Designing for the Developers
By Megan Finnerty
Published January 5, 2023
Karri Saarinen remembers having his first strong reaction to design when he was 6 or 7. Saarinen is the co-founder of the software development tool Linear, a product known for its aesthetic point of view, and he says it happened while bike shopping with his family. “I would look at a lot of the bicycles and feel like, ‘Why are so many of these kind of ugly? I don’t like them,’” he says.
“And then I had this thought, like, ‘Why do people do this? Why, if you make all this, if you go to the effort of building this bicycle and then painting it, why do you make it ugly?’ I didn’t necessarily understand that there is some kind of process involved, or like you need some kind of taste.” Saarinen couldn’t have articulated this at the time, but as he grew older, he realized that an object that’s off in some way could be a product of bad processes—disrespecting the materials, time and labor that went into making it. In some ways, this reaction is specific to Saarinen, who says he’s always been conscious of his sense of taste: “When I look at things, I could see, ‘This could be better,’” he says. But in other ways, this is a distinctly Finnish way of seeing.
Saarinen, who runs Linear with fellow Finns and founders Jori Lallo and Tuomas Artman, says people in Scandinavia, Finland especially, are attuned to simplicity, with a preference for function and durability. Lallo echoes this, mentioning a memorable Finnish marketing campaign that said something to the effect that one (perfectly designed) stool is enough. “There’s more of a design sense overall … it’s everywhere,” Saarinen says. Although the founders live, at least part of the year, in America, Linear is a Finnish product.
Finland was occupied by Sweden and Russia for more than 750 years, and so, until relatively recently, it was a poor country with a culture of national solidarity. Upon independence in 1917, one of the ways the new country defined itself was through affordable, functional design that referenced the landscape. Finland was thick with birch and pine forests and dotted with countless lakes, so long before sustainability became a global buzzword, goods were made to be durable, from wood, and with little to no ornamentation. Even though Finland started to become wealthy during post-World War II rebuilding, industrialization didn’t take hold until the mid-1960s, almost 100 years after it spread in America. This informs a Finnish aesthetic that prizes craftsmanship, both as a process and as an end. Between the three of them, Lallo, Saarinen and Artman mentioned Finnish companies like Iittala, Artek and Fiskars as influences. And they talked about what they perceive to be a specifically Finnish way of caring for others through designing objects and spaces. “Maybe it’s part of [being] such a small country that there’s this high sense of common good and equality as values,” says Lallo. “I think that also translates to [the idea] that good design should be accessible for everyone.”
Linear helps people build software more elegantly and efficiently so they can make products that are more intuitive and more enjoyable for the world to use. Saarinen is passionate about Linear’s mission because, he says, software is only becoming more important. If Linear succeeds in supporting more thoughtfully designed software, billions of daily users will benefit in ways that are subtle but cumulative. His vision is one in which countless annoyances are smoothed in the digital world, where both engineers and users feel, if not actual pleasure, the absence of frustration. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that software has gotten a lot better necessarily … in terms of the quality. A lot of people have problems with the products, and there’s bugs, and there’s products that are kind of messy, or just not really considered. Back in the day, care for the craft was there and we would like to see more of it.”
He thinks this “hacky” software is an outgrowth of the systems that dictate how it’s made, and Linear is designed to push engineers in a different direction through how the tool tracks issues, manages projects and creates roadmaps, among other capabilities. Linear’s main competitor is Atlassian’s Jira, which has more than 180,000 customers and is considered the legacy standard for software-development management. But Linear is a rebuttal to Jira. It is notably fast and only minimally customizable, defined by its meticulous design—in the fonts and colors, but also in the logic of how the product functions. Built for Agile workflows, Jira is exhaustively customizable in a way that some engineers find onerous. In contrast, the first version of Linear was designed to serve small teams, creating software with specific points of view. Linear calls Agile outdated. Agile has matured over decades from vocal rebel to status quo, which is both the opportunity and risk of Linear’s point of view. “We want to show there’s a different way, because, in our experience with most of the top tech companies, they’re not using Agile,” Saarinen says. “It’s not a thing.”
Linear’s founders want to do more than support better software creation. They want to bring back a sense of dignity to software creation, a job that today, Saarinen observes, can feel disconnected from a larger purpose. They want software engineers to feel satisfaction with and control over their work, something overreliance on project managers has chipped away at, Saarinen says. The founders want to elevate pride in craft, making something thoughtfully instead of quickly. This sense of quality has been lost, Saarinen says, to all those management layers, to “moving fast and breaking things,” and to endless process customization. It’s as though, he says with teasing indignation, the industry hasn’t evolved its practices since Jira launched in 2002.
Linear’s early adopters were the founders’ friends, people working at small tech startups. They liked how it was sleek, built-for-them and fast. The product’s focus on craft, and on inspiring delight in users with focused functionality and design at first resonated with small and then growth stage companies, says Sequoia Capital partner Stephanie Zhan, who works with Linear, and now it’s taking off in enterprise organizations too. “There have been times where management requests to consolidate tooling or use incumbent products, and the teams using Linear inside of an organization revolt!” Zhan says. “That even happened within Sequoia itself, when our engineering, product and design teams rallied together with a full memo on why they would not use anything except Linear. That’s the resonance we strive for.”
Sequoia led Linear’s seed round in 2019 and Series A in 2020. And in late October, the company, still with fewer than 30 employees, released expanded functionality for enterprise and scaling companies. An open letter from Saarinen on the Linear website mentioned global players like Vercel and Cash App as users. Today, the founders are confident that just as Finland’s iconic, near-unbreakable Iittala glasses elevate so many dinner tables, Linear’s design choices and functionality will elevate so many software designs. “We want to make sure that the tool inspires them,” says Artman. “One of the reasons why we always wanted to design Linear to be beautiful is because if you have a project management tool that is beautiful, then anything can be [beautiful].” Artman continues, “That’s what I love hearing about … some customers say that Linear is an inspiration for them to build something as good as we did. And if Linear is always in the face of your engineers and designers, and everybody uses it almost daily, it’s a constant reminder: if you’re working on software, here’s a good example of what good software looks like.”
“When I look at things, I could see, ‘This could be better.’”Karri Saarinen
“Maybe it’s part of [being] such a small country that there’s this high sense of common good and equality as values. I think that also translates to [the idea] that good design should be accessible for everyone.”Jori Lallo
“Unfortunately, I don’t think that software has gotten a lot better necessarily … in terms of the quality … Back in the day, care for the craft was there and we would like to see more of it.”Karri Saarinen
“That even happened within Sequoia itself, when our engineering, product and design team rallied together with a full memo on why they would not use anything except Linear. That’s the resonance we strive for.”Stephanie Zhan
Saarinen grew up with his mom and dad and older sister outside of Hämeenlinna, a 50,000-person city about an hour north of Helsinki. He has quaint, distinctly Finnish memories like skiing to school, but one of the defining moments of Saarinen’s childhood was when his family got a Commodore 128K. By age 5, he was using it even though he couldn’t read. His sister, five years older, showed him how to match the letters and numbers on the keyboard to the letters and numbers on the screen so he could launch his favorite game, “Bubble Bobble,” about two dragons saving their girlfriends from bad guys. By fifth grade, Saarinen was playing “Quake,” battling monsters in a medieval setting. The game had a multiplayer mode, and Saarinen played with friends on a team. He says all the “cool teams” had their own websites. A builder even then, he checked several coding books out of a nearby library and figured out how to design and build a site “quite fast,” he says.
Mostly bored with school, he threw himself into LAN parties, where computer-lovers connected to a local area network to play multiplayer games. It involved a lot of caffeinated drinks. When he was in sixth grade, he attended a historic, 5,000-person LAN when eSports pioneer Assembly Organizing rented Finland’s largest arena, Hartwall Arena in Helsinki. “My parents let me go there with my friends, and basically, you’re in this dark place with your computer for the weekend, and then you don’t really sleep, and you just play games and stuff,” he says. “And it’s like the best, best thing for a kid who likes computers.” The event changed his life; at 13, he started hosting his own LAN parties with friends, selling tickets, figuring out how much cable to buy and literally configuring networks. After internships and jobs at tech companies through high school and college, he led Assembly Organizing’s web presence from 2006 to 2011.
Lallo and Saarinen met around 2008 as part of the Helsinki startup community, remembers Lallo. “It was a slow burn,” he says of their early friendship. “We were very different people. But I think we share similar values of care for the design and building of products.” Saarinen almost met Artman when he applied for a job at Artman’s web design agency, but Artman laughs when he admits he didn’t even offer Saarinen an interview. Lallo and Artman met when an out-of-the-blue Twitter DM turned into meeting for a beer 30 minutes later and, eventually, the three became friends.
After working in various Helsinki tech companies, Lallo and Saarinen moved to San Francisco. There, they launched the collaborative bookmarking system Kippt as part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2012 batch. Lallo sees Kippt as a precursor to Linear in that it was a practical tool with a small but passionate user base. Kippt was acquired by the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, and both of them joined that company in 2014, Saarinen as head of design and Lallo as a software engineer. Artman moved to San Francisco by 2012, working at Groupon in engineering management.
In San Francisco, Saarinen moved up to principal designer at Airbnb, Artman went on to become a senior engineer at Uber and Lallo rose at Coinbase. But soon, each felt like builders working at a company built by others. “You get an itch after some time to do something a little bit more on your terms,” says Lallo. He’d taken a sabbatical after leaving Coinbase in 2018, and started nudging Saarinen and Artman about building the kind of tool they’d always wanted. It would be something that encouraged flow, something that didn’t just work, but that made doing work more pleasurable. Each man, Lallo says, had experienced the hassle of switching between various software management tools, all of which they felt were not as helpful or elegant as they could have been. It didn’t take much convincing, Lallo says. He worked on Linear full time, and Artman and Saarinen chipped away on nights and weekends. “I don’t think we ever questioned if there’s a need for it, or if we could pull it off,” Lallo says.
“We were very different people. But I think we share similar values of care for the design and building of products.”jori on his early friendship with KARRI
“I don’t think we ever questioned if there’s a need for it, or if we could pull it off.”Jori lallo on building linear
Linear founders Karri Saarinen, Jori Lallo and Tuomas Artman
When they started Linear, Lallo says they decided to bootstrap. So they built out the first version for small and mid-size companies, figuring that the three of them, and maybe, eventually, a few hires, could reasonably create their ideal issue tracking system. To grow, they invited friends in the startup world to use it. One day, they Tweeted about working on an exciting new software design product, but there was no waitlist signup link. It was just an announcement. Sequoia’s Zhan didn’t follow any of the founders, but people she trusts in her Twitter network did, and she spotted their tweets of excitement about Linear. Zhan reached out, and Lallo says, laughing, “While we were like, ‘We’re not fundraising, so we’re not talking to investors,’ but when Sequoia calls, you take the meeting, at least to get to know them.” Zhan saw Linear’s potential: “You’d be hard-pressed to find a product with as much dissatisfaction as some of the incumbents in this space, and ironically, these entrenched incumbents have massive adoption and business scale. I knew there just had to be a better way.” Also worth noting, Jira’s maker Atlassian is worth a bit more than $31 billion.
Sequoia is always looking for a business with a novel and compelling insight, Zhan says, and Linear had a powerful one: “The fundamental thing that Linear did differently was this idea of being highly opinionated,” she says. “They understood that, the truth is, most companies have no idea what the right software development process is,” Zhan says. “The subset who do would much prefer focusing on building their product than dedicating time to shaping this process—customizing Jira and having a dedicated team maintaining it.” Endless customization can be a painful and complex experience, she continues. “People want simplicity, and they want to know what is right, what is best. That’s where the opinionated nature of Linear comes into play.” She also says Linear’s focus on design makes it feel premium: “I think [Linear is] setting a new standard for the quality of developer tools. It’s almost a Veblen good for developers and high-functioning modern teams. It symbolizes a cultural belief in building quality products.”
Often, software design management tools try to be everything to everyone through endless customization options. And, Saarinen says, sometimes customization led to moments of real momentum for him and his teams. But there were also countless times when his tools took him out of flow, because, he points out, most people are not that great at optimizing tool customization. So Linear chose to design a specific product for a specific person. The team focused on making the best tool it could for a software engineer, looking at one workflow at at time, asking, says Saarinen, “how can we make it reduce the friction as much as possible so that when they use the product, they don’t hit this annoying, frustrating thing, and kind of break that momentum in the team, or in their daily work.”
The solution was already part of the founders’ aesthetic preferences. One of the things people value about Scandinavian design is that, generally, objects don’t draw attention to themselves. They are plain, functional and offer the user something “honest,” in Saarinen’s assessment. Linear’s leap forward in software development is that it is designed to be honest in this way, to literally not draw attention to itself. Linear is designed to read as “professional” to engineers, says Saarinen, with a dark gray sans-serif font called Inter on a black background, and a gradient purple sphere for a logo. It’s based on the black coding environments many engineers prefer, minimizing battery drain and eye strain. It feels like a person looked at it and said, “This is it.” That person was Saarinen, who designed it. “When we started in 2019, I saw a lot of web companies having this kind of fun-type website where you have these colorful illustrations about people and things,” he says. “For me, work is serious. If I’m building a house, I don’t want my tools to be fun. I want them to be good. I want them to be professional.” Saarinen sees aesthetics as increasingly important. Competition for software adoption is so fierce, he says, that users are only interested in an app or program if it’s a pleasure to use. “I think for the past 15 years or so, we had kind of the playbook … like move fast and break things and don’t care about anything else, or don’t care about the quality,” Saarinen says. “I think that playbook maybe is getting played out.”
These aesthetics are the first way Linear is designed specifically for coders. The next way is through endless streamlining—removing friction, rethinking workflows, eliminating alerts, checking that every action is intuitive and not confusing, and ensuring maximum speed so there are never flow-killing lags. “You could think it’s a very minor thing, but I feel like it’s actually probably the most meaningful thing,” Saarinen says. “When people feel good about the work, and they feel good about making progress, or just they are allowed to make progress, then that progress happens, and, generally, people are happier, and, generally, the company, I think, will be more successful.”
Linear’s founders don’t want to just serve software engineers, though. They want to re-center them. Today hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people might develop a piece of software. This has led to two things, Saarinen says: a focus on process over product, and removing engineers from positions of influence. “I think people get too focused on the different frameworks and processes,” he says, “and you start to forget, what are you actually doing?” Linear is designed to simplify the how, enabling teams to focus on the what. And its functionality encourages designers and engineers to use it for building and planning together. This is also one of Linear’s marketing tools. Saarinen perceives that the competition for talent is so intense that gifted people won’t work for companies with bad processes or tools; they’ll choose companies that use tools designed for them.
Linear’s point of view has resonated. Founded in January 2019, Linear was profitable by July 2021. A company that started as a minimal software issue tracker eventually did open that waitlist, and now has enterprise-level capabilities, empowering teams of various functions to interact as part of a cohesive development ecosystem. This is one way Zhan sees Linear growing—starting with a company’s engineering, product and software design teams and spreading beyond. (This is how Figma grew, starting with designers.) Saarinen, Lallo, and Artman are focused on Linear’s impact long-term. Saarinen and Artman both talk about Apple’s relentless, exacting focus on design as being almost peerless, and they would like, someday, for Linear to be described similarly. Saarinen even picked the dark gray font color inspired by Apple’s Mac Pro colorways. “That’s one of the reasons why we designed it so well,” says Artman. “I hope that it inspires people to build better software. But you know, if it doesn’t, we still give you time back. Like, the tool should get out of your way in the end, so that you can focus on whatever is important.”
So while Linear is designed for software engineers, its real beneficiary is all of us.
“The fundamental thing that Linear did differently was this idea of being highly opinionated.”Stephanie Zhan
“I think [Linear is] setting a new standard for the quality of developer tools. It’s almost a Veblen good for developers and high-functioning modern teams. It symbolizes a cultural belief in building quality products.”Stephanie Zhan
“For me, work is serious. If I’m building a house, I don’t want my tools to be fun. I want them to be good. I want them to be professional.”Karri Saarinen
“That’s one of the reasons why we designed it so well. I hope that it inspires people to build better software.”TUOMAS ARTMAN