How to create a culture of open design

Illustration by Harry Woodgate for this article.

The solution is making design a more transparent process. The problem, well...

The problem is many organizations have product designers who unnecessarily repeat work. It's that designers aren't leveraging existing work—or sharing the work they're doing so others can leverage it—out of fear it will no longer be "their” work, or that it will be unfairly criticized, or that their career will be evaluated based on incomplete work.

The problem is inexperienced designers often want to feel as though their output is the result of their own genius, with no external direction having influenced them whatsoever. The problem is leaders in many organizations believe design is a fragile process that must be sheltered in order to strengthen and thrive.

Except design is never the result of any one individual's work. The most impactful design work is always influenced by external factors and driven by many diverse perspectives.

Except design is something that is always strengthened against the harsh weather that is constructive feedback, not weakened by it.

We know these things and yet these problems persist. Business executives and design leaders continue to believe the way to unlock remarkable work is to shield designers from the chaotic storm that is the rest of the business, or each other.

As a result, many design teams sit physically separate from their engineering, research, marketing, writing, or product management counterparts. The design work is sheltered from anything that might tear away or otherwise transform it—for better or worse. The design team critiques work only amongst their immediate peers, only exposing the final product to the larger design team and non-design peers once it's deemed "complete.”

When design is a closed process it doesn't have a chance to grow or strengthen. Worse: when design is done behind closed doors it creates an outward perception of the process being little more than magic. This perception in turn creates unrealistic expectations and perceptions of the hard work designers actually do.

When design is proactively shared it grows stronger, and the designers behind the work do too.

Having a more transparent and collaborative design culture enables the design team to grow faster together. When design work and processes are transparent—both internally on the design team but also externally to non-designers within the company—more people can provide valuable perspective and everyone can benefit from the shared learnings or approaches.

The work gets better because ideas and results get shared, which means everyone gets better by being exposed to different ideas and shared learnings. The enemy of all bad ideas is someone to talk to.

Things that might get overlooked by a single designer can be caught before the designs reach a point of no return (or before unforgiving customers encounter it). Executives can better understand how design works and what the team actually needs to do their job well. And product teams can leverage the collective intelligence of other teams when it comes to tackling design challenges of all different types.

Additionally, research has repeatedly shown that when teams are built on diverse ideas and perspectives, they're more likely to innovate.

Building a culture of design transparency is easier said than done, but certainly not as difficult as one might think.

1. Start with small examples

If you set out to create a more open culture by first communicating about just how great things will be for the organization in the future: you're going to fail.

Setting out on this mission by telling the design team that "there will be more collaboration, more consolidation across work, and more transparency” will only scare people. Most people in a company don't want more collaboration responsibilities on top of what they're already responsible for. They don't want more oversight, more opinions, and more meetings. They don't want more restrictions or the possibility that someone may come in and tell them how to do their job.

People do want to feel empowered. They want to know they have tools and resources necessary to ensure they can do their jobs effectively. They want to know that what they're working on will have an impact. It's these points that you should focus on as you set out to create a more open culture of design.

Start by seeking small steps that can quickly demonstrate the value of a more open culture:

  • Create a place where designers can go to easily share and see work at any stage, from any team.
  • Encourage cross-team critiques so designers can not only see what others are working on (and get valuable, unique perspectives on the work) but also how each designer works
  • Setup a laidback, cross-functional stand-up once a month for spotlighting design work at all stages: sketches, whiteboards, doodles, or well-polished prototypes
  • Conduct recurring brownbag or educational sessions where designers can present their work and talk about their process rather than simply being told to share their outputs

2. Show, don't tell

Instructing people to share more work, more of the time, isn't nearly as effective as simply demonstrating that behavior yourself (and encouraging leadership throughout the organization to do the same).

A culture is defined as what a group repeatedly does. So if you want to build a culture of transparency and communication, you have to be transparent and communicative yourself.

According to researchers: the more communication a team has, the more likely they are to perform better than others. Rather than asking others to be communicative, lead by example yourself (and get leadership to do the same).

  • Find easy ways to start sharing your own work more openly, impromptu, in channels the team already uses to communicate regularly (Slack, Confluence, etc.), and invite others to do the same
  • Use occasional critiques, team meetings, stand-ups, and all-hands as an opportunity talk about not only the work but also processes, mistakes, and other nuanced topics
  • Communicate out daily what you—and leadership—are focused on, what you're learning, and where roadblocks or opportunities are. You should also communicate out when you see good work from anywhere in the company, a little praise draws attention not only to the work but to the team doing it
  • Share inspiration and outside insights from the industry whenever possible, to encourage more communication about not only polished design work but also the influences that create it

There's really no better way to build a strong culture for a team than by exemplifying what you want it to be. It's even better if you can get leadership and others in the organization to participate with you (more on that in the next point), but the bare minimum is you should be exemplifying what you want to see others do.

If what you start doing begins resonating with others in the organization, then you can start inviting them to follow your actions.

3. Find allies and partners wherever you can

You aren't going to immediately convince everyone that your mission of creating a transparent and more open culture is right.

Some people will be skeptical of opening up design, some will just not agree with the strategy to achieving it, and others may not care one way or the other.

But some people across your organization may be very interested in building a more communicative design team. They'll be the ones who already recognize the power of transparency and increasing design's presence. Those are the people you'll want to find and see how they can contribute, as they'll be vital to the success of your efforts; by being a voice or advocate of the effort or by proactively demonstrating what it means to have a strong, transparent design presence in the organization.

As I mentioned above: a culture is what the group repeatedly does. If it's just you sharing work or showing up in a cross-functional critique, that's a start, but it's not nearly as effective as you and others sharing work and conducting open dialog. The more people you can get to be allies or advocates, the better.

  • Seek out advocates individually by setting up one-on-one conversations to talk about the strategy and get their input. If they show interest, ask them if it's ok for you to count on them for support and public advocacy
  • Create an unofficial committee to meet regularly and discuss transparency initiatives: what ideas do people have, what behaviors do they see working well, what do they see as obstacles. Invite anyone to attend and participate in the committee
  • Meet with organizational leaders often to get their input and perspective on design transparency, provide them updates from the committee if applicable
  • Look outside the organization for transparency advocates—from other teams or other companies—and invite them to speak to your organization about the things they've learned and the value of open culture
  • Share your strategy or mission in an open forum (on a Slack channel, in Confluence, or any other channels your organization uses) and openly ask for people who are interested in participating to step forward

4. Be patient with the process

If this sounds like a slow process and a lot of work, that's because it is. The best things take time and effort—otherwise everyone, everywhere, would already have them.

Culture's aren't something you can just flip a switch on. Really productive and healthy design cultures are the result of trial and error, experimentation, over a long period of time. You have to be willing to try a few of these things before calling your efforts a success or flop.

Try things mentioned here and other things you discover along the way. After some time, throw away what clearly isn't working, modify what might work, and keep what others are picking up on. But most important is to be patient and communicate out to others that shifting a culture is something that simply takes time.