How I got my job: Aaron Taylor Harvey studied cinema but his love of architecture led him into a job designing offices for Airbnb in San Francisco. In this interview for the Dezeen Jobs careers guide, he explains how he got there.
Dezeen Jobs: When did you first realise you wanted to work in architecture and design?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: I've been fascinated with architecture since junior high school. I loved drawing, loved art and was really into comic books. When I was about 10 or 11, I saw a Frank Lloyd Wright show at the Marin Civic Centre in California – one of his largest civic projects. His drawings enchanted me. The flowing flora falling over the front of these beautiful, horizontal structures got me hooked on architecture. In high school, I was really into early modernism and the international style. I wrote my junior term paper on the Bauhaus.
When it was time to go to college, I didn't seriously consider architecture. I perceived it as being heavy in mathematics – a lot of people do, confusing architecture with engineering. And so I avoided the major but stayed interested in the subject. The films I made as a cinema major often featured architecture as a protagonist. When it was time to go to grad school, I planned to get a PhD in cinema and become a film studies professor. My dad was the one that changed my mind: “You know you love architecture, you should really make sure that that's not something you want to do.” I met with a few principal architects, and they convinced me I need not worry about the math. And in fact, it's true, especially if you pick a school that's not too interested in the engineering/architecture overlap.
Dezeen Jobs: Where and what did you study?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: My undergraduate degree is in cinema from San Francisco State University. I was in a rock band for several years during and after college – not exactly an academic pursuit but certainly a lot of work. In 2006 I headed to grad school at CCA in San Francisco to get my Masters of Architecture. That's where I met Rachael [creative lead and designer at Airbnb, and Harvey's wife], and we started our company [Myriad Harbor] together after we both graduated.
Dezeen Jobs: What was your first job and how did your career lead to where you are now?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: It took me a long time to have real jobs. After finishing undergrad, I moved to LA, did random jobs – modelling, played in my band, and generally became a master flaneur – just making sure that I didn't have to be anywhere at any particular time. During graduate school, I got serious and did my internship at CannonDesign in LA.
In 2009, I graduated into the peak of the recession. Fortunately, I had strong rendering skills that made me highly employable, even in that tough market. I continued to love what I did, creating and designing for a while until I didn't love it anymore. I wouldn't say those jobs showed me what I wanted to do, but they definitely taught me what I didn’t want to do.
With work, it's essential to have a variety of experiences, so you know the direction you want to send yourself. I was probably fortunate to work in more traditional companies and situations because it definitely continues to help me appreciate this very nontraditional role I have now. It gave me the confidence to believe if I needed to get a "regular" job, I could.
So when I quit my job, I started teaching a couple of classes at CCA and working on small projects with Rachael, and I knew where I preferred to be.
Dezeen Jobs: Explain your current role at Airbnb and what it involves.
Aaron Taylor Harvey: My current role is executive creative director at Airbnb, overseeing creative output from the environments team. As part of the team, I am also an individual contributor producing renderings, plans, drawings, decks – anything needed to express our designs. As the team has grown, I've continued to take on more responsibilities, including learning how to help others get results that we can feel proud of.
Dezeen Jobs: How and when did you get into this position?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: My position now is an extension of founding the team. As the environments' role at Airbnb has changed and developed, so has my title. Lead designer to creative director to executive creative director. But it's all the same job – we've always been responsible for the design.
Back in August 2013, Rachael and I had our own interior/architecture firm and worked with Airbnb as a client. We developed a variety of projects from elaborate art pieces and sculptures to a huge multiple-day convention. When asked if we were interested in designing the Airbnb office in Portland, Rachael and I suggested we bring the design in-house to Airbnb's San Francisco office and start this team called environments. Environments would be responsible for designing and developing office build-outs plus any other space-making endeavours that the company would decide to take on.
Dezeen Jobs: What does a typical day look like?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: Every day is different. I don't have a ton of meetings in my position fortunately so I still have a good amount of time to think, strategise, draw, sketch and concept ideas. I have about three hours or so of meetings a day and usually those have to do with checking in on all the Airbnb international office projects where my role is client and designer.
I spend most of my time in the environments' space, talking with the team and having a free flow of conversation about what we're collaborating on together.
I give many many tours of our Airbnb office – people are very fascinated with the space and Airbnb as a company, so there are a lot of visitors coming through. I end up giving one or two tours a week of the office to different groups or different individuals.
Dezeen Jobs: What projects are you most proud of?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: I'm extremely proud of the work at the Airbnb office at 999 Brannan Street – the first large Airbnb project we designed from top to bottom. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be designing 150,000-square-feet offices, I would have never believed it! It's an honour to be trusted with that responsibility. It was an extensive renovation, and we tore out everything that wasn't structural. It was about as close as you can come to building a new building in a tenant-improvement project. We were able to build a big sweeping staircase and many interesting architectural elements to create what I see as an extraordinarily successful spatial narrative experience for the user. We think of architecture as a storytelling tool, and these spaces are a powerful way to connect people to the brand, helping them to understand the story they are continuing to tell by working here.
Another favourite project we designed was a hosting festival in 2016 called the LA Open Convention. After living in LA for several years and experiencing the type of desolation that happens downtown, I was excited for the transformation we made and the feeling of downtown turning it into a real city, more like New York or London. By occupying these parking lots and old movie theatres, and asking people to circulate on the street, it was activated. Bringing a piece of LA alive was incredibly fulfilling and something that I will forever be proud of.
Dezeen Jobs: What's the workplace culture like at Airbnb?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: Airbnb is very social; it's oriented to face-to-face meetings and in-person encounters as an essential way the work moves forward. It's a respectful place I think, but I've never worked in another big company so I can't really compare. From what I've heard we're lucky with the culture we have here. We're fortunate with the kind of freedom we're given to have big ideas.
Dezeen Jobs: What kind of people do you hire?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: I think any startup would say the same thing: if you work in these environments, you need to be very flexible, you can't become too attached to whatever you're doing right now because it might change any minute. You need to embrace that change and understand there's a kind of gestalt accumulation of experiences that produce a skillset that's unlike any other. You have to trust that this is going to occur as a result of the ever-changing landscape in which you operate.
Personally, for our team, we've hired a lot of different kind of levels, a lot of different types of jobs but what we're looking for is people who have confidence in their convictions and people who can clearly articulate opposing views through design. They can help us move forward and discover new ways of approaching problems, so it doesn't become repetitive as a result of a knee-jerk method of looking at things, that Rachael and I have developed, that any designer develops. We all need outside voices to figure out new ways of approaching problems.
Dezeen Jobs: What's the hiring process like at Airbnb?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: Usually, we have recruiters that find people. One of my disappointments is architects and interior-designer types don't think to look to Airbnb for jobs, they've just been told over and over again where they can work but where they can actually work is far more than your Gensler or SOM or something. You have so many options as an architectural designer, but if you aren't pursuing them, you're never going to see them.
I'm trying to figure out a way to get more architects and more interior designers to broaden their radar so they can be pulled in these other types of jobs. We have to reach out to people most of the time, and more actively recruit or ask for referrals and things like that. Once someone goes past that initial screening I do a phone interview with them and then hopefully they can come in and get interviewed by three people on our team, plus three people from other teams.
Dezeen Jobs: What advice would you give your younger self starting off in your career?
Aaron Taylor Harvey: I would give the same advice that I give to all the young people I meet, which is don't resist what you're good at because it comes easily to you. It doesn't come easily to others, and therefore you should lean into where you excel because that's really where your special talent and superpower lies.
I think what happens a lot is there is something someone's good at – and it comes so easily that they undervalue it. They have a hard time understanding that for others its an enviable trait because for them it's almost second nature. So to take that second nature and hone it, go deeper with it and become strategic with it – learn how to incorporate it into larger group efforts, that's where you can become powerful and well-rewarded.
My ability to present/speak and package ideas – I never really understood how important it was and how marketable it was until much later in my life. So I think I have no regrets about the path I travelled to where I am now. I wouldn't tell myself to do things all that differently but I would say don't worry so much about developing skills you don't have. Instead, get really good, and ultra adapt to the skills you do have.