5 Characteristics of a Thriving Design Culture

Atomic Object is hiring software designers to add to our teams in Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Detroit. We’re a great company to work for, with competitive pay and benefits. Here’s how to apply.

I’ve been a designer at Atomic Object for almost three years now, and I love what I do. My colleagues and I are continuously working to build, grow, and improve a thriving design culture at our company.

Design culture is a tricky thing. It doesn’t just happen, especially when you’re trying to build it within an existing company. Whether that company is a software development company like ours, a startup, or an established business looking to enhance their offering through good design, you need to be purposeful about creating an environment where all facets of design — from divergent thinking, user research, and concept investigation, through visual design, user experience, and implementation — are supported and valued. Adding a few Nerf guns and trendy posters won’t cut it — a company that’s truly supportive of design will experience a culture shift from the inside out. Read more on 5 Characteristics of a Thriving Design Culture…

Profile of an Atom

When you’re looking for a home for your career, one really important consideration is who you’ll be working with. What’s the culture like? What kind of people will you spend your time with?

I’ve worked at Atomic Object for a few years now — long enough to have observed and identified some characteristics that most, if not all, of the other Atoms have in common. In no particular order: Read more on Profile of an Atom…

Of Software Designers & Broken Combs

The “T-shaped person” has long been held up as a holy grail in the software industry. Supposedly, it is the thing you ought to be striving for as a person and the people you ought to be hiring.

I’ve always disagreed.

I think that, especially within a small team or an innovation services firm like Atomic Object, the ideal candidate looks more like a broken comb. (Many thanks to Jared Spool for introducing this term in his talk Is there a T in Team?” at the 2012 Balanced Team meetup in Chicago.)

Why I’m a Broken Comb

Here’s what being a Broken Comb person means to me:

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Cross-pollinating Innovation Across the Organization

I believe frameworks that foster cross-pollination of ideas work better than top-down policy implementation when it comes to spreading knowledge and innovation across an organization.

The Need to Share Knowledge and Innovation

Atomic consists of self-managing teams that are organized around projects. Our projects can typically last anywhere from three months to over two years, and people often get shifted around when projects end and new projects start.

Atomic applies user-centered design and agile practices through our integrated teams of designers and developers. Our teams follow heuristics and a general product development process, but they also have the autonomy and authority to innovate and try new things.

The long cycle time of projects means that innovation within teams can stay localized for significant periods of time. Theoretically, it could take several years for certain practices to spread throughout the office. I wanted to speed up the sharing of knowledge and innovation across the company.

There’s always the command and control, top-down approach of identifying the best practices, distilling them into an algorithmic process, and educating everyone on the new process, but I agree with Joel Spolsky that command and control management doesn’t work in places like Atomic.
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Generalist Makers: The Unicorns of the Software Industry

At software conferences, I often meet people who have titles. I’ve made connections with a bevy of “Information Architects,” “Usability Specialists,” “Visual Designers,” “Front-End Designers,” and even some “Project Managers.” They are able to quantify their role within one statement: “I write the HTML and CSS.” “I create the wireframes.” “I do usability testing.”

Whenever I have to give a quick summary of what I do, my one-line description is, “I make software.” It’s a wide description, and deliberately so, because on any given day I might be sketching interfaces, administering usability testing, writing code, doing visual design in photoshop, or tracking hours and budget using burn-up charts and other project management tools.

The Benefits of Generalists

Atomic Object makers are generalists in poly-skilled teams. Some of us have a deeper background in design while others have a deeper background in development, but everybody here is continuously growing their skills in both ends of the pool, and all of the disciplines they encompass. There are many reasons we work this way. Here are three:
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Why We Need More Generalist User Groups


For the past month, I’ve been helping to organize a Lambda Lounge chapter in Detroit. The original Lambda Lounge in St. Louis is a user group “organized loosely around the idea of exploring dynamic and functional languages.” The idea of creating a Detroit chapter came up at the recent Great Lakes Functional Programming Conference, and I was too excited to not participate.

The Drawback of Specialist User Groups

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I want from a user group. In the process of helping to start our Detroit office, I’ve been to a number of Detroit and Grand Rapids user groups. They were all well-run and fun, but each invariably focused on a specific technology (Ruby, .net, web development, and so on). Despite having a good time at these groups, I ultimately found them unsatisfying.

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Problem-Solving Like a Generalist

I develop embedded software, but if you look on my coffee table, you’ll see books on a wide variety of programming topics — information retrieval, garbage collectors, and so on. This would strike some people as strange. Shouldn’t I be focusing on electronics or something?

Yes and no. I consider myself an “embedded specialist,” and I focus most of my time (and professional development energy) on that field. And yet, I believe the best way to stay creative is to learn new things and think in new ways. When you see a problem through the lens of another field — and approach it using the tools of that field — new possibilities invariably open up. This is why AO makes a point of hiring generalists; they’re better prepared to make these connections.

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Being a Generalist Makes Me Happy

What motivates you to work and create? If you were to ask me a year ago, I would have said that my motivation lies in the pride of making polished and elegant products. That’s still true for me today, but I realize that I had forgotten an important source of motivation and happiness: learning new ways to think about programming and solving problems.

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Automotive or Software, Design Is Design

I love cars. I find inspiration in the design, engineering, and history of cars. For the second year now I’ve attended AutoWeek’s Design Forum with my daughter. This very well-run event is a half day of talks and panels from luminaries in the field of automotive design, followed by guided tours of the North American International Auto Show.

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