When Hagit Kaufman joined Wix back in 2007, her design team consisted of five people. Nowadays, as vice president of Brand & Design, she presides over 150 designers. In addition to being the mastermind of the company’s branding, in 2018 she conceptualized the Design Playground in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan—a hub that gives physical presence to Wix’s commitment to the design community, and serves as the launchpad of the Playground Academy educational initiative.
And then came COVID-19.
Rather than simply put everything on hold, Wix is moving their endeavors online—starting with an online event tonight at 6:30 p.m. (Eastern) focused on how Eike Konig, Danielle Pender, Jessica Walsh and Ollie Olanipekun are responding to and navigating the pandemic. The free gathering, in partnership with It’s Nice That, will be streaming on Zoom, and a limited number of participants will be able to converse with the speakers after.
Wix is also working on other initiatives, including bringing the Playground Academy online (you can apply now through May 15), portfolio reviews, and even augmented reality face masks.
Here, we check in with Kaufman about everything that’s in the works.
Overall, what does design mean at Wix?
Design is at our core. We employ design-thinking in every part of our company. The greatest challenge with tech companies is remaining human-centered. Our focus on design has kept us laser-focused on our core customers’ needs, and creative in our approach to expressing our brand. Embracing design has enabled us to grow to what we are today and envision a future in which web design is not only beautiful, effective, but also accessible to all.
You conceptualized the Playground in 2018. Tell us about its beginnings.
I noticed a lack of in-person educational experiences for designers. It was creating a problem I call “design disconnect,” or the distancing of a designer from the source of design inspiration. In tech companies, designers spend their time focused on the product and often lose their connection to people. With the Wix Playground, our aim is to create the antidote to design disconnect.
We’ve now hosted dozens of events, and use it as a platform to highlight not only design leaders but also up-and-comers. We’ve invited in over 10,000+ attendees throughout the lifespan of the Wix Playground and in two short years it has become a well-known community hub for designers and creatives alike.
I also wanted to share the deep learning and knowledge my team had gathered in developing and researching website design, and give it back to the community. Because I believe in eye contact and the pleasure of real-life learning experiences, we wanted the knowledge exchange to happen in person. I will always love a real-life experience. If today I can’t offer it that way, then we have an opportunity to extend our events and Academy program to designers internationally, who couldn’t have participated previously because it required being in New York.
The physical Wix Playground
What have been some of your highlights so far?
The Wix Playground Academy is always a highlight for our team. It’s our three-month web design program, which is a competitive application-based design program for students. If you get in, it’s completely free. We wanted to give back to up-and-coming designers in a meaningful way, and give them real-world experience designing for actual clients. Each student works with a brand to create marketing materials. They also work with a nonprofit to create a new site for the organization on the Wix platform and teach the nonprofits how to use and update the sites. This opportunity allows designers to get real-time feedback and create something that is both useful and meaningful. And results have been mindblowing!
I think this year the highlight will be the international reach. I love creating in-person experiences, so part of me found it hard for us to move the program online, but once we got going I realized I am also very excited. It forces us to reimagine the experience, and going virtual with the Academy means we can extend the knowledge to designers internationally.
One part of the experience we are keen to bring into the virtual version is personal mentorship.
Even if it will be at a distance, students will be mentored by designers from the Wix team, and the classes will still be taught live by industry-leading creatives like Adam J. Kurtz, Jessica Walsh and Frankie Ratford (to name a few). So far we have had 80 graduates, and are just about to start our upcoming program this summer. We’re still accepting applications until May 15, so we encourage any students interested to apply. You can watch a recap of our 2019 Playground here.
How else are you planning to replicate the program online?
We’re relying on creativity as our ultimate tool for overcoming these unimaginable challenges. The world’s current situation has forced us to rethink how we can make digital experiences more human and build a sense of togetherness while physically apart. To preserve this sense of intimacy, we’re encouraging students to do small acts of kindness, scheduling regular social hours and planning weekly inspirational talks.
To provide students with the tactile experience of being in-class while learning from home, Wix is creating both onboarding and creative challenge kits. The onboarding kits will include all the supplies students need to complete their Wix Playground Academy projects at home. For example, each student will receive photography supplies so that he or she can produce high-level and professional content from home.
The design challenge kits will incorporate tools for designers to exercise their creative muscles and encourage them to create with those closest to them. Plus, there will be small surprises included to keep students excited and feeling connected to the rest of the cohort and lecturers. Additionally, Wix will digitize the field trip experiences that were originally planned.
Do you have any notable alumni whose names you can share with us?
Since its inception in 2018, the program has had 80 graduates that have been offered opportunities with top design firms like Pentagram, and top tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon. Sample student portfolios include: https://www.akaivyc.com, https://www.junghoe.com and https://www.valerietrisnadi.com.
What are some of the 30 nonprofit pro-bono websites that have resulted from the program?
The program and its participants have redesigned and successfully launched over 30 nonprofit websites pro-bono, including: HERoines, Ocean Data Alliance, ARTE, Dreams Have No Boundaries.
Was a big online presence for the Playground always part of the plan, or was it specifically a reaction to COVID?
We have always offered digital options. We are an internet-based company, after all. But while a strong digital presence has always been part of promoting and distributing the Wix Playground programming, it certainly didn’t lead our event strategy. Our top priority for the Wix Playground was carving out a physical space where the design community could connect over tactile learning experiences. So COVID meant we had to adjust. In a sense it also pushed us to assess what was most important to us. For me it feels less a reaction to COVID, and more of a response. And one I find exciting.
I believe challenges help inspire ingenuity, especially within design. And if we can stay curious, all the better. As designers we are always being asked to make adjustments and be flexible to new technologies, trends and new user groups. Hosting events online rather than not running them was obvious for us. And we are learning and will continue to learn along the way. It also has advantages. We are unbeholden to a specific physical space, we can reach a larger global community, and we can source incredible design talent to lead our events from all over the world.
And of course, when things change again we will bring back real-life experiences to both the Academy and Playground as a whole. But now that we’re reimagining what’s possible for digital experiences as it relates to building authentic connection and making design education more accessible to all, I think we will likely offer a hybrid of real-life and virtual programming. That’s exciting.
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