Design is easier when it feels safe to speak up. The curiosity and expression needed to do good design is available to us when we are with people we trust. This trust comes from knowing we’ll be heard when we talk about problems.

Mentor others to create safety

When I was younger in the 90s, I started in design as the office manager of a color copy shop. Affordable color laser printing was new and we had corporate clients that needed amazing brochures and presentations. That’s what we did. I learned to retouch photographs, typeset in Pagemaker, and manage production runs under the tutelage of my manager and mentor, Tony. He was an affable guy, and passionate about type.

Design is easier when it feels safe to speak up.

Because I was recently out of high school, outside of work, I was focused on things like parties, music and drinking. Accordingly, when an opportunity presented itself to produce a fake ID so a friend could join us in the club, I took it. What better way to test my skills? We had the color printing, lamination, and typesetting tools available. It was illegal, but it wasn’t hurting anyone that I could see. Being young and irresponsible, I failed to notice that I built the fake ID on a shared machine.

“I had created a risky situation for the business and everyone who worked with me”

The next week, I was found out. The owner of the company lectured me and when Tony took me aside, I expected more of the same. Instead, he explained that prior to working at this print shop, he had owned and run his own print shop with a business partner for many years. Business had been going well. Tony loved his job and it felt great. Until they were raided by the FBI. To his horror, Tony learned that his business partner had been printing counterfeit money. His print shop was shut down and Tony was not only out of a job, but out of a business he loved and responsible for something he didn’t realize was happening. He lost his livelihood along with the ability to trust his partner who went to jail. He learned the hard way that it was important not only to do the right thing, but to make sure others knew why it was important. He shared this with me so I could see that my actions went beyond creating a fake ID. I had created a risky situation for the business and everyone who worked with me. He showed respect and established the appropriate boundaries.

Have difficult conversations

It’s not always easy to speak to the people you work with. As a senior designer, many years later, I had difficulties with a coworker. He was known on the team as someone who would disappear and didn’t seem to care as much about projects as the rest of us. We gossiped about him and it didn’t improve the situation.

A year went by and as we continued to work together, it became clear to me that I needed to say something to him directly. I walked with him as we were leaving work one day and we had a conversation. I told him that I expected him to be more engaged in the work that we were doing and that it was creating conflict on our projects. It felt like I was having to do more work than necessary. He paused for a moment to hear what I had to say. His first question was, “Why didn’t anyone say anything?” He had felt the conflict too, but was doing the best he could. He was unaware that there was any negativity directed at him, but he did know that it was sometimes difficult to collaborate with others on the team. It only took a simple conversation for me to make a connection so that I could see where he was coming from and he could hear what I had to say.

That conversation built trust. We built a good, functional working relationship.

That conversation built trust. It didn’t perfect our working relationship, but it set the foundation so that we could continue to have conversations like that. He gave me honest feedback and I could do the same. We built a good, functional working relationship.

Make space for others to be vulnerable

It’s popular for young companies to espouse the need for open and truthful conversations. Perhaps it’s a sign that people are aware there are alternatives to the politics of large corporate workplaces. Or perhaps it’s something we need to pay attention to as openness and support become more challenging as the size of the organization grows. To their credit, Sourceress, Olark and Slack represent tiny, small and medium-sized startups trying this approach.

A glance at Sourceress’ company values

Sourceress proposes that psychological safety can be a core value. They share a condensed version of these values online, where they explain the need to “proactively make others feel accepted, respected, and unafraid of speaking up” as a way to create safety. Olark encourages this kind of environment by making the company “a safe space to express your reflections, concerns, and ideas” and they invite people to assume good faith. The last proposal is often forgotten in the workplace when competition becomes heated and people see others as selfish.

Slack puts a focus on curiosity and playfulness, which are indicators of what happens when people feel safe.

Finally, Slack takes a unique and indirect approach to their values. By promoting wellbeing for their employees, they allow speaking up and the creation of safe places to arise naturally. They put a focus on curiosity and playfulness, which are indicators of what happens when people feel safe.

There are many reasons and many ways to help people feel like they can speak and be heard in the workplace. It’s especially important for places that support creativity and design because this work is focused on understanding and empathy. Without a safe environment for practicing empathy, we risk burn-out as designers. When you speak up and help others do the same, you create a safe space for design.

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