Designing with Developh: Lessons from the past years
From a club of 40 to an international nonprofit, here’s what we learned from our journey of growth and impact
First off: Take my words lightly. I’m a sophomore undergraduate with much to learn about design, management, and the industry. At the same time, working in different student environments from long, daily hours to global remote projects in scrappy spaces have brought our team to be dangerously good at winging things and making them work.
As students, learning how to build organizations at scale has been a tricky thing. 1.) We built ourselves at a high school level (and had a lot less ‘culture’ or foundational interest in our work–especially since the most popular organizations were only faith-based ones in our Catholic school), 2.) we weren’t binded to any institution (which makes funding, recruitment, etc. more challenging at our hatred of bureaucracy), and 3.) we were built from scratch: no one has ever delved into the industry as it was new when we were first venturing into tech. There weren’t organizations or systems to emulate, and we were watching an entire ecosystem evolve in front of our eyes.
After three years of operation, we’re continuing to learn–and haven’t done too badly. Developh is a mission-based organization working in a rapidly developing tech ecosystem: we have much to share with you.
Transparency on levels and programming is key
Not a lot of student organizations have clarity about progression, memberwise and in terms of the organization as a whole. When motivation is already a huge issue in recruitment pipelines, designing clear membership systems is key. On the member development side of things, being upfront about expectations of members and opening oneself up to conversations about ‘levels’ lets members know that they’re not just there to hit minimum requirements, but evolve as they wish. This allows people who truly want to give to give.
Another key thing about transparency in direction is outlining programming. If things fail, rapidly pivot, or need to be started over––share it all, and overcommunicate in your choice mediums.
In Developh’s beginning, we were rapidly shifting: from game development, getting a bit more serious about project development and competitions, to working on programming to serve the most underserved around tech education. Along the way, we were very intentional about how these shifting intentions would reflect on the way we interfaced with members who joined at different stages of the group, and made sure that we addressed how they would fit into our next stages. This let us keep a lot of loyalty, and as such as a lot of members evolved with us: after all, these shifts were also a reflection of what we saw most people in the club were looking towards.
Today, we still operate with a lot of spontaneity in our programming. It’s not uncommon for us to shift gears into a project we pour our hearts into and shift into a few weeks while tackling on the processes and systems of a larger project. What we have now though are roadmaps about goals we want to hit in the next year: these might look like program ideas, but are now more frequently metrics we target or general objectives (this might be as broad as: connect more students to technology careers while in high school and college). Even with this level of spontaneity, our design teams can look closer at individual projects and see if they align with the direction we previously agreed on and set. They can then gauge the amount of resource and pace to put into programming, come up with suggestions for alignment, and propose new branches of direction if necessary.
Other groups have the benefit of set systems and expectations borrowed on from several cycles of administration, but this was something we had to experiment with. Overall, having clear pathways for members to grow has helped us when interfacing with our most driven and talented members.
Without the greater, overarching goals — our project style would be incredibly disorienting. Without insight on progression, most members may not be incentivized to take initiative, especially the best ones.
Embrace asynchronous communication
There’s this fantastic article on the Doist blog that sums it up. Like full-time workers, our students also share this common observation: when we’re away from the grind of school and work alone, we get so much more done in academics and extracurriculars.
Here are some practices we’ve taken on:
- Establishing meetings that are focused on doing hands-on work along with reporting, allowing us to collaborative more effectively and come in with the expectation of producing
- Hosting opt-in check-in calls and “open hours” that allow any of our core members to drop in to do work with us live
- Trust in members to perform by their own schedules that empower them to best judge how to succeed in their environments
We move away from Messenger-focused live calls, spur-of-the-moment responses, and rapid fire conversations to let our team be productive in the way they choose. Real life decisions don’t just happen in a snap. Our spontaneity is embedded with planned execution, control, and a buildup of our personal skills and work.
This allows us to move more intentionally, establish more transparency, and engage our members who knowingly live in drastically different circumstances from one another.
Keep your teams small and mentor them with all you’ve got
It’s not uncommon for organizations, even smaller and newer ones, to have entire design teams. (In Philippine organizations, they’re commonly just referred to as “media.”) There’s a lot of excitement in the Powerpoint-styling, graphical-imbued Behance type of design––and we have an overwhelming amount of peers with interest in these fields. What’s missing when we look for talent then are designers with a defined idea for some practice or advocacy–a focus to better themselves. (e.g. Is there a clear vertical they want to work in? Or do we have a designer who knows why they’re here, and has specifics on what they improve on?)
In 2019, we decided to keep our teams much smaller than before. Large design teams are a mess: there’s no good in haphazardly assigning work to people, dropping designs in chatrooms for surface level feedback when everyone has different priorities with comments from the only active members surfacing and being heard. Your work will be inconsistent (you’re likely students, have incoherent systems, and have little to no knowledge of best practices for something as complex as these systems), and your work will be unreliably visually bent on the top designer available at the moment––which is going to be a challenge in large, rotating teams.
What we look for instead are people who aren’t necessarily the best designers, or the most experienced ones. We look for designers with direction and the knowledge of why working at Developh is a step in that direction. We look at their sense for our mission, and whether who we are as an organization will benefit them and their vision in this time. We’re not here to get some student to design us a poster every few weeks if they have no alignment with any other stretch of our work.
For our design team, it’s also important for us to stay flexible with our roles and titles. Titles mean almost nothing, essentially.
Instead, everyone knows every day is a learning opportunity and that they’re welcome to stretch out of their comfort zone as to their capacity. We share our files, materials, and resources in a directory for our designers, talk through posters and inspiration, offer to buy tickets for relevant design conferences, and now–also work on unleashing programming related to design. Bending these barriers, investing with designers with sense beyond pure visuals, and allowing for more opportunities for self-investment is also an investment in your institution.
When we see Developh’s designers grow who are in turn, building up means, sharing collective knowledge, and bettering themselves day-to-day in the context of our organization gives us a foundation for the long-term.
Craft the best onboarding experience possible
It can’t be overstated enough how crucial these first impressions are when bringing in new members to our team, especially with how hectic our work can be. Because we don’t follow any set recruiting cycles and mainly manage by our needs, we need to get by dropping things to keep talent we love.
Maintaining documentation for all cases, explaining and navigating through politics clearly, and being clear about setting initial expectations is something we do even before conversations with our incoming designers.
When the conversation happens, the expectation isn’t to know every single process: it’s our responsibility to make ourselves open as some form of slate. We introduce projects and programming aligned with our students’ best incoming interest, help them digest any information and work to fill in gaps in knowledge on our end that even they may expose. Success here is not just in filling in information, but in developing new ideas and interests; the introduction of new perspectives from these types of conversations are some of the most valuable things we learn.
Beyond, our objective is to get a sense of work and trust. We work in teams with a sense of ambiguity and independence alongside all available resources. We’re unafraid to reorient our projects based on our designer’s strengths and what they can give in, and ensure that we create an environment where we can develop not only skills — but a positive sense of collaboration and culture.
Where other organizations go through generalized processes, introducing people personally and discovering their strengths leads us to find that they start contributing more effectively and eagerly from the start. We don’t want to exhaust members; we want to ease in to an environment where they can perform to the best of their capacity — especially since this varies from person to person.
Abandon visuals in the face of activism
Visuals are the primary attractor to the field: everyone wants to do media because it’s beautiful. It’s also ridiculously easy to guarantee pretty visuals for attention from high school or college age audiences, but outside: this surface level of beauty is something we’ve learned to abandon.
We’ll talk about this in the context of technology accounts. There are many realms of Tech Instagram: the work-from-home coders who enjoy sharing their ergonomic setups in strikingly similar poses day-to-day, weird learn-how-to-code accounts sharing motivational quotes on their story and what seems to be ever-persistent course discounts, the dead account but for an investment announcement every now and then, so on… As a technology nonprofit, we could have very well just reposted a bunch of quotes, more generic technology education materials, and the like. Performative beauty will bite you in the end.
When we saw our audience move from the dazzled demographic of wannabe coders or questioning tech enthusiasts, we saw our more surface level content suffer. They offered no value add and were clutter. Enumerating the same 3 women in technology in the country was not saving anyone.
When we share content, we now share materials that we now know will empower readers on a deeper level. No more reposting images or low-effort gradient maps without explanation. Abandon visuals in the sense that it cannot be your only savior: it can even make you look like a generic dumpster fire. The world doesn’t need more quotes; it needs concrete action. It would be infinitely insensitive to do the same type of Instagram suckup marketing that American companies frequently do for virtually any type of product found on the Explore page when we operate in an ecosystem ravaged by corruption. Kill the girlboss copy: if you claim to equalize ecosystems, you must truly reflect it in who you build for, every single day.
The pros and cons of being driven by passion
Within a student organization, motives are drastically different. Primary reasons for joining are from word of mouth from friends already in the group, the prospect of putting something on a resume, etc. aren’t innately bad or any lesser, but they’re ground level motives that we have from everyone.
The next common motive is passion. These are uncompensated, already overworked students who are stretched out in their personal lives. That passion and curiosity is a consistent pattern in the students that have reached out to us.
When we were starting out with Developh, I had difficulty justifying why we were going out of our way to build and run this organization. We weren’t sustainable, not getting any coverage, and were slow on receiving any form of result, especially because we were constantly backtracking and questioning the thesis and programming that we were running on. The tipping point was my senior year of high school, a year and change into running Developh and I was asked, “What sets you apart?” When I answered with the word, I was met back with “Isn’t everybody?” –– and at that moment, I couldn’t come up with anything else.
The issue with passion is that it burns out. There is only so much interest in the world of technology before our peers realize that there is so much work in dismantling things; or how we have to caution with tone in remote meetings when someone new suggests a documented program that we’ve tried and failed at several times that we’re still trying to process and learn from fully; and there is the frustration of seeing the people around you not be able to put as much heart in as you, into something that you believe so whole-heartedly in.
Passion is a good attractor. We still use big words when introducing our organization, and we speak of our mission with heavy volition and whatever wisdom we bear behind it. We become upfront about the difficulties that we face everyday: the opportunities we miss out on from being remote, our growth targets that work and end up not, and also the fact that sometimes –– the best way for us to support the work we are passionate about comes from giving space and distance.
Working with the brightest students leads us to juggle how we can craft the best experience for our members, some with upcoming graduations and intensive college entrance exams. This leads us to craft organizational policies that are guided by openness. Honesty and transparency are most valued at Developh, unlike many student spaces where you must not only provide but also perform at. We’re here for our students, no questions asked. If we feel that we can’t provide enough for them, that’s when we question our relationship. Structurally, our members are always welcome to let us know about conflicts or challenges, and can come in later. Developh is only one part of many, and it’s our job to care for them.
The fight is sustained and meditated; as long as this collaboration is in place, we know that our passion is strongest when in a collective –– not incendiary for a moment, but upheld by joint efforts.
I realized that when I was asked what sets me apart, I shouldn’t have answered passion as the end-all. Passion is a single cause that drives me, and the rest of our organization mates into the rest of the perspectives and identities that we bring out into the world. From passion comes the building of a greater culture. It’s what lets us turn this love of process into outcomes as well.
Developh invests in youth-led innovation for social impact across the developing world. Visit us at developh.org