Over the past few years, people often ask how Designer Fund has built a community of over 100 top designers including founders, leads and angels. Building and sustaining our community from the ground up hasn’t been easy. I’ve learned that you need to intentionally design a community with at least five key ingredients: Purpose, People, Practice, Place, and Progress.
People naturally gravitate to communities that represent their values and beliefs. The mission behind an organization is fundamental to our personal narrative of “why” we should spend our time and money toward it. Just look at any religion, cause, brand or company you care about. I bet there’s some underlying purpose for why you associate with it. A purpose statement is key to inspiring a community.
For example, Designer Fund believes the world needs better designed products and services especially in markets that traditionally lack design innovation like education, health, and energy. We can uniquely help accomplish this by funding new startups co-founded by designers and connecting designers with existing startups that have a high probability of impacting millions of people. This purpose inspires and builds trust with designers because they know that we don’t exist just to make money. We exist to help designers succeed throughout their career and ultimately create meaningful impact in the world.
A purpose statement can only go so far. You need the right people who will act upon it consistently to form a community.
“There’s a universal human yearning to belong—the desire to feel welcomed, respected, and appreciated for who you are.”
By definition you need people to have a community. More importantly you need a sense of belongingness. Often we feel belongingness in a group if we share many things in common. You might look and talk alike or even live in the same area. If you can find the right mix of people who fulfill each other’s desire to belong and grow, then you’re well on your way to building a community.
For example, the designers participating in our professional development program, Bridge, have an average work experience of 6 years after graduating from schools across the U.S. We all share the intrinsic desire to create great experiences for people and want to continue advancing our career by learning from one another.
But there’s a catch. If there are too many people who don’t share enough similarities, you don’t feel as much belongingness or get as much engagement between people. Curating which people are “in” and “out” of your community is really hard. Often you need a shared practice for people to show whether they’re really part of the community.
“You need to establish strong shared practices that reinforce your community’s values.”
You have to practice something together to achieve a sense of community. As Dan Jones writes in Nature, to reinforce your community’s values, it’s critical to establish strong shared practices, whether that’s meditation, volunteering, or exercising a particular craft like design.
During Bridge, we have the ritual of meeting every Tuesday night for a workshop, dinner and talk. This gives members in our community across multiple levels of expertise the chance to show their creative process and learn from each other in an intimate setting. For example, designers from Dropbox get to see how designers at Pinterest approach problems and this kind of unique cross pollination spreads. By sharing best practices with the latest design tools and methods, it encourages more designers to share and everyone benefits.
We’ve also noticed there’s still a limit to what you can do virtually because our attention is so scarce. Getting people together on a regular rhythm fosters more shared bonds.
“Having a common place and seeing each other regularly, creates familiarity and trust.”
It’s hard enough to find people who all believe in the same purpose and practice at the same level, but now you need them in the same place to interact. Whether virtually or physically, communities need a space to gather and commune with each other.
In our case, we host most of our Bridge events at our studio in San Francisco. Because it’s a live/work space, the layout has been designed to be more like a home than an office. We actively invite members of our community to use our space and hopefully over time our community feels a sense of “home” when they visit.
For instance, we serve family style dinner and you naturally meet new people and reconnect with familiar faces. Repeated exposure to people in the same place can help relationships develop organically. You might meet a designer at our studio for the first time and just say “hi.” Then you see that designer again at our space and you talk a bit more. Eventually you might exchange emails and grab coffee together. Connecting people is often a big benefit that keeps members engaged in a community.
“For a community to thrive, members need to gain utility, otherwise it’s not worth their time.”
The latin root for progress is progressus, which means an advance. Most people have a job, their family/friends and some limited amount of time for other stuff. Because communities are often in the latter bucket of “extra-curricular” activities and not someone’s livelihood, it’s difficult to keep members committed to your community. But if you’re materially advancing people personally or professionally, they’ll keep coming back.
Once you’ve started building a community, you need to design for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations to keep members engaged. Whether helping people learn something new or make unique connections, there’s a range of ways you can influence motivation. I think the most important nuance here is fostering a culture of giving, where members of your community are constantly “paying it forward” and not expecting a one-to-one transaction. Rather they’re bought into the purpose, creating relationships with social capital and trusting that they’ll benefit from the community in often unforeseen ways.
For Designer Fund, we’re creating this positive virtuous cycle for successful designers to invest in the next generation of designers. We don’t invest just to make money. We invest to ultimately create better designed products and services in the world. So when you join our community, you become a steward of this mission with us.
I hope this simple framework of Purpose, People, Practice, Place and Progress can help you structure your approach to building community. This isn’t an exhaustive list of ingredients so if you have any thoughts or recommended resources for building community, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email us, [email protected]
For more insights and best practices from designers in our community, visit Bridge.
Illustrations, Stewart Scott-Curran
Josh Brewer, adapted from a conversation about four P’s to evaluate an opportunity
Brian Chesky, quote from Belong Anywhere, Airbnb
Dan Jones, Social Evolution: The Ritual Animal, Nature
Scott Belsky, quote adapted from a Facebook / Twitter post
Mark Smith, What is Community, Infed
Chris Pirillo, What is Community
Michael Krasny, What is Community, Mother Jones
Bob Horan Jr, Why we crave shared experiences, Medium
Anna Miller, Why do we share?, Sharable