Designer Tools Startup Landscape

60+ designer tools mapped & analyzed

Together with Nicolas and Alexandre from Idinvest we’ve mapped the growing Designer Tools landscape and came up with a map listing 60+ startups as well as a series of videos covering several major trends shaping this industry.

Table of content:

The Landscape

If you want your company to appear on the landscape:

Designer Tools Landscape: Videos

The Platform Layer

The Product & Plugin Layer

The Infrastructure Layer

AI & No-Code

For any questions or comments: @clemnt (DMs are ope@clement974

The designer tools space stack

The evolution of the developer tools stack

With Nicolas and Alexandre we’ve dug into the designer tools space and in addition to the startup landscape we’ve shared, we’ve also published a series of videos covering several trends that are shaping up this space.

A platform dominated era

The first aspect that struck us while doing this landscape is how the stack has evolved from a fragmented ecosystem of stand-alone products ten years ago, to a much more centralized one around the top four platforms that are Sketch, Figma, Invision, and Adobe XD.

These platforms have become the system of records of the designer tool space. They basically own the most fundamental unit of product design which are the functional prototypes and wireframes that designers work on to build a final product. This core is wrapped up with the collaboration and workflow features that enable designers, product managers, and other stakeholders to work together on both UI and UX. And finally, the integration features let third-party tools plug into these platforms to enhance their core experience.

Consequences we’ll explore

This evolution has major consequences for designer tools startups:

  • First, the stack is getting structured around different layers, the product & plugin – the platforms and the infrastructure layers that you can see on our mapping. In some ways, it’s similar to what happened in the developer tools stack
  • Second, it creates new opportunities, but also new threats for founders operating in that space. Some of which we’ll discuss in the next videos.
  • Finally, depending on which angle you see it, these trends broaden or narrow the depth of this industry. And we’ll also discuss this topic below.

The product and plugin layer

In this part, we’re going to focus on the product and plugin layer of our landscape.

The law of gravitation: the rise of integrations and plugins

A major effect of the rise of designer platforms is the law of gravitation and how they pulled the majority of the standalone products to now offer integrations and plugins. More than 70% of the products we’ve listed in the product layer offer some kind of integrations to at least one of the top four platforms. And many of them offer integrations to the four major platforms. And this is true for almost all of our subcategories, from prototyping to user testing or versioning tools.

These integrations range from simple file import/export features to deeper integration into the workflow of people. The bottom line is that for a designer, being able to connect a tool to his Figma or Sketch account is increasingly becoming key.

Opportunities and threats

Like anytime a platform rises,  you have inherent opportunities and threats that come as well.

Let’s start with the opportunities. The first obvious one is on the distribution side and how founders can leverage these platforms to distribute their products and reach new users. Whether it’s Figma, Sketch, or Invision they all have marketplaces where users can discover new integrations and plugins, which is a great way for third-party tools to access new pools of customers. 

The second opportunity is on the business model side. These big platforms make the paid plugins model more viable than ever. It’s totally possible for a solo founder to create a paid plugin that will generate good revenue without the constraints of building a more robust standalone product and to manage a team. This is also why we’re seeing more “niche” and specialized plugins appearing on these platforms

I’ll conclude this part with the potential threats, and the most obvious one which is to be copied by the platforms themselves. It’s not a threat specific to designer platforms, but to any platforms. As soon as you build something in someone’s else garden you risk that they copy you and include it in their core product, or that they cut access to their API.

The infrastructure layer

The infrastructure layer is the most recent one to have emerged, and it’s mainly driven by two forces:

  • First, the complexification of frontend development in the past couple of years.
  • Second, the convenience of design asset management as a Service

From design to code: the rise of middleware, APIs and IDEs

The complexification of front-end development, we basically went from basic HTML and CSS to javascript heavy libraries such as React, has created a need for middleware, APIs, and IDEs that bridge the gap between design and code.

For example, Plasmic is a tool that enables designers to import their Figma or Sketch files to automatically generate React components ready to use in production. It basically generates the code you need based on your design files.

It’s also interesting to see that a new breed of IDEs, Integrated Development Environment, or now VDE for Visual development environment, are focused on bringing designers and developers together. For example, Hadron is a development environment that is built both for designers and developers who can share the same tool. That’s also the approach of Relate, a visual development environment for fast, live team collaboration.

Design assets access and management

Another part of the designer job where quite a lot of innovation is happening is at the design asset management level. Obviously, when you’re a designer, you’re not only dealing with prototyping and coding, but also with creating and managing design assets ranging from pictures to logos, illustrations, videos, or even audio files.

And here too designers have access to an increasing number of interesting products. For example, Avocode offers features that enable developers to easily access design assets and manage them. From auto-image optimization for the web to multiple resolutions variants.

You can also find more laser-focused tools that automate very specific design processes such as reöobe background which automatically removes the background of any images with one API call. Or Smart Upscaller which automatically enhances image resolution thanks to AI and also directly via API calls. 
These are apps that help with asset management, but asset access is increasingly happening at the infrastructure layer too. There are more and more asset databases that are accessible via APIs. Like Unsplash API that lets anyone tap into an open collection of high-quality photos that you can include in your website or app directly at the code level.

AI and No-code 

Now that we’ve covered the different layers of our landscape, I wanted to focus on two product trends that are impacted all of them, namely AI and no-code.

AI-powered features

Machine learning and AI are buzzwords that are hard to avoid these days, and the designer tools space is no different. Whether it’s debatable that AI-powered products and features are mature or not, what is not, is that machine learning is leveraged in an increasing number of use cases and in every layer of our landscape.

For example, in the product layer, you can find apps such as UIZard which converts the wireframes and sketches you draw on paper directly into digital interfaces or ClipDrop which is an augmented reality copy and pasting tool.

At the platform level, an interesting trend to notice is the AI-based assistants which can help you spot issues with your documents, stay consistent with design systems, prepare your files for collaboration, and follow your team’s rule, and more.

And finally, we’ve already covered several of them in the video about the infrastructure layer, but AI is used by products to convert design files to code or to manage design assets and automate parts of the designer job.

No Code products

The no-code trend is also actually quite popular in the designer tool space. For example, Bravo labels itself as a no-code tool to convert Figma files into iOs or Android app. Origami Studio is an app that lets you create an interactive prototype without having to write code – but you can if you want. 

And if you think about it, the equivalent of no code, but for the design space might also emerge at one point. It won’t be called the “no-code” trend, but no “design file” trend, and it will enable non-designers to create prototypes, illustrations, pictures, and other designer assets without using traditional designer tools. The AR tools such as UIzard and ClipDrop we’ve just mentioned before might actually be exactly that.

Anyway, I’ll conclude this part with an open question for you: Do you believe that AI and no code are positive trends for the designer tools space, or do you think that they threaten the place of designers and will make this job redundant.