First Day to First Launch

The first 60 days as a design associate at Airbnb

Categories: Behind the Scenes — Hongru Hou

“Hey Hongru, guess what?”

This was the phone call I was waiting for. The hiring manager at Airbnb was calling with news that I would be joining the team as a Design Associate.

As a frequent traveler, I’ve been using Airbnb since 2014 to find unique homes. And as a design grad student in the Bay Area, I’ve been attracted to and transformed by the inspiring values expressed through a series of Airbnb Design Talks. All of my encounters with the brand and its community made me curious about those who build it. That curiosity lead me to this role. 

Here are a few things I’ve observed and learned as a new grad designer at Airbnb HQ in the past 2 months.

Hongru's desk, decorated with a welcome banner and a card.

My desk on day one.

A unique environment

If I had to pick one word to describe the office, it would be kaleidoscope

Airbnb is a thoughtful and diverse place to work. I was pleasantly surprised when I came across Quiet Rooms (for praying), Mothers’ Rooms (for breastfeeding), and all-gender bathrooms. Other thoughtful details include, dog cookies for canine visitors, and birthday cards and anniversary balloons to send to others around the office.

HQ is a fun and cozy place to spend time. Each meeting room and kitchen is decorated based on a real listing on Airbnb and named after the city where that listing is located. So, it’s a norm to make your espresso in “Mumbai” and then present your ideas in “Shanghai.”

A caring community

With our headquarters decorated like a home, it’s not surprising that we call our co-workers “AirFam,” and we treat each other like a family.

In my eyes, one of the best things about being at Airbnb is the warmth and compassion of the AirFam. My welcome is still vivid to me; on my first day, I was greeted by a set of cards with people’s names on them. I was then tasked to meet the person on each card and collect their signatures. This was extremely helpful for an introverted person like myself to break the ice in a new environment.

And there’s more. We teach each other to make lattes; we offer our hands to those in need and show appreciation to those who helped us; we celebrate birthdays with cupcakes and candles; we go camping…I guess we really are a family!

A commitment to accessibility

Even before I joined the company, I admired Airbnb for their design. But I was moved when I opened the DLS Sketch templates for the very first time. Like other design guides, the first section of DLS is about color. Unlike others, the first sentence of the first paragraph is about accessibility — “All of our product user interfaces should meet minimum WCAG AA level contrast guidelines.” (This is the minimum level of contrast between text and background required to ensure that people with color-blindness and limited vision can read the text.) This is the first thing the team wants each of us to remember.

A screenshot of Airbnb's Design Language System.

This level of effort to take care of our guests and hosts showed up in other forms. One of the on-boarding sessions for all newly-hired designers was a chance to meet our Inclusive Design team. A designer from the A11y team (stands for Accessibility) guided us to turn on VoiceOver on our smartphones and to close our eyes, so we could experience how those who don’t see the screen use our app. This exercise really helped us keep inclusive design top of mind.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If there’s any mojo that helps Airbnb create its design work, putting people before anything else may be the key.

A multidisciplinary approach

Experiences is one of Airbnb’s newest features to help travelers belong anywhere. Our goal is to enable Experience hosts to share their passions with guests through transformative and meaningful activities.

My first design project was helping to redesign the host-facing calendar and how Experience hosts can interact with it. Since I was new to the team and to host-facing products, one of my challenges was not having enough context. But the team was there to help me. A one-pager from a product manager (PM) really helped me build a better understanding about people’s needs and our goals. Being able to have a Content Strategists’ eye on the user flow helped me ensure the design felt like Airbnb. Assisting engineers to bring the optimal solution to life was also a rewarding process since I learned how to break down and prioritize implementations. Sitting with them side-by-side helped me understand technical constraints better. Good design now has a new meaning to me — it reflects the concerns of all disciplines.

The design that we chose and shipped (the numbers on the left are different versions).

A rewarding experience

One thing I really appreciated for my first project was that the team trusted me and let me own the whole project. It was trust that empowered me to take full responsibility, be ambitious and creative, and feel rewarded when seeing the new calendar move from beta to the app you have on your phone — I had never felt so fulfilled before.

I couldn’t find a better place to start my career than here at Airbnb. I’m looking forward to creating more meaningful and thoughtful human connections and making the world several pixels better, click after click.

Note: Airbnb’s Design Associate Program is geared towards recent graduates that are new to the design industry. More information about our early career programs for creatives with a variety of backgrounds will be available when we are actively recruiting in 2018.


Hongru is a design associate at Airbnb. When he's not tweaking a design or collaborating with the team, he translates design books, collects minimal interior inspiration, and finds joy in things that are aesthetically innocent and technically innovative.

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