Instacart Design Talks: How to Inspire a Design Team Remotely
A lot has changed this year at Instacart.
As the Covid-19 pandemic forced us all to rethink how we buy groceries and essential goods, our business has undergone structural, operational, and cultural changes to adapt and continue to serve our customers.
Internally, we’ve navigated several shifts as well. Like many companies, our employees used to work together, face-to-face at our office. And like many companies, the pandemic has required us to learn how to operate 100% remotely. There were many processes and logistical patterns that we had to change to stay productive, but there were cultural impacts to this change, as well.
Our challenge: Creating a sense of unity in a virtual space
I would have known exactly what to do any other year when presented with this challenge: plan a badass event.
Prior to joining Instacart, I had many years of experience producing high-profile events, brand launches, and intimate conferences. Pulling off a successful and engaging event was always a sure way to encourage a sense of connection and inspiration. That’s exactly what we were looking for when our new leadership team arrived. But of course, being distributed remotely and sheltering in place made cohesion difficult.
The idea for Instacart Design Talks materialized rather quickly. We started with 3 executive leaders and asked them what story they wanted to tell through an interview. Once we knew the message we wanted to focus on for each Design Talk, I set out talking to my network to find the right interviewee for each.
Design Talk #1: Mokhtar Alkhanshali
Mokhtar Alkhanshali joined his Design Talk dressed in an austere black suit. True to his brand, he began by pouring water over his own luxury coffee beans in a Chemex to calm his nerves. In less than 48 hours, he would be flying to Yemen to meet with the farmers that produce Port of Mokha, arguably the best coffee in the world. Even with this on the horizon, Mokhtar’s eccentricity and warmth was contagious.
Mokhtar shared how he combined his knowledge of specialty coffee production and community organizing to revive the nearly lost art of Yemeni coffee cultivation. His journey as a social entrepreneur — including a harrowing escape from war-torn Yemen with his first coffee sample — is recounted in the New York Times bestseller, The Monk of Mokha by author Dave Eggers.
Elaine Fong, our Executive Creative Director, was perfectly suited to lead this discussion, as she previously worked as Director of Design and Innovation at Blue Bottle — the company that first introduced Mokhtar’s coffee to the world.
Design Talk #2: Masahiro Urushido
For Masa Urushido’s Design Talk, it was evident from the start that we were in for a wild ride. Joining the call from his iconic bar, Katana Kitten in New York City’s West Village, he greeted us wearing a playful combover wig and gold 70’s shades. His excitement and enthusiasm were palpable and made for a very entertaining discussion.
This talk took place less than 72 hours before the announcement of Best Bartender of the Year from Tales of the Cocktail — the Grammys for elite bartenders. Masa was in the top four finalists, and it’s not hard to see why. He spared no detail as he taught us how to make his signature Highball, all the way down to glassware specifications and the ideal ice temperature. His sense of playfulness and care towards these details radiated from him throughout his talk.
Aaron Bailey, Director Product Design for Instacart Ads, was an ideal match to lead this discussion. In his work, he also takes pride in his attention to detail and listening to Aaron and Masa wax poetic about how precision and creativity can intertwine to create something powerful was inspiring. Plus, Aaron is a self-described booze connoisseur, so he was as excited as the rest of us to geek out on Masa’s process.
Design Talk #3: Malik Seneferu
Malik Seneferu joined his Design Talk from his art studio, dressed in a signature black and white jacket of his own design. With humility and strength behind his voice, he talked about the experience of being a powerful voice for the Black community during a time of social unrest that has shaken the country.
A self-taught artist, Malik is prolific. His art spans from wood craftsmanship to massive murals, one of which, Baobab Rising, spans an astounding 58-by-62 feet at 350 Ellis Street in San Francisco.
The common thread among all of his art is the message behind it. He consistently highlights marginalized voices and promotes social justice through his work. Malik recently addressed concerns that face coverings required during the coronavirus pandemic would perpetuate criminal stereotypes, primarily in communities of color. Malik teamed with the Human Rights Commission to create colorful posters that read, “Masks can be beautiful.”
He’s also the creative force behind a new street mural on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The message, “Housing Black,” calls attention to the issue of inadequate Black housing and homelessness.
Malik’s personal depth, love of his craft, and commitment to social justice were magnetic. As a speaker, he drew us in immediately. Our VP of Design, Jason James, was inquisitive and listened with rapt attention to understand the Black experience and how we can raise voices in our personal and work lives.
Pulling off the impossible (and making it seem effortless)
The Design Talks we’ve featured so far have been nothing short of amazing. Each of them felt as unique, relevant, and inspiring as we wanted them to. A lot of work went into making them feel this way, though.
First off, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes production work that had to be put in. We ended up finding speakers who not only had important and inspiring stories to tell, but who were also a great fit for our leadership team to riff with during these talks.
There was also a lot of industry research that went into this. We didn’t want just to approach these speakers with a half-baked idea. We wanted to show that we knew why their work was so important, and make a case for why our employees would benefit from hearing their thoughts. This also made it easier to sell the speakers on lending their time to the event.
Next was pairing each speaker with a member of our leadership team, which required a lot of background research. We wanted to highlight each speaker’s strengths in a way that felt natural and allowed our employees to learn more about our leadership team, so we really took great care to learn about each leader’s background and personal interests.
From there, we got to work making sure the event would run smoothly. Having our interviewers and interviewees meet for the first time during these events had the potential to feel a little cold and stilted. I decided to schedule meet-and-greets ahead of time, so the leader conducting the talk could get to know the subject beforehand and get a feel for the kind of conversation they could have together. We also brainstormed ideas for questions to make sure we were hitting every point we wanted to.
Once we had this covered, it was time to move onto the more technical details. We planned each talk down to the minute in terms of the points we wanted to make, questions we wanted to ask, and activities we wanted to showcase. There’s nothing worse than dead air on Zoom, and I wanted to make sure to keep things high energy from start to finish.
Finally, as anyone who has to contend with technology in their day-to-day will tell you, if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Keeping this in mind, we did a dry run of each Design Talk ahead of the actual event to make sure everything would work as planned and our technology would run smoothly.
Promoting and launching a virtual event
Sorting out the logistics was only half the battle. We wanted Design Talks to have a brand of their own, so we put a lot of effort into making the promotion leading up to it feel like something different. We even commissioned a team member to make a jingle to open up each Design Talk: A quirky mashup of Eddie Murphy’s one-hit wonder, “Party All the Time” and the Golden Girls theme song. This fun little jingle did the trick: It never ceases to get everyone smiling and immediately relieves any jitters for our Design Talk participants.
Even with all the preparation and contingency planning we did in advance, going live with Instacart Design Talks was an incredible rush. Planning an engaging, intimate virtual talk series when teams had computer fatigue was a tremendous undertaking.
Of course, we still ended up hitting some bumps. We started with 30-minute slots and quickly learned that 45 minutes was needed. One speaker joined from their mobile device, and another had issues joining on the day of the event. Of course, we also had to leave space for off-topic cat videos and the like. Each speaker provided their own authenticity, quirkiness, and intimacy that we didn’t want to rush through.
The attendance numbers spoke for themselves: we had an incredible turnout for these events. Over half of the design team attended, whereas we would normally expect about a 30% attendance rate. It was clear that we had hit on something special with these talks.
Taking Design Talks into 2021
Proposing and then producing this initiative has taught me so much. Doing events like this is great for building team culture. 2020 was a challenging year that removed spontaneity from our day-to-day lives. Giving people an opportunity to change their routine and get inspired really injected a sense of togetherness into our design team.
We’ll be holding more Design Talks in 2021, and I can’t wait to see how these virtual events will come to life. We have a great team to inspire, and producing the series was a definite highlight of 2020.
Want to participate in fun talks like these? Our Design team is hiring! Check out our current openings.