Google partners with Figma to bring design tools to student Chromebooks

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Google for Education announced a new partnership with Figma. The companies will bring Figma’s design and prototyping platform and its collaborative whiteboard app FigJam to education Chromebooks. Schools can sign up now for the beta program, which will begin over the summer.

Edge Journalist Dami Lee described Figma as “Google Docs for design”. Like Google’s software, Figma is primarily web-based and is a lighter load for a computer to run than many industry-standard creative programs. Figma also allows team members to collaborate in a way similar to what they might have in Google Docs, but on prototypes and design projects rather than text. Users can add annotations and notes to projects, mark things with stickers, and even communicate via audio chat. Think of it a bit like a less powerful, but collaborative, online, and sometimes better Adobe Illustrator for designing apps and websites.

The two companies hope the program, which will be free for schools, will help make software engineering and design more accessible to young students. “Computing hasn’t been the most accessible field over the years,” says Andy Russell, product manager for Chrome OS Education. Russell hopes Figma’s software will flatten the learning curve for students interested in trying out the disciplines while giving them advanced tools to work with down the line. “Figma allows students to enter on the ground floor with a low floor, but then gives them this extraordinarily high ceiling,” says Russell. He hopes the program will help them “integrate them into the next generation of software designers and software engineers.”

Even outside of those niches, Russell hopes students will be able to use the software for projects in all disciplines. “We all grew up with the five-paragraph essay,” says Russell. But, “students today have so many other options: they can create timelines, they can create infographics, they can create storyboards for a documentary film, they can create 3D models of architecture, an app for solve a problem, they can create a website. He added, “Figma is an amazing tool that allows students to create any of these assets.”

The past few years have, unsurprisingly, seen the demand for cloud-based collaborative software (and whiteboard functionality in particular) increase. Although schools have reopened after widespread closures at the start of the pandemic, many continue to invest in online services. It has also become more common for districts to provide laptops to students over the years, raising expectations that students could collaborate and submit assignments online.

These types of software are not new; many other companies make prototyping tools and whiteboard platforms. But part of what makes Figma so competitive in this space is its simplicity: it’s easy to use and intuitive to use.

Incidentally, that’s also a big part of the Chromebook’s appeal, especially in the education arena: it’s cheap; it takes a second to start; it’s simple to use; and it’s largely cloud-based. Such a partnership seems like a no-brainer in some ways, and Figma CEO Dylan Field certainly agrees. “We actually built Figma with Chromebooks in mind from the start. In 2015-2016, we were testing our tools with Chromebooks,” he explains.

Chromebooks have come a long way in the past few years, with more sophisticated features and nicer hardware. But the power of software you can get as a Chrome OS fan still doesn’t match the Windows ecosystem offerings in any case. Creative work is one such area. Adobe Creative Cloud, for example, is only available for Chrome OS in limited mobile forms (and even these lightweight apps often run slowly, due to some experience). The Adobe XD version, Adobe’s closest competitor to Figma that you can get on Chrome OS, is limited compared to the desktop version. Student Chromebooks running cutting-edge design software optimized for them, at scale, would be a good sign for the platform and a good sign for students.

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