When Architects Design Software

A conversation with San-Francisco design agency Dixon & Moe

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I sat down with the three founders of the San Francisco design agency, Dixon & Moe, discussing their trajectory from designing buildings to designing software and what it takes to start a successful design agency today.

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Alex, Robert, and Moe: what is Dixon & Moe?

Dixon & Moe is a digital strategy, design, and development consultancy based in San Francisco. It is the only digital agency that we know of whose founding team consists of three trained architects.

We do a lot of work for clients in the architecture, engineering, and real estate industries. We’ve also worked with startups and institutions like MIT.

What instigated your move from architecture to the technology sector?

We all met through the graduate architecture programs at MIT and the University of Michigan. Even with our frequent all nighters, we somehow found time to do side projects and hackathons together, which helped drive our growing collaboration over the years. The three of us knew we wanted to start a business, but we knew starting our own architecture practice would probably take an eon. Most architects work at an established firm for 10–15 years, then pilfer a few clients to bootstrap their own firm. We were not about to wait around for that to happen.

Another contributing factor was the conceptual freedom that we experienced in architecture school, something that is definitely lost when you move to the professional world. Software, we realized, still offered a bit more experimentation and personal creativity than architecture did in a real world context.

To us the speed of the tech sector is really exciting — the rate at which products are launched, the rate of innovation, and the sheer scale it touches. We all went into architecture to design systems and build physical environments to have a positive impact on society. The transition to tech was obvious when we realized we could accomplish those same goals through software. We still consider ourselves architects, just not in the traditional sense.

We want to get to a point where our products are being used by millions of people — something that could never happen if we stayed in architecture.

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What skills from your training in architecture translated well to software design?

We really like having a background in architecture. It gives us a different perspective from other UX designers and developers in the field because we were trained to think at a 10,000 ft view. You have to learn software tools quickly, solve multifaceted problems, and communicate simple solutions to clients who often don’t understand design.

In architecture we were taught to create systems for designing things, not just the things themselves, which has translated really well to designing software.

As architects, we build models to study spaces. A direct analog of this in the tech sector is building prototypes to study software applications. This made the transition all the more natural, as we were able to re-appropriate our iterative and experimental methodologies from physical models to digital products.

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Architects tend to think they can design anything. What were you not prepared for when transitioning to software design?

A huge part of what enabled us to shift from designing buildings to designing software was the accessibility (and sheer scale) of information freely available online today. So we still think we can design anything (laughs).

The hardest part for us has been developing our business chops, like getting new work and growing our client base. Other than a single professional practice class we took in school — which we all coincidentally enjoyed far more than our classmates — we didn’t have any formal training on how to start a business. Our company has largely been built on trial and error and the sage advice from family and friends that have helped us along the way.

Something we’ve embraced as part of transitioning to a technology company is testing and feedback. In architecture, you can only ‘ship to production’ once with a building. You don’t iterate once you get feedback from users. This is something we initially had to adjust to, but ultimately we really wish existed in architecture. The three of us were trained to be perfectionists, so we’ve had to learn to be ok with putting our designs out into the world when they’re not perfect.

What kinds of interesting clients have you worked with since you started?

Our clients tend to fall into two camps: startups and SaaS companies on the one hand, and AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) firms on the other.

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We’ve had the opportunity to build powerful tools like ImageWall, a 3D configurator for 200ft perforated metal walls; digital platforms for the likes of MIT and Zahner; a prototype SDK for Flux, as well as some back of house software for large architecture firms. Navigating between architecture and technology companies has given us a unique perspective on both sides of the equation: architects can gain a lot from a fresh approach to the digital aspect of their business, and our design-centric workflow fits in well with contemporary startup culture.

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What else are you working on?

Side projects still run in our blood. Our collaborative efforts were born out of a knack for hacking on nights and weekends, and we keep that mentality to this day. In addition to client work, we’ve got at least 4–5 ongoing internal projects.

One of our favorites is Color Codes which now generates around $4,000 per month in passive income for us. You can read the full write-up on IndieHackers, but long story short, we built a color picking website and ranked it #1 on Google for a whole bunch of keywords. The website currently gets over a million page views a month, and we’ve learned more about SEO than we ever knew existed.

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Another fun project was Rellax, a lightweight JavaScript parallax library. As our first foray into the open source world it’s been amazing to see the organic growth in the development community, with well-known brands like Microsoft and Gucci using the library on some of their recent projects.

Probably our most well-known product we’ve built is Monograph Websites, a niche website builder (think Squarespace for architects). We’re also rolling out a business dashboard product for architecture and engineering firms called Monograph Dashboard. Frankly, most architects are flying blind when it comes to the business side of their practice. So Monograph Dashboard seeks to make it easy for firms to manage staffing, financial metrics, budgets, and scheduling.

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Starting a company is no easy feat, what learnings could you share with other designers that are thinking about going out on their own?

Be prepared to spend 50% of your time looking for new work. This includes marketing, business development, networking, and trolling LinkedIn for old acquaintances.

No matter how much you prepare, you’ll never be “ready.” Being afraid of the unknown is very natural. We live by the saying that “shooters shoot.” In basketball, even if you miss your last 10 shots, the only thing you can do is keep shooting. That mentality has served us well.