Calling all Creatives

A first look at Airbnb's multidisciplinary fellowship program

Categories: Behind the Scenes, Interview — Andrea Nguyen and Sadie Williams

Most creative college graduates leave school eager to find working environments that will give their passion and abilities a platform to shine. But landing a role that offers the opportunity to flex those hard-earned muscles and the time and resources to explore, experiment, and exercise creative freedom can be easier said than done. 

It was with this predicament in mind that the Airbnb Creative Fellowship was born. Launched in 2013, the program is designed to offer four recent grads—who specialize in design, film, photography, and copywriting—a one-year paid opportunity to learn from and collaborate with the brand’s in-house Creative team. In addition, each Fellow is given the resources to spearhead a project of their own design, a capstone of sorts that merges their personal creative interests with a specific business goal of a team within the company. 

To learn more, we spoke with Program Manager Andrea Nguyen (who was Airbnb’s very first Creative Fellow) and current Graphic Design Fellow Sadie Williams, whose Fellowship project is a print magazine called Consilio!, designed as an educational and inspirational tool for Airbnb Plus hosts. (It now reaches over 24k readers worldwide.) In today’s Q&A, we asked the pair to reflect on their experiences in the program—and to tell us why its influence is felt not just by Fellows, but by every member of the Airbnb team and the brand’s wider community, too.

Andrea, as Airbnb’s first Fellow, how would you say the Fellowship experience has evolved over the years? 

Andrea: The program has definitely expanded over time. When it was just starting out, we were taking things week by week. Fellows would just work on projects as they popped up over the course of six months. As the company matured and high-level team visions became more established, the program did, too. Today, our philosophy is really about catering to each Fellow’s unique personality and interests, and making sure that Airbnb is a place where they can experience meaningful creative growth over the course of a full year. If a Fellow is interested in branding, for example, we try to find ways to give them opportunities to explore that passion while still exposing them to a range of fields and processes. We do this by having Fellows rotate to a new team every couple of months. Over the years, though, the heart of the program has stayed the same. At Airbnb, we always wants to keep our finger on the pulse by engaging with new and emerging talent. 

Current Graphic Design Fellow Sadie Williams and Program Manager Andrea Nguyen (who was Airbnb’s very first Creative Fellow; Photo by Emily Wolfe).

Airbnb places great importance on building an in-house team that’s as diverse as its growing global community. What is the process of selecting Fellows like, and how do you ensure that a range of backgrounds, skill sets, and perspectives is represented in the pool of participants?

Andrea: The Fellowship program is advertised to seniors at the beginning of the year that they’re slated to graduate. In the past, I’ve personally gone through each application myself, combing through hundreds of resumes and websites. This year, I’m working more closely with the University Recruiting team to reach out to a wider pool of students. Ultimately, we choose Fellows based on their portfolios. We pay much more attention to their work than what school or program they’re attending. We look for work that displays a distinctly high level of craft and technical skill among different mediums, while still maintaining a cohesive design style. We admire work that takes clever approaches to problem-solving, and that has a storytelling component as its baseline. We look for students who have that little something ‘extra’—the student who supplements their projects with animation, prototyping, illustration, or a side hustle. If their work and personality catch our eye, we’ll bring them in to meet them.

The Fellowship project has remained a consistent part of the program since the beginning. Can you elaborate on what that is?

Andrea: Fellows are required to produce a self-led project, but the parameters have evolved as the program has grown. In the past, the project was more ”you can do whatever you want, just go wild!” blue-sky thinking. Now, we really want these projects to center on a specific business need. Sadie’s, for instance, stemmed from the need to educate Airbnb Plus hosts on how to improve their homes and hosting techniques.

Sadie, what led you to apply for a Fellowship?

Sadie: I graduated from the Academy of Arts here in San Francisco two Augusts ago after a five-year program, so graphic design has been very much the center of my life for a long time. When I left, I was excited to be in such close proximity to a brand that inspired me. When someone mentioned the Creative Fellowship to me, I was super interested from the get-go. It seemed like a great opportunity to see how design works cross-functionally at a large company. I was also looking forward to being surrounded by experienced colleagues who could teach me a lot in one year, and also to the creative freedom I’d have while I was in that environment.

Consilio!, created by Design Fellow Sadie Williams.

Tell us about your project, Consilio!. Why did you choose Airbnb Plus hosts as a target audience?

Sadie: The first team I worked with at Airbnb was the Airbnb Plus team, which focuses on a collection of homes verified for quality. Hosts listing their homes on Airbnb Plus need to meet a certain set of criteria, and at that time, team members were already creating Pinterest content to help educate them on how to design their homes better. It was clear to me that defining ‘design’ for hosts was a particular pain point: many people are fantastic hosts, but interior design doesn’t come naturally to them. The idea for the print journal started to take shape as I thought about different ways to address the challenge outside of Pinterest. With thousands of hosts in nearly 800 markets, I believed there could be a more polished way of showing them—instead of telling them—about our design standards, and this idea of an educational tool that could be shipped out to hosts was exciting to me.

What inspired the decision to make this a print project? How does storytelling through print differ from storytelling on the web—and what are the costs versus benefits of a print project instead of a digital one?

Sadie: We wanted Consilio! to be a sensory experience for the people receiving it, and felt that small-format, good-smelling, high-quality paper would be a juicy way to do that. As for the cost versus benefits, we used pre-existing imagery, so the majority of the costs came from hiring artists and contributors—something we’d be doing anyway, even if this was a digital project. So in the end, printing was just an add-on budget-wise and was totally worth it for the effect.

What was it like getting Consilio! off the ground? Who did you work with? What was your first step?

Sadie: Pitching was for sure the first step. In the Fellowship program, you’re given time to dedicate solely to your project, so that your attention isn’t split between your personal work and the team you’re paired with. That’s supposed to happen toward the end of the year, but for me, it happened earlier than that organically. I got insights from a lot of people in production and creative who had been working on Plus for a while. I got to ask them why something like this hadn’t happened already and how it could exist in the future.

After that, they helped me make a strong pitch deck that I took to my Creative Director, Naz. She was super supportive and very excited that the project would benefit from my full-time bandwidth, and the budget that comes from the Fellowship program. At that point, I got everything I needed to start the Journal. Everyone on the team—the Creative Leads, copywriters, designers and Photo-Editors—gave a lot of their time to give me thoughtful feedback along the way. And Mariola, a Creative Producer on Plus, made the whole thing operational. There was just so much time spent on this, and I was really grateful for everyone’s excitement about it and how involved they wanted to be. It made me more excited about it and made the project feel really valuable. 

How did you collaborate with Airbnb to merge your creative ideas with the larger story of the brand? How much creative freedom did you have?

Sadie: I had a ton of creative freedom. Because this was a Fellowship project, we had a lot of opportunity to focus on exploring and simply being expressive. That being said, Airbnb has core brand messaging that’s very distinct, so I let that guide the process of developing a voice for Consilio!

Consilio! was designed as an educational tool for Airbnb Plus hosts.

Also, as mentioned, a lot of the imagery we used were pre-existing assets that Airbnb Plus had captured. It was already set up to be responsive to Plus’s brand, and those photos were phenomenal to begin with. Plugging them into the Consilio! design ultimately drew everything back to the core brand.

Andrea: I’d add that because the content in Consilio! is obviously about Airbnb and its hosts, it’s already on-brand. Sadie found a way to bridge both her personal style and Airbnb’s way of storytelling in a really wonderful way.

Andrea, how does Consilio! reflect the goals of the larger Fellowship program?

Andrea: Sadie’s experience hits the nail right on the head, because the program is all about the personalities and interests of the Fellows dictating the projects they pursue. The reason Consilio! is a printed magazine is, in large part, because she loves editorial and tactile materials. She’s a paper nerd. If another fellow who was interested in web storytelling had approached the same idea, the project would have been completely different—and we would have advocated for that version of it, too. In the past, we’ve had a Fellow who was interested in designing for children make a toy. Another had a strong passion for digital design and prototyped an interactive product component. The form each project takes is up to the Fellow—and that’s what makes the program so exciting.

Former fellow Elizabeth Freeman created a toy for children.

 What type of impact do the Fellows have on the teams they work with over the course of their year at Airbnb?

Andrea: I’m a really strong advocate of building teams out to include entry-, mid-, and high-level designers. Teams struggle without that balance. When Creative leadership can see and experience the impact that these Fellows are making—and hear the many new ideas they contribute each year—it helps them understand the importance of taking on new talent. We need those breaths of fresh air. In terms of on-going impact, a few of our past Fellows are now full-time employees at Airbnb and they’re all contributing to different teams. You can see where their interests led them within the company—Sally Carmichael, for instance, started out as a Fellow back in 2014 and she now creatively leads the Airbnb Magazine team. To put it simply, the more we can engage emerging creatives the better, because, as we’ve seen, that investment can loop back to meet the needs of a cyclical creative community.

Fellow Sally Carmichael designed a deck of cards to create a playful tool for connection that transcends language barriers.

What advice would you give to future Fellows to ensure they make the most of their time in the program?

Sadie: It can be intimidating to come into a workplace straight out of school. At first, I was a little nervous about asking for the resources I needed to do what I wanted to do, but I quickly learned how available those resources were. So I’d say, don’t shy away from asking for what you need—but also, make sure you fully understand exactly what those things are and why they’re important before doing that. For instance, when I was working on Consilio!,  I did a lot of research on print production and learned as much as I could about what Creative already had available. Then, I used that info to outline the specifics of what would be needed for my project—from purchasing typefaces or hiring an illustrator.

Andrea: I tell every single fellow that proactiveness is 100% key to this fellowship. This program is what you make of it. We won’t hold your hand every step of the way, because when you move from a fellowship to a real job, there’s a lot of gray area to navigate and we want to prepare you for that reality. Instead, we’re here to guide you. We’ll give you a preliminary list of people we think would be relevant for you to meet for a coffee chat, for instance, but then it’s up to you to actually schedule those chats. It’s up to you to establish your own program. 

With such a wide range of personalities and projects, do you measure a Fellow’s success?

Andrea: The main objective is to give Fellows a chance to develop their passions and get a taste of what it’s like to work with an in-house creative team. New grads need time to cultivate their own design identities and find their own styles and work ethics. Our intention is purely to foster personal growth; help make connections within the Creative team, the design organization, and the entire company; and guide Fellows in whatever ways we can.

As for success, the program has been successful if the Fellow is proactive enough to determine their own next steps. It’s not about whether the experience translates to a job in our offices, but if they can discover anything from their year here that helps them define where their passions lie and what’s next for them, then that’s success. 

What does the future hold for the Fellowship program?

Andrea: In general, we’d like to continue to grow the program, increasing awareness of its existence, developing more immersive and cross-collaborative opportunities, and, maybe one day, widening its scope to include Fellows of different backgrounds and creative concentrations.

It’s definitely a balancing act. Airbnb is a business and projects need to be relevant to our needs, but at the same time, we want to give Fellows room to grow and to explore projects they’re interested in, with the support they need to realize their full potential. In terms of project ownership and possibility, Sadie has definitely paved the way for what future Fellows can achieve here—we’re excited to see what’s next for her, and for the program. To that end, we’re always looking for new and diverse talent for our next round of Fellows. If you’re curious about being a part of the program, by all means, visit our submissions site and apply. We look forward to seeing your work!

Interested in becoming a Fellow? Apply by January 3rd here.

Andrea Nguyen is a designer on the Creative team at Airbnb and manager of the Fellowship program. Outside of work, she loves illustrating, being a bunny mom, and expanding her cooking skills.
Sadie Williams is a Design Fellow at Airbnb and a sustainable fashion aficionado at home. She can often be found petting other’s dogs in excess.

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