Blog

Designing for Culture and Community

The Designer Experience team at Automattic is uniquely tasked with designing programs and experiences for designers. Learn about our culture and community-building programs.

The Designer Experience (DesignEx) team at Automattic is focused on our people and creating an exceptional experience for them. We began as a more traditional design operations team, but we realised that our most valuable, most impactful contribution is to make the professional lives of our designers as rich as possible. Given this focus, our work is focused on three main areas: hiring designers, onboarding new designers, and fostering the growth and development of our design team. 

A big part of our growth and development efforts has been around strengthening our sense of community within Automattic, and in the wider external design community. We’ve also been working to nurture our design culture, ensuring high-quality work in a supportive environment. Finally, we have been intentional about injecting some fun into our work lives, and connecting on interests outside of our jobs. (We have a global team of 70 awesome individuals doing cool things!)

Read on to learn more about the DesignEx programs that are building culture and community at Automattic.

The Automattic Design Team in Scottsdale, Arizona, 2019.
Photography by Chris Runnells and Jeff Golenski

Expectations

At the foundation of our design culture are our Designer Expectations, guidelines for day-to-day work as a designer at Automattic. The focus is on what we do, and how we do it, emphasizing our values about communication, collaboration, integrity, and accountability. We have a set for our Design Directors too. 

We’ve found that this simple foundation builds trust amongst team members and provides just enough structure to how we accomplish our work, without limiting autonomy or creativity. Autonomy is very important at Automattic. Both individuals and teams have a lot of autonomy to figure out how to best do their work and accomplish their goals.

Mentoring

A tried and true way to forge connections between designers who can help one another improve at their jobs. Mentees can pick up new skills, or improve their career in general. Mentors have a chance to practice myriad skills, including communication, leadership, and knowledge sharing. In our distributed work environment, mentoring offers a chance to connect with others across the design organization in ways that typical product/project work might not offer. We take some time doing thoughtful pairing of mentors with mentees, aligning skills, interests, and experiences, with consideration for time zones. 

Artwork by Jill Quek

Tapping into all of the experience and skill that our organization has is a powerful way to grow individually and collectively. Designers who have participated have shown skill improvements, and greater engagement in their craft. More importantly, designers have forged special connections with one another on a human level.

Design Meetup

In 2019 we held an all-designers meetup in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was a week for designers from all over the world, and from every team across the company to come together for some work and for some fun – in real time. We talked shop, worked on projects together, heard from our leaders, had an AMA with our CEO, socialised, and enjoyed our spectacular surroundings.

Photography by Chris Runnells and Jeff Golenski.

Our designers had a great time! There was a palpable sense of camaraderie, excitement about the future, and a reinforcement of mutual respect across the team.

As a fully distributed company, we know how important it is to have time together to bond, for teams to build cohesion, and for us to connect as human beings. This has become even more evident since the pandemic put our meetups and travel on hold. We can’t wait to have another Design Meetup when it’s safe for everyone to do so.

Design Speaker Series

With the lack of in-person meetup and conference time in 2020, this year we kicked off a new experiment to drive creative inspiration and give designers the chance to connect with brilliant designers, artists, authors, thinkers, and leaders. On a monthly basis we host a different guest speaker for about an hour, including some Q/A time. It’s a nice break from daily tasks to expand one’s mind and take lessons from others’ experiences.

We’ve been lucky enough to host some design greats including, Aaron Draplin, Dan Cederholm, Debbie Millman, and Anna Lee Anda. Next month we host Mauricio Estrella, and Noah Levin.

Designers have especially enjoyed the Q/A time, which allows for real dialogue and connection with our guests, and one another. 

automattic.design Redux

Last year we took on a redesign of this very site. It needed to better reflect our company and design team, and better showcase the great designers who work here, both in terms of content and design. Having a place for our own thoughts and voices to be shared is vital to our work to democratize publishing. As a design organization we also felt it was an important opportunity to contribute to advancing the larger design practice. It’s a great way for designers to express themselves and show what we can accomplish using our own products.

Check out these great recent posts from our designers:

Our design blog offers a chance for designers to practice their communication skills, and be creative in a way that doesn’t always happen in their daily work. It’s a chance to develop perspective, and a voice, which adds to the richness of our design community and practice.

Amplification

Somewhat related to our push to reinvigorate this blog, we’re getting more active with our Twitter account, @automatticdsgn, sharing what we’re publishing on the blog, re-tweeting cool stuff our designers are up to, and amplifying fun, relevant content from other designers.

Reaching beyond our company borders, we’ve begun an effort to highlight, support, and amplify great design work from collaborators and partners. Check out our first such feature, by Matt Owens of Athletics, Case Study: Using the power of WordPress to help redesign the American high school. More exciting guest author posts to come!

We believe in supporting one another, and we believe it’s important to feel seen and heard, and amplifying each other is an impactful way to do that.

Swag and Small Gestures

Fun surprises and cool t-shirts are perennial favorites at Automattic. To start off 2021, we introduced a surprise design team t-shirt. The graphic on the t-shirt was not shared, so it was a total surprise when the t-shirt arrived at recipients’ doors. 

For new designers, we’ve started mailing a hand-written, individually mailed welcome postcard. It’s a small, personalized gesture that creates a little moment of human connection (and hopefully also of delight) for our newest team members. We’ve recently welcomed designers from Singapore, Malaysia, Peru, Spain, Chile, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Poland, and Turkey!

Image courtesy of Poli Gilad.

Though DesignEx can’t take credit for this next idea, it’s worth mentioning for its simplicity and effectiveness. One of our Design Directors implemented a weekly prompt in our design Slack channel: “What are you making + creating outside of work?” 

Rug by Vivien Ilet
Artwork by Joen Asmussen

The thread is filled with amazing responses ranging from home improvement projects, to gardening, building a drone, art projects, jewelry making, zines, rug making, tech tinkering, guitar building, making music, and so much more. Common interests are surfaced, and we all get to marvel at the creativity of our peers. It’s fun to see design skills applied to life, and to discover the myriad talents of those around us.

These little things make people smile, and that’s a really big thing, actually.

Purpose

Culture and community is not always at the top of the proverbial ‘to-do’ list when it comes to building an organization. They’re hard to quantify, and the benefits are often hidden or couched in other successes. It’s also especially easy to abandon work like this during the pandemic, when people have extra stress in their lives. (That’s actually why they’re more important than ever.)

But, they do belong at the top of the list, because they provide purpose. Culture and community drive common purpose, a sense of belonging, and the kind of dedication that keeps people motivated to do great things. In DesignEx, that’s exactly what we strive to create and build each day at Automattic.


Like what you see? Then maybe you’d love working here. We’re looking for great designers to help us meet bold growth and quality goals. We’re a small, fully distributed company with a huge footprint, helping people express themselves and earn a living—and our mission is more vital than ever. Join our team of diverse, global perspectives building a better web, and connect your career to the power of Open Source.

By Monika Burman