May 16, 2024

How to create a culture of craft at scale

Creator of Dive

Former Chief Design Officer @ Airbnb

Two weeks ago, Airbnb captivated the design community with the ​launch of Icons​.

Per usual, they nailed every minuscule detail.

So what does it take for a ~$90B company to consistently reach this level of craft?

Well... I interviewed their long-time Chief Design Officer (​Alex Schleifer​) to find some answers.

Here’s what you need to scale a culture of craft 👇

💎 How to create a culture of craft at scale

1 — You can’t outsource design decisions to data

Most teams ship by default and then keep what performs well. It’s why so many products become a collection of experiments over a long enough time horizon.

🔦 Data is arguably the best way to illuminate design opportunities.

❌ But it shouldn’t dictate design decisions.

“The job of designer is not reading a spreadsheet and seeing if there’s a green number or a red number” — Alex Schleifer

The more you turn to metrics to make decisions, the easier it becomes to look past the paper cuts or unsee the opportunities to create something truly differentiated.

It’s tempting to let metrics be your guide because data is the ultimate safety net.

You’re not going to be fired if your decision was backed up by an Amplitude chart.

That's why this next takeaway is crucial 👇

2 — You need singular vision

The way to keep your product from becoming a collection of experiments is to operate with singular vision, and that has to come from leaders who are close to the pixels.

If decision-making is overly distributed it’s almost impossible to create a product that is cohesive and high-quality from end to end.

But if you're going to have a top-down approach to building product then you have to ensure leadership doesn't become the bottleneck.

That’s why design leaders at Airbnb work hard to create a culture of decisiveness:

  1. They hold regular executive design reviews

  2. They don’t use research as a crutch to punt decision-making

  3. If a designer is stuck for 24 hours, they’re expected to turn to leadership to make a call.

The main output for leadership has to be making decisions. This is the currency of running a company” - Alex Schleifer

It’s a big part of why Airbnb has shifted to a multi-year roadmap with only two major releases per year. This allows their CEO, Brian Chesky, to steer the high-level vision while also acting as the Editor in Chief, unafraid to delve into the details.

Which is why I love this analogy 👇

3 — Design leaders need to be in the kitchen

Alex says the best design leaders are like chefs. They might not be chopping carrots, but they’re always in the kitchen, they taste the food before it goes out, and they’re damn good with a knife.

This is the type of person you want to scale a team around (not managers who haven’t done production work in 3-4 years).

His comment reminded me of ​Derek Briggs​ (who still writes code as the Director of Design at ​Clerk​). When leaders like Derek are comfortable diving into the finer details, you’re able to build flatter orgs where quality is celebrated and everyone speaks the same language.

Alex claims Brian Chesky knows the product better than anyone (and even shares stories about how he is more than comfortable giving low-level UI feedback in executive design reviews).

This is a big reason why I’m bullish on design founders 🚀

And it’s also why Airbnb’s culture is so difficult to copy 👇

4 — Nothing matters if you’re not proud of your work

Alex printed out three questions that designers at Airbnb had to answer:

  1. Does it work?

  2. Does it scale?

  3. Are you proud of it?

If the answer to #3 isn’t a resounding “yes” then they won’t ship (even if the feature might increase conversions).

Let’s talk about the flow for adding people to a listing as an example…

I bet you wouldn’t have a hard time designing a counter UX that is clean, performant, and scalable. It might even look something like this 👀

But look what happens when you take the question “are you proud of it?” seriously…

It forces you to push past “good enough” and reach for something truly special 👀

Could Airbnb be just as successful without adding characters to this flow?

Ya, most likely.

But you better believe I’d be proud if I designed this.

And if you want to reach Airbnb-level craft, it’s not enough to flippantly say “oh ya we take pride in our work!”

It has to translate to what you prioritize and where you set the bar for design.

“How dare we put something into the world that we’re not proud of?”
Alex Schleifer

👀 Inside design at Airbnb

Airbnb has been a primary source of inspiration for most of my design journey. So this episode is a special one because we get an inside look from their long-time Chief Design Officer, ​Alex Schleifer​.

In addition to everything about scaling craft, we also discuss:

  • What he looks for in design candidates

  • How to succeed in executive CRITs at Airbnb

  • How designers should prepare for an AI future

  • What it means to operate with a “first team” mindset

  • How he scaled the design team from ~35 to ~600 people

  • Which elements of the Airbnb culture you can instill for your team

  • a lot more

Listen on ​YouTube​, ​Spotify​, ​Apple​, or wherever you get your podcasts 👇

Two weeks ago, Airbnb captivated the design community with the ​launch of Icons​.

Per usual, they nailed every minuscule detail.

So what does it take for a ~$90B company to consistently reach this level of craft?

Well... I interviewed their long-time Chief Design Officer (​Alex Schleifer​) to find some answers.

Here’s what you need to scale a culture of craft 👇

💎 How to create a culture of craft at scale

1 — You can’t outsource design decisions to data

Most teams ship by default and then keep what performs well. It’s why so many products become a collection of experiments over a long enough time horizon.

🔦 Data is arguably the best way to illuminate design opportunities.

❌ But it shouldn’t dictate design decisions.

“The job of designer is not reading a spreadsheet and seeing if there’s a green number or a red number” — Alex Schleifer

The more you turn to metrics to make decisions, the easier it becomes to look past the paper cuts or unsee the opportunities to create something truly differentiated.

It’s tempting to let metrics be your guide because data is the ultimate safety net.

You’re not going to be fired if your decision was backed up by an Amplitude chart.

That's why this next takeaway is crucial 👇

2 — You need singular vision

The way to keep your product from becoming a collection of experiments is to operate with singular vision, and that has to come from leaders who are close to the pixels.

If decision-making is overly distributed it’s almost impossible to create a product that is cohesive and high-quality from end to end.

But if you're going to have a top-down approach to building product then you have to ensure leadership doesn't become the bottleneck.

That’s why design leaders at Airbnb work hard to create a culture of decisiveness:

  1. They hold regular executive design reviews

  2. They don’t use research as a crutch to punt decision-making

  3. If a designer is stuck for 24 hours, they’re expected to turn to leadership to make a call.

The main output for leadership has to be making decisions. This is the currency of running a company” - Alex Schleifer

It’s a big part of why Airbnb has shifted to a multi-year roadmap with only two major releases per year. This allows their CEO, Brian Chesky, to steer the high-level vision while also acting as the Editor in Chief, unafraid to delve into the details.

Which is why I love this analogy 👇

3 — Design leaders need to be in the kitchen

Alex says the best design leaders are like chefs. They might not be chopping carrots, but they’re always in the kitchen, they taste the food before it goes out, and they’re damn good with a knife.

This is the type of person you want to scale a team around (not managers who haven’t done production work in 3-4 years).

His comment reminded me of ​Derek Briggs​ (who still writes code as the Director of Design at ​Clerk​). When leaders like Derek are comfortable diving into the finer details, you’re able to build flatter orgs where quality is celebrated and everyone speaks the same language.

Alex claims Brian Chesky knows the product better than anyone (and even shares stories about how he is more than comfortable giving low-level UI feedback in executive design reviews).

This is a big reason why I’m bullish on design founders 🚀

And it’s also why Airbnb’s culture is so difficult to copy 👇

4 — Nothing matters if you’re not proud of your work

Alex printed out three questions that designers at Airbnb had to answer:

  1. Does it work?

  2. Does it scale?

  3. Are you proud of it?

If the answer to #3 isn’t a resounding “yes” then they won’t ship (even if the feature might increase conversions).

Let’s talk about the flow for adding people to a listing as an example…

I bet you wouldn’t have a hard time designing a counter UX that is clean, performant, and scalable. It might even look something like this 👀

But look what happens when you take the question “are you proud of it?” seriously…

It forces you to push past “good enough” and reach for something truly special 👀

Could Airbnb be just as successful without adding characters to this flow?

Ya, most likely.

But you better believe I’d be proud if I designed this.

And if you want to reach Airbnb-level craft, it’s not enough to flippantly say “oh ya we take pride in our work!”

It has to translate to what you prioritize and where you set the bar for design.

“How dare we put something into the world that we’re not proud of?”
Alex Schleifer

👀 Inside design at Airbnb

Airbnb has been a primary source of inspiration for most of my design journey. So this episode is a special one because we get an inside look from their long-time Chief Design Officer, ​Alex Schleifer​.

In addition to everything about scaling craft, we also discuss:

  • What he looks for in design candidates

  • How to succeed in executive CRITs at Airbnb

  • How designers should prepare for an AI future

  • What it means to operate with a “first team” mindset

  • How he scaled the design team from ~35 to ~600 people

  • Which elements of the Airbnb culture you can instill for your team

  • a lot more

Listen on ​YouTube​, ​Spotify​, ​Apple​, or wherever you get your podcasts 👇

Two weeks ago, Airbnb captivated the design community with the ​launch of Icons​.

Per usual, they nailed every minuscule detail.

So what does it take for a ~$90B company to consistently reach this level of craft?

Well... I interviewed their long-time Chief Design Officer (​Alex Schleifer​) to find some answers.

Here’s what you need to scale a culture of craft 👇

💎 How to create a culture of craft at scale

1 — You can’t outsource design decisions to data

Most teams ship by default and then keep what performs well. It’s why so many products become a collection of experiments over a long enough time horizon.

🔦 Data is arguably the best way to illuminate design opportunities.

❌ But it shouldn’t dictate design decisions.

“The job of designer is not reading a spreadsheet and seeing if there’s a green number or a red number” — Alex Schleifer

The more you turn to metrics to make decisions, the easier it becomes to look past the paper cuts or unsee the opportunities to create something truly differentiated.

It’s tempting to let metrics be your guide because data is the ultimate safety net.

You’re not going to be fired if your decision was backed up by an Amplitude chart.

That's why this next takeaway is crucial 👇

2 — You need singular vision

The way to keep your product from becoming a collection of experiments is to operate with singular vision, and that has to come from leaders who are close to the pixels.

If decision-making is overly distributed it’s almost impossible to create a product that is cohesive and high-quality from end to end.

But if you're going to have a top-down approach to building product then you have to ensure leadership doesn't become the bottleneck.

That’s why design leaders at Airbnb work hard to create a culture of decisiveness:

  1. They hold regular executive design reviews

  2. They don’t use research as a crutch to punt decision-making

  3. If a designer is stuck for 24 hours, they’re expected to turn to leadership to make a call.

The main output for leadership has to be making decisions. This is the currency of running a company” - Alex Schleifer

It’s a big part of why Airbnb has shifted to a multi-year roadmap with only two major releases per year. This allows their CEO, Brian Chesky, to steer the high-level vision while also acting as the Editor in Chief, unafraid to delve into the details.

Which is why I love this analogy 👇

3 — Design leaders need to be in the kitchen

Alex says the best design leaders are like chefs. They might not be chopping carrots, but they’re always in the kitchen, they taste the food before it goes out, and they’re damn good with a knife.

This is the type of person you want to scale a team around (not managers who haven’t done production work in 3-4 years).

His comment reminded me of ​Derek Briggs​ (who still writes code as the Director of Design at ​Clerk​). When leaders like Derek are comfortable diving into the finer details, you’re able to build flatter orgs where quality is celebrated and everyone speaks the same language.

Alex claims Brian Chesky knows the product better than anyone (and even shares stories about how he is more than comfortable giving low-level UI feedback in executive design reviews).

This is a big reason why I’m bullish on design founders 🚀

And it’s also why Airbnb’s culture is so difficult to copy 👇

4 — Nothing matters if you’re not proud of your work

Alex printed out three questions that designers at Airbnb had to answer:

  1. Does it work?

  2. Does it scale?

  3. Are you proud of it?

If the answer to #3 isn’t a resounding “yes” then they won’t ship (even if the feature might increase conversions).

Let’s talk about the flow for adding people to a listing as an example…

I bet you wouldn’t have a hard time designing a counter UX that is clean, performant, and scalable. It might even look something like this 👀

But look what happens when you take the question “are you proud of it?” seriously…

It forces you to push past “good enough” and reach for something truly special 👀

Could Airbnb be just as successful without adding characters to this flow?

Ya, most likely.

But you better believe I’d be proud if I designed this.

And if you want to reach Airbnb-level craft, it’s not enough to flippantly say “oh ya we take pride in our work!”

It has to translate to what you prioritize and where you set the bar for design.

“How dare we put something into the world that we’re not proud of?”
Alex Schleifer

👀 Inside design at Airbnb

Airbnb has been a primary source of inspiration for most of my design journey. So this episode is a special one because we get an inside look from their long-time Chief Design Officer, ​Alex Schleifer​.

In addition to everything about scaling craft, we also discuss:

  • What he looks for in design candidates

  • How to succeed in executive CRITs at Airbnb

  • How designers should prepare for an AI future

  • What it means to operate with a “first team” mindset

  • How he scaled the design team from ~35 to ~600 people

  • Which elements of the Airbnb culture you can instill for your team

  • a lot more

Listen on ​YouTube​, ​Spotify​, ​Apple​, or wherever you get your podcasts 👇

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"There's no doubt that Dive has made me a better designer"

@ned_ray

Join 10,000+ designers

Get our weekly breakdowns

"There's no doubt that Dive has made me a better designer"

@ned_ray

"

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"

I've been binging Dive Club lately and the quality is nuts

Literally the only show about design I watch”

Eugene Fedorenko

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