Getting the Excel and Photoshop Kids to Play Together: A Conversation...

column | Entrepreneurship

Getting the Excel and Photoshop Kids to Play Together: A Conversation with Georg Petschnigg of FiftyThree

By Stephen J. Valentine (Columnist) and Reshan Richards (Columnist)     Dec 19, 2016

Getting the Excel and Photoshop Kids to Play Together: A Conversation with Georg Petschnigg of FiftyThree
Georg Petschnigg, cofounder and CEO of FiftyThree

Recently, we had the privilege of interviewing Georg Petschnigg, cofounder and CEO of FiftyThree. Georg generously shared with us a number of ideas, both strategic and tactical, for helping organizations to be more creative, for promoting sharing, and for preparing to solve the world’s most challenging problems, whether they are well articulated or have yet to be determined.

Based in New York City and Seattle, FiftyThree is the developer of the award-winning Paper drawing and sketching app and Pencil Bluetooth stylus for iPad and iPhone, used by over 15 million creators, designers and thinkers.

Prior to FiftyThree, Petschnigg started a consumer electronic business at Microsoft in partnership with Samsung, started the Pioneer Studios (a design venture fund), worked on historical sites in Germany (Burg Pyrmont), and was part of the launch of HDTV at AT&T Bell Laboratories.

His design background includes interaction and product design, which he has taught at Stanford, University of Washington, and New York University. He has invented in the area of image processing, user interfaces, visualization, and has been awarded numerous international patents. Georg graduated with distinctions from Columbia University with degrees in Computer Engineering and Economics and holds an M.S in Electrical Engineering and a concentration in Product Design from Stanford University.

What follows has been lightly edited for clarity.

Reshan & Steve: Hi Georg. Can you tell us how your business got started?

Georg: It started with the realization that we surround ourselves with so many different technology tools, and very few of them are actually about the development of new ideas. So many of [FiftyThree’s tools] are all about how to quickly get things done. They’re all about the workflow, rather than the free-flow of forming ideas.

Here’s what happened with our four founders: We worked together at Microsoft for many years. We built many popular technology products like the Office Suite and Xbox 360, music players, and so on. And we realized that when we would create something new, we would use very analog—very simple—tools. In fact, we would turn to the original paper and pencil.

We decided that we wanted to really figure out what was going on here. Why is it that when we want to build new tools, we turn to those original tools? The answer was that most technology products at the time were just directing people too quickly, too soon, towards a workflow, a particular workflow, and this cut short the time they’d actually be able to make connections in their work. Also, this cut short the time they would bring different thought modalities together. So we started FiftyThree.

The story of FiftyThree is that we wanted to put the essential tools of creation within arms’ reach, and the average arm’s reach is 53 centimeters, so that was basically our blank canvas: to get close to where people do their best thinking and their best work.

Within the story arc that you’ve shared, have there been any interesting or unexpected pivots along the way?

I should talk a bit about our organization. I mentioned there were four founders—two designers and two engineers—that came together. That approach, of hiring the left and the right brain, the left and the right mode of thinking, was reflected at every level of our organization. I was surprised by how well this organizational structure was able to grow [to the size of about 50 people]. It still surprises people when they hear that we have 14 designers and 18 engineers, that we almost have a ratio of 1-to-1 between design and engineering. But it turns out that, if you have design and engineering well represented on the team, you’re able to take on many different functions. It wasn’t until recently that we brought in a head of marketing since so much of the marketing function was done by design.

It’s been quite exciting to see how well a multidisciplinary organization can scale when they embrace it from the very beginning.

In watching what people do with your products, what has been exciting, satisfying for you, or even surprising? Can you share some use cases?

We’ve had star architects like Danny Libeskind sketch a new building in Paper, and it was actually one of the first interfaces that really worked well for him; we’ve also seen work by designers like Kelly Wearstler, an interior designer who does professional, appraised design work in India. Brad Ovenell-Carter has done amazing work on the sketchnoting side, and he has inspired an entire realm of Apple Distinguished Educators who now develop curriculum around visual thinking. The Guggenheim Museum ended up picking that up, and it’s now working with their Learning Through Art Program, bringing visual thinking classes to schools. Then you have a number of startup founders who have come up to me and said,”Oh, I actually developed my entire pitch in Paper.”

Then, at the same time, you have kids drawing planetary systems. Actually, we have kids drawing planetary systems and we have Harvard astronomers drawing planetary systems at a different level. It is so wonderful to see the broad variety of people coming together in one environment, and it goes to something that we really believe in: that we’re already united in our creativity. Our humanity is united in our creativity because one of the great joys of being alive is that you get to create. You get to actually shape the world around you. It's a universal need that everyone has, the need to create.

It’s just like this awesome, magical mixture of “here, I'm getting the idea down, and then also figuring out new ways to bring it to life.”

When I worked a lot in the innovation processes, particularly at Microsoft for many years, I had to think of Microsoft research on corporate innovation programs and of new product incubations. One of the things that’s always stuck out is, if people really want to do something new, they have to bring together different thought modalities, different types of thinking. You have to combine one part new with one part familiar, and that means you need different types of thinkers.

Too many tools today box you in. The Excel person doesn’t hang out with the Photoshop person. They didn't hang out that way in high school most likely, and in their professional lives, they still don’t. That’s a missed opportunity.

I really think when you bring together different types of thinkers, that’s where true creativity happens.

You mentioned the multidisciplinary organization. Was that something that was an intention of FiftyThree or more of a discovery?

It was an intention. We built the organization to solve some particular problems: How do you get very different types of interests to create work together? How do you attract and hire people with multidisciplinary backgrounds? We very quickly saw that [we wanted to solve these problems] after having worked at places like Google, Microsoft, Facebook—any of the large companies—which are typically founded by a very strong monoculture that’s steeped in tech.

Another consideration is that cultural considerations are very important, and the best way to insure that you have a team that can navigate them is assembling a very diverse team, from a thinking perspective. One of the things that we make everyone do at FiftyThree is a portfolio presentation.

Can you explain that portfolio concept? How does it work?

From legal counsel to engineers to operations folks, everyone ends up presenting their portfolios, which gives people a chance to not simply talk about their core competencies within the discipline that we’ve hired them for, but also to highlight their different aspects, the place where they pull inspiration from. Our general counsel, for example, taught English in Japan and ended up getting into pottery-making. At work, he’s very procedural and process-oriented, but his portfolio allowed him to reflect other parts of himself. A lot of our developers are painters. We have stand-up comedians who are developers who then become illustrators. Actually, the last stand-up comedy act that we had at a team meeting was fully illustrated in Paper as well.

It is clear when you look at the big and interesting challenges of the future, they will require multidisciplinary teams and multidisciplinary organizations to figure out the tools that people need to work together. If you solve that for yourself, maybe it will work for others. It turns out that formula works for us—if we like something, odds are that other people will like it, too.

We like to think that tools that let people be creative will help shape education as far as understanding what's possible when representing what’s in your mind, and what one understands and values and knows. That's why you see open-ended tools—ones that don't say “this was designed for education” but rather “this was designed for human beings —resonate well with really thoughtful educators.

That's true. There are so many great examples, and it’s been so amazing to see the work of someone like Brad [Ovenell-Carter]. Or to see the way Catherine Madden recently developed a Skillshare class around visualization. It’s just incredible what people end up doing and how generous they are with sharing their knowledge.

Stephen J. Valentine (@sjvalentine) is an educator, school leader, writer, and serial collaborator. He serves as the assistant head, Upper School, and director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy

Dr. Reshan Richards (@reshanrichards) is an educator, researcher, and entrepreneur. An adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, Reshan is also the chief learning officer and cofounder of Explain Everything

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