Learning Lessons

How to build a Design education program 
for creative work

Categories: Behind the Scenes, Perspectives — Stephanie Szabó

When I began my Design career, the barriers to entry were great. Education was expensive, portfolios required experience, and access to knowledge was inequitable. While some of these hurdles have lessened — it’s still hard to grow in your practice once you work, because the value of professional development is not widely understood. This is precisely why after years of practicing as a Designer, I made the transition to Educator; I saw an opportunity to positively influence and make systematic changes to adult education.

Learning at work matters

Look around and you’ll see that learning as a discipline is sprouting all over business. As organizations strive to gain a competitive advantage and adapt to the future of hybrid work – there’s a greater need to align and develop employees. Organizations that value learning will develop an ecosystem of educational opportunities such as onboarding to ramp-up employees (a fit and retention lever), continuous education to improve their managers’ people leadership skills (an HR lever) or training to educate communities on processes or policies (a compliance lever). For organizations that require further specialization of their workforce, another type of learning is on the rise: functional education.

Enter functional education

Functional education focuses on the technical and increasingly perishable skills of a discipline. This type of learning is imperative for product-related roles in the Tech industry because they require constant upskilling to stay current. Most people find it sobering to learn that the average shelf life of technical skills is quite short. Some research suggests that it is roughly less than two and a half years and that more durable mindset skills like Design Thinking, have an average half life of 3.75 years. What’s more, unlike regulated professions such as Law or Medicine, Design is the Wild West: there’s very few standards enforcing quality.

Design Learning at Airbnb

We launched the Design Learning program within Airbnb to help our team blossom in their creative craft. Cultivating in-house expertise is worth the squeeze, because learning within our shared context immediately makes education more resonant and applicable for Airbnb. Our learning strategy is specifically rooted in craft – because it’s ultimately the strongest lever the Design function can contribute to the company. But what exactly is craft?

Craft is a cliche term that’s hard to explain in a fresh way. For Airbnb’s Design Learning program, craft is the 1% of details that unlock the remaining 99% of the experience.

With less than a year under our belt, we’ve seen a huge appetite for the learning of Design – both within and beyond the function. Over ⅕ of the entire company across 18 global offices have completed at least one course. Open enrollment to all employees means we’re not just educating our Design team, we’re educating our cross-functional peers on how to make better Design-led decisions. Our learners choose from a catalogue of 16 unique Design courses and 91% of them agree that “participating in the Design Learning program helps me grow at Airbnb”. All of this was accomplished in just a few short months, with less than $3K spent, amidst a global pandemic and with a Design Learning team of one. So how did we do it?

Going behind the scenes

If there’s anything we learned from launching an education program from 0-1, it’s that cultivating stakeholder commitment is the single most important thing you can do to ensure learning has longevity. We recognize there’s a lot to learn about functional education and we don’t have all the answers. Our hope is that by sharing the behind the scenes we can advance the practice of Design. That said, here are the three high-level stakeholder challenges we encountered when building our education program and how we tackled them.

1. Commitment from the organization

Organizations may say that they want to weave learning into their culture, but after that, the details can get hazy. Be prepared for stakeholders to have different responses to learning, and that some might not care about it at all. While developing curriculum is tangible and teaching learners is satisfying — all that is irrelevant if you don’t have nuanced clarity on two key questions: “What’s the value of learning?” and “Who benefits from learning?”

Impact reports for Airbnb Design Learning program

Course Impact Reports used for influence

Our Approach. Find metrics that matter. Then, tie your learning offerings to influence these desired outcomes. When our program began it was so new that we couldn’t get our stakeholders to connect program participation with performance reviews. We didn’t have the time, track record or even an LMS (Learning Management System). In response to our team’s budding learning culture, we designed Course Impact Reports as a form of influence. Each report acts as a snapshot of the learning experience that describes the course, highlights data like behavioral change and sentiment like learner quotes. Two weeks before performance review season each report is emailed to Managers with a personal message to provide them context and fuel for Talent calibrations. Creating these reports is a heavy manual lift but they’ve also proven to be one of our most successful and scrappy communication tools. Stakeholders can now see the impact of our education no matter their level of their involvement.

2. Commitment from leaders

There are so many ways for an organization’s leaders to support learning: sponsorship, resourcing, budget and participation are just a few. However we learned early on that the most engaged program audience would not be leaders, it was Design ICs. This makes sense given their responsibilities; ICs are often the ones doing the craft and developing new skills is a vehicle for growth. We needed Design leadership to be equally engaged.

Design Courses created by our Curriculum Steering Teams

Design Courses created by our Curriculum Steering Teams

Our Approach. In response to our teams’ mixed engagement needs we created Curriculum Steering Teams. These rotating teams of 5-7 SMEs (subject matter experts) lead seven different focus areas of Design and are curated for diverse functional expertise. Each team has a main representative that liaises between the group and the Design Learning program, while the rotating composition allows for anyone to influence the future of their craft. Having learning representatives from all corners of the Design function allowed us to amplify unheard voices and integrate bigger visions into our trajectory. It also meant that we had representation from every leader’s part of the Design function. It’s not a perfect solution to get all leaders’ commitment to learning, but it does scale equity and education very well.

3. Commitment from learners

From my experience educating graduate students to executives, how learning is presented can be just as important as what learning is presented. When polling the Design team about their preferences, we discovered that 73% of our team wanted learning to be like studio time: dedicated practice of hands-on application with real-time feedback on their craft from peers. This preference contradicted many popular (and frankly more scalable) learning formats such as lectures, speaker series and pre-recorded videos to watch alone. We also learned that while exposure from external perspectives was desired, the ability to “work with top talent at Airbnb” was a major catalyst for conversion and retention. We don’t yet know the specific reasons for these preferences but our hunch is it has to do with dialogue. The rapid back and forth of ideas – through oral, auditory or visual learning styles – is how subjective work often improves and how the culture of critique often works in Design. Learning this way has positively contributed to our teams’ sense of belonging as we continue to work more remotely.

Our Community of Facilitators complete a workshop on how to guide understanding

Our Community of Facilitators complete a workshop on how to guide understanding

Our Approach. In response to our Design function’s learning format needs, we knew we needed learning to be led by other Designers. So, we created a Community of Facilitators. Approximately ¼ of the Design team are nominated to learn the art form of facilitation and guide their peers’ learning. Each Design Course we offer is hosted live by a Facilitator and based on a “learn by doing” approach to craft. Reflection also plays an important role to encourage communal learning. We aim for an 80/20 model of lean-in (contribute) vs lean-back (reflect) learner engagement. We designed our language to promote inclusivity; avoiding terms like Faculty or Non-Designer and instead use terms like Facilitator and Design for Everyone. We even have Facilitators from Engineering and Product Management co-host courses on cross-functional topics like Inclusive Design and Service Design. To date we’ve seen an overall facilitation effectiveness rate of 91% given to our community of 50+ Facilitators. We’re clear that our learners love this approach to experiential learning, however it requires well-designed incentives to effectively scale this model of peer facilitation.

Commit to Learning

Where most learning programs fail – is a lack of commitment. Organizations need to commit to the culture of learning. Leaders need to commit to backing learning programs, and learners need to commit to learning. Functional education programs like ours may have started as corporate upskilling mechanisms, but they’re quickly becoming a mainstream staple of adult education. While conferences, certificates and degrees will always have a place in professional development – the unique value of learning directly from a company is that it occurs at the pace of their intellectual property and in our case, from and with the craft-based expertise of the Airbnb Design team.

We’d love to hear how you’re approaching the learning of Design – whether you’re a leader or learner. Feel free to reach out to us with your creative critique.

Stephanie Szabó is Head of Design Learning at Airbnb. She’s a former Design Teaching Fellow at the Stanford d.school and alumni of CCA.

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