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Friday, April 26, 2013

Airbnb's Design Talks: Designing Big Solutions in Cleverly Designed Rooms with Deliciously Designed Food

Posted By on Fri, Apr 26, 2013 at 8:00 AM

Inside the Airbnb offices
  • Inside the Airbnb offices


Airbnb is one of the city's most fashionable startups right now, and it's riding the design wave. On Wednesday the 18th, I headed over to one of their free monthly Design Talks, a mixer/lecture at their current office in the Design District. The speaker was Patrice Martin of, whose tagline is "Let's Design A Better World With Everyone." Martin's presentation included one slide that said "Design As A Way Of Seeing The World"; she spoke about "design thinking" and how Ideo addresses social issues in "places where design can't reach."

The presentation outlined one of Ideo's initiatives, a crowdsourced mapping project to improve sanitation in Ghana. Of course, the slides were beautifully designed. Equally attractive was the Airbnb office -- and Airbnb's intentions for this lecture series.

An Airbnb PR professional named Maggie Carr told me that "Design is the ethos and core of everything we do," and the coolest things she showed me were the life-size replicas of gorgeous host spaces from the Airbnb network. For example, one conference room is modeled on a room in Hong Kong, with light-up neon wall art. Another conference room is a one-third scale model of a San Francisco cottage; the replica cottage is big enough to walk inside, but small enough to be super cute. Naturally, the office has a ping-pong table (every fashionable startup needs its ping-pong table), but I was more excited about the well-designed food. During the Design Talk, Airbnb served "walnut larb with spicy mango coulis" -- I don't know what those larb and coulis are, but they're delicious. Also, asparagus!

Maggie explained that the goal of the Design Talks is to help "bring the design community together," which is interesting, given the current state of art in San Francisco. I probably count as an overprivileged technocrat -- I began my career in game design, and I currently enjoy my work as a social media strategist -- but I also have a history with social justice and the arts, so I share the growing feeling of tension about the gentrification juggernaut. Is it ironic that a tech company is hosting design lectures while San Francisco's incredible galleries and community arts organizations are being forced out of their neighborhoods by tech companies?

Despite this tension, however, I spent some time discussing different forms of outreach with Airbnb PR folks, and I came away feeling encouraged about the company's potential collaborations with the arts community. It helps that the Airbnb Design Talks are free and open to the public; there's a clear intention to make these events welcoming for as many people as possible, even to people who aren't in tech. I was also informed that Airbnb plans to bring in non-tech artists for future talks, and that there may be bigger collaborations with local arts organizations coming up.

With luck, high-tech design companies can be a bridge to the old-school San Francisco arts world, not just a displacement of it. And with even more luck, maybe we can make a group effort to stop overusing the word "design."

If you'd like to learn more about the Airbnb Design Talks, send an email to

Lydia Laurenson is an arts & culture writer who loves nothing more than Twitter.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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