You already know Airbnb as an online marketplace for short-term home rentals—and as one of the most valuable startups in the world. And you know Uber as both a ridesharing company and a food ordering and delivery app (via Uber Eats) that has been a trailblazer in the gig economy.
But what Airbnb and Uber have in common—besides being two of the most disruptive young companies in the world—is that they are also at the forefront of reshaping how we think about the way design interacts with a company’s brand. In fact, design has become so intrinsic to the how we think about these brands (even if it’s subconsciously), that it’s almost impossible to separate the company’s design work from their service offerings.
In the past, design could often be secondary—or even an afterthought—to a company’s business. There would be a logo, a color scheme, a certain typeface and font we’d associate with a brand; but design always seemed fairly limited to the surface aesthetics of a business, rather than integrated into the business itself.
That is starting to change.
But before we get to the work that young companies like Uber and Airbnb are doing with software product design, let’s take a brief look back at how one older company (relatively speaking) helped change the way design is incorporated into a brand through its hardware.
There is arguably no modern American company that has integrated product design into its brand more than Apple, so much so that when many of us think about the genius of the late Steve Jobs, we often think first of his genius at design rather than how any of Apple’s products function. You can trace this back to the very beginning: At a time when the PC market was dominated by IBM and home computers were large, unsightly machines, Apple released its Macintosh 125 in 1984—a compact, beautiful computer that looked like nothing anyone had seen before. The design of Macintosh’s original computer was so ahead of its time that it’s become a collectible, treated almost like a piece of art.
And then after more than a decade away from Apple, leaving the year after the company released its first computer, Steve Jobs returned in 1997 as interim CEO. The following year, Apple released the iMac, another singular design—especially its ubiquitous “Bondi blue” model—that once again changed how we thought a computer could be designed and how a computer could look.
This premium on product design has become an intrinsic part of Apple’s brand throughout its history: Whether it’s the white or silver MacBook, its various iterations of the iPod, or the different models of the iPhone, it seems almost impossible to separate the company’s seminal design aesthetic from how we think about its brand. Apple’s iconic “Think Different” campaign was essentially its way of letting us know that it knows its brand represents something bigger than just making tech products.
So, how does a company like Airbnb, which doesn’t have a computer or phone or any product of its own on the market, actually integrate design into its brand? Well, one way is to create your own language.
Software design hasn’t kept pace with the innovations made in engineering tools, and the way “we work today can broaden the gap between engineering and design, and the many layers between designing and building are a burden,” as Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb wrote. Recognizing this challenge, the company sought to bridge the gap. Its Design Language System (DLS)—which, yes, is a design system—“allows for rapid iteration using a shared vocabulary across design, engineering, and other disciplines.”
It focuses on common ingredients that follow our core design principles: unified, universal, iconic, and conversational. Universal and unified define the system's approach we apply when defining patterns. Is it part of a greater whole? Does it work across devices? Iconic and conversational help define the character of the system—its unique human qualities that tie back to our community and brand values.
Airbnb’s implementation of the DLS has not only bridged the gap between design and engineering to make the work more efficient and consistent, but by bridging that gap it has helped bring design to the forefront of its brand, making product design a “part of the greater whole” in its business. Airbnb now highlights everything from its work with developing typeface to its open source library for writing Sketch documents to its very own podcast on design; in other words, it has now fully integrated its design efforts into its brand.
During an “Ask Me Anything” on the Designer News site, Karri Saarinen, Principal Designer for Airbnb, said the company is a “much more design driven organization” than others, noting that two of the three founders of Airbnb are designers themselves.
“Design and exploration [are] almost always considered the first step, and ongoing process, in any project we do,” Saarinen said. “It’s not an after-though[t]. We also pair the design with research, so we make informed decisions before we start building things.”
As for Uber, the San Francisco-based company has also brought product design to the forefront of its business—literally. In an effort to speed-up the iteration process for its products, the company’s design team—called Uber Design, naturally—actually goes out into the field to meet with end users in order to get expedited feedback on their prototypes.
“Our products are new, complex, and require the tight coordination of people and objects in the real world,” Paul Clayton Smith, Uber’s former Head of Product Design, explained a couple of years ago, talking specifically about products being designed for Uber Eats. “It’s impossible to replicate these conditions inside our offices, so we test designs as quickly as possible in the real world. We observe and iterate as soon as we identify opportunities to improve the design.”
Rapid field testing helps us see how customers respond to designs in progress. Our researchers and designers take mock-ups and prototypes into restaurants, inside delivery vehicles, and into people's homes to test our products in the places they'll be used. Getting out of the office is essential when designing for real-world problems like finding parking, delivering to large apartment buildings, or speeding up workflows in the kitchen during the dinner rush.
So, rather than operating in the shadows, the Uber Design team has been brought onto the front lines of the company’s business, making product design imperative to brand building. Like Airbnb, Uber has opened a window into what its design team is doing, highlighting case studies on app redesigns; technology it’s developed for the Deaf and hard of hearing; the data-driven maps it’s been designing; and a lot of other cool work you can check out here.
In his explanation of why Uber Design goes out and meets with customers to do its rapid field testing, Paul Clayton Smith noted that “speed is crucial.” This is the reality for most businesses today, especially when it comes to your digital products: You’re building new online platforms, new apps, releasing new technology, and then eventually redesigning all of these products. Speed is always crucial when getting your products to your current clients—and building your market share.
As people spend more time online, they’ve become increasingly aware of product design, even if it’s on a very basic level: They form opinions on whether an app or website is easy to navigate, for instance, and whether a product’s design looks outdated or not. When Google launched a redesigned Gmail last year, a lot of people had a lot of opinions on it. Whether they had any design expertise or not didn’t matter; what mattered was they knew if the redesign was a success or not.
The bottom line is that product design has never been more important to your company’s brand. Regardless of what you do – taxi people around cities or provide a platform for people to rent out their homes, for example—it’s becoming imperative to also think of product design as being a part of your company’s identity. You might be surprised how many of your customers already do.