Dark horses and misfits
A Q&A with Airbnb's Jenny Arden
Design is having a moment. Fortune 500 companies are hiring chief design officers and investing in design and innovation centres, and even traditional corporates are getting in on the action. At the centre of all of this is Silicon Valley- based Airbnb, the online marketplace for people to lease short-term accommodation. Founded by designers Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky and co- founder Nathan Blecharczyk in 2008, the company is now valued at US $31 billion and located in 190 countries. On a recent trip to Auckland, Airbnb's user design experience manager Jenny Arden (an I DEO, Google and YouTube alumni) had a chat with Elly Strang about all things design. You have both a graphic design and physics degree, and you’ve also done a business programme at Harvard for
I do think pretty much all of my peers – all of those who are leading large design teams – have a left brain/right brain balance. It’s pretty rare these days to find someone who’s just into design, or just into analytics. There’s so many multi-faceted leaders right now. User experience design is both an art and a science and I think you have to have both taste and subjectivity – those communication skills in addition to analytical skills. You have to be able to talk about data with your data scientist, your project manager, with all these other very analytical roles, and if you don’t have any of those muscles, you’re not having a conversation anymore. So, it may seem like these two degrees are completely disparate and they are, but when you blend them together you actually have the skills needed to work with a multi-faceted team.
Yes, and I keep saying this over and over but I really don’t see the difference anymore. When you’re designing a business, you’re designing a business. There’s no longer ‘building’ businesses, and what I mean by that is everything is completely intentional. You don’t accidentally build a company, you intentionally design a company. So the idea of design thinking merging with business, that’s what we’re doing. We’re figuring out intentionally: what is this company going to do, what does it look like and what are the players?
Valley is entering the age of the designer-founder, and
This is a hot topic right now – more and more designers are aspiring to be a founder. Almost every person on my team says that one day, they want to start their own company. These are all designers – there’s 50 designers saying this. The reason is not only do they now have someone to look up to, they’re starting to see designers who have achieved this. What they’re also seeing is having the skill of storytelling and having the ability to get a group of people behind you is the superpower of a designer. Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, is famous for this. He is an amazing storyteller. He’s really, really clear on his vision, and that’s what makes him a great
There’s a lot of similar thought that goes on in
CEO as a designer. More and more people are starting to realise that if they can tell that story of what is really meaningful and purposeful, they can actually lead a company.
A lot of it is execution centric, so the basic understanding of operations, finance, all the things that are involved when you create a company – you have to learn all of that as a designer. Very, very few designers have been classically trained in business and they’re learning on the fly. Luckily, designers have great intuition and most of the designers I’ve worked with have a humble sense, so they know what they don’t know. The CEO of Airbnb [Chesky] in particular is really great at understanding ‘I need people for this, I need to hire the right people to fill the void and gaps that I’m not filling. I can’t possibly do that job.’ And so, I actually think it’s not necessarily the designer founder who should fill all these roles, it’s up to them to understand what they can’t do and hire the right people to fill those holes.
The dark horses and the misfits are those who have a bit of quirkiness to them. There’s a lot of similar thought that goes on in tech in particular, meaning people read the same books, get inspiration from the same people and you start to see designs recycled and regurgitated throughout product. What I look for are the designers who don’t pay attention to that as much, they’re inventing their own thing – they’re artists. They’re bringing inspiration from very rare sources you wouldn’t typically go for. They’re looking at photographers and writers and physicists for inspiration and creativity to help them find solutions to the problems they’re faced with. In a previous role that I held at IDEO, what was really interesting about that company is they intentionally recruited people who had really unique, non-traditional backgrounds. You could be on a team with an astronaut because they wanted someone who would think like an astronaut on this project, or they would hire someone that used to own a vineyard, and that person would think like a horticulturalist as a designer. When we look at really successful global teams with diversity, there’s people who have backgrounds that aren’t typical and they would think about problems in a really different way and create analogies from their past lives into the work that they’re doing right now.
Yes, this is definitely a common trend right now. I’ve seen it become standard practice in the past six months. Design leaders, especially as they’re joining smaller companies – companies that are about 100 people in size – say that they have to report directly to the CEO. The rationale behind that is that they want to create a balance in influence, meaning if you have a CTO, a CPO, all of these c-suite individuals, you want one person that’s in charge of bringing up the user in all these conversations when you’re making strategic decisions. So if you’re talking about where you’re going to go in five years, what’s the direction of the entire company, you need to have someone that understands the user there to chime in and keep everyone in check. I think organisations are becoming more and more complex. Airbnb as it grows – we’re about 2000 people right now – as it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, it becomes more complex and more difficult to navigate. There’s a great case study that was written in the Harvard Business Review about the ‘Lego’ mentality. It’s this concept that when you’re a start-up and you have three people, you have a table covered in Lego and you get to build with all the Lego and all the Lego are yours, and as you hire more people you have to divvy up the pile of the Lego. So now you only get your little pile, but you get to build anything you want with that little pile. It gets whittled down and whittled down as you hire more and more people, so the big challenge is not to think, ‘I have a smaller pile of Lego’ but to think, ‘What amazing thing can I do with that pile of Lego?’ Don’t look at your little world as being too small for you, but instead think, ‘How can I transform this area I’m in charge of and make it really inspiring?’