Early Adopter: Slightly Stealthy Product Design Guild Surfaces in San Francisco

In an age of off-shoring, locationless offices and virtual meetings, there’s an undeniable counter current brewing.

Co-working spaces, where telecommuters can congregate for their work days, are springing up in major cities, and groups of night owls are using Twitter to plan late-night coffee shop power sessions.

That trend, while enabling certain kinds of businesses to succeed, has had an adverse effect on designers–or so says the San Francisco-based Product Design Guild, a stealthy and exclusive working group of product, user experience and graphic designers from the San Francisco Bay Area.

The group operates on the premise that designers’ work is inherently improved by collaboration and high-quality feedback. The current work-where-you-are zeitgeist doesn’t allow for enough of that, especially for designers who work in start-ups.

“Most companies don’t hire a second designer until they have 15 or 20 employees, so designers can spend a long time without good feedback,” said PDG co-founder and leader Xianhang Zhang in a recent interview.

Zhang recognized the need, and has been building the invite-only PDG since September.

Meetings are held monthly, and the group of designers, who have been vetted for their skills, gather to collaborate, share and above all, do work.

“There were lots of meetups for designers, where people get together to network or talk about design, but we wanted a place where people would come to do work,” Zhang said. “From the beginning that was a rule–you had to bring work to do, so it’s really popular with very busy people, who also tend to be in demand.”

It seems surprising, then, that a group of elite designers, attending regular meetings, sponsored by the likes of Andreessen Horowitz, 500 Startups, Yelp and i/o Ventures, would have stayed so under the radar.

Harder still, now that PDG has opened a New York City chapter and is recruiting in Austin, Texas.

That stealth is a little by design, explained Zhang.

“A lot of these designers come with work from their actual start-ups. We operate under FriendDA and people have to know what they share with the other designers won’t leave the group,” he said. “We are about adding value and making the community better for designers.”

I was allowed to attend several meetings, but only under the title of “journalist in residence,” which meant I had to be available to groups interested in a journalist’s opinion on a design, and I had to respect groups who preferred I not get too near their projects.

The constraints imposed by PDG rules appeared to have their desired effect at the meetings I attended. Most attendees were constantly hard at work, pausing only when others requested an opinion, or help with a specific problem.

That is in contrast to most gatherings of professional groups I’ve attended, which easily degenerate into directionless shop-talk sessions.

“The PDG is only interested in delivering transformative experiences–something that is 10 times better than other meetups. That’s why our members come,” Zhang said. “The best definition I’ve heard for design is, thoughtfulness made visible. We believe that good design is necessary for innovation, and the meetings are the first step.”

Zhang added that the group can then become a platform for innovation.

“Guilds like us can become the API layer for designers and engineers, and help them interact more quickly and productively,” he said. “Now that we know the meetings are valuable we are looking at other ways to accomplish that.”

Zhang wouldn’t elaborate on their next moves, but the speed of growth of PDG, despite trying to stay out of the spotlight, does point to some latent need in the designer community, or, at least, a failing of the modern way we work online.

Zhang sat with me for a few minutes to discuss what it means to do design well for start-ups, and how he, er, designed the design guild. If you can keep up, there are some good nuggets in the video.

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