Since MailChimp was founded in 2001, it has considered itself a design-led company. But as it’s scaled — it now reports more than 15 million users — MailChimp’s leaders have found they need to take more active steps to maintain their company’s commitment to design.
So about a year ago, a new team was formed to do just that. The five-person Brand and Culture team isn’t responsible for the design of MailChimp’s website. It doesn’t work on the app or even directly on marketing. They’re tasked with “a lot of creating,” explains Director of Design Todd Dominey. “And they make a lot of amazing things for us.” They’ve made moss sculptures and basmati rice mosaics of the company’s mascot, Freddie. They’ve made a neon pegasus unicorn that lights up when the support team releases improvements. Their assignment is to be as creative as possible, and “sometimes those things have a funny way of making their way into our product marketing and our advertising,” Dominey explains.
In this edited and condensed Q&A, Dominey explains how this team works and how it benefits MailChimp as a whole.
Katheryn Thayer: When did this team form? And was it always intended to have this purpose?
Todd Dominey: You know, I guess you really could go all the way back to the origins of the company. We’ve always had people on staff like this. As the business has grown and as we’ve acquired more people and we’re just doing more and more design work, it became apparent, I would guess probably about a year ago, we needed a specific team that worked on this specific creative output for the company. Otherwise, it was going to get too lost in the general product marketing work that we do.
Thayer: Let’s talk about what sort of special support or creative freedoms they get with this program.
Dominey: One of the big things that we do is we put up money for it. I mean, to break it down to actual dollars. It’s a specific line item in our design department budget.
Thayer: Can you say how much?
Dominey: No. But it’s sizeable. We contribute a lot of money to be supporting the people on the team. That can be everything from software to art supplies.
Thayer: Tell me a little bit more about how the rest of the company benefits from this and what the overall value is from your perspective.
Dominey: Design and creativity is incredibly important. I think it’s probably becoming more important now as we scale and as we get larger.
The work that this team contributes, you can see hanging in the office. And it reinforces this cultural commitment, at a company level, to creativity and to artistry…to remind people, whether you work in support or you’re an engineer, that this is a company that values original thinking. It’s not just inspiring for the design team or for a fellow creative.
Thayer: Can you tell me about how this changes your relationship with customers also?
Dominey: I don’t know if it necessarily changes it, but I think there is a certain expectation in the marketplace now for the brand — the look — of MailChimp and what we put out in the world. We’ve been creating original pieces for many, many years. We have a particular reputation to uphold. I think our customers would be the first people to tell us if our photography started looking too much like stock photography or if we just started to lose some of that edge.
We kind of compare it sometimes, internally, to how an indie rock band goes from a small band to a sold-out stadium. Or how an indie film director suddenly starts filming the next Star Wars movie. It’s something that’s always top of mind for us, how we grow and scale that creativity to match the scale of the business.
Thayer: When you’re talking about being the indie star who goes big, are you saying that you don’t want to be a sell-out? You want to keep the original fans? What do you talk about?
Dominey: It’s maintaining the fan base and it’s growing our audience, to borrow the metaphor. It’s finding more people to use MailChimp, to grow their business using MailChimp. That, at the end of the day, is what we make a tool for.
It’s also just about doubling down on originality and creativity and a unique voice. It’s part of the culture of the company because MailChimp… we’re in Atlanta. We’re not on the West Coast, we’re not in New York. We’ve always kind of done our own thing. I think our users expect that from us. They want to see us continue to behave that way.
Thayer: Why do you think that other tech leaders might want to consider a program like this?
Dominey: I think the ripple effect that it has inside of a company can be very pronounced. Especially if it’s not a design-led company, or it was not founded by designers. I think, sometimes design has a hard time preaching the values of design to say… a company that is led mostly by engineers. By having it as part of the culture, it shows how you value design. It shows that design and creativity have seats at the table when it comes to how the company is led, and what it values.
Thayer: Would you go so far as to say that it’s the sort of program that could impact your core product and change the way people work overall?
Dominey: I would, actually. We have people that are working on posters and t-shirts literally like 20 feet away from someone designing our mobile application. And the spillover effect, kind of like the serendipity of being in the same space helps inform one another. The creative expression and freedom that the artists on the team have just naturally influences people who have to be a little more systems-oriented and think more from a product-design perspective. I think it helps them think a little more broadly.