Transparent design: how an open creative process strengthens your work

Illustration for Dropbox Transparent Design blog post

This week, we’re at the 99U Conference in New York where we’ll be discussing how we became strong believers in transparent design. In this first part of our two-part series, we’ll look at the ways transparency can streamline the process—and strengthen the results—of creative collaboration.

Today’s creative teams are made up of a fluid workforce: freelancers, vendors, agencies, and cross-functional in-house teams. We’re varied, multidisciplinary, and scattered across continents. And that makes it harder than ever to keep everyone on the same page. At Dropbox, we believe one of the best ways to keep teams in sync and bring ideas to life is through transparency.

In the Dropbox Brand Studio, our teams are made up of graphic designers, web designers, illustrators, producers, strategists, and creative writers. We define the visual identity system and voice for the brand. We produce creative for product launches and marketing campaigns. We collaborate with product teams to name and add personality to the product.

Ultimately, we think of ourselves as unifiers in the company. We help keep people aligned by leading creative processes that unite work between many different teams inside Dropbox—Marketing, Product, Communications, Sales—and also with our network of agencies, vendors, and freelancers. We use creative strategy and production to build the bridges that connect these teams. These processes help us tell a cohesive and meaningful story about our company. Today, we want to tell the story of the processes themselves—and why we decided to radically change our approach to collaboration.

The way we work isn’t working

Now that new technology lets us collaborate with people around the world, our teams have never been more distributed. We not only catch up with people around the water cooler, we also catch up over early-morning video conferences with teams in London and Paris just as they’re wrapping up their day. We’re on different teams, in different offices, across different time zones.

This new way of working is especially challenging for those of us in Marketing and Design. The rules have never been less clearly defined. We’re working at a breakneck pace, and churning out high volumes of content that needs to break through all of the noise and high filters of audiences today.

Everyone needs space to create—but we want our collaborators to get involved early on to make sure we’re creating the right thing. We want to show polished and refined work—but people want to be a part of the process. So how do we find a balance?

Madison Avenue agencies used to create mystique by waiting until the pitch to pull back the curtain and surprise their client with a perfect, polished presentation. But that approach doesn’t work anymore.

As people who work with external creative directors and designers, we have many different projects going on at once, between many different departments and teams. We need to make sure that everyone is having the same conversation at the same time. And in the process, we don’t want to just sell our ideas—we want to build trusted relationships. So it’s important to create a balance between our need to produce polished work and our desire for a transparent process.

Embracing transparency throughout the creative process

As challenging as it can be, the best way to work collaboratively is to embrace transparency. Working transparently makes people more engaged and accountable. It improves the work because everyone has to be aligned. It shows people you’re willing to figure out problems with everyone on the team. And it removes ego by encouraging people to work together and share the responsibility of bringing a project to life.

We spend a lot of time thinking about this at Dropbox. Our mission is to simplify the way people work together. We started in 2007 with the idea that life would be a lot better if people could move their stuff into the cloud and access it from any device or operating system. Since then, we’ve made major progress. But we discovered that for a lot of our users, sharing and collaborating on Dropbox was even more valuable than providing storage. So we made a commitment to expand our focus from keeping files in sync to keeping teams in sync.

New collaboration tools that simplify the way you work

Our customers have given us tremendous insights about the challenges of teamwork. We’ve studied what highly successful teams do well. And we use this insight not only to build new tools for our customers, but to improve how we work internally.

It’s still a work in progress. And we’ve also made moves as a company to address the underlying problems designers, writers, artists, and marketers face. To start, we’ve created a culture that embraces transparency and offers us a safe place to create, without judgment.

A key part of the cultural change has come from the development of Dropbox Paper. For us, having an online workspace that keeps everyone on the same page has been the key to working transparently and driving alignment.

In part two of this series, we’ll dive into details about the ways we use Paper, and give you some concrete tips for achieving transparent design. Stay tuned for our follow-up post from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Create, collaborate and share your work—all in one place