Designing Cultures that Build Great Products

Because design alone is not enough.

Design has become a necessity for any forward thinking company. For startups that hope to survive today’s extremely competitive landscape, design is essential. Apple, largely responsible for placing design in the spotlight, has set the bar so high that consumers have little patience for products that don’t subscribe to good user experience — good design. But good design within a company isn’t simply a result of hiring good designers.

There must be an investment in designing the right culture that will build the best products.

Culture is to employees what branding is to consumers. Every startup has a culture. The type and quality of it varies depending on the extent to which it is designed — that is, the extent to which the founders of a company deliberately choose a set of fundamental values upon which the company will be built, and further, the extent to which they ensure that these values manifest. The right kind of cultures ultimately reach consumers as well.

Many startups have what seems to be vanity culture: i.e., gourmet food, amazing communal areas, pool tables, roof tops, patios and the list goes on. There’s nothing wrong with this. After all, this component of culture has a specific purpose — attracting and retaining talent. However, great startups have something more that focuses on building and delivering product — I call it “design culture.”

“Design culture” is a proactive investment into designing a system that aligns and facilitates all teams of a startup to build exceptional products. It is distinct from vanity culture.

No culture should be dictated by only a single team, whether it be design, marketing or engineering. Startups that understand this have cultures that do not treat design as merely visuals. They do not place utmost importance on engineering nor do they allow marketers to always have the last say in the name of growth. Instead, they approach their culture as a collaborative process between visual and technical thinkers to solve users’ problems. They foster a culture of design thinking.

Apple is an example of one of these companies; their focus on design stretches beyond the design team alone. Allison Johnson, Apple VP of Worldwide Marketing Communication, said in an interview with Scott Belsky, “The marketing team was right next to the product development and engineering teams. So we understood deeply what was important about the product, what the team’s motivations were in the product, what they hoped that product would achieve, what role they wanted it to have in people’s lives.”

Facebook also promotes design and collaboration in their culture with Facebook Analog Research Laboratory, a print shop. “Everyone in the company is invited to the screen printing demos, not just designers. Engineers, sales, PMs, etc.,” says Gabriel Valdivia, a recent design hire. Employees attend workshops and demos that expose them to print design. The experience not only fosters appreciation for design and attention to detail, but also facilitates collaboration in a fun setting.

What goes down at Facebook Analog Research Laboratory is a direct development of design culture.

Medium, too, serves as an example for designing systems that are functional to building product. They are one of the most faithful adopters of Holocracy — a real-world-tested social technology that radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed. Jason Stirman, Head of People Operations, couldn’t be more thrilled with the results: “the freedom, the momentum, the productivity are all unparalleled,” he says.

Zappos is perhaps one of the most clear examples of a company that has deliberately created a culture of design which aligns with their business. Zappos is not in the business of selling shoes — instead, delivering customer happiness. Tony Hsieh designed a culture that enabled employees to be themselves and to ensure everyone fits: “Everyone that’s hired, it doesn’t matter what position—you can be an accountant, lawyer, software developer—goes through the exact same training as our call center rep,” he stated, in an interview with Fast Company. As a result, employees are happy, which has a direct correlation to customer happiness.

Ideally, “design culture” should emerge when the startup is early stage and championed by its founders — not later on. Moving forward, as the company grows, new employees adopt and reinforce the existing culture. At this point startups should be the most vigilant about maintaining and shaping their culture. With a strong set of fundamentals in place, everyone is unified and working towards building a great product.

All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take. — Mahatma Ghandi

In sum, culture should not stop at free food, startup track jackets and company outings. Startups ought to design cultures that align with their values, mission and product. When “design culture” is in place, it’s easier to identify the right needs for specific teams. It will not only make employees happier, like culture alone, but it may also make all the difference for product-building.