Build Design Culture, Don’t Wait For It

Last week, I spent an afternoon with the design team at Percolate. Dom Goodrum — who leads the team — asked me to share what I’ve learned about design culture in my prior jobs, from working with Collaborative Fund companies, and what I’m considering as we build my new firm, Machine.

The big takeaway:

Design culture doesn’t build itself.

Hiring talented designers isn’t enough. Like any culture, design culture arises out of all of the little things we do rather than big announcements or annual events. Designers shouldn’t wait for inspiration to arrive or for people to magically understand them. It’s up to them to stay inspired, learn new skills, and get involved every day and every week. That builds culture.

Here are five ways to start the journey of building a design culture.

1. Get (everybody) talking about design

We can’t rely on design to “speak for itself.” Get people throughout your organization comfortable talking about design in all of its fuzzy, emotional, intuitive, jargony, and abstract glory. Take a page from Tim Riley’s book at Warby Parker and host a weekly lunch to share examples of great insights, experiences, products, advertisements, and apps you encounter in the world. Don’t just make this a design team lunch. Invite anybody to come and share what moves them.

2. Get serious about your organization’s “portfolio”

If your organization had a portfolio of design work — what you create, consider, and put out into the world — what would it be? Would you be happy with what’s in it? Starting to talk about the work you do will naturally lead to a discussion about what constitutes great design work. Make sure you’re reviewing the portfolio on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean everyday or even every week, though. That’s too much. A well-executed portfolio review can happen about every six weeks. Collect the work in advance, give yourself enough time (say an afternoon) to present the work and reflect on the whole picture. Talk about what you like, what could be better, and what’s missing from your team’s body of work.

3. Create an inspiration habit

One way to encourage team inspiration is to bring in outside perspectives. Systematically invite amazing designers, artists, technologists, and entrepreneurs from the outside to have a dialogue about what inspires them, what they create, what they love, and how they work. Creative Mornings started that way after Tina Roth Eisenberg started hosting people she admired in her studio. It’s now a thriving global community of designers (and entire design teams) looking to stay inspired.

4. Experiment and play with other disciplines

Design cultures learn to push and stretch themselves. Whether you’re a budding or expert designer, it helps to work in other mediums or to experiment with another “craft.” Every other month, do something that gets people working together outside of their own discipline. Graphic designers can learn from sculpture or model making. Writers might learn to build simple robots or program an  Arduino. “Design fiction” challenges can be fun exercises for teams willing to put themselves out there. To really push on the culture consistently, consider bringing in other types of design collaborators for long-term assignments and residencies.

5. Be generous

Generosity is a cornerstone of design cultures for good reason. What you give comes back in spades. Teaching in academic design programs or hosting workshops for community organizations is a great way to share what you know, and as any teacher knows, learn as well. Think about ways to share the stories, your own design learning, and the work you love. You’ll get that back and more.

Discuss on our subreddit.