Will Apple’s ex-design chief Jony Ive bolster Airbnb’s IPO?

Good morning, Eamon filling in for Clay today.

Last week, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced the vacation rentals company was partnering with design legend Jony Ive “to design the next generation of Airbnb products and services.”

“Jony and I have been good friends for many years, and he has been gracious enough to provide me with guidance and advice,” Chesky said in a statement announcing the hiring of Ive’s consultancy, LoveFrom.

According to Chesky, Airbnb is “engaging in a special collaboration…through a multi-year relationship” with LoveFrom, which Ive founded last year after ending his 27-year career at Apple. As part of the relationship, Ive will help “develop” Airbnb’s internal design team while Airbnb’s current design chief, Alex Schleifer, is reportedly stepping down.

Picking an industrial designer to revamp a services company is an interesting choice. But as the pandemic has disrupted the tourism industry more than Airbnb ever could, perhaps bringing on a paradigm-shifting designer like Ive is a good call.

During his tenure at Apple, Ive was responsible for the design of the Cupertino company’s greatest innovations, not least of all the iPhone, which revolutionized how customers interact with service providers.

The pioneering smartphone was designed as a tool to facilitate the nascent AppStore. It had to be intuitive and accessible for new users—which, at the time, was everyone. No doubt Airbnb hopes Ive will bring that empathy for the end user with him as he designs new customer experiences for travel in a post-pandemic world.

Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia has attributed much of Airbnb’s success in its early years to a design thinking strategy he picked up at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he and Chesky met.

“If we were working on a medical device, we would go out into the world. We would go talk with all of the stakeholders, all of the users of that product…We’d have the device applied to us, and we would sit there and feel exactly what it felt like to be the patient,” Gebbia said in an interview in 2015.

According to Gebbia, Airbnb directs its designers to experience the product—in this case, accommodation rentals—for themselves, too. That design thinking foundation may have helped Airbnb bounce back from the pandemic. At its low point, bookings were down 80%, forcing the company to cut 25% of its staff in May while taking on billions in additional debt.

But by June, bookings in the U.S. had recovered substantially as Airbnb pivoted to focus on domestic trips and virtual experiences. And by August, the company felt confident enough to relaunch its IPO, planned for later this year.

But as Chesky has said, travel is never going to be what it was before. Bringing in a transformative designer like Ive could help soothe investor confidence as Airbnb plans for an IPO in the travel industry’s most turbulent year to date.

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Eamon Barrett

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