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Interviews

Alex Schleifer: Designing the Perfect In-House Partnerships

Airbnb's VP of Design on how to establish creative partnerships inside of a large company.


Typically, top design executives report to business-minded CEOs who know far less about design than they do. But that’s not the case with Airbnb’s VP of design Alex Schleifer, whose bosses are the company founders and Rhode Island School of Design grads, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky.

Having designers at the helm has allowed Airbnb to recast the traditional role of the designer within their world-conquering start-up. Airbnb provides two career paths, one for those who want to take the management track and another for those who want to continue designing, so they don’t have to give up their craft in exchange for a promotion.

Airbnb has also broadened the definition of a product design job by including a variety of problem solvers, from content strategists to translators, under the “design” umbrella. The company’s thinking is that the user doesn’t see the difference between what is a content strategist and what is a designer, so why should there be a barrier between these departments internally? And, since the company makes a product that is used by essentially everyone, they are open to hiring designers who come from all walks of life (including a former mechanic and modern dancer.)

Schleifer, who joined the company in January 2015, following the company’s rebrand, shares the thought process behind Airbnb’s methods, what he looks for in new employees, and the biggest mistake designers launching their own company should avoid.

Among the Airbnb design team there is a former librarian, mechanic, insurance agent, therapist, and modern dancer. Why bring on such an eclectic group of people, and what does that do for the team?

It enriches the design and gives us more empathy as we bring in people with the ability to think through problems with different points of views. Part of what we do when we recruit is to look for potential rather than work experience, and that has served us well. Looking in unconventional places brings unconventional thinkers and those always add to the mix. We design for everyone, and that needs to be represented.

We design for everyone, and that needs to be represented.

When you say “potential” do you mean the talent to design, or the ability to think creatively and solve problems?

Every time you add different points of views into a design team, things always get better, but that’s only as long as you’re really hiring people that are good at the craft. Then everything else – process, structure, learning tools – can be taught. We provide structure. We provide an opportunity to work with a product with millions of users. We provide training. All of that stuff. What we want people to bring to the table is their craft and their ambition.

Why do the design, engineering, and product groups tend to work together from the start of a project at Airbnb, rather than designers coming in later in the process?

We try to make things real as quickly as possible here. As much of our development is switching to mobile, it’s no longer possible to look at things just in the lens of a flat mock up. You need to test a feature out with motion and real interactions on a real device. You need to bring in data. How does this look once we load a hundred different items into it? How does this look in German? How does this look in Korean? 

The way we define “product design” is a little broader. We have traditional product designers, researchers, content strategists, translators, and the people who build the tools because those are all part of product design. Let’s look at how we coordinate across functions. My direct peers are the head of product and the head of engineering, so already we have this relationship between product, engineering, and design that is very close [at the top of the company].

How has Airbnb created cohesive branding across multiple properties given its size?

We have a powerful design language system we launched in April, which creates a cohesive set of patterns, design guidelines and brand components for everything that we do. Every product follows the same set of rules. Beyond that, we’re building much closer connections with the marketing team and the product team. We have shared work spaces so that the marketing team, designers, and the product designers can collaborate. [The consumer] doesn’t really see the difference between what is marketing and what is product, so we’re becoming more and more adept at doing that [internally].

A true partnership across functions is something that needs to be created.

Airbnb has two different career paths for designers, one looking for those who want to continue designing and one for those who aspire to become managers. Why?

Some people want to coach and support teams and others want to hone their craft. In both cases, we want to give people opportunities. That being said, in each case, we use the player-coach analogy a lot. We expect managers to be pretty hands-on with their work; it’s just the distribution of time they spend on it

The issue that I’ve seen is that great designers who can be incredibly strong creative leaders, at least designing creative strategy, are sometimes dragged into management because that is a function to progressing in your career. A lot of people who actually should be directing work start managing the operational sides of the team. We want to make sure that people understand that these are two equally important ways to go. On one side, we don’t want to lose incredible designers with years of experience that would be better suited to focusing in on their craft, compared to people who want to manage and grow teams. Being a manager is not a promotion. It’s a parallel track.

Prior to leading the design team at Airbnb, you started the digital design agency Sideshow and also managed teams at Say Media after that company acquired Sideshow. What made you decide to take the management path?

I went through the exercise of thinking of whether or not to become a freelancer and give myself more freedom to work on my own. Then I noticed early on that that wasn’t for me. I liked working with teams. Some of my favorite moments are when somebody brings a piece of work to me and we look at it, and the emotional reaction that you get is something that really blows you away. Then you feel that you’re a part of that, even in some peripheral fashion.

As a designer, you should be ultimately accountable for the product, for the user experience.

After launching a company and now working for a large start-up at the executive level, what advice do you have for a designer looking to launch their own company?

As a designer, you should be ultimately accountable for the product, for the user experience. But as a project manager, you’re accountable for the impact that the product and the features have on the business. It’s easy when you’re a sole designer building up a company to lose track of any other pieces of work and become enamored with the process of design. Designers might not be especially data aware, not great at setting goals, and be design-biased, which means that other functions like engineering, business development, and research don’t feel like they have an equal seat at the table. A true partnership across functions is something that needs to be created.

If you could look back at your career as you’ve risen through the ranks, and redo one of your big decisions, what would it be?

There were months and years that maybe I lost some of the drive because I was working on projects and for companies that I didn’t believe in. We all have to do this as a designer, which is just take a job sometimes. I think it’s good training when you’re starting out to say yes to everything. However, there’s a time when you start to negotiate with yourself about why you’re doing that, and something that you fell in love with becomes the worst part of a job because you’re using all that creative energy on companies you don’t believe in, working with people you might not really like all that much.

It’s hard for me to change those decisions because I’m very happy today. I do feel that I could have saved myself a couple of years here and there if I just told myself this is not what I want to be doing. So just make sure that you don’t fall out of love with designing something because you are not designing it in ways that enrich you. I know it’s a nice problem to have, but it can happen to anyone.

Matt McCue

Matt McCue is the Editor-in-Chief of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him @mattmccuewriter or email him at mccue@adobe.com. 

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