Editor’s note: Alex Schleifer is the vice president of design for Airbnb. Before joining Airbnb, he served as senior vice president of creative design department at Say Media. In this article, he shares some of the problems and challenges that exist in the development of the design industry and analyzes the reasons behind them. He also shares three tips for solving problems and building a design-friendly company.

My designers colleagues, I found that we entered the design industry is very accidental. Take Airbnb’s design team for example. Among the designers on Airbnb’s current design team, some were librarians, some were technicians, and some were life insurance agents or physiotherapists. In short, before they become designers, they are engaged in various careers and do everything. Because they love creative work in their hearts, it drives them to eventually embark on the path of design. I’m very pleased with all this, but I can’t help but wonder how many talented designers have failed to embark on the career path of design. I know there’s a lot of untapped designers, and that’s one of the important reasons we’re trying to recruit great designers so hard.
Airbnb is known for its design-driven culture, and both of its co-founders graduated from the world-renowned design institute, Rhode Island Design Institute, where it’s incredibly hard to recruit good designers, but it’s true. It’s not just Airbnb. I’ve talked to a lot of big design executives, including Apple, Google, and Facebook, and they’ve had similar problems. Now it seems that there are not enough designers to meet the market demand, and designers are in short supply. Early start-up companies should feel more deeply about this issue. Every week, I hear from people at startups or medium-sized companies with good prospects that they’re worried about not getting designers.

Even if design is not the company’s most important department, it is unrealistic to allow companies, especially startups with limited financial resources, to sit and wait for designers to emerge automatically when they need it. If my mother wasn’t a professional artist who believed in design, I probably wouldn’t be a designer. There are many ways to go to designers, and the role of designers is also changing. If designers do not have a clear career path, we still have to rely on unexpected good luck to find the next generation of outstanding design talent.
Before companies from all walks of life can create a harmonious working environment and clear career paths for designers, it is necessary to analyze the major challenges and obstacles that hinder the development of the design industry.

1. major challenges and obstacles

1. lack of comprehensive and in-depth understanding of design.

Outside the design industry, some people will know a little about UI and UX, but overall, people lack a comprehensive understanding of design compared to the public understanding of product development. Electronic products have become an indispensable part of everyone’s life. In an industry where design can determine the experience of interactive electronic products and platforms, more attention should be paid to the fluency of the entire product beyond its functionality. A comprehensive and in-depth understanding of design helps designers to get out of their own small world and create a greater product.

2. lack of standardized organizational structure.

The organizational structure of engineering and product management teams is very clear, and there is a clear and clear reporting system. By contrast, the architect team has a different organizational structure. Some companies adopt the proxy model, in which designers will continue to move from one project to the next, providing design support for the entire company, many companies will default to this model. Designers in some companies participate in the entire development process of the product, from the beginning to the end. In this mode, the design supervisor, like the product supervisor and the engineering supervisor, reports to the same leader. There are also some companies whose design team will report to the product, engineering or marketing team leader. In the design field, the sooner we establish a unified, clear and smooth organizational structure, the easier it is to create a design culture and a clear career path for designers within the company.

3. lack of an example of a well known designer profession.

In engineering, there are many well-known industry examples, including Bill Gates, Mark Zukerberg and Marissa Mayer. In the field of products, there are many industry models such as Sundar Pichai, Reid Hoffman and Kevin Systrom. If you could cite some examples of well-known designers as founders or executives of companies, I’m sure there’s no one in the design world to name but Jony Ivee and Yves B har, both industrial designers. Of course, we are not trying to set an example for these industries, but we can learn from the well-known number of industry examples whether the design industry is mature, and whether the career path of designers is clear and smooth. Only with enough industry examples can the designer industry get better development.
If a country is made up entirely of designers, which designer’s head would we put on the country’s legal tender?

2. three ways to help you build a design friendly company.

The problems and challenges facing the designer industry have little to do with the salaries and benefits of designers, and they have much to do with the position of the designer team in the company. The demand for designers has been there, but the career path for designers has not been clear. Here are a few ways that companies can use to attract good designers, and design executives can take a better lead.

1. integration of projects, products and design from the very beginning

In some technology companies, including Airbnb, engineering, product, and design teams are bundled together, often collectively known as EPDs. In the case of the design team, all the designers in charge of all areas of the team are involved in the whole process from product development to release. If a project team is responsible for a new feature development, product marketing, or user feedback, then the engineering, product, and design teams will assign at least one person to participate. This combination not only brings together the main product developers, but also helps to regularize the career paths of all three team members.

This three-legged team is like the three-legged stool below, which represents the three different teams needed to develop a product, namely, the engineering, product, and design teams. Only when the three legs go hand in hand from the start of product development (such as Figure A), can the three legs be as long as the company expands (such as Figure B).

I have found that companies that have done a good job of balancing engineering, product and design from the start generally do the following two things:
A design director was recruited at the beginning of the company’s establishment. Later, reading Pocket will do better in this respect. When Pocket was founded, its founder, Nate Weiner, had some engineering and design experience, but lacked acumen and insight in design, so he quickly recruited designer Nikki Will to join the company, and he was promoted to design director. Thanks to Will’s contribution to product design, Pocket has built a great product from the start.

Expand the size of the design team and the scale of the engineering team and product team. Many companies usually recruit designers to do visual work after a few early stages of development, rather than involving designers from the start. If the design work is not synchronized with the product development work, this will not only complicate the product decision-making in UI / UX, but also not conducive to creating a multi-party collaborative product development team atmosphere. So what should we do? At the very beginning, engineers and product managers were recruited to recruit designers. The number of designers you need may not be as large as the number of engineers, but you can start by determining the proportion of designers to engineers, and I recommend that it be between 1:6 and 1:8. Different companies can make appropriate adjustments according to the actual situation of their products.

If you don’t follow this principle at first, you’ll end up with a lame product that will be as unstable as the bench below. If you don’t have a designer at the beginning of the product development, your product will look like a stool in Figure C below, with one leg missing. If you let the designer participate when the product has reached a certain stage of development and matured, you might be able to make a product that looks like a stool in Figure D, with three legs of different lengths.

The best way to avoid your product being as bad as the stool above is to create three legs (engineering, product and design) at the same time from the start. In practice, design, engineering, and product supervisors are recruited from the very beginning to report to the same person. In the case of Airbnb, Airbnb’s design, engineering and product managers are level and report directly to the founders. In fact, not only the heads of engineering, product and design departments need to work closely together, but also the three departments need to work together when it comes to each specific project.
A product is mainly defined by the following three elements: business, code and pixel. In every product decision, every element must have a chance to speak.
At Airbnb’s design team, we have taken the following steps to make sure that designers can guide the company’s development, while allowing designers to have a clear career path.

2., open up a clear career path for senior designers.

One problem facing senior employees, especially senior designers, is that as they become more senior in the specific areas of work they are responsible for, they will touch the “ceiling” of their careers, which is not the case for those in the corresponding management positions. Generally speaking, this has little to do with their abilities, job performance or influence, mainly because the skill sets they master are closed and cannot be transferred and shared. In Airbnb, we take the following measures to curb such negative effects.
Set a unified position title for all teams. Whether it is engineering, product, design or marketing personnel, adopt a unified title setting. All teams use the same job structure.
The most senior designers are promoted to top positions, but do not let them become managers. Upgrading to management positions is not a promotion, but rather a transboundary one. Senior designers can be promoted continuously in their careers, but will not be involved in design-independent management trifles.
As long as you combine the above two practices, you can improve the performance of the following place:
Designer retention rate. In the technical process-based design or engineering profession, you can encourage them to continue to enhance their core competencies and talents, rather than forcing them to transition to management positions. When forced transformation happens, many people choose to leave the company.
Let all team members grow and develop together. Allow senior designers to participate in important projects and major decisions so that they can grow with engineers and product team members, not just in projects that don’t give full play to their talents.
Internal mobility and mobility are stronger. By setting up a unified title and participating in more important projects, designers can gradually learn a lot of engineering and product areas of other professional knowledge, as the accumulation of cross-disciplinary knowledge more and more, based on their past project experience, hobbies and skills level, designers may try other positions in the company.

3. discover and use new tools to create a design terminology Bank of your own.

I admit that I still can’t get rid of Photoshop’s dependence until today. Using Photoshop has become a habit for me, just as designers used to think of pencils as an extension of their hands. Some tools we’ve been using for 20 years, and we usually choose software based on our habits and muscle memories, so it’s crucial that the new tools adapt to the designer’s habits.
We have our own experimenters on new tool mining, but it’s better to have someone dedicated to trying and integrating new design tools. That’s why Airbnb has invested a lot in the design and operation team, which is primarily responsible for helping the design team work more efficiently in the company’s expansion process. The Design Operations Team ensures that the design tools are coordinated with those used by the engineering, product, and other departments.
Even if you can’t build a dedicated design operations team right now, you can take some small steps to integrate tools and restructure them so that designers can work more easily. We should integrate from the most basic level, as far as possible to unify our usage norms and language. This applies not only to developing a design system, but also to more routine tasks, such as how to name files, where to store files, how to manage versions, and so on. It is far more important for everyone to follow the same norm than to find a perfect norm.
This specification and integration also lay the foundation for our own design language system (DLS). DLS system is not only a visual choice and design pattern language, but also a collaborative product development system between designers and developers. One of the main goals of DLS is to have designers and developers work together to define new functional components, and once defined, the component name will be used on both iOS, Android, and web platforms. Although these functional components are developed by different developers in different development environments, their names are the same, and they share the same core concepts for everyone in the company.

Airbnb’s design language system component page

After the system is completed, the company can create a common terminology bank in all departments. This not only improves communication efficiency, but also enables everyone to have a clearer understanding of all the design processes of the company. Some of Airbnb’s in-house products, such as native component browsers and Airshots, allow any employee of the company to instantly access thousands of design interfaces. All colleagues can see any application version of the interface diagram on any language and device we support. For designers, this helps to eliminate the abstraction layer between the design and the final product, minimizing confusion and confusion among designers.
Engineers often update their tools and languages quickly, and designers learn a lot from them. Engineers update tools quickly because they need to release code faster in an increasingly competitive market. Some companies have thousands of engineers who swim in a shared code base like a flock of fish and can adjust their postures to their peers. As designers, we have not yet achieved this synchronization in the use of tools, to achieve this synchronization, we first need to try existing tools on the market, if we can not find the tools we need, do not worry about their own development.

An industry standard terminology library helps promote the career of our designers, not limit it. In Airbnb, in addition to standardizing the way we design our interfaces, we also unified our working languages. In the future, we hope that the way the company discusses product design internally will work outside Airbnb, and that giants like Google and Facebook will work together to create a common terminology library for the design industry.

In a dictionary, each word has a certain meaning, and all the elements needed for poetry are contained in it.

Maybe because design is a visual work, we can easily imagine it as an aesthetic and romantic work. Designers tend to get caught up in colors, fonts, animations, and patterns, forgetting that design can be a core part of the company and lead to better careers. In the film industry, whenever new tools emerge, such as film production processes or hardware upgrades, the film industry meets to discuss new tools. Today, I’m only attending meetings where I discuss not only inspiration and creative processes, but also emerging design tools.
Without limiting the freedom of designer’s creation, the design department should have a clear standard process. In my opinion, a good designer is not only able to work with colleagues in engineering and product departments to make the whole product development process more streamlined, but also can actively learn engineering, product expertise. I’ve found that very few designers can do this, but it’s essential for the company and for your career.

Behind the design of creative magic, tools are at work, and future designs need to rely on both.

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