Community powered by Design Ops

Michelle Morrison
Apr 30 · 9 min read

How the Design Ops team at Dropbox team takes a strategic approach to people-centered problems

By Michelle Morrison, Sarah Lin, and Andrew Lee

Among the most enriching aspects of working in Design at Dropbox is the emphasis on creative community.

As it turns out, one of the secrets to building healthy, people-centered programming is to leverage the power of Design Ops. From hosting gatherings and lectures to publishing educational and personal perspectives, we prioritize efforts to contribute to the creative community in meaningful ways that help people connect, learn, and grow together. We believe that building a smart workplace requires the development of creative spaces where people feel like they belong.

Leading community initiatives is often seen as “+1” or “extracurricular” work that is layered on top of full-time job responsibilities. As a result, this mindset can easily cause the community work to lose priority when the job stuff gets busy. In the business of community building, people-centered programs require operational support to thrive. Impactful programming can’t be built without a plan, which is where the power of Design Ops comes in. We’ve seen how the positive and lasting effects of strong communities can help our team become more connected, creative, and inclusive. So, as the Design Ops team at Dropbox, we’re committed to driving strategies for shaping and scaling cultural initiatives that make work more human — for our team and the creative community at large.

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Left: Liz and Chelsea at a Ladies Who Create mixer co-hosted by Square. Photo by Terence Bordon, Right: Cheechee and Priscilla at a reunion event hosted in Little r, Dropbox’s cafe space. Photo by Chris Behroozian.

Ladies first

Established by Anisha Jain in 2017, Ladies Who Create is a community for womxn and nonbinary creatives, built to foster deep relationships through connection and knowledge sharing. Anisha set her sights on building a program that would make everyone feel like they belong. With the help of two design program managers, Sarah Lin and Michelle Morrison, the community has since grown to become a global initiative that supports womxn in their careers at Dropbox and beyond. These efforts have been influential in reaching and maintaining equity within our design team, amplifying the voices of womxn, and providing support for career growth and professional-skills development.

While Ladies Who Create is a great way to connect with fellow designers, it’s also a rich resource for sharpening leadership skills. A group of multidisciplinary creatives at Dropbox joined forces to set up a leadership committee that is responsible for driving projects and initiatives aligned with our mission. Participating in this group allows community members to hone new skills and find opportunities for growth outside of their core responsibilities. Beyond helping to plan and execute events, the committee builds community in a few ways:

  • People-driven insights: Sends out surveys regularly to help us learn what the needs of community members are, and how programming can be tailored to meet those needs.
  • Goal setting: Sets annual OKRs for the group, and assigns owners who drive our plans forward. This is also a great way for committee members to work on stretch projects or develop specific skills in a leadership capacity.
  • Operational practices: Meets each month to review upcoming events, budgets, and partnership opportunities. We also evaluate our performance with KPIs and report on progress to our design team.

The program

As part of our strategy, we develop a curriculum that helps our designers navigate their careers. This programming focuses on performance reviews, writing with confidence, personal growth plans, and long-term goals. We also host social gatherings like dinner parties, creative happy hours, and flower-arranging classes. While these social events may at first seem less impactful, they are actually an easy entry point for team members and new hires to connect (think: growth strategy!). Offering a full menu of activities allows everyone to engage in a way that makes sense to them.

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Left: Sharing creative practices at a community mixer hosted at Minimo, a womxn-owned and -operated wine shop in Oakland. Photo by Sarah Lin. Right: For a special design ops edition of Ladies Who Create, program managers gathered to share career stories over dinner at Cala, a womxn-owned restaurant in San Francisco. Photo by Michelle Morrison.

Radical results

Through this community-oriented work, we have built a network and support system for womxn in design, and it has paid off. We’ve seen womxn get promoted to manager and principal-level roles, lead some of our more important product initiatives, and share their stories more openly than ever before.

Dropbox has maintained a design team that has more than 50% representation by womxn, including diversity at leadership levels. We’ve also gained momentum in attracting underrepresented minorities. Setting explicit goals to maintain equity both in hires and promotions, funding our community programming, and focusing on efforts that foster inclusion has helped us take our ambitious, complex goals and make them our reality.

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Left: Ladies Who Create leadership committee celebrated a year of hard work at a holiday gathering. Right: Results from a flower-arranging workshop.

Diversifying Design

Getting started

3D is a working group dedicated to the planning, execution, and enrichment of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within Dropbox Design. Galvanized by a diversity offsite aimed at leads, UX writer Roxanna Aliaga and design researcher Teresa Hernandez started talking about ways to personally impact diversity on the design team. In a parallel effort, product designer Wes O’Haire was exploring personal outreach — his tweet offering a week of mentorship lunch discussions with Black designers got a huge response. Roxy, Tere, and Wes joined forces to launch 3D — Diverse Dropbox Design. As with anything that’s three-dimensional, this name signifies depth, well-roundedness, and a sense of being true to life.

The program

Design program manager Andrew Lee was inspired to get involved with 3D because its goal aligned with other efforts he was leading, including programs for high school and university students. With his help, this initiative has grown to involve a broader range of participants, invest in youth mentorship, and host diversity breakfasts.

Andrew plays an important role in keeping the 3D leadership committee on point. Beyond helping to plan diversity events and workshops, the 3D leadership committee focuses on:

  • Staying synchronized: Biweekly meetings with leads and community members — including cross-functional partners in People Ops, Recruiting, and Design — who are excited to contribute to this work. Andrew helps lead these sessions and makes sure the right people have a seat at the table.
  • Goal setting: As a team, 3D sets quarterly goals that allow us to grow our diversity-focused community, foster inclusive culture, and build a more diverse team. Like Ladies Who Create, we also assign owners for each initiative to ensure that the work gets done and we can have the intended impact.
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Images in order from left to right: A book launch event we hosted in partnership with Danny Miller; A dinner party hosted for fellow community organizers; A panel we hosted to discuss building diverse community within the design industry. Images by Gabrielle Matte.

Our playbook

3D supports all types of diversity, but its current focus is to empower our community so that more Black and Latinx people see themselves as designers. The program is built upon four strategies for engaging with creatives: communications, presence, events, and outreach. Goals are achieved at Dropbox by fostering inclusivity, sharing tips, hosting lunches, and providing support during onboarding, and through outreach efforts such as events, partnerships, recruiting, and publishing.

An effective tactic has been to host small, casual breakfasts in Tuck Shop and invite designers from the community to join us. These sessions usually involve pancakes, coffee, and a table of people nerding out on design stuff. This helps us create a safe space where designers of color can speak openly about their experiences. The overall effect is mutually reinforcing: Dropbox strengthens its internal culture of diversity by promoting diversity within the larger design community as well. Designers of color are also able to broaden their networks and engage in programming that can provide career opportunities.

Another way we promote inclusive thinking within Dropbox is through a tip of the month. At every Design All-Hands, we share one thing each of us can do during the month to boost diversity efforts. For example, instead of linking to your portfolio on social media accounts, share your spotlight by highlighting another site or organization that focuses on diversity. This will help people in your network discover ways they can get involved. It’s simple, low-effort, and impactful.

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Left: At a recent event, Danny Miller signed books that he published with the help of Dropbox Design. This was a unique way to support a fellow creative while also encouraging conversation about his experiences as a Black designer in America. Photo by Dwight Burks. Right: Aura and Andrew first met through university programs and reunited at a recent Black History Month event. Photo by Michelle Morrison.

Impact report

Through our community-outreach efforts, we have created a network that provides a safe and casual environment for designers of color to discuss diversity in tech. As a result, we’ve seen designers navigate their careers with more confidence. Plus, we have more-diverse candidates in our pipeline and have even hired a few candidates who attended our events. Win-win!

Powered by programming

As we build a more inclusive culture, it’s important that we invest in community to ensure that every individual feels like they belong and have the right support system to do their best work. Ladies Who Create and 3D are just two examples of how program management can help foster a sense of belonging for communities and teams while driving impactful results.

As design program managers, we’ve built and scaled these initiatives and learned a lot along the way. Simple actions have big impacts. Investing in community gives you a strategic advantage. And applying an operational lens to this work will ensure that it pays off in the long run. Jaqui Frey, our friend and Design Ops pro, said it best: “Scale requires something greater than determination in order to navigate an organization through change. It requires the power of the community.”

We hope that our stories inspire teams across the industry to invest in program management as a way to build a sense of belonging for your people. If you’re able to inspire a sense of belonging, you might also be able to unleash creative potential, deliver smarter solutions, and build a more inclusive workplace.

A note on COVID-19

In a time of crisis, community matters more than ever. As our industry adapts to new norms, we’re thinking about ways to bring meaningful programming to our community members wherever they are. If you have any ideas or tips, please share them with us on Twitter @dropboxdesign or via email at design-community@dropbox.com.

About our contributors

Michelle Morrison is a Design Program Manager who thinks through organizational systems, process, and approach to build happy teams that ship great work. She loves a good spreadsheet.

Andrew Lee is a Design Program Manager focused on Growth and Diversity programs. He believes that process gives freedom to designers while making sure the needs of the business are met.

Sarah Lin is a Product Design Program Manager. She gets overly excited about process design, cross-functional collaboration, design tools, and crafting the perfect team offsite.

Gabrielle Matte creates collections of images. These assortments reveal a respect for diversity, thoughtful processes and good relationships. She is part of Dropbox Brand Team.

Samuel Pasquier is a New-York based photographer born in Montreal in 1988. Publications include GQ, Vice, Fast Company, Barneys NYC, Business of fashion, Hypebeast, and many more.

Olivier Charland is a multi-disciplinary designer from Montréal. His work span across different mediums while maintaining a playful and sensitive aesthetic throughout his practice.

Dropbox Design

We believe joy is the engine that powers the best ideas.

Michelle Morrison

Written by

All cream, no sugar. Building with Dropbox Design.

Dropbox Design

We believe joy is the engine that powers the best ideas. We’re designing a more enlightened of working, so you can love the way you work. More on dropbox.design.

Michelle Morrison

Written by

All cream, no sugar. Building with Dropbox Design.

Dropbox Design

We believe joy is the engine that powers the best ideas. We’re designing a more enlightened of working, so you can love the way you work. More on dropbox.design.

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