The Man in Blue


Changing the world through communication

This is the written version of a talk I gave at Change the World in May, 2018. It’s a conference for non-profits that helps them improve their marketing and reach their audience more effectively.

I was reading an article about public speaking recently (don’t worry, it wasn’t in preparation for this). The premise of that article was that the only good reason to speak to an audience is to change people. It is noble to educate, and to entertain, but if you do not have the intent to enact change then it is not enough. As a speaker you can make that change in many different ways – you can be a powerful speaker, a persuasive speaker, an emotional speaker – but at the end of the day the main goal of your speech should be to inspire change.

That is increasingly the view that I take of organisations as well – both for-profit and not-for-profit ones. If they are not aiming to make the world better then they should be spending their time on something that is.

Technology and creativity have been constant threads throughout my life. They are the things I enjoy playing with and that I have been fortunate enough to weave into the work that I do and the way that I live. But for most of my life I have used my skills to do things just because I could. Because they’re interesting to me, or because they seemed kind of cool at the time. Working on Canva for the past 6 years has opened my eyes to just how much impact a focused group of people can have on the world, and how entwined the purpose of making the world a better place can be to a profitable company.

3 of us came together to start Canva just over six years ago. And it was almost a meeting of chance. I had been working at Google for four years, and was fortunate enough to have Lars Rasmussen as my boss – he was one of the founders of Google Maps. At Google we were working on a technically pretty cool project. It was an application called Google Wave, and the vision of Lars – and his brother Jens – was to revolutionise the way that people communicated. To bring email forward 40 years, into the modern world. I’d joined because they were doing some pretty cool things with technology and there were some interesting design challenges to getting it all working.

I actually worked on the prototype that Lars took to Larry and Sergey in order to get funding. That prototype was impressive enough for them to get a heap of funding and shortly after that we had 30 engineers working on taking the prototype and turning it into reality. By the end of 3 years we had 50 engineers, 5 product managers and one designer (that was me, but that’s a story for another time).

Ultimately, the project didn’t work out. But I learned a heap about developing products and also about company culture. One of my biggest takeaways was about communication and its power to help drive the vision of an organisation. We had some brilliant moments of communication on Google Wave, and also some not so brilliant ones. On the great side, the culmination of 3 years of our work was a debut at Google IO, where we had a 70 minute keynote that revealed the product and talked about the great technological innovation that had been put into building it. The Youtube video of that keynote now has over 10 million views – and let me remind you it’s 70 minutes long. It was actually the first video on Youtube that was allowed to be more than 10 minutes long, because that was the limit they had at the time.

Out of that presentation we had 3 million people sign up to be on the waiting list for the product. That was a pretty successful communication moment.

On the flipside, communicating what the product actually did – rather than the technology behind it – we did pretty terribly. I distinctly remember being in a marketing meeting where we were deciding what should go on the product’s landing page. The marketing manager was really pushing for a pithy, succinct phrase that would tell people what Google Wave was actually good at. No one could think of anything.

It had lots of amazing parts – being able to see what people were typing in real time; adding a multi-playable sudoku game in the middle of a finance document; everyone uploading their holiday photo snaps and organising them on the same webpage simultaneously; but we didn’t want to commit to any one of those. We wanted it to be everything.

Consequently, when we started letting people into the product they had no idea what to do. They got lost, found it hard to have that special collaborative moment with other users, and left.

At Canva pretty much everything we do is about communication. Our mission is “empowering the world to design” which means that we want to help everyone in the world be able to communicate their ideas in the best way possible. When you think about design you often think about a very visual artifact – something that is pretty, and pleasing, and nice to the eye. But when you take a look at every instance of design, at their core they are really about communicating in a better way. A well-designed presentation helps you communicate to a room. A well-designed flyer helps you communicate to a crowd. And a well-designed website helps you communicate to the world. The problem is that making the effort to design something can take a lot of time, a lot of skill, and a lot of tools that you don’t have access to.

They might seem contradictory, but I think of startups and non-profits as being very similar organisations. Each one is driven by a vision of how the world should be. They’re filled with people that are passionate about that vision. And they’re both critically under-resourced to achieve that vision.

You’re short on people, short on money, short on time.

When you’re faced with those challenges, you have to be ingenious with the way that you do things and make use of every advantage that you can find.

I remember the time just before we launched Canva to the world. We were pretty media savvy even back then. We’d been playing a long-term teasing game with a few journalists: telling them about our funding, our background story, our stealthy product, and our global ambitions from our small office in Sydney. The product hadn’t launched yet, but we had a signup page for people to register their interest with. In order to generate a bit of buzz about the product, about 5 months before we were planning to launch we managed to get a bunch of articles about our seed funding round in Techcrunch, ZDNet, PandoDaily, SmartCompany and The Financial Review, as well as a bunch of other tech-focused publications. Excitedly, when the press embargo dropped we loaded up the real-time view of our signup page in Google Analytics and waited for the traffic to pour in.


OK, it wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t the overnight success that we were expecting. Lesson #1: relying on traditional media for your signup acquisition strategy isn’t a great idea.

In an unexpected twist, though … a couple of years prior to our launch I had made an interactive music video for Daft Punk. Well, not for Daft Punk (their record company did send me a cease and desist letter) but about some of their music. In April 2013 they announced their first new album in 8 years and the Internet went crazy for them. Somehow, my music video ended up at the top of Reddit and my video ended up receiving over 2 million visitors. Aside from having to pay a mammoth server bill, I wasn’t getting anything out of all those visitors, so I figured I might as well throw up a banner at the top telling all those Daft Punk fans to signup for Canva.

Our signup page ended up getting more visitors from my video than we got from massive publications like Techcrunch.

I say this to highlight the fact that when you have no resources, you have to use every advantage at your disposal to communicate your story.

With Canva, we’ve been very fortunate to see how providing a tool which democratises design and makes it 100 times easier to communicate your vision can have to small businesses and not-for-profits that were previously struggling to find the time and resources to make it happen.

The first time I can recall thinking “wow, design really can change the world” was when we got a heartwarming email from an orphanage in South America. They had started using Canva to put together progress updates on the kids in their care, and they had gotten a fantastic response from donors and adoptees.

At that early stage of our company, getting a message from someone who we’d never been in contact with before, and hearing about how Canva had – by playing a very small part – made someone’s life better, was game changing for me.

I can never get enough of hearing about those moments where Canva has helped someone communicate in a new or better way. We’ve helped individuals grow their business from a small market stall to hundreds of thousands in revenue, and we’ve also helped teams of hundreds of people create simple and empowering systems that let them scale their marketing and brand design worldwide.

But it’s working with non-profits where we always get the most satisfaction from our work. Two and a half years ago we announced our non-profit program which gives non-profits free access to our premium Canva for Work subscription, and it’s had an amazing uptake. As of today we have over 20,000 non-profit organisations who are taking advantage of this program, and if you’re interested in helping your team create high-quality, branded designs for all your communications needs then I’d encourage you to Google “canva non profit” and apply.

But that’s just the start of where we’d like to be in terms of helping non-profits. One of our six values at Canva is “be a force for good”. This permeates every aspect of what we do, from the choices that we make around what toilet paper to use, as well as our business decisions. We like to help everyone in our team act in a socially conscious way and proactively take part in making the world better, so we support them in organising programs that minimise environmental waste, help feed the homeless, fight for animal rights, work with women’s support agencies in our Philippines office, or help package food for OzHarvest.

As part of our commitment to being a force for good, one of our global goals is to make non-profits all around the world be 1% more effective. 1% mightn’t sound like a lot, but we know that you are the ones doing all the hard work and putting in the other 99%. If we can help amplify that work by just 1% then it would have a tremendous impact on the world. We’re always keen to hear ideas from non-profits themselves as to how we can reach that goal, whether it’s through donations of money, time and resources, or additions to our products and applications that can help non-profits create and communicate more effectively.

We have seen firsthand the change that great, well-designed communication can bring. And that change can be harnessed by no better people than you – the ones that are passionately, lovingly, unselfishly trying to make the world a better place.

If there’s one thing that I’d like you to take from today, it’s not that you should go sign up for Canva, it is for you to think about how important it is to communicate your story in a consistent, understandable, and high-quality way. Find all the tools that you can use to your advantage and tell that story to as many people as possible.

That is how communication will help you change the world.

Cameron Adams Cameron Adams is a co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Canva, where he leads the design & product teams and focuses on future product directions & innovative experiences. Read a bit more about him ›