Product Design: A Dispatch from Airbnb's Design Chief

This article is by Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb. Prior to his current role, he was the SVP of Design and Creative Director of Say Media. He also co-founded creative digital agency Sideshow and UX Magazine, where he ran editorial until its acquisition.

My fellow designers, we find ourselves in an accidental profession.

Take Airbnb's design team. It includes a former librarian, mechanic, life insurance agent, therapist and modern dancer. Driven by creative pursuits, their paths eventually led them to design. I’m thankful that happened, but I can’t help but think how many other brilliant, potential designers have veered away from the profession. I know this happens often — it’s why we go through incredible lengths to find designers.

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This might be surprising coming from Airbnb, known by many for its design-centric culture and two RISD-educated co-founders, but it’s true — and not alone. I’ve spoken to design leaders at Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies with growing design organizations, and they’re all familiar with this phenomenon. It seems there are not enough designers to meet the demand. Early-stage companies especially feel the pain. Every week, I hear from startups or mid-sized companies that have immense promise, but that struggle to find designers.

Even if it’s a top of the funnel problem, it’s unreasonable to ask companies to wait for designers to surface in due course — and not an option for many startups with limited runway. The kid hacking video games and sharing his modifications on the internet? The science major who by chance made a stellar promotional poster for his buddy’s band? The talented illustrator who learned Photoshop to do a side gig for her founder friend? I may not have found my way if my mom hadn’t been an artist who believed design could be a profession. There are so many paths that can lead to design and so many variations of the role. Without a clearer route to the funnel, we’ll keep relying on serendipity to find the next generation of designers.

Before companies can create a receptive environment for design professionals — and a more defined career path industry-wide — it may be helpful to identify some of the main challenges holding our profession back:

Weak marketing — and education — around design roles. Outside of design, some have knowledge of UI and UX, but, by and large, design doesn’t enjoy the same broad understanding as its product-oriented counterparts. Increasingly, there’s more of a grasp of brand and marketing design, but product design — and specifically interaction design — is not well-defined or understood. For a field that’s accountable for defining the experience of interactive digital products and platforms — products that are an increasingly big part of everyone’s daily lives — there should be more fluency outside the function. A broader understanding will help get design out of its echo chamber and into the greater narrative of a company-building.

Nonstandard organizational structure. Relative to engineering and product management, which typically have clear reporting paths, many companies organize their design teams in a myriad of different ways. Some follow an agency model, where designers float from project to project to support the entire organization. It’s an easy default for companies, because they can graft in the design function at any time. Others structure the function to help define the entire product from start to finish, with a design leader reporting alongside engineering and product into the same executive. There are also companies that have the design team reporting into Product. Or Engineering. Or Marketing. As a design community, the sooner we can structure design in a coherent and relatively uniform way, the easier it will be to foster design cultures and career paths within and between companies.

Fewer mainstream role models. Engineers have Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer. PMs have Sundar Pichai, Reid Hoffman and Kevin Systrom. When considering designers who are founders, chief executives or leaders, I’d bet that very few outside the design world can drum up a name beyond Jony Ive or Yves Béhar, if even those. And those are both industrial designers! Would they cite Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky as designers — or just founders? Recognition for recognition’s sake is not the goal, but it is an indicator of the maturity of the function and the visibility that comes at the top of the ladder for a profession. Just as a tech ecosystem flourishes with more exits, a function becomes more expansive as it produces role models and aspirational leaders.

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