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How do you create a design culture?

over 6 years ago from , Senior Product Designer at Dialpad; formerly Stack Overflow

As one of two designers at a primarily developer-centric company, what are some insights you might have for creating a creative culture?

Secondly, how do you expose that so other designers get an sense of who you are and would be attracted to join that team?

24 comments

  • Dan BDan B, over 6 years ago

    Office beanbags.

    Oh, and Pantone mugs for everyone.

    8 points
  • Jordan Price, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

    I've worked at a company for nearly two years that has a highly engineering-driven culture (Both founders are ex-Googlers). I was definitely sold on and drawn to the allure of being the lead designer and getting to take all the credit for the product's design success (yep... thanks ego). I was even able to hire some jr designers which was a great new experience for me.

    However, after almost 2 years of constantly having bloated features prioritized over great user experience, and having to continuously fight for "good design", I came to accept that design would never be a priority at a place driven by data and engineering. It is so incredibly exhausting to constantly work through UX flows, product specs, wireframes, mock ups, and prototypes with developers and the CEO, only to have a fraction of it implemented into the product. I never once posted any of the work I've done there to Dribbble because I'm not proud of the product, and honestly I feel like it makes me look like a bad designer.

    Every single company you talk to will claim that they "love great design", but from my experience, few are able to actually embed great design into their company culture and workflow.

    I went to a talk not too long ago here in San Francisco from the founder of Mailbox, the founder of Outbox, and a VP from Task Rabbit. I asked one of the founders, "What should I do if I work at a company that is not design driven?" And the answer was basically, "Find a company that has a founding team that prioritizes good design. A well designed products don't happen by accident. It happens because good design is in a company's DNA, starting at the top."

    So I know this doesn't totally answer your question, and it's probably a little bit of a downer to hear. But my take away is this:

    1) Never take another job that isn't with a company that genuinely understands and prioritizes good design.

    2) "Good design" can be implemented into a company's work flow for a product that you're not coding yourself. After working closely with your developer(s), you hand them off a great design mocks, specs, & assets. They implement the design. The key is the product DOES NOT ship until the designer approves it and feels that the implementation was done correctly and the details aren't lost.

    3) If for whatever reason you end up not being able to create a culture of design at your company, make sure to build awesome side projects. You'll need them in your portfolio when you finally jump ship and realize the product you've been working on for X months/ years looks and works like doo doo. I ended up getting so tired of being embarrassed about the product I worked on that I've hired my own developer offshore and am about to launch my own iPhone app. For the record, I'm absolutely 100% not embarrassed about it. It actually feels weird to work on a product that doesn't look and work like shit. I've also quit working for the company that I'm embarrassed to put in my portfolio.

    Good luck!

    7 points
    • Anders TherkildsenAnders Therkildsen, over 6 years ago

      Great reply!

      0 points
    • Joe CJoe C, over 6 years ago

      Reading this was like looking in a mirror, so many similarities to where I am at right now. Even more embarrassing is that I'm not working on any side projects, but I realise now this has to change. The majority of my work here is under strict NDA's as well, and even if it wasn't I don't think it would be in my portfolio.

      One of the most common pieces of advice given to designers looking for work is 'Make sure your portfolio has work in that you want to do'. I guess these bloated, obfuscated products that I'm currently working on will do nothing in helping me find a new company, one that values design much more, so I have to be responsible and build things myself!

      Thanks for the kick up the butt.

      3 points
    • Joshua HynesJoshua Hynes, over 6 years ago

      @Jordan, thanks for the reply. I don't think the problem is that the company doesn't value design. I've yet to get push back on the designs I've been doing. The problem is more we have this culture that values design, but I don't think that's communicated well with those on the outside.

      0 points
    • Sabrina MajeedSabrina Majeed, over 6 years ago

      Thanks for sharing. I found myself in a similar position recently. While there's a lot of merit to sticking things out and attempting to persevere despite resistance, for me the best route was to find a better working environment for design. While there are probably more companies out there that DON'T value design, there are still plenty of companies that do, genuinely want your help, and are more worth your time. What I've also learned is that the existing design team at a company is a good measure of how much they care, which is why I'm now much more wary of startups that can't hold down more than one designer at a time.

      1 point
  • Toni GemayelToni Gemayel, over 6 years ago (edited over 6 years ago )

    Let people design things outside of their "normal scope of work". There is such an emphasis on developers working on open source projects to try new things, but I rarely see designers who get afforded the same luxury. If a designer can diversify their work, they can diversify their learning. Ultimately, that leads to a more well-rounded (and from my experience, a happier) designer.

    5 points
  • David HooglandDavid Hoogland, over 6 years ago

    What do you mean by a creative culture?

    4 points
  • Anthony TadinaAnthony Tadina, over 6 years ago

    Culture is about values. Define the values of your company (general or specific to the design team works) and hire based on those values.

    Examples of values: ZURB: http://zurb.com/values Zappos: http://about.zappos.com/our-unique-culture/zappos-core-values Pinterest: http://about.pinterest.com/careers/

    4 points
  • Spencer HoltawaySpencer Holtaway, over 6 years ago

    Work extra hard to show and prove the value of a design-led approach. Trust me, I'm trying.

    3 points
  • katie fricks, over 6 years ago

    Encourage infiltration of personal activities within the office. You could have an awesome bike rack inside or post people's personal artwork or accomplishes on the walls. Host cookoffs or go on roadtrips to conferences and document the experiences via social media.

    TLDR: Do fun things, and document it!

    3 points
  • Shawn BorskyShawn Borsky, over 6 years ago

    From my experience, design culture has to come from the top. It starts with the leadership understanding the value of design and wanting to put in the time to think about it right.

    But, if not from the top. It generally starts with making sure that design is linked to product. Helping developers to want design in the room because it makes better product and helps them build something that feels good and functions well.

    2 points
  • Eric StevensEric Stevens, over 6 years ago

    Depending on your specific slice of developers..

    The main goal is to not push against the grain for change, but to get everyone on board with it. Build community first, add design as the undertone of who you are and what you represent. Include developers in your world, this may look like simple conversations, round table discussions (imagineering), or meetups and happy hours. Everyone loves a hackathon, make it one part dev one part design.

    2 points
  • Jonny BeltonJonny Belton, over 6 years ago

    It's not going to be down to you unfortunately. Having design at the core of your product will 'create a design culture'. If it's not there at the core then everything is just a veneer

    2 points
  • Samihah ASamihah A, over 6 years ago

    Design has to be valued by the company from the top and part of the core values of the company. Anthony T. mentioned that culture is about values, and it really is. The tech companies known for having a strong design culture are the ones where it's part of the core value and those at the top understand its values (ex: Dropbox, Square, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Air BnB, etc etc). If not, it's going to be incredibly difficult to have a strong design culture.

    If design is valued at the top but perhaps isn't particularly strong, then you're in a unique opportunity to help craft a strong culture - and you do this by making design an integral part of the product development process. Show stakeholders why design needs to be at the beginning of the product development process and show its impact on the product. For your case, since you're at a developer-centric company, show them how design has added value already in your product. Engineers love data, and they typically don't argue against it.

    2 points
    • Joshua Hynes, over 6 years ago

      @Samihah, I would say that design is valued highly here across the board. We're at the beginning stages of crafting that culture, which is incredibly exciting. As someone who's never had a direct hand in the culture creation previously, I was looking for any suggestions, tips or thoughts from others as they are building their cultures. A lot of the responses so far have been great.

      0 points
      • Samihah ASamihah A, over 6 years ago

        That's awesome to hear! And being part of creating the culture is always exciting. On that note, having design reviews with designers from other products helps to get out of tunnel vision and also create stronger bonds with other designers. I'm not sure what the setup at Stack Exchange is like, but typically I've worked at companies where the designer sits with the product they're working on (well, the team), but maybe having a corner of the office specifically for the designers throughout the company to meet and bounce ideas (I think Twitter does this, I'm not sure). In the past, I would just message the other designers or they would message me to check out WIPs and get feedback. Also, having team activities once a month or once every few months where you're doing non-digital design things (screen printing? calligraphy? book binding? etc).

        0 points
  • Matt BaxterMatt Baxter, over 6 years ago

    We do a couple things at projekt202 that I think encourages a healthy creative culture.

    Taco Tuesdays - Every other Tuesday, we bring in breakfast tacos and just talk shop. Some days its talking about what's going on in the design side of the company, other times its nothing in particular but just bonding as a team.

    Collab Lab - I think this is one of my favorite things we do. These are regular meetings in which anyone is able to present a design problem they're working on and get feedback from the team. This is a little different in that we're a consulting company and typically are working on separate projects, but I think its a good practice for designers in any company.

    0 points
  • Pasquale D'SilvaPasquale D'Silva, over 6 years ago

    I think a good design culture comes from having everyone on board with good design. If people are not, just tell them to fuck off. You shouldn't have people around who don't want the same things.

    Good design isn't just about good pixels, good type, etc. It's about good taste and practices. Valuing the design process around engineering things. Valuing the design of an organisation. Design isn't just for designers. It's for everyone.

    That's what we do at Elepath, and there's no other place I'd consider being.

    0 points
    • Marco SousaMarco Sousa, over 6 years ago

      To me, this really sums it up: "You shouldn't have people around who don't want the same things.".

      1 point
  • ポール ウェッブポール ウェッブ, over 6 years ago

    Luckily, I work in a startup that appreciates my input. And as both the front-end developer AND designer, I am able to say why something may not work or look good and code a quick sample in case there are disagreements.

    I also share a lot of cool things I find online with everyone (like Nest's new smoke alarm). The more nicely designed web things I show my boss, the more he understands why best practices and such exist.

    Seeing as you work at the awesome SO, you don't have the luxury of starting from scratch, but I have heard of companies incubating startups in-house. Maybe this can be a start (in addition to the awesome comments above)?

    0 points