We all became designers for one reason or another. For me, building my first website some 20+ years ago in a high school web design course, I knew it was something I could do every day for the rest of my life. I have always been a creative, although my parents would constantly remind me that my “photographer” brother and “art-historian” sister never made much use of their degrees (I disagree, but that’s another story). I was certain web design, and at the time, art school, was the best path for me.
It’s these underlying passions and backstories that binds us together as designers. Regardless of how we became designers, or how we arrived at Vox Media, we all have this one thing in common: we are designers because we love it, and it’s incredibly important to remember this, especially as a company scales.
All design organizations face similar challenges. As a heavily distributed, largely remote organization, we have found success fostering our culture despite rapid scale.
Company Growth and Design
While it may seem easy to build a strong design culture in a startup or early phases of a company, there are still key ingredients necessary to build that strong foundation. Building a strong ethos for design is essential, and these building blocks will become critical as the design organization and company grow.
A Design Safe-space
Having a safe-space for design is a critical ingredient in a strong design culture. On smaller teams, this may be time spent in person to discuss design trends or new ideas. In remote environments, this could be a #design Slack channel where anything design is discussed, from sharing in-progress work to asking a general design question. A home base where the work is discussed is a valuable way to build and maintain a sense of community within the organization. As companies and organizations grow, this becomes a little more challenging, especially with distributed teams, but Slack has proven to be a great way for us to continue to support this idea. We have implemented recurring design prompts that encourage folks to share photos, work, or inspiring design they have seen lately. It’s a nice reminder that talking about design, or who we are as designers, helps connect us and strengthens our culture.
While a design safe-space is a great option for encouraging communication and design-specific discussion, it’s low-barrier-to-entry means its use may be heavy at times, or depending on how busy things are, it could quiet down as well.
One strategy we’ve used to ensure folks make the time to discuss design and feel included in a larger unified culture is our (usually monthly) design all-hands. There are a few strategies we’ve used to ensure these all-hands are a success:
- Make all-hands mandatory. While clearly, some folks may be out, sick, or heads down on important work, in order for all-hands to be successful, there needs to be a good turnout.
- Do the work to prepare. If you want to ensure attendance stays high, make it worth the while of your designers to attend. Prepare your agenda and any accompanying slides ahead of time. Share it so they know what to expect or can come prepared with questions. At Vox Media Design, our design leadership team prepares and leads our design all-hands calls.
- Be remote-friendly. To make this meeting inclusive of our distributed teams, we host all of our all-hands both in-office and via Zoom, and record them in case a designer misses it, so they can catch up when it’s convenient for them.
Make it fun. While company priorities, hiring updates, and discussing key initiatives are incredibly valuable, it should only be a portion of your time spent. Think of ways to keep everyone’s attention and mix up the agenda with some more light-hearted items. Here are a few things we do to keep it fun:
- Designer Intros: an opportunity for a designer to tell a little of their back story, touch on some personal details and what brought them to our company.
- Work share: an opportunity to share some work, either personal projects or work projects, or external projects such as someone’s recent redesign or an article one found interesting. It’s great for a number of reasons.
- Skill share: we all love learning new things, and what better way to do so than learning from a colleague.
We’ve found these all-hands meetings to be super valuable and have gotten great feedback from our designers on them. Here is a sample all-hands agenda, usually in the form of a Zoom call with a shared slide deck:
- High level overview of the agenda
- Welcomes (to new members, or other hiring updates)
- Updates from design leadership (initiatives or high level updates)
- Work presentation, either led by a team or an individual
- Designer intros (usually one or two depending on time, prepared for ahead of time)
- Wins (shout outs to recent wins or exciting project updates)
- Questions (we usually leave some time for questions or open discussion)
Again, this type of meeting becomes more complex the larger a design organization gets. Maybe at a certain scale it’s impossible to have all designers join a single meeting. There could be ways to make smaller all-hands meetings at the team level on a monthly basis, and possibly a larger all-hands quarterly. Regardless of the size of your organization, some type of structured all-hands is reasonable, and we’ve seen great success with ours.
Professional development is a great way to invest in your designers in a way that benefits their growth and the company alike. While the amount of that investment within your company may vary depending on factors such as size or the type of industry, prioritizing the continued growth of designers is a great way to strengthen the culture around them. It helps instill a sense of value, and has clear mutual benefits.
At Vox Media, employees across our PDT organization (Product, Design, Technology) receive a yearly stipend that can be used for professional development, such as taking courses or classes, going to events or conferences, or even purchasing books or subscriptions that support personal or developmental growth.
Similar to professional development, the cost of in-person events is directly correlated with the size of the organization. The more designers you have, compounded by how distributed the team is, means added cost when trying to bring everyone together for an in-person event.
Cost aside, we’ve found great success in the benefits of in-person events. Much like some key themes in some of the other sections of this piece, it’s important to be inclusive and prepared for an event that brings people together. It’s nice to put an actual face to a name (as opposed to a video), and we’ve found that occasional in-person events contribute to a strong design culture.
One method we’ve used to make these types of events more accessible is to break down their sizes to the team level, allowing our designers to pool their professional development funds to create a focused mini-event where they may choose to tackle a specific problem together, or take on a project outside of their day-to-day work streams in a concentrated, IRL way.
Burnout is real. I’ve seen it and felt it personally. It’s critical to rest and recharge. We make this a priority not only in our design organization, but as a fundamental value throughout Vox Media. I am thankful for our unlimited vacation policy, but as leaders, it’s important for us to encourage using it. This is part of what makes our culture strong. We understand the value of hard work, and we understand that hard work deserves more than just recognition, it requires rest.
Another core part of our culture is the support of scattered, distributed teams and a remote-friendly mindset. This means that designers can choose to live where it’s most comfortable, convenient, and cost-effective for them, and we make our work as accessible and inclusive for them as we do for designers who work in our offices.
A focus on a healthy work/life balance is not only a core part of our ethos, it’s a critical consideration for all employees everywhere and one that leads to a happier, healthier human. Happy people produce better results.
Together, with support from the entire design organization, the Design Leadership team at Vox Media crafted our shared Design Principles which we proudly feature here on our design blog so that we can all connect to them in times of strength as well at times of change.
There are underlying traits and interests that connect us as designers. We found that highlighting, documenting, and referencing these principles is a valuable way to continue to strengthen our design culture here at Vox Media.
A “seat at the table”
Having design as a pillar in the company—indeed as a foundational element—is instrumental to building a strong culture. Clearly, this varies per company and organization, but for us, first-hand understanding of company & business priorities from executive leadership with design consideration has helped create both a sense of trust and ownership within our team. Designers understand the impact the work they do has on the overall trajectory of the company, and how that work ladders up to larger goals and roadmaps. As a company grows, it becomes harder to get as granular with the details of individual projects or contributions in terms of their impact, however, clear lines of communication from organizational leadership to team-level leadership is key to consistent communication of such priorities. Of course, it’s also incredibly helpful if the team is brought into these priorities and initiatives holistically, and there is opportunity to align the aforementioned shared methodologies with some of the high-level goals and cultural bedrock of the company itself.
While this isn’t meant to be an be-all-end-all answer to either building a strong design culture or maintaining one during times of growth, hopefully there are some relatable anecdotes or highlights you can take away for consideration in your organization. And to be clear, the work is never finished for us, we take our culture very seriously, and this same set of tools and methodologies could read very differently in a year. In my time at Vox Media, I’ve seen the company scale massively, and we have always prioritized building a strong design ethos, and we’ll continue to iterate on it in the same way we do our products, and use our learnings for further improvement.
Are there any ways in which you’ve been challenged by growth with regards to your organization’s ethos? What are some tactics you’ve used to overcome those challenges? We’d love to hear from you about your experiences, you can tweet us at @voxmediadesign. Thanks for reading!
— Josh Laincz is a Senior Director of Revenue Design, and has been with Vox Media for nearly 8 years. You can follow him on twitter at @zohf.
Thank you to Laura Holder and Ryan Gantz for their thoughtful edits.