Design Culture in an "End-Up" Technology World

John Maeda, Chair of eBay Inc.'s Design Advisory Council

Editor's Note: The following blog post originally appeared on The Design Observer Group's blog:

Recently I had the pleasure of hosting a Product and Design Summit at eBay Inc. Designers and product managers from all across the eBay Inc. portfolio — Marketplaces, PayPal, eBay Enterprise, StubHub, Braintree, and others.

The teams gathered together under one roof to discuss the state of — and potential for — design at eBay Inc. Convened and sponsored by CEO John Donahoe, who has been the driving force behind the renewed emphasis on design at eBay, the event featured Donahoe and my mutual friend Brian Chesky, Rhode Island School of Design alumni and co-founder of Airbnb.

As it happened, Brian had published his own thoughts on workplace culture earlier in the week, sharing how he received advice from Peter Thiel to “Not f**k it up.” “When the culture is strong,” Chesky said in a letter to his employees, “you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous. They can be entrepreneurial.”


Chesky wasn’t the first to point out the importance of culture, nor will he be the last. Damian Madray, founder of the creative community, also wrote about the topic on Medium, pointing out examples from large companies — end-ups, as I like to call them — who have built strong design cultures that start-ups could emulate.

Chesky and Madray are both focused on start-ups, where founders’ attention is often divided, everything is urgent, and deliberately building a culture can feel like the least important thing that needs to be done that day.

For start-ups, becoming an end-up, with their enduring sets of values and rock-solid established practices, can seem like the holy grail. This is the interesting part of start-ups and end-ups — at times, each sees the other’s culture as greener grass to strive for.

Just as start-ups crave the well-articulated values of an end-up, end-ups envy the way start-ups get to write their own rules. Start-up conditions are especially seductive for designers, whose creative inspiration often depends upon an unconstrained environment, and not feeling like they are boxed in by too many top-down rules.

Yet the reality is that building a culture where creativity can thrive and great products can result is a daunting task no matter the size of your company. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what it takes to build design cultures in both startups and large companies during my first quarter in Silicon Valley. Some of the threads I’ve been able to find are:

  • Culture has to be rooted in company values. The strongest design cultures I’ve seen are built around something deeper than perks and trying to have fun, whether it’s the company’s reason for being, or larger problem they are trying to solve. At eBay Inc., where I am Chair of the Design Advisory Board, the company’s strong values and purpose articulate a future that uses technology to create a better, more connected, and ultimately more human form of commerce that creates opportunity for people and businesses of all sizes. 

Though an abstract goal like this may seem ancillary to the design process, many of the designers I’ve talked to feel they are inspired to do their best work when they are reaching for something higher than beautiful arrangement of pixels on a page or mobile interface. Beyond just being inspirational, a higher calling like this can give designers an ideological starting point and constraints to design within.

  • Pay attention to physical space. Across companies large and small, I see a universal recognition that creativity is fueled (or drained) by the space in which designers work. Beyond just providing an environment that’s conducive to good work (or not), in many designers' minds, the workspace takes on symbolic significance, sending a message about what their employer thinks of her.

As John Couch, the head of design for Magento (an eBay Enterprise company with one of the best creative spaces I’ve seen) remarked, “A fluorescent-lit beige cubicle sends one signal, a call-center type open space another. A visually-stimulating, well-designed space says: ‘We value creativity and expect you to raise your game.’” Another designer I met aptly noted, "I look at the space and say, ‘Would something revolutionary be invented here?"

In a city like New York, walking down the block for coffee may be all a designer needs to be inspired.

There’s visual stimulation everywhere. But in the suburban office parks of Silicon Valley, it’s more imperative to build inspiration into the office itself. In a recent piece for The New York Times, Quentin Hardy remarked how large tech companies are building new, distinctive spaces to embody their brands and act as temples for their corporate culture and values.

In these cases, they include a lot of fancy perks, but this is rarely what’s most important to the designers I’ve met. Instead, it’s freedom that matters most.

They feel best when they were in a flexible space that they could change to meet their work needs, mood, or inspiration at the moment.

  • Great design is born through parternship with others. In the end, nothing determines the strength of a culture more than the people within it, and the relationships among them. In a world where it’s easy to have many thousands of friends, followers, and fans through social media, it’s easy to confuse a digital high-five with a true partnership that can produce excellent work. I liken this to the difference between Elmer’s Glue and Spray Glue. Elmer’s glue relationships are deep, one-on-one relationships that are slow to build, but strong once built: they happen over time, manually, and in person — much like waiting for the glue to dry and hold two popsicle sticks together. The temptation of spray glue, like using social media or a mass email, is how many people you can reach quickly and seemingly efficiently. Yet just as quick as it is to spray a message out there, it dries and loses its stickiness.

The thing I’ve heard most often talking to designers in Silicon Valley is that design is most powerful when inserted early into the product development process — designers can make the biggest difference when they are asked to weigh in on a problem at its inception.

As one eBay designer told me, “If you look at any project at all, if it gives a good experience, I bet that the Product Manger and Designer were collaborating well, were joined at the hip. If the customer experience is broken, you can bet the opposite was true. Great products are great because of the team.” 

But how to make this happen? It could be as simple as investing in relationships, spreading some Elmer’s glue and allowing it to dry.

In the end, building a great design culture is not the goal in and of itself. What it does is allow a company to recruit great designers, and then supports their ability to build great products, along with their counterparts in product and technology.

Start-ups and end-ups may each think that they other has an easier time building or sustaining a design culture, but it takes work at any stage of the game.

(Additional contribution by Becky Bermont, Partner at Creative Leadership LLC)