An End to Silos: Penpot Bridges the Gap – Interview with Pablo Ruiz-Múzquiz, Penpot’s CEO of Kaleidos

Design and prototyping tools

Design and prototyping tools have hitherto typically failed to span the space between designers and developers. Penpot aims to put an end to that by providing a platform that is accessible to both camps, as CEO Pablo Ruiz-Múzquiz explains.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to become the CEO of Penpot?

My whole career has been in the tech sector. But in 2011, I decided it was time to set up my own company and co-founded Kaleidos, a great hybrid between a technological partner for start-ups and an incubator for employees’ ideas. During the pandemic, we decided to pivot our attention to building and launching Penpot. I’ve always been a strong proponent of open source and knew that this needed to sit at the heart of what we brought to market. And so, it is the first open-source, collaborative design and prototyping platform.

What is the mission and vision behind Penpot, and how does it differentiate itself from other design tools in the market?

Our mission for Penpot is to bridge the gap between designers and developers. When we started building it, we were really determined not to create something that would be “just another tool” in the product design process. We want to create tools that designers will use and love but that will be equally embraced by their developer counterparts – an audience that other design tools, like Figma, have largely failed to engage.

Figma is a well-established player in the design tool industry. How does Penpot plan to compete with Figma, and what unique features or advantages does Penpot offer?

Our mission for Penpot is to bridge the gap between designers and developers.

We break down barriers that Figma hasn’t. Designers and developers have traditionally worked in silos and often must move between tools to achieve what they need to do in projects. We wanted to give them complete freedom. No design and prototyping tool that truly aims to engage with developers can do so without providing the workflows that developers are comfortable with. What’s even better, designers can also enjoy our open standards stance on top of open source, so that, for the first time, they can truly own their work and enjoy a future-proof IP for themselves or their organisations.

The sector need for this is evident from the immense growth we’ve seen since announcing general availability in February 2023. Penpot sign-ups spiked by 5,600 per cent to 100,000 users last September in the weeks after Adobe announced it would acquire Figma, and we have grown 66 per cent since then. Now, over 400,000 designers and developers (and growing ranks of product managers and founders) have joined our community and contributed with code, design, and templates to make Penpot a powerful tool.

Collaboration and teamwork are crucial aspects of design tools. How does Penpot facilitate collaboration among designers and other stakeholders?

In a corporate environment, for example, it’s typical for developers and designers to have different software per-seat licences, meaning that developers don’t have access to the designer’s tools and products until the designer manually uploads assets for viewing. But this isn’t an efficient way to work and we wanted Penpot to break down these silos and give a platform that both designers and developers would love to use.

This is why Penpot has a very straightforward onboarding process for developers and provides them with code specs for designs that they can really use in production. Features like Flex Layout and upcoming Grid Layout are making sure that designers can be creative building their UIs, while keeping developers extremely close to their workflows through features like Code Inspect.

Penpot’s open source and open standards nature send a very strong message to developers that “you belong here!”

When we surveyed 30,000 Penpot users last year, we found that the split between designers and developers was nearly identical: 35 per cent identified as designers and 34 per cent as developers. Interestingly, this year we’re also seeing a rise in the number of product / project managers (3 per cent to 5 per cent) and founders / VPs (4 per cent to 6 per cent) also using the platform.

In the rapidly evolving design industry, how does Penpot stay up to date with emerging trends and technologies to meet the changing needs of designers?

It’s very simple. We listen to our community, what their challenges are, their needs, and what developments they’re excited about. To that end, it was exciting to launch a whole suite of new collaboration tools at our inaugural Penpot Fest in June. We’re giving designers and developers tools like Flex Layout that they’ve wanted for years, and entirely new features like Grid Layout that they might not have imagined were even possible to have in a design system. All our announcements received a lot of great attention from our community and that’s because it shows that we listen to them.

What are your thoughts on the future of design tools and the role that Penpot aims to play in shaping the industry?

Like most industries, we have been keeping a close eye on how AI could impact the design space. We strongly believe that AI is going to change the design / developer process hugely, but there’s still a lot of exploration needed. The current models that we have are not equipped to understand highly structured data. Creating AI that can support the underlying workflows for building and deploying designs – not just generating fun new images from simple prompts – is a considerable challenge that will be difficult to solve. But we are committed to playing our part in evolving how AI can be used in the design sector.

What are some of the key priorities or goals that you have set for Penpot in the near future, and how do you plan to achieve them?

We’re also going to push hard on exploring AI use cases and have just announced our five AI open challenges with the broader open-source design community.

In 2022, we raised $8 million in Series A funding and, earlier this year, another $12 million, and we will use this in part to build out more tools that can be used both in the cloud and in self-hosted and local environments.

But we’re also going to push hard on exploring AI use cases and have just announced our five AI open challenges with the broader open-source design community at Penpot Fest. Fuelled by our company-wide AI hackathon a few months ago in April and with the help of AI / ML company Neurons Lab, we devised these challenges as a way to frame very concrete “what ifs” that make use of existing data. We also announced our partnership with the incredible Tokens Studio team, which will see us develop an AI engine for design systems that will push the boundaries in design-code workflows.

As a CEO, what leadership principles or strategies do you follow to foster innovation and drive the success of Penpot?

We operate on trust and generosity, and we make sure to listen to other people’s perspectives. And, without these principles, we would never even have launched Penpot. Kaleidos was already a successful company, and it was the common love for free and open-source software amongst the team that led us to launch Penpot. Our team’s dedication has been central to our rapid growth; we went from the alpha stage in February 2021 to general availability in February 2023. That’s a crazy speed to get up and running and it’s all thanks to our inclusive environment and passionate team.

How does Penpot address the needs of different types of designers, from individual freelancers to large design teams in organisations?

We wanted Penpot to be incredibly accessible, so it is free for all to use and available across a variety of deployments such as SaaS, self-host, and desktop, depending on an individual’s set-up. We have more than 80,000 teams now running on Penpot, and they range from start-ups to global organisations, including Mozilla, Accenture, IBM, Google, and Microsoft.

We believe that freelancers and smaller teams need tools that replace other existing tools and simplify their workflows in a cost-effective way. Penpot blends in UX, UI, and code standards like CSS and SVG in an open-source tool, so it’s an instant sell.

In the future, we are considering integrating enterprise features for medium to large organisations. What makes a huge difference to these-sized organisations is the combination of Penpot’s capabilities to self-host and retain 100 per cent control of IP and design assets, plus scalable design systems.

We’re also opinionated about showing one single UI for all team members, instead of pursuing “modes” or silos, so that bigger teams can share the same context. Again, there’s no way to scale at the rate at which big teams demand if you don’t have a code-first approach to design, thanks to features like Flex Layout and upcoming Grid Layout.

Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs or individuals looking to make an impact in the design tool industry?

The design industry is one of the harshest environments out there and yet there’s still untapped potential. My advice would be to bridge as many gaps as possible between different stakeholders, simplifying the tooling and unifying workflows. And do that with a global approach. Design, as well as team dynamics, is not uniformly expressed throughout the world. I would encourage everyone trying to make an impact to make sure that you’re addressing needs and pains from all over the world and that you take care of that input as early as possible in the process.

This article was originally published on August 25, 2023.

Executive Profile

Pablo Ruiz-MúzquizPablo Ruiz-Múzquiz is the CEO of Kaleidos, the company behind Penpot, an open-source design-to-code platform helping developers and designers work better together. He is passionate about open source software, traditional archery, RPGs, and gardening, among many other things.

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