Scaling Design Culture
Meredith Black, Head of Design Ops at Pinterest
Submitted by Natalie Hanson (Official Tripnoter)

From the Design Operations Summit website:
When design teams start to grow within hyper-growth startups, there is often a natural fear that the design culture will change as a result. It doesn’t have to. By encouraging best practices on recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and interviewing for “culture fit” you can benefit from a more diverse and culture rich team. Join Meredith Black for a talk on the vision and values of scaling the design culture at Pinterest while also designing for 175 million users.

Meredith has had the opportunity to work at iconic places like Hot Studio, IDEO, and Facebook. Each of those places had it’s own unique culture, so our ways of working need to adapt accordingly. And of course designers don’t like to be told what do!

Pinterest, too, has a unique culture. The co-founder of Pinterest is a designer, so there is no question about whether designers will have a seat at the table. Final decisions are truly made together – from roadmap to launch. They call it knitting. They even have an internal event called Knit Con, and the entire company is involved.

Last year, the keynote was Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog. At the confernce, anyone can teach a class. There were classes on woodcutting, embroidery, flower arranging, and the most attended class was called “how to be a mother clucker” about raising chickens in San Francisco. They also have a open mic night where they read funny quotes about Pinterest from Twitter.

The Pinterest design team has grown and evolved over the past three years. They have grown 650% – from 10 to 75 designers. That includes researchers, prototypers, and program managers. Today, one out of three designers comes from another country, which helps with being culturally attuned to their customers.

How do you make a team thrive, keep them inspired, focused? And how do you keep top talent in a fast growth environment?

For them, learning is key. They collaborated with CCA to develop a course taught over three weeks. As they introduced new design standards, they created bingo cards for update work:

They’ve also done things like workshops as an incubator to solve problems quickly, in part by getting out of the day to day.

They also have a Yarn Ball speaker series, where they bring in outside speakers for inspiration. The Unraveled Stories bring in individuals. For example, they recently had Scott Thomas in. He is the creative director who brought the work of Shepard Fairy to the Obama campaign. They also have a Sweater Series, where people with two different backgrounds share how they brought their ideas to life. And finally, Seamwork Sessions, which run across the company; these are mind melds with teams across Silicon Valley. They bring together two design teams to swap ideas, share methods, and “collectively push design”.

The Pinterest team has also developed a relationship with the granddaughter of Charles and Ray Eames, Lisa, and they take field trips to visit the Eames archives for inspiration.

She has also had team outings that were not successful – their visit to Tesla was a flop, for example. In the end, a simple team event at Golden Gate Park ended up being their favorite. Even games like Tug of War create a foundation for trust.

How to hire for your culture?

Two to four projects is the sweet spot. Can the candidate tailor their presentation to the audience? Can they show how they made decisions solved problems? They expect to see the following:

  • This was the purpose of the project
  • This was my role on the project
  • Here’s an example of what our process looked like
  • This is what success looked like for the project
  • Here are a few examples of the hurdles we faced and here’s what we did to overcome them

The expectation that the candidate is familiar with both the good and bad of the product. Their thoughtful perspective can be valuable – if they don’t have an opinion, it may be they aren’t really invested in the position. If we are seeing a culture fit, we wee questions like

  • Where can I make the most impact?
  • How are teams organized?
  • Do designers get to make key decisions?
  • Can I meet cross-functional team members?

Red flags are questions like “when is the company going to IPO?” because that means you’re not here for our company or our users. Another one they don’t like to hear is “What is the hottest project, how do I get on that?” You should instead be figuring out how you’re going to add value. And the worst is “I don’t use Pinterest, but my mom and girlfriend do and love it!”

In summary:

  • Try to “thread your company culture” to your team.
  • Your inspiration for the team will evolve over time – especially as it grows; make sure your designers contribute to that.
  • Watch out for red flags – make sure you are hiring for the right reasons (it’s a lot easier than firing later).
  • And make sure you are hiring the right role, and the right time, for the right team.


There is an inherently creative friendly culture at Pinterest. For teams that don’t have a creative founder, where do we start?

She has been in places where engineering is heavy, and design is a service. Most of their hiring right now is engineers. But if you get them exposed early, give them firsthand access, that makes a huge difference. She met with every single new product manager and told them about who they are and what they did. That helps with empathy and buy-in. You need advocates from outside the design world, too.

You have 75 designers, what happens when you get to 150 and your culture starts to fragment? How do you show that time away from desk is productive?

They are intentionally trying to keep design team small – it was 20 then 50 then 70. They have slowed hiring a lot so they get to know each other. They are pretty deliberate, because they want the culture fit.

The second question – their program managers (they call them producers) have been a big help. One you start getting people involved in the design process and understanding how it works, there is empathy for that. There is also ‘no meeting Wednesday’, which is not fanatical but we try to stick to it. And there are rooms dedicated for designers if they need a quiet place to work.

When recruting, how do you screen for humble?

The whole process usually involves 6-8 people. Each person as something they focus on. There is a portfolio review, and one of them is culture. Meredith has been there the longest, so she typically handles that part. They don’t hire assholes, they don’t want to mess up the culture. But the interview process may be longer and more painful than most places as a result.

A question about culture fit. What are some of the ways you can avoid hiring too much of the same personality?

Great question. Having people from all over the world has helped. It exposes people to different cultures. That has helped in creating an understanding and empathetic environment. And of course different levels of experience bring some of that too. It’s not just one thing – it’s a bunch of things. And it will have to change again as the company gets bigger.

WHat is your external communication strategy. How are you building your talent brand?

We don’t. We don’t push our brand on the design team. We don’t want people to come because it’s the hottest place to work.

What is the sweet spot wth program managers / designers ratio?

It has gone up and down. At a company level they have three main pillars – Core, Growth, Monetization. She has 1-2 producers in each pillar. It’s not a ratio against the designers, it’s related to P&L and business needs. If some teams aren’t supproted, that’s a good thing. She is ok with having higher demand, it’s better than having too many people and not making an impact.

Curious what tricks you’ve learned creating culture within your own team and also with the developers?

Designers have their own space, a desk where they can put their succulent. And they have pods of six – where design, product management, and engineers all sit together. The cross-functional does do team-building together, too.

Related to culture, how do you take these learnings and do more knowledge management around it? How do you debrief on different projects, share and swap experiences?

We do debriefs o n larger projects to learn about successes and failures. We do both. We usually share our learnings. We have an All Hands with the design team every three weeks. We also give designers an opportunity to share what they’ve been working on. That is archived so others can access it – her producers take care of that. Quarterly hands, all the big talks, external speakers are all recorded.

Hiring process for producers. Do they get a portfolio review?

She was the first producer at Pinterest. She was a chameleon at first. She didn’t know what the role would entail, as there aren’t a lot of product producers out there, yet. We’re a hyper-growth start-up, so there is no such thing as stability. You need to be able to get a donkey overnight for a morning photo shoot. She brought people from Apple, in that role at Apple they have five things they did well. Those individuals struggled, and she ended up going through agencies. People from IDEO have some understanding and respect for design. She also hired someone from support services as a producer. The candidate had a design background, so she grew into a designer role. She has also hired from the military. They have the culture of attention to detail, ability to cope with ambiguity. You have to truly be able to thrive in chaos.

Can you speak to how you establish best practices with in the design ops team within itself?

Their team is pretty senior, many of them have been around for a long time. They do it as a team. Many people developing ideas and sharing them. They are tight-knit. They work together – with off-sites if needed – to establish an approach when it’s needed. Right now it is always evolving – everything from onboarding onwards. And they are dealing with a proliferation of tools at the moment, but they are letting that be – for now.