Design Disruptors: The Story Behind One Startup‘s Decision to Produce a Feature-Length Documentary

In 2015, InVision was a small startup with big dreams. The company, which makes digital product design software, had a vision to fundamentally change the way businesses operate. They believed that design was the key to building better products, experiences and ultimately, companies.

But there was one big problem – design was still seen as a secondary concern in most businesses. It was often an afterthought, tacked on at the end of the development process. Designers struggled to get a "seat at the table" where key decisions were made.

InVision aimed to change that perception. They wanted to show the world that design wasn‘t just how something looked, it was how it worked. Design determined whether products were intuitive and user-friendly. Design was the difference between a company like Apple and everyone else.

To spread this message, InVision made a bold bet – they would create a feature-length documentary called "Design Disruptors". The film would highlight how design-led companies were upending entire industries. It would feature interviews with top designers at breakout successes like Airbnb, Spotify, Twitter, Facebook and more.

But here‘s the kicker – InVision would give the film away for free. They wouldn‘t put up a paywall or even gate it behind an email capture form. Anyone in the world could watch the full film online, attend a screening, or catch it on Netflix.

For a software startup, investing the time and money into producing a film – let alone giving it away for free – was almost unheard of. But InVision‘s leadership, including VP of Marketing David Malpass, believed it was the best way to further their mission.

"A lot of our work is based on doing things that‘ll create a positive effect on the design community and that will elevate the role of the designer within their organization," said Malpass. "We‘re not trying to sell our product. We‘re trying to bring attention to the increased importance of design in a company‘s success."

The Power of Design

So why was design becoming so critical to business success? The film makes the case that in our digital world, a company‘s product is now the center of the customer experience. How easy and enjoyable that product is to use determines whether customers stick around.

As Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia says in the film, "Design is the way you‘re going to differentiate your product. It‘s not going to be about price or extra features, it‘s going to be about the experience."

Airbnb itself is a prime example of design as a differentiator. The company disrupted the hotel industry by creating a well-designed, trustworthy experience that made people comfortable staying in a stranger‘s home. Every detail, from the photos to the booking process to the review system, was meticulously designed.

The results speak for themselves. Airbnb went from a crazy idea to a $30 billion company in under ten years. They‘re now bigger than Hilton, Marriott and InterContinental combined in terms of market cap.

Other companies featured in the film tell a similar story:

  • Netflix became a streaming giant by obsessing over the user experience, from eliminating latency to personalizing recommendations.
  • Spotify crushed the competition by making it dead simple to find and listen to any song across devices.
  • Slack became the fastest-growing business app ever thanks to a delightful, intuitive experience that people actually enjoyed using.

In each case, design wasn‘t an add-on, it was the driving force behind the product and business. The film argues that this is becoming the norm – to compete today, companies must put design at the center of their strategy.

The Filmmaker‘s Journey

Of course, making this argument in a compelling way is easier said than done. Most people believe that design just refers to visual aesthetics. How do you get them to understand the deeper impact design has on business?

InVision‘s answer was to tell stories. Malpass and his team wanted to go inside the world‘s most design-forward companies and reveal how design works in practice. They aimed to be a "fly on the wall" as top designers discussed their craft.

To pull this off, they brought in an experienced documentary filmmaking team, led by director Matt D‘Avella. But unlike a typical client-for-hire relationship, InVision gave the filmmakers full creative control.

"We didn‘t give them a script," explained Malpass. "We connected them with thought leaders and let them ask whatever questions they wanted. We put our faith in the filmmakers to shape those interviews into a compelling story."

The filmmakers ended up doing over 50 interviews over the course of a year. They captured hundreds of hours of footage from inside the offices of Facebook, Google, MailChimp and more.

But the real work began in the editing room. "We had all these amazing interviews, but no real storyline," recalled director Matt D‘Avella. "We had to find the common threads and shape them into a coherent narrative."

After months of editing and post-production, the 1 hour 20 minute film was finally complete. InVision spent about $2 million dollars to make it happen, a huge investment for a startup without a track record of producing films. But they knew the story was worth telling.

Spreading the Message

With the film finished, InVision now had to get it in front of as many people as possible. They employed a number of unusual tactics to maximize the reach and impact.

First, they released the film for free on their website, designdisruptors.com. No email sign-up, no paywall, just click and watch. The goal was to eliminate any friction that would prevent people from seeing the film.

Next, they submitted the film to Netflix and worked to get it included in their documentary catalog. This gave the film a huge platform and "legitimized" it in the eyes of a mainstream audience.

To build buzz, they released a trailer and behind-the-scenes videos in the lead-up to the premiere. They promoted the film heavily on social media, encouraging their followers to share it with friends and colleagues.

They also organized over 70 live community screenings in cities around the world. These events allowed designers to watch the film together and discuss its implications. Over 10,000 people attended a screening.

Whenever someone watched the film or shared it online, InVision made sure to engage with them. "We responded to every single mention of the film on social media," said Malpass. "We wanted to be part of the conversation and show people how much we appreciated them spreading the word."

The Impact

The response to the film exceeded even InVision‘s high expectations. In the first week alone, the film‘s trailer was viewed over 1 million times. The hashtag #DesignDisruptors trended on Twitter for 3 straight days.

Since then, the full film has been streamed hundreds of thousands of times across Vimeo, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. Over 300 publications have written about it.

Beyond the quantitative metrics, the film seems to have genuinely influenced the conversation around design‘s role in business. It‘s been screened at major companies like IBM, Conde Nast, and Capital One as a way to bolster the influence of their design teams.

"I regularly point executives to the film as a way to understand what their competitors are doing with design," said Kate Aronowitz, the former Director of Design at Facebook. "It helps me advocate for a more strategic role for designers."

Perhaps the most gratifying result for InVision is hearing how the film has inspired designers themselves. "Watching Design Disruptors was a huge moment in my career," said João Granjo, a product designer from Portugal. "It made me realize that designers could be leaders, not just supporting players. It changed the way I approach my work."

For InVision, this type of influence was the ultimate goal. While they‘ve certainly benefited from the brand halo of creating the film, the real aim was to elevate the entire design profession and community.

"We wanted to give designers ammunition to go into their companies and push for change," said Malpass. "If Design Disruptors helps a designer get invited to a meeting they should be at, or convinces an executive to treat design as a strategic lever, then the film has done its job."

Looking Ahead

In the six years since Design Disruptors premiered, the role of design in business has only grown more critical. According to the McKinsey Design Index, companies in the top quartile for design outperform industry benchmarks by as much as 2 to 1.

InVision, too, has reaped the benefits of its early bet on design. The company has grown to over $100 million in annual recurring revenue, with 7 million users from companies like Netflix, Uber, and Airbnb. In 2021, they were acquired by Figma, another design industry leader, for an estimated $20 billion.

But even as design becomes a bigger priority, it‘s clear there is still much work to be done to entrench its value in many organizations. Designers are still under-resourced and often excluded from key decisions.

That‘s why the lessons of Design Disruptors remain so relevant today. Companies that want to stay competitive must put design at the forefront, not view it as an afterthought. They need to empower designers to be leaders and give them the tools to succeed.

At the same time, designers must continue advocating for themselves and demonstrating the value they provide. They should take inspiration from the design leaders in the film who have upended entire industries and changed the way we experience the world.

Design Disruptors was so impactful because it started a conversation about these issues on a grand scale. It brought design into the mainstream consciousness and made it accessible to all.

For other companies looking to make their mark, there is a lot to learn from InVision‘s approach. By focusing on providing value to their community first and foremost, they were able to create something that transcended mere marketing.

The key is to tell authentic stories that people actually want to hear. To offer insights and inspiration that change the way people think about your industry. Do that, and you won‘t have to chase down customers. They‘ll come to you.

That‘s the power of great content and the power of design. When you get those two things right, you can change the course of your company and your field. You might even produce the next great documentary in the process.