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Designing a Design Culture

“How can we make this better?”

That’s a question that can be heard every day at Digital Telepathy. We recently connected with Brent Summers who had some great insight on how DT has built a culture that is centered around getting better every day.

What is Digital Telepathy? They’re a UX and product design shop based out of California that believes in focusing on the user first. They’ve worked with entrepreneurs like Eric Ries and Tim Ferris, and companies like New Relic, Appcelerator, and Adventure.com.
Below, Brent shares the process their team goes through to strengthen their company through culture.

Committing to Culture

Our whole team is unified under our noble cause: Craft meaningful experiences. Our noble cause is a mantra that gets us all out of bed. We work together to find a better solution by removing friction and focusing on simplicity.

Working with smart, capable and motivated individuals is something I yearn for, and DT gives me that in droves. In my own words, Digital Telepathy is Midwestern values and California cool. Both our CEO and President are UW Badgers who made their way to California after college. Their commitment to creating a positive and identifiable company culture is evident even to a lunch-time visitor.

Values: Building Blocks for an Authentic Culture

Building Blocks for Design Culture
Values are more than a series of words that you print on a poster to hang in your break room. In fact, if you’re building your team the right way, values will be sourced from and lived out by your workforce. At Digital Telepathy we believe in Soul, Camaraderie, Betterment, and Arete. Those values guide our decisions and our design every day.

“Values are more than a series of words that you print on a poster to hang in your break room.”

Our design process focuses first on understanding the user’s journey. We believe that by meeting user needs first, our clients achieve even greater results. Anchoring into how a person should feel when interacting with something we’re designing allows us to design the touchpoints just right and create the ideal experience. Camaraderie as a value fuels close collaboration between our clients. It results in a backlog of innovative ideas. This in turn allows us to continuously iterate. Optimizing performance of a marketing site or satisfaction with a digital product.

We follow our passions to achieve “Arete”, a greek word meaning your highest potential, in our careers. Betterment is a shared philosophy that gets us there. We strive to build a world-class workforce that appreciates and exemplifies DT’s company values. To do so, we’ve included a skills test and personality profile in our hiring process. These steps have become invaluable tools for our hiring managers to evaluate the fit for each candidate. The result: a workforce that has grown more than 100% since I joined DT in May 2013.

Perks Don’t Make Culture

Culture Not Perks
The team loves our open-office environment: casual dress code, massage chair, and the fact that our kitchen is stocked with healthy snacks. But those perks don’t make our culture, our culture influences those perks. For example, as creatives we love caffeine, and so our coffee station was upgraded to include local coffee and a gooseneck kettle to make a better cup of coffee.

“Perks don’t make our culture, our culture influences those perks”

Our Director of Vitality and our Talent Ambassador lead the “culture team,” who keep a pulse on the office vibe and work with other employees to plan special events, such as our monthly “Fab Friday” where we get out of the damn office and appreciate the beauty of San Diego. When you rally your workforce for an event, make sure there is a clear intention behind it – and ask people what they think would be fun!

Agency life can be rife with stress. To help mitigate that, DT provides its employees an on-site home-cooked lunch every Monday and Wednesday. When the lunch bell rings our team is ushered to the kitchen to enjoy an organic, locally sourced meal. This mid-day break provides a nice reminder that we need good nutrition to do our best work. DTers are encouraged to invite guests from their community.

Our kitchen can be a hub of activity all day. Smoothies and pour over coffees fill our mornings, while quesadillas, leftovers and a home brewed saison keep us satiated in the afternoons. We also use the kitchen to host our morning huddle and other large roundtable discussions. “Chats with Chuck” which are bi-weekly open forum discussions with our CEO.

How Can $1,500 Make You Better?

Employee Betterment
Each March our team is given an amazing opportunity to pitch our leadership team on an idea for personal growth that DT will help fund. Employees receive $1,500 that they can use to pursue their own personal betterment. It’s not easy though – many people are asked to think bigger with their betterment bonus ideas.

This program has yielded some amazing stories: a marathon in Greece, training with pros at a cycling academy in Majorca, handmade custom closet systems for newborns, astrophotography, learning to play the violin, and even creating an art car at Burning Man. The best part about the Betterment Bonus is getting to ride the high of everyone’s experiences. They present their progress throughout the year as keynote presentations at lunch or impromptu concertos after our morning scrum.

Culture Can Be Measured. Culture Can Scale.

Design Culture Scales
It may sound odd, but culture can be measured. At Digital Telepathy we use the “Happiness at Work Survey” to measure employee satisfaction twice a year. This pulse-check provides crucial information to our leadership team. Since the results are anonymized, employees can express their true feelings about how things are going. Actually, the first time we took the survey we didn’t have enough females in the office to break out results by gender. That became a hiring initiative for 2014 and we now have a 30% female workforce!

While DT’s workforce is growing, we’re also focused on growing our culture. Our whole team gets input on our core values. This year we held a values workshop where the team collectively introduced and evaluated new values like Ownership, Empowerment, and Abundance. Understanding each individual’s perception and opinion of those words helps us select the right values to incorporate. This allows our culture to become an even more complex recipe of design goodness.

Culture Makes All the Things.

A focus on culture has always been a mainstay of the DT ethos. And now, 14 years into it, we seem to be getting it (mostly) right. Our team is growing and we are excited for the future, but data also tells us we have room to improve our culture — and we love making things better, so that’s exactly what we will do.
Author Bio: Brent Summers is a marketing strategist who is passionate about data and design. He works at Digital Telepathy and is most active on twitter. You can also find him on LinkedIn and Google+.

Brent Summers
by Brent Summers Brent Summers is a marketing strategist who is passionate about data and design. He works at Digital Telepathy and is most active on Twitter. You can also find him on LinkedIn and Google+.