Designing a World Where You Belong Anywhere

Derek Chan + Clara Lam
Dec 8 2015

Derek Chan is a Senior Designer at Airbnb, and a 2011 alum of the UW VCD program. Clara Lam is an Experience Designer at Airbnb, and a 2015 alum of the UW VCD program. Airbnb is the largest home sharing network in the world—an online and app-based marketplace for people to list, discover and book lodging, covering 34,000 cities in more than 190 countries. Prior to working at Airbnb, Clara was a design intern at Microsoft and; Derek worked at Facebook in Product Design and at Nike in the Global Retail Design group.

Part One

Networking is Key

No one goes into an interview hoping that the candidate is a dud.

What strategies have you used to find jobs?

Derek: I have found networking through UW Design Alum very effective. Ultimately it’s how I landed all three of the jobs I’ve had outside of college.

Clara: During my senior year, I took a short trip down to San Francisco, I was able to set up several lunch and coffee dates with alumni here. I was surprised by how much they wanted to help me or to pass on advice. As far as interviewing goes, it’s important to remember that interviewers want to like you. No one goes into an interview hoping that the candidate is a dud. It really helped calm my nerves when I knew that as much as I wanted to find a job I loved, the people on the other side really wanted to find someone who was the right fit—it’s a two way street.

Derek Chan, Senior Designer at Airbnb, and 2011 alum of the UW VCD program, in the company’s Common Studio. The Common Studio contains an archive of almost all the design material that Airbnb has ever made, as well as creative equipment (digital plotters, a silk-screen setup, foil stamping machines and a 3d printer) for everyone in the company.

How did you get your job at Airbnb?

Derek: I messaged a friend who was working here about the company and what the design team was like. The first time I came to the office was during a Friday happy hour and I loved every single person I talked to. About a week later I was back doing a portfolio presentation—and the rest is history.

Clara: I met Derek for coffee and he showed me around the office. His passion for this place was really inspiring! Other alum talked about what they liked about their workplaces but Derek showed me things he’d worked on, introduced me to his coworkers, and talked about how much Airbnb had empowered him as a designer. When I told him I wanted to apply, he helped connect me to a recruiter and then a casual chat, a design challenge, a portfolio presentation, and four hour-long interviews later, here we are!

The Airbnb Environment

One of the working spaces in the Airbnb San Francisco office. Airbnb occupies a renovated warehouse in the SoMa neighborhood.


Why did you choose to work at Airbnb—rather than at another company?

Derek: I was inspired by the people I met working at Airbnb and how much they cared about the community of hosts and guests who used Airbnb. The passion was different from anything I had experienced before and it was an appealing prospect. I felt like the work I could do wouldn’t be frivolous and that I would have fun doing it.

Clara: The people at Airbnb were incredibly warm during and even in the weeks after my interview. I remember one of the founders, Joe, called me while I was trying to make my decision. It was supposed to be a 15 minute call but we ended up talking for close to an hour about what I wanted and the great opportunities at Airbnb. The design challenges here are big and complex and there was no way I was going to pass on them.

Part Two

Working at a Younger Tech Company

There’s high dependency on each other and we continually self-raise the bar.

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of working in-house?

Derek: Having only worked in-house, the advantage I’ve always seen is being able to have immense focus and impact on a single brand that I care about. The disadvantage could also be seen as only working on that brand and the work becoming monotonous. However, at Airbnb I’ve been lucky to work on projects of many sizes, scopes and mediums so I have yet to experience that downside.

Clara: I can’t speak for what it’s like to work at a design consultancy but I love being able to really own projects and their impact. You have to be completely invested because what you do affects your future work and all of your coworker’s work. There’s high dependency on each other and we continually self-raise the bar.

Several walkways through the office space include public areas for employees to work on projects that would benefit from the spontaneous exchange of ideas; the goal is to invite conversation across units.

What is a typical day at Airbnb like for you?

Derek: My mornings are usually reserved for coffee, responding to email and checking in with my team about what the day and week look like. The rest of the day is mostly work time with a meeting or two which could be a project meeting or a design review. I’m usually in by 9am and out around 7pm, unless there’s a tight deadline in which case it could be much later. I do have a lot of meetings but I think most of them are necessary for making sure everyone maintains clear communication. It helps us keep momentum. I work on a team of about 20 and belong to a couple of sub-teams of 5 or 6 for different focuses. My larger team mostly stays the same but we sometimes mix up the smaller focus teams depending on what’s needed. Right now I don’t really pick the projects I work on but it’s my job to think about their size and scope so there’s still a sense of ownership.

Clara: Work hours are flexible; as long as you get your work done, go to meetings, and work well with others, your schedule is up to you. No one seems to abuse the freedom which is good! I tend to get in around 9AM and stay until 6PM. As a more junior designer I only have a handful of meetings every week. We have EPIC (experience design, design operations, researchers and content strategists. The acronym is based on outdated names) standup meetings every Monday and then a longer meeting on Friday to regroup. I have weekly meetings with my cross-functional Pricing and Availability team and then frequent casual chats with the other designers on the team. We also have weekly crits which are my favorite. Outside of meetings, it’s heads down work time.

"One of my favorite projects was designing the visual identity for our first ever internal conference we called One Airbnb." —Derek

What are some of your favorite projects that you have done at Airbnb?

Derek: One of my favorite projects was designing the visual identity for our first ever internal conference we called One Airbnb. It involved all 18 of the offices we had at the time here in San Francisco over the course of 4 days. There were keynotes, classes, dinners, parties and community service throughout the days. To help everyone feel like they weren’t just one of 800 people in the company we commissioned handmade illustrations of everyone’s face to personalize things throughout the event. Everyone’s program and notebook had their unique face on it as well as sheets of stickers they could share with people they met. I tried to bring back the feeling of making a yearbook your own after receiving one with blank end sheets. People use the stickers for all sorts of things—profile pictures, laptop identification and email signatures. It’s been fun to see them become part of the visual language of Airbnb offices around the world.

Clara: I’ve only worked on one major project so far. My team worked on this amazing tool called Smart Pricing to help hosts know how to price their listings. It feels good to have created something that can really help our host community.

Creative Spaces

This in-office space replicates the experience of Airbnb’s popular Airstream home listings


How would you describe the culture at Airbnb?

Derek: Everyone who’s here believes in our brand mission of making the world a place where you belong anywhere and shares a set of values that influence how we think and act to get there. I’m surrounded by some of the smartest and most creative people I have ever met and I feel like we respect each other as equals regardless of rank or title.

Clara: People are driven but not cutthroat. Everyone’s pushing to do better work and encourage others to do the same. What’s cool too is that my coworkers care about what others care about. For example, just the other day this guy, Keenan, was walking around looking for a girl who sits next to me. I asked him what he needed her for and he said that he wanted to give her some pin backs that he just bought. Apparently he found out that they were both big pin aficionados. So random but people are just so caring here.

For experience design, we always talk about what we look for in candidates: Talent, hustle, and humility. They need to be “damn good at their craft.” They need to be able to take ownership and get stuff done. And then they need to have the humility to recognize where they can learn from others.

Derek: I think most Airbnb employees are quite driven but not in an intimidating way. We all come from different backgrounds and recognize that we each bring something unique to the table. I also think we’re a pretty funny bunch. It’s hard not to smile and laugh throughout the day.

Four stories of office space wrap the central atrium. The atrium features a living green wall.

What are some fun things that happen in your office?

Derek: We have monthly happy hours but there are always smaller impromptu gatherings. My favorite thing about working here is the people—both inside the office and outside. I’m lucky to call many of my co-workers friends.

Clara: My favorite thing has to be the people. I’m tempted to say the food because it’s excellent (but I’m choosing the people over food, haha!). I really think it’s rare to find a company where everyone is so in love with the product, in love with the mission, and passionate about building something great.

I love that people have put in a lot of effort to build fun work spaces or decorate meeting rooms. We have a great Environments team that designed most rooms but the silly ones made by random coworkers are the best. We have a ball pit room, a Hello Kitty birthday room, a Ca$h bar, a pony room, and a Japanese-inspired room. Also, sometimes this guy rides around on a bicycle and hands out ice cream. There’s a lot of fun things that happen around here!

Part Three

Reflecting on UW Design

“We have weekly crits, which are my favorite.” —Clara

When you look back at your time at UW, what was the most valuable part of your education?

Clara: I think our program does a really good job preparing you for adaptability. You need to have the ability to work on something really hard for two days and not be too attached to it—because you may need to completely scrap it. In the real world, you iterate fast, and it’s ok to start over. You haven’t lost time. You’ve learned things. Things are constantly shifting at this company, in a way that is very similar to school. If your project changes, you need to be able to say, “Ok, how do I deal with this?”

Derek: The practice of critique during school has translated into an important skill I use every day—listening to feedback and turning it into action. In my role I receive lots of feedback from both designers and non-designers, so listening and interpreting is crucial to understanding how the work should move forward. We are all trying to make the work more successful and not everyone uses the same vocabulary to speak about it.