Canva’s easy-to-use design platform has become a word processor for our modern visual culture. It’s made designers of us all, skeptics be damned.
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Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht trudged unhappily through a park in Redwood City, California.
It was May 2012, and the Australians, both in their mid-twenties, had flown from Sydney to Silicon Valley six months earlier to raise money from investors on Sand Hill Road. The couple had met as teens at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Neither had formally studied the discipline of design (Perkins had majored in communications, Obrecht in education), but Perkins had tutored other students in Photoshop in her spare time and had become fascinated by tools that made design more accessible to, well, self-described Luddites like Obrecht. Together, they had launched Fusion Books, an online yearbook-design product that was chugging along back home. They’d come to California with a simple pitch: They needed funds to build a platform that would allow anyone to design just about anything, all within a single interface.
Instead, they received more than 100 rejections. That afternoon, the final name on their once-promising spreadsheet of VCs had turned red. So, the usually optimistic pair went on a “misery walk,” recalls Obrecht, to decide if they had run out of options. After three hours of soul-searching, they determined they hadn’t. “We got up the next morning and just started back at it,” he says. Within a few months, they raised the first part of what would become a $3 million seed round. A year later, they launched the online design and publishing tool, Canva.
Just over a decade later, Perkins and Obrecht are married and back in Sydney. As for Canva, where Perkins is CEO and Obrecht is chief operating officer: It’s now one of the most influential design platforms on the planet, with 75 million monthly active users who create, on average, 150 designs every second. The company, which is valued at $40 billion, expects to exceed $1 billion in revenue in 2022.
While many unicorns pivot again and again to find their market, Canva’s proposition today is remarkably similar to that pitch of more than a decade ago. Its easy-to-use, templated design platform allows people to create business cards, birthday invitations, social media ads, sales presentations, coffee mugs, and yearbooks. It works equally well on a phone, tablet, or laptop. Canva is a word processor for our modern visual culture, adjusting anything you see—text, an image, a background, an animation—with a simple tap. “We’re trying to reduce the time [it takes]to get you feeling confident in your ability,” says Perkins.
By putting its templates in everyone’s hands, Canva has changed the way people design things, both for work and personal projects—though the value of that mission may not have been apparent in 2011. At the time, design was the near-exclusive purview of professionals, the kinds of people who knew their way around the intricacies of Adobe’s software, which includes Photoshop and InDesign. Everyone else was just . . . creating content. At work, they used a patchwork of tools—slideshows, spreadsheets, and documents powered by the likes of Microsoft, Google, and Apple—that helped to disseminate information, if not make it particularly beautiful. Outside of offices, Instagram and Snapchat were giving people easy-to-use editing tools that inspired them to become amateur designers—but kept their creations within walled gardens.
Headquartered more than 7,000 miles from most of these companies, Canva had a different vision. While it left design with a capital D to the professionals—you still can’t use Canva to draw a logo from scratch or design a custom typeface—it combined the best qualities of enterprise software (simple templates) and social media (intuitive design tools). And then, year after year, it systematically rolled out tools for every content form imaginable. The result is an increasingly robust product that empowers amateurs to pump out visual content, be it a pitch deck, TikTok video, ad campaign, or family holiday card. (It’s so easy to use, in fact, that more than a few professional designers deride it as being a crutch, at best.)
By democratizing design—and challenging the unwritten rules around who gets to consider themselves a designer—Canva has earned its place as an MIC and Fast Company‘s 2022 cover. And it’s just getting started. The service, which debuted as a free tool before adding a paid Pro tier, currently has 5 million Pro customers. It’s now selling companies on its two-year-old Enterprise subscription. Over the past 18 months, it has rolled out features that allow for real-time collaboration across large companies, along with templating options that empower employees inside diffuse organizations. Canva says that 85% of the world’s 500 largest companies are using its platform (though many of those users could be working on free or Pro accounts).
At a time when communication channels are quickly evolving, Canva is more than keeping up. It’s setting the pace. Talk to anyone inside the company, and they will tell you that it’s a platform to design “anything.” That’s not hyperbole.
“I mean it very literally, actually,” says Perkins, who projects a Kimmy Schmidt-like optimism. “We are continuously picking off the next, most critical strategic pillar that we believe is most important to our customers. . . . Maybe in 20 years’ time, you can take your imagination as far as it will go.”
Though Perkins set out to fix all design software, she started more discretely: by developing a desktop browser site, built for tasks like creating Facebook banner ads and business cards. She had hoped to launch quickly, but in 2013, after almost a year of development, she discovered a pressing problem—her target customers had never even used design software. Canva had been testing a beta product with them, but “they were scared to touch buttons,” Perkins recalls.
So she stalled Canva’s launch. “It was at a time when The Lean Startup was popular, and there was a push to just get something out,” recalls Rick Baker, founder of Blackbird Ventures, who led Canva’s seed round. (He met the couple in 2012 at MaiTai, Bill Tai’s Hawaiian gathering for kiteboarding investors and entrepreneurs; Perkins prepped for it by learning kiteboarding.) “There was a decent amount of pressure on Mel, but she was steadfast, and said, ‘No, I’m not releasing this product until I’m proud of it.’”
She began creating challenges within the platform that asked the user to, say, change a circle to their favorite color, or drag a hat onto a monkey. These weren’t typical tutorials. They were fun, personal, and perhaps a bit silly. “We continuously refined the experience until we got it to a point that people could jump in, and within five minutes had designed something,” says Perkins. Once Canva hit that crucial mark, Perkins was ready to launch. Within two years, the company had a million users.
Perkins’s early focus on speed has been central to the platform’s success, notes Wesley Chan, general partner at Felicis Ventures, and one of Canva’s other major investors. He launched Google Analytics in 2005, and compares Perkins to “Larry and Sergey sitting with a stopwatch” while timing search results. In the case of both Google and Canva, speed is a sign of reduced friction. And after nearly a decade of honing, Canva’s app is as smooth as Teflon. Load the software, and you are greeted with a button for anything you might want to make.
A Button For Everything: Every Tool and Template in Canva’s Software Replaces an Entire Industry—or, at least, Industry Stalwarts. Here’s a Look:
1/4 Image Editing: From teeth whitening to cutting someone out of a backdrop, Canva turns complicated tasks into a one-button fix—then lets users drop photos into templates. Disrupts: Affinity Pro, Photoshop, VSCO. [Illustration: Co-motion Studio]
Canva today feels something like the everything design store—but it’s also utterly intuitive. The platform has done away with its old tutorials in favor of a “progressive reveal” interface that introduces readers to its full functionality. “Rather than giving you 1,000 buttons to choose from, we only show you the tools that you need when you actually need to use them,” says Perkins. “If you want to add a chart, you can search for a chart, and add it onto your page. Then you’ll get all the chart tools that you need.”
Within this simple interface, Canva mixes in complex capabilities. Users can do things like load live tweets into their slideshows, add licensed photos and music to their social media posts (thanks to Canva’s acquisition of stock media company Pixabay in 2019), and schedule their creations to publish online via an integrated calendar. Canva lets users build something as easily and richly as they can on closed platforms, such as Instagram, but then they can send it virtually anywhere they want: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, PandaDoc, Powtoon. (No, I haven’t heard of those last options, either. But be assured, Canva has!)
Canva wants to push exporting options even further, by breaking its users out of the most limited format in design: the PDF. Later this year, Canva will begin allowing users to export projects not just as PDFs, but as single-serve websites with unique URLs. So a wedding invite built in Canva could be instantly published to the web, complete with the ability to accept RSVPs. Canva is reimagining stagnant files as interactive, shareable sites, which Perkins believes will be the predominant way designs are shared well into the future. “We say internally that we’re 1% of the way there,” says Perkins.
As COVID-19 swept the world in early 2020, Zoom went from relatively-obscure-teleconferencing-product to household name, overnight. And Zoom’s creative manager, Brandon Realmonte, who oversees design across the brand team, scrambled to keep up. Then, as now, his team consists of just four designers and two video producers.
After a colleague suggested Canva, Realmonte tried it out. He was impressed: “I’d never seen a design tool that I could hand to one of my friends, who doesn’t know anything about design, and they could probably figure it out.”
He realized that a tedious chore for the rapidly growing company—creating branded Zoom backdrops with Zoom employees’ names and titles—could be transformed into a locked template. Just five templates could save his team from having to generate 500 designs. He reached out to Canva to inquire about an enterprise account, which allows corporate users to lock templates with their brand standards. Canva pointed out that, by registered email addresses, thousands of Zoom’s employees were already on Canva, using free or Pro accounts.
Today, hundreds of people inside Zoom work on a shared Canva Enterprise plan. It’s primarily used by members of the social marketing team—who cycle through a few dozen templates to create content—but employees in communications and sales use it, too. Marriott uses Canva Enterprise to promote hotels across its dozens of different brands, and Live Nation uses it to coordinate promotion between artists and venues. Other corporate customers include Salesforce, Warner Music Group, and PayPal.
Canva’s growth as an enterprise tool has largely relied on its bottom-up design strategy: Woo the masses with simple templates at home, and they’ll eventually bring them to the office. To a large degree, it’s worked. Canva reports that 12% of its users are on a team account—a figure that has roughly doubled since last year—and there are now 800,000 teams paying for their accounts. (Since Canva won’t divulge subscription revenue, these teams could be paying anywhere between $13 a month for a five-person Pro subscription and $30 per person for an Enterprise one.)
Canva’s ease of adoption within corporate ranks has been met with more than a little skepticism. While Adobe’s software suite, the gold standard for design, takes years to master, Canva’s interface is instantly accessible. To anyone. Reddit boards offer a taste of how some people view the platform. One design thread ponders, “Should a person be entitled to be called a Graphic Designer if they only use Canva?” Another Redditor laments: “My current ‘manager’ is a Karen who thinks Canva is just a perfect little tool.”
Canva is well aware of criticisms that it’s not a real design platform. Perkins herself actually wrote a 15-minute parody of The Office that Canva turned into a short internal film. It features a quirky manager who falls in love with Canva, only to face the ire of black-shirted, scarf-wearing agency creatives. The sharply produced story—with a respectable count of laughs per minute—is a parable: The creatives learn that Canva can actually save them from having to make small, irksome changes to things like templates for business cards and sales decks. They can just hand that power over to businesses. Canva makes this argument repeatedly: It’s not out to replace designers and their specialized tools, but to work alongside them.
Truthfully, Canva can’t replace the high-end design tools of today. For being a platform to design “anything,” it actually has clear guardrails on what it can and can’t do. Namely, you cannot free draw or illustrate within Canva. Drawing “was pretty much off the table,” says Cameron Adams, Canva’s chief product officer and third cofounder. “Not in a forbidden kind of way. But that fine motor skill of drawing that you associate with great artists is probably the biggest thing that puts people off from even thinking about designing something.” And Canva, by design, doesn’t intimidate.
The challenge now is persuading corporations to upgrade the accounts of employees who are already free or Pro users and turn them into Enterprise accounts. But Canva doesn’t appear to be in a hurry. “That’s certainly a focus of ours,” says Obrecht. “It’s just an area that needs resources.”
Canva’s revenue is already growing more than 100% year over year, soon to break a billion dollars. “Most companies, by the time they’re at the scale Canva is, have pulled all their levers,” says Baker. “[They] have a full enterprise sales team and are all over the world, struggling to meet quotas. They’re paying up the wazoo for paid marketing to eke out every bit of growth. Canva still hasn’t done any of that.”
In September 2021, Perkins and Obrecht made a surprise announcement. The couple owned 31% of Canva at its latest valuation, putting their personal net worth somewhere around $12.4 billion. They were now donating 97% of their stake—30% of all Canva’s shares or $12 billion—to the Canva Foundation, which they created earlier that year with a mission to solve some of the biggest, foundational problems around poverty. (The couple retains their voting rights in the company.) “I have this very wildly optimistic belief that there is enough money and goodwill in the world to solve all of the world’s problems,” says Perkins of the decision.
Starting a foundation is commonplace for billionaires, and considered a smart way to park wealth while planning a strategy to donate. “It’s one thing to put a whole bunch of money into a foundation, and it’s quite another to give it out,” says Maria Di Mento, a staff writer at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, who covers large donors. “I believe you can’t judge a major philanthropist like this until they start delving in and giving to charity on a regular basis.”
Even so, Perkins and Obrecht’s decision is striking. They’d already signed the 1% pledge, giving 1% of Canva’s resources and profits to charity (and would later sign the Giving Pledge, promising to donate at least half of their net worth to philanthropy during their lives or upon their death). “Who needs billions of dollars?” Perkins asks bluntly. “There’s nothing enjoyable to do with billions of dollars. That’s an absurd thing.”
Though the couple is tight-lipped about plans for the foundation, they are approaching it much as they did Canva, which started simply and grew into its big ambitions. Obrecht says they have members of the team focused on long-term projects, but “we don’t want to sit around beard scratching for three years.” In the meantime, the foundation is partnering with Give Directly on a pilot program that will channel $10 million this year to people living in poverty. In 2023, they hope to give $100 million. After that, they want to increase it tenfold and give away a billion dollars—assuming that giving at that cadence remains practical.
How the foundation ultimately progresses remains to be seen, but it has the potential to leave an even bigger dent on the universe than Canva. Perkins and Obrecht are determined to use their money to design a better world. As Perkins puts it, “If the whole thing was about building wealth, that would be the most uninspiring thing I could possibly imagine.”
This article first appeared in www.fastcompany.com
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