Airbnb: Putting design at the heart of business

Recently, Airbnb has repositioned to place design and creativity at its core. We speak to Hiroki Asai, Airbnb’s global head of marketing, about how its in-house team is now driving the company into new realms

Speaking at Figma’s Config 2023 in June this year, Airbnb’s CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky explained how in 2019 he realised he had lost his nerve with the company, how he’d retreated from implementing his ­design thinking, and how, as a result, Airbnb had become divisionalised and run by product managers.

Later that year, when the company was gearing up to go public and just before the entire world shut down because of Covid-19, Chesky met Hiroki Asai and Jony Ive, who had transformed the way Apple operated during their time there. “They described a way of running a company with design at the centre,” Chesky told the audience. “So I hired Hiroki and we became Jony’s client…. For ten years I had been apologising for how I wanted to run the company, which was as a designer, and so that’s what we did,” he added. “We rebuilt the company from the ground up and started this giant exercise where we put everything on one roadmap.”

During this exercise, the pandemic hit and Airbnb lost 80% of its business in eight weeks. But Chesky and his team continued trying to simplify everything. “I used to think that meant getting rid of things, but what Jony and Hiroki taught me is that it’s about distilling something to its essence,” he said. “To do that you have to deeply understand it.”

Top: Still from Strangers campaign, 2021; Above: Pink Castle, Belgium, from Airbnb Categories campaign, 2022