It wasn’t all that long ago that the designers were practically second-class citizens in Silicon Valley. When Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb arrived from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), he noticed that investors and other entrepreneurs didn’t value the design sensibility his background had given him. “Investors thought, ‘Oh you’re not technical founders, you can’t contribute to the product,’” he said at PandoMonthly in San Francisco this evening. He and his co-founders weren’t two Stanford PhD drop-outs like the founders of Google, or Harvard computer science drop-outs like Mark Zuckerberg.
He had to convince investors of the value he brought to the table with his background as an industrial designer, but investors love a good archetype. “The problem was that there were no good companies that you could point at and say that they had good design,” he said.
The attitude toward designers has changed with the emergence of design-focused apps like Path. Now we use words like “gorgeous” and even “sexy” to describe user interfaces. Chesky says the Valley’s newfound appreciation for design is somewhat surface-level.
“A lot of people in the Valley think now that design is important, but a lot of times they might not know what it means,” he said. “I think what people think of when they think of design is how it looks, and not how it works.”
“Design is an entire way of thinking. It’s how you run your company. It’s how you run your board meetings. It’s how you treat your customers,” he said.
And that’s how Silicon Valley missed the message of Steve Jobs. Fanboys view him as this celestial being, Chesky argued, because when you don’t understand something — such as the beauty of Apple products and the company’s success — you make it abstract. Chesky says Steve Jobs’ design mentality clicked with him as a designer in ways that it may not have with, say, a developer. “The way he talked was like everyone around me at RISD would talk,” he said. “As far as I was concerned, he was one of us. It wasn’t that mysterious. He was a designer.”