Designing Culture for Creative Teams: Takeaways from Denver Startup Week

Written by: Caleb Law, Junior Designer, FWI


Often, we focus so much on output and revenue that we lose sight of how to stay inspired, even though inspiration is important, especially on a creative team. Luckily, culture cultivation can happen at every stage or size of a company, whether you're a team of three or three hundred.

 What does culture cultivation look like and why is it important? How do teams achieve this in a genuine way? How does culture scale as you grow? Four Winds Interactive (FWI) recently hosted a panel in collaboration with Denver Startup Week to answer these questions. We brought together some of Denver’s best design teams­–Artifact Uprising, The Motley Fool, Grit and MetaLab–and we’ve put together a playbook of sorts for you to take back to your team.

Key Takeaways

Culture can look different depending on your needs and what point you’re at in your career. All of our panelists agreed there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. But what they did agree on is the value of a culture built on trust and psychological safety. Every team that was successful trusted each other. And a recent Google study determined that psychological safety is the top indicator of high performing teams.

 So, what do they do to build trust?

Create Authentic Bonding Experiences

Creating outlets and rituals where people can bond outside of production work is vital. Here are a few of our favorite examples:

  • “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (invented by: MetaLab)–This activity helps people connect with their co-workers, especially the ones that don’t get to work together frequently. If members are remote, have them get together for “virtual coffees” where they can get to know one another better. If one team member is calling in remote, have everyone call in to ensure everybody is on the same level.
  • “Analog Breaks” (invented by: FWI)–Offer up regular breaks where people can get together and make something with their hands (our favorites have been learning how to draw a sloth and folding origami). Getting people away from their screens to have fun is a great way to keep the creativity flowing.
  • “Fool’s Errand” (invented by: The Motley Fool)–Create events tied to what’s going on outside of what you do. For example, randomly assign each employee an Olympic bobsled team. If their team wins the gold medal, give them $1,000 and two weeks’ vacation that they have to take in the next month.

Seek out information, talk to others and try new things. There’s always a way to adapt an idea to work for your team. And make sure to spread the love between the team–one person doesn’t have to (nor should) own everything that is “culture.”

Hire the right people

All of the panelists emphasized the importance of hiring people who are a great “culture add” for the team. This means spending the time to find someone who brings a diverse perspective to the table and shares a passion for the work you do. Not only does this create a great culture, but it ensures the team is better able to scale and generate ideas from all levels.

Create a “yes” culture

If you’re a leader, encourage ideas to come from all levels of your team and promote a “yes” culture. No matter how crazy an idea is that an employee brings up, encourage your team to pursue them and figure out how to support it. Sometimes that requires a team member to go in front of a client and fail. But regardless of how well they do, be an advocate that sets them up for success in all ways possible. Heck, I’m a junior designer, yet I still proposed the idea and moderated the panel during Denver Startup Week, an idea which was supported from start to finish by the rest of the team.

Lead by example

If you, as a leader, stay until 8 pm every night, so will your employees. If you never turn off, they won’t either. To keep employees from burning out, you have to lead by example. Sure, sometimes everyone has to stay late, but if the team is invested in the culture, they’ll be there because they care and want to be.

If you’re struggling at a place where you don’t feel valued, make strides to move the needle in the right direction. Schedule an additional meeting with your manager to talk about your progress. Don’t just propose an idea but own it and lead the entire project from start to finish. Even if it’s time to leave an organization, you can always take something away from it and learn from your time there.


We adapted MetaLab’s “won’t you be my neighbor” program to help people get to know each other after a recent office re-stack

We found other companies with awesome cultures by reaching out to the Denver community, talking to friends of friends, and simply asking what makes a team flourish. It doesn’t take much to post a culture question in a community channel such as Denver UX, reach out to others on LinkedIn or ask to grab coffee with someone from another company. You’ll learn a lot from the community that will make your team that much stronger. Our team now has a whole new playbook to work off of, become even closer, and gain inspiration that will lead to better results. We just shifted a few teams around at our office, and have already adopted MetaLab’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” idea to help employees get to know their new neighbors better.

Some other ideas from the FWI team that we encourage you to steal:

FWI employees putting up Avengers sticky note art

  • Design Happy Hour–We get together for an hour on Mondays to just show our work and be happy about it. We work through roadblocks together and ask questions from whoever can attend.
  • Creative Mornings–Our team attends Creative Mornings once a month and reaches out to others in the community to gain inspiration.
  • Sticky Art–We invite to whole company to help us create sticky note art once a quarter. We’ve created pixel versions of the Avengers, Snoopy and the Denver landscape, to name a few.
  • 1x1s Outside–Go for a walk with anyone on your team (or not on your team). Get some fresh air throughout the day instead of defaulting to conference rooms.
  • Video Screenings–We get together for lunch and watch design related documentaries (current favorite: “Abstract”) that spur new conversations and fresh inspiration.
  • Weekly Design Challenge–Take 15 minutes to create a design for a random theme and typeface (i.e. theme: pirates, typeface: future) and share them with the group or give the team a week to take a picture of their favorite street art. Vote via emojis in your Slack channel.
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