns about what this means for Figma’s customer strategy.
“While I love some Adobe products, Adobe has taken some particularly cavalier approaches towards their customers, in my opinion,” McWatters said. “Whereas Figma has always been particularly customer-centric.”
From the outset, Figma had ambitions to unseat Adobe’s design tools. But it built a very separate identity. Users quickly found Field’s tweet from January 2021 asserting that “our goal is to be Figma not Adobe.”
“We want to retain our identity, our community, our brand, our platform,” Field told Protocol in an interview after the acquisition news broke. “I don't necessarily disagree with myself in January 2021. I also think it's kind of funny that people are amplifying it so much, but that's Twitter."
Field hasn’t had time to delve through all the memes yet (he stayed up late and then woke up early when he heard that news of the deal had been leaked). But he’s seen some good ones. “This is standard for designers, they’re very creative, they’re very funny,” he said. He knew going into the deal that it would ruffle some people’s feathers. But he firmly believes it’s best for Figma users.
“It’s unfortunate that people don’t see that quite yet, but also it’s to be expected,” Field said. “I went in knowing that this might be mixed in its reception, to put it mildly.”
Figma’s price tag is $20 billion, so clearly that’s a hefty incentive. But Field is most excited about scale, using Adobe’s resources and expertise to reach more users. Like many, he grew up using Adobe and the chance to help reinvent its software is inherently exciting. He’ll report to Adobe’s chief business officer of digital media David Wadhwani, whom Field met through Greylock, an investor in Figma.
“We can start to bring these capabilities Adobe has onto our platform, make them web based, make them collaborative and start to address different markets that we're not even serving right now and didn't even have the ambition to serve before,” Field said.
The transition from scrappy startup to subsidiary of an older, bureaucratic tech giant is a tricky one. You have different incentives; you’re a part of a larger ecosystem. One fear is that Figma’s innovation might stagnate inside a big corporation like Adobe. Field said he’s determined to keep Figma’s autonomy and to continue to build and iterate. He wants employees to retain that scrappiness: “No one else is gonna do this for me,” Field said. “I gotta do it myself. And if I want to see some change, I have to push for it.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the user tide will turn for Figma. As of now, there will be no changes to pricing. Field said there aren’t plans to introduce Figma to the Creative Cloud; the focus is on how to bring Adobe’s capabilities into Figma. It’s unclear what will happen to Figma-rival Adobe XD.
"While we have been reducing our investment in XD, we will continue to support it," an Adobe representative told Protocol. "We are excited about Figma's vision for the future of product design and the potential of our teams coming together to benefit our customers. After the transaction closes (expected in 2023), we will share more information."
Barker hopes Figma will stay out of the Creative Cloud, and that Figma truly will stay autonomous. In the short term, it’s unlikely anything will change. But it’s entirely possible that users will move on to the hotter, shinier tool in the long term, especially if their beef with Adobe remains. McWatters said he’s been through five or 10 different design tools in his career. Anything is possible.
“I don't think that you make a $20 billion purchase necessarily to destroy a product,” McWatters said. “Maybe this is an opportunity for Adobe to look at what Figma is doing well and bring some of that thinking to their other products.”
Update: This story was updated on Sept. 16, 2022, to include a response Adobe sent Protocol after this story was published.