“You have to earn your design-driven culture,” Mig Reyes, Director of Product Design at Sprout Social, told the audience during a panel that immediately followed a screening of Design Disruptors at Chicago’s Logan Theater a few months ago.
Making sure everyone at your organization is educated in design is one of the best ways to do that, and that’s exactly what happens at Sprout Social: new employees go through an onboarding process that teaches them how to leverage design and when to ask for it.
“Teaching people about design is great, but take that a step further and make everyone at your company a designer,” Mig continued.
Design has been a huge part of the culture at Sprout from day one thanks to one of its four founders being a designer, so fighting for buy-in or a seat at the table just isn’t a thing that has to happen—nobody needs convincing.
With a solid design-driven culture and an art-filled headquarters in Chicago designed to be conducive to creativity and collaboration, Sprout might just top our list of the very best design jobs on the planet. We sat down with the team to hear more about their day-to-day, the best way to get buy-in, and how to run meetings that don’t suck.
How is the design team at Sprout Social set up?
Alexis Ginsberg, Product Designer: We follow the Spotify squad framework, which means I work on a cross-functional autonomous team called a squad. There are other squads working on similar projects to me, and these squads together are called a tribe. It sounds fancy, but the core of our success is still collaboration and lots of teamwork.
Squad structures are pretty typical; we have QA, front- and back-end engineers, a product manager, and a designer (me!). Not all of us work from the Chicago office, so carving out time for standups and being ready to hop onto a call for some impromptu remote whiteboarding is super important.
I also spend a lot of time catching up with the other designers in my tribe who are tackling similar challenges. We don’t ignore designers outside of our tribe, either. We regularly give in-person feedback on each other’s work, hopefully with beer in hand.
“Keep it simple and make it obvious. The best designs are simple and straightforward. They are empathetic to the user and don’t overcomplicate.
Nicki Sterns, Senior Product Designer at Sprout Social
What’s a typical day for a Sprout designer like?
Stanton Valentino, Product Designer: If I had to use one word to describe a “typical” day at Sprout, it would be balance.
My days are typically all → Plan, Communicate, Contribute, Align, Recalibrate, Plan…
My work processes are as agile as Sprout’s approach to software development. In addition to standard squad contributions, I’m responsible for coordinating Sprout’s accessibility efforts and our team of accessibility champions.
Priorities are constantly changing, whether that be from leadership, product management, or network changes from our partners. This means that every facet of my work needs to be weighed against all other facets, almost continuously.
“Design isn’t just what you do at work. It’s everywhere, whether it’s fashion, food, architecture or furniture. Go live it and study it.”
I use a combination of task management (Things 3) and digital bullet journaling using my iPad Pro and GoodNotes. Digital bullet journaling allows me to stay in the moment during meetings and conversations. At the end of each day, I port short notes, tasks, ideas, and questions into long-form notes.
Abstracted from the actual day-to-day activities, any given day at Sprout is all about identifying and following passions in a way that can benefit everybody.
Alexis Ginsberg, Product Designer: I love attending standup, where we as a team—sometimes from four different cities via video call—do calisthenics together for five minutes to a semi-silly Japanese video we found on YouTube. It sounds and looks ridiculous, but it bonds as us a remote team to laugh at each other trying to touch our toes, and actually energizes us through the post-lunch slump.
I love that your standups begin with something completely weird and fun. Most meetings really suck. Do you have any tips for running better ones?
Savy Lacombe, Product Designer: Keep meetings as short as possible. Start with 30 minutes. Then schedule another if needed.
Every meeting invitation should include an agenda so attendees can understand what the meeting is about and how they can prepare for it.
Add an emoji to the meeting title—it’ll make it more fun.
Nicki Sterns, Senior Product Designer: Ask yourself if there really needs to be a meeting for whatever it is you’re trying to do. Could you accomplish the same thing via email or a Slack convo? A meeting probably isn’t the best use of everyone’s time.
Rachel Sinon, Product Designer: I love the “step up and step back” principle. Everyone brings something to the table, and everyone benefits from encouragement that boosts their creative confidence. For us, this means making fewer declarations and asking more questions to inspire quiet folks to use their voice and vocal folks to practice active listening. So, if you have a tendency to talk a lot, “step back” and share the space. Give others in the room the opportunity to contribute. If you’re usually more reserved, “step up” to the conversation as best you can.
Ben Lister, Lead, Design Systems: If certain agenda items could benefit from input by certain people, touch base with them before the meeting to discuss.
If you’re the meeting organizer, start the conversation but listen more than you speak—let the attendees drive the conversation, and use your voice to keep things focused and on track.
Matt Born, Product Design Manager, Bambu: Prioritize discussion over download. When you enter the room with a presentation you can deliver in five minutes instead of 40 minutes, you give the entire room the opportunity to engage in rich discussion, debate, and determining valuable outcomes.
Share short videos 24 hours in advance of the meeting. Sometimes people need to sit with new information for a while in order to craft a meaningful response. Even if only a few people watch your video and you have to present it again, the meeting is more informed and valuable. Plus, you got a practice run!
Define the space. With any meeting—and especially brainstorming—it’s easy to attempt to boil the ocean as a group. Shrinking the universe to something more focused by stating norms up front, writing a few constraints on a whiteboard, and quickly capturing tangents to dig into later can help prevent derailments. Less exhaustion. More results.
Sprout Social was founded with design as a priority. What ideas can others “steal” from you to convince everyone that design is essential to success?
Rusty Cook, Senior Visual Designer, Brand: Design has always been core to Sprout because our Chief Creative Officer and Co-founder, Gil Lara, brought the designer perspective from the very beginning as one of the company’s four co-founders.
Gil brought curiosity and a desire to understand different perspectives, and a drive to work towards finding the best possible solutions. He knows the value of design and creativity because he feels it, and as the team grows, he empowers people with similar passions who continually challenge us to be even better.
Culture is created by the people who participate in it, who bring positive intention to their work and their relationships, and who create space for others to share their perspectives and grow together. Sprout maintains it by continuing to hire people who are good at what they do, but who also care about making the people and world around them better. Design has never just been functional problem solving to me. Design can tell stories, illuminate connections, convey meaning, guide experiences, inspire action, and reflect value. At Sprout we embrace all of that potential.
Related: What exactly is a design culture?
When you create space for people to share their passions and perspectives beyond their job requirements—either through intentional rituals like Design Friday or informally by encouraging each other to run with weird ideas or laughing at goofy one-liners in the #design-overheard Slack channel—you create space for unexpected connections to bubble up. And that ultimately fuels more interesting creative work, as well as a team culture that people want to invest in.
“Culture is created by the people who participate in it, who bring positive intention to their work and their relationships, and who create space for others to share their perspectives and grow together.”
Rusty Cook, Senior Visual Designer, Brand at Sprout Social
Jing Guo, Senior Product Designer, Mobile: The definition of design has evolved drastically in the past couple of decades. “Design thinking” and “design process” are relatively new concepts that are celebrated by many because elite tech companies attribute their success to them, but not everyone fully understands what they mean. Successfully adapting design as a part of a company culture requires a great amount of investment, but exposure and advocacy are essential.
You mentioned Design Friday. How’d that come about, what happens there, and what have the results been?
Ben Lister, Lead, Design Systems: Design Friday initially came from a desire to bring designers from different disciplines together to learn more about what their peers were working on and get concise, focused, and constructive feedback from a diverse group. Other teams took note and eventually the meeting became more casual and open to everyone in the organization to watch, share feedback, or ask questions to our design team.
The team has more than doubled in size since Design Friday’s inception, and because of that we’ve had to move it from weekly to monthly and evolve the meeting to focus at a team level rather than individual level and move discussion and critiques to other more focused venues. These changes have improved the scale and quality of work being shown, improved connectedness, and have led to better project planning.
While on the surface Design Friday has been an opportunity for designers to show their work, as the meeting has grown, one of the major byproducts has been making designers comfortable speaking about their work to a large audience with a variety of backgrounds. This has not only improved the general presentation skills of our designers but also amplified design’s voice and reputation in the organization.
I’d imagine one of the reasons Design Friday is so successful is because there’s a lot of trust. What can teams do to build trust with each other?
Rachel Sinon: Learn to be okay with sharing “vulnerable” work—early explorations, prototypes, notes, brainstorms. Being open and willing to expose your process humanizes you as a person and a designer. It shows that you’re doing your due diligence thinking about a problem and that you value your team’s perspective enough to share something that may not be fully fledged.
“Be the support system to others that you’d want for yourself.”
Alexis Ginsberg, Product Designer at Sprout Social
Alexis Ginsberg: Being as supportive and transparent as possible is key to building trust with others, in design and in everyday life. Surface what you’re doing and ask for feedback and collaboration. Proactively offer your time to others if you think they need help or just a sanity check, don’t wait for them to ask.
Be the support system to others that you’d want for yourself.
What do you think is the most powerful part of your design process?
Alexis Ginsberg: As designers, not all ideas have to be ours. Part of our job is filtering down the ideas we get from everyone and anyone in the org, applying our process to them, and developing them into something tangible that people can give feedback on and discuss.
These may or may not be good solutions for users, but they are part of our job as facilitators of the conversations about solutions and our users. It’s also important to share with our teams not only our solutions, but the process behind them and how they are solving actual problems for our users.
“InVision makes sharing and getting feedback so much easier when we’re unable meet or jump on a call. I’m able to collaborate with product marketing, engineering, data science, and sales by using Comment Mode.”
Erinn Dornaus, Product Designer at Sprout Social
I recently had a discussion with Travis McWilliam, one of the engineers on my squad, about what the definition of “ready” is for him and what kind of hand-off process he’d prefer. I told him I was challenged by writing the acceptance criteria and annotations “perfectly” since we’re trying to improve our design QA process.
He said, “A picture is worth a thousand words. Honestly, the best thing is just adding a link to the designs, or better yet a prototype. Developers can learn what needs to be done much better/quicker from a picture than from words.”
InVision allows me to do this for him quickly, but more importantly it helps us communicate. I’ll continue to detail things in words as needed—and InVision makes this easy and quick as well—but showing him a mock or prototype as soon as possible in InVision, even if it’s just an idea, allows him to think ahead and ideate more effectively with me.
Bill Foehring, Product Designer: Building a relationship with engineers. They’re your most powerful ally.
What’s your best advice for designers who are the only designer at the org, or even designers who can’t seem to get buy-in from executives?
Chase M: The best way to get buy-in is to give others no reason not to buy in. Do the due diligence of research, testing, and building before you go to bat for your ideas. Talk to people one-on-one and try to understand their hesitations to being on board with your idea. Once you know the problem, you can chase solutions.
Nicki Sterns: Find a way to involve the decision-makers in your design process. It can be small, just asking for their opinions or being transparent with your process throughout. The more someone is involved in the ideation or concept the more likely you’ll get buy-in. Making someone feel involved and like an idea is the key. People want to see their ideas come to life.
Rachel Sinon: Develop a process that works for you and identify the level of feedback you need from others in the org. Even if a coworker isn’t a classically trained designer, they can provide valuable insight for your designs. Socializing your designs with people in your org will bring awareness to your craft and help others see the value of design.
Matt Born, Product Design Manager, Bambu: Appreciate it. Know leading a team in the future will mean less designing for you.
And make the most of it. Introducing more lines of communication makes simple things harder. Remember for every person you add, you must invest more time learning how to communicate to that person and spend less time learning about your users. To net positive, you must deeply connect them with those already on your team, and empower them to help you learn even more about your users than you ever could on your own. This works for executives, too. Try inviting an executive into a live test with a real user.
Proving the value of design is something many designers struggle with at work, no matter the size of the design team. What’s the secret?
Melissa F, Visual Brand Designer: The key to proving the value of design is through explanation and visibility into the process of design. Showing others how and why you landed on a specific solution and making them feel involved, even if they aren’t in a creative role, is such an important part of providing and proving value.
Ben Lister: You’ve got to show how design’s efforts transcend throughout the organization. Three ideas for doing that:
- Better processes improve the efficiency of the engineering team
- Intuitive experiences can help customers understand value and improve the sales process
- Innovative, eye-catching marketing campaigns can drive new audiences to your products
Nicki Sterns, Senior Product Designer: Involve everyone in the design process to show them that everyone is a designer.
Want to work at Sprout? We don’t blame you. Great news: They’re hiring.
Photos by Stefan Klapko.
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