Season 01, Episode 02

S.01 / E.02

Courtney Song

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Courtney leads Brand and Experience Design at Sonder, where she is redefining the future of hospitality and living. As a creative leader and designer, she has rich experience launching projects across a breadth of strategies, brands, products, and services.

Prior to Sonder, Courtney was a Senior Design Lead at IDEO, leading large scale engagements across a variety of industries spanning technology, retail, e-commerce, and hospitality. She brings a well of experience and understanding of multidisciplinary design and strategy deeply rooted in understanding human needs and experiences.

It makes me really optimistic that there is there is this kind of growing generation of problem solvers that don't want to put the title or a label on the type of designer they are... and it's more like, oh I'm a designer and, therefore, that is synonymous with being a confident problem solver.
Courtney Song : Brand & Experience Design Manager / Sonder

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Wilma: Hi everyone, and welcome back to optimistic design, a speaker series where we take a practical positive look at the future of design, ethical innovation, and technology.


Wilma: I’m your host Wilma Lam, Associate Director of Strategy here at Substantial. Today I’ll be talking with Courtney Song, who leads brand experiences at Sonder, where she is redefining the future of hospitality and living as a creative leader and designer. She has rich experience launching projects across a breadth of products and services.

Prior to Sonder Courtney was a senior design lead at IDEO where she led large-scale engagements across a large variety of industries spanning retail, e-commerce and hospitality. Today, she focuses on crafting multidisciplinary design and strategy which is deeply rooted in human beings and lived experiences.

Hi, Courtney, welcome, and thank you for joining me.


Courtney: Thanks, so much thanks for having me today I’m so excited.


Wilma: To me as well, we've been talking about this for a little while.


Courtney: I know I’m so glad it is happening finally.


Wilma: To kick things off, I always like to ask our guests, how did you get into design and, what is your background.


Courtney: yeah, I would love to share with you so.


Courtney: I was thinking about this and you know I wish I had this you know epic grand and serendipitous tale to be shared with you guys, but it actually came down to a coin toss that's how I got into design.


Courtney: So, you know growing up, I was this total book nerd I I lived in the library, I read every single book I could get my hands on and I absolutely adored art history and art that I was exposed to from a really young age and.


Courtney: Even though I was doing all these creative things naturally as a kid - from writing my own stories to making my own toys. Little did I know that you know design, with the big D, was a professional career that I could pursue.


Courtney: So, by the time I got to the end of high school I took a class called intro to design.

And that was you know completely eye-opening experience, because for the first time I was really introduced to this idea that creativity and design wasn't just you know, an aesthetic exercise but could really be used to solve real problems we encounter in our world and help communicate those complex ideas to people so by the time it was time for college applications.

I had some design and art teachers and school who encouraged me to look into architecture, but I, given that I had this well-rounded background and. But my heartstrings were still really tugging towards writing. I love writing. I love to express myself through literature and fiction, and so what I ended up doing was applying to have literature programs and have architecture and Lo and behold, I got into both so it came down actually to a coin toss of which route that I would pursue and it ended up being architecture so.


Courtney: Once I got into architecture again very limited understanding of what that really meant from my from my exposure to it, I thought it meant that you become a home builder or you build a tall skyscraper in a major metropolitan city and but, you know, when I was in architecture school what I really think I took away from that was how to be this complex problem solver.

And how to think about challenges coming up with solutions to challenges that felt holistic and really always thought about context and what all the different elements it takes to consider. Creating this kind of systemic solution to solve challenges coming our way, whether that's at an urban scale at a small scale from human to human so that's a little bit of my background, but, as you can.

As you mentioned in my intro I don't do architecture from day to day anymore. So I from architecture, I actually decided Okay, I want to practice a little bit, so I practice some small scale design from exhibits to furniture design these fashion and earth of installations and really from there, what I took was this kind of initial love for literature and fiction and stories is what I infused in brought to my design background, and so, by the time I decided to transition out of architecture.


Courtney: I decided to move to IDEO where I could actually start to be exposed to different types of storytelling beyond just environments in spaces, so I spent six years that I do and that's really where I kind of grew this muscle to become much more human centered and think about solving problems from not just a spatial perspective, but from a product perspective, digital perspective, graphic communications and then, most recently in this past two years I’ve been at Sonder where I've been leading brand new experience design and applying that type of holistic multi-channel thinking to the hospitality space.


Wilma: Yeah, and I mean it's you've had so many different design experiences and across a number of different design disciplines so from all of that were there any like people or mentors who particularly influenced and inspired how you work today.


Courtney: Yeah, I actually I’m just you know talking about my career at IDEO that was probably one of the most formative chapters of my life as a designer, there's so many incredible brilliant people that I got to work with there and just being exposed to what human centered design really means and being able, through every project to be able to access the actual people that I would be designing for was something that was something I never got that privilege, when I was in architecture, which seems kind of ironic because architecture is really trying to create a built environment for for humans ultimately. But I do, that was one of the most inspirational periods in my life, and I would say, if I were to name individuals.

There are so many incredible design figures and theorists and artists who influenced me, but I would actually say it's my own parents who have influenced me as a designer. I grew up as a first generation Korean American here in the US, and what I've been really constantly amazed by my parents who, you know, grew up Post Korean the Korean War in Korea is that they have this kind of what I call like natural inherent sustainability to them, of how they view products and they don't just throw away product after product they actually up cycle so much and they reinvent new, reinvent new ways to utilize products and so growing up and being exposed to that type of creative thinking and that type of way of seeing an object that had that had an original role and seeing it in a different way was something that constantly inspired me to think about what you receive from out of a box might not might not be what it ends up being of how you utilize it from from its lifespan so I would say my parents as individuals were probably some of the most inspirational for me on on how to think about what what role design plays in our everyday lives.


Wilma: I think that's such a lovely answer I feel like so often in design people think so much about like Oh, this is my specific design background, this is what i've learned, but the reality is as designers you bring your whole self to work so actually all of those formative experiences and all aspects of your life you then bring into the design work, so the more kind of holistic experience you bring the better work can become.


Wilma: And you mentioned a little bit you know about working at Sonder now and working in hospitality, could you speak a little bit more about you know what Sonder is, what its mission is and specifically like your role within what's under what's kind of your day to day.


Courtney: Yeah, so, um, you know, when I was leaving IDEO I really was thinking about what is the type of company that I want to work for and apply this all this kind of knowledge, I and breadth of knowledge, I gained when I was in the innovation consulting space and sondra was a company that really stood out to me because it sits at the intersection of so many different types of touch points from environments to physical products to digital and you know service touch points and so.


Courtney: Sonder really focused on the challenge that I, as a really avid traveler not granted not during covid times, but as a really avid traveler, on a challenge that we see in our world today and that I currently experience as well, which is travelers are often confronted with really few choices when they're looking for an accommodation so. Either one of this world expensive hospitality experience or, you know your cookie cutter chain hotel or we've all had that home sure situation where you know the consistent consistency of the experience isn't guaranteed, so what Sonder really focused on achieving is using design and technology to make these best in class experiences that are typically reserved for that really privileged few.

To make that more accessible at scale to everybody, and so our mission really is to be, is to question what hospitality even means. And if we need to follow in green behaviors and traditions that we see in so many hospitality experiences, like the front desk do we need a bellhop? Do we need every service person at every single touch point?

And so, those are the things that we're kind of questioning as we're coming up with this concept, and this mission to really revolutionize hospitality through design and tech, and doing into my role on the team that I lead at Sonder, as you mentioned, I lead brand and experience design and really what that gives us a responsibility for is to define you know, how does the solder brand look feel and act to the guests? So and that's everything from strategy to execution so as a team we're constantly - we’re team of a mix of designers, writers - we're constantly thinking about how we express ourselves visually verbally experientially to our guests, to ensure that type of seamlessness across all of our different touch point types.


Wilma: So I imagine you know with your role, what you do with your team, a lot of this work lies specifically at this intersection of what's physical and what's digital, what do you think is most important to consider when you're designing in this intersection of space.


Courtney: yeah that's um that's a question I get so we have such a meaty one um one thing that I like to always, I have a chuckle about so I grew up in the Bay area and went all the way as East as I could before I before I came back, and I think coming from here what i've what I kind of always have a chuckle about is that there is a huge kind of reverence for the for digital and because digital is new, if you think about our built environment obviously you know things that are physical have been around for much longer and when people think about or ask about you know what is what makes an amazing physical and digital experience.


Courtney: I often think that people are really indexing on you know digital is something that trumps physical and it's more sophisticated. It's more novel. It's more enticing to the human, but what I've actually found is important to consider when designing in these hybrid spaces.


Courtney: it's after them really pragmatic advice I always love to give which is like don't forget that we are human and that we have five senses and that we have attraction to tactile you know multi sensorial experiences and so when we go into designing physical and digital experiences I always like to think about how are we playing to the advantage of each channel, so you know physical experiences.

Obviously, allow us to engage a human actually shaping and forming behavior in ways that digital screens cannot. You know, being able to engage our five senses being able to move someone to a point of emotion is something that I think is so powerful to respect in the physical realm but the way I like to think about designing for the digital is how is the digital, you know, being a kind of through line that accompanies and enhances the physical experience but, at times, can also play in the background, as well.

You know, digital we like to think about it, as that ever present kind of friend that's with you and we can use it to let you know allow allow, in our case, a guest to experience a journey seamlessly from discovery, all the way to check out but also use digital to allow them to access a lot more information and play to the advantage of what digital can afford that physical cannot and so that's really how we start to think about designing for an intercept the intersection of physical and digital experiences.


Wilma: That's incredibly helpful. So then I'm curious as a follow up to that as you think about how you know both your skill set and the team that you work with.

Like, what are those special skills or abilities that allow designer astrologers to kind of fluidly move between designing for physical and designing predictable?


Courtney: yeah I would say some of those skill sets and you might be expecting me to say, like a list of design skills and actually you know what I, what do you think is most important for creating at this intersection is reading a ton and going out in the world and observing human behaviors, and so what I mean by reading a ton is seeing what's going on in the world of.

What are bigger societal shifts and attitudes towards technology toward spaces, what are people being excited about ? How are you as a designer sense, making of like what are people's attitudes towards social media versus retail versus hospitality.

And how are you bringing that back as a learning to designing a really compelling hybrid experience... I remember, I remember having my finger on the pulse with this whole shift of museums.

You know, there is like I'll call it the insta museum that became a really hot thing a couple of years ago and it really made me curious as a designer where.

You know, museums used to be these powerful institutions that were all about education and housing. These really famous you know historical artists and suddenly became this sort of experiential while colleagues and instagram moments, which is a term that I find. But it was interesting to see that shift where suddenly people aren't satisfied being in a fully digital world, they actually want to go out, they want to run into people they want to experience something immersive and so again, I think, for designing at this intersection as a designer we have a responsibility to see what's going on suicidally and how are we responding to that.


Wilma: I remember those like instagram Is popping up and arrow for me as the first time was like okay so you're going to a physical place essentially so you can take a photo take away like that's what you're paying for was really knew I was like maybe it's a signal on old that the draw was an immediate to me.

In the conversation so far you touched on a couple things I think are really interesting so so one it's like you talked about you know, the need to be human centered and how formative that was in your experience at ideo.

And then you also have just said, you know, but also thinking about what's, you know, new and emerging and as we think about also new technology, increasing rates of adoption and definitely physical spaces, it feels more and more like technological things are infiltrating the home, while I guess infiltrating like a very judgmental word.


Courtney: yeah from


Wilma: My end but feels more and more like it's ever present in the brand. So I wonder, you know, as you think about these trends and what's happening or what does it mean to still be human-centered?


Courtney: Yeah, this is a question that can get pretty philosophical.

I think.

You know I think I mentioned earlier, this idea of not forgetting that we're human and as designers and staying really pragmatic and I think you know being human centered in this in this current era where there is an increase of integrated technology in our environments is to kind of sit down and ask why like why, why are we integrating technology and what does it afford us as an experience.

And you know my kind of point of view of being human centered in this approach is really thinking about not just the short term gratification that technology can give us but it within the built environment, but what is sort of like longer term effects and so.


Courtney: Something that I've been thinking about a lot lately is as a designer a lot of hot terms are this, this word like seamlessness, or invisible technology or embedded technology and - when I think about being human centered I think about like does this actually benefit the human and this is what they really want.

I think a lot about the incredible nature of smart homes, where I remember I interviewed a user once who had mentioned. That they had bought this fancy smart thermostat and it was so incredibly glossy and the methods and in the store they were so compelled.


Courtney: And at the end of the day, they actually switched back to a normal thermostat because it didn't actually serve this type of consistency and ease of using this object in their everyday life was actually just much better served by a really old school type consistent thermostat, and so I love that as a kind of lesson of pragmatism of when we develop technology and new products.

We need to ultimately be serving needs and be consistent and be easy to use and easy to understand, not just by. Let's say a Silicon Valley urban techie but by like a real human being, who is thinking about functionality, and thinking about ease, and thinking about, you know, minimal onboarding to understand how technology plays a role in their spaces and lives.


Wilma: Yeah so building off of that as you think about kind of like your role, and when you sit on project teams as a designer like what do you feel is your responsibility and creating technology that's, that's, human and continuing to kind of call out these issues.


Courtney: Yeah, I mean, I think, um, I think, one definitely is definitely big. Like, the principle that I think about is not assuming that technology equals something positive, or something beneficial now that might sound like a little bit dystopian or pessimistic of me, but I, I like, I like having that type of.

You know, double-edge mindset of like oh technology can afford us progress and can afford us, you know improvements, but it can also there is also a downside to that and so I like to think about how to human still retain the things that make them human what's beautiful about being human which is having agency independence, autonomy and so as a designer I like to think about. Does the technology value and enhance what it feels like to be human and the amazing thrilling things of humanity, and does it not actually take away or inform our behaviors in a negative way long term.

And so that's something I'm really conscious of. I've taught classes and lectured and critique work of like younger designers, it's really, it's really interesting to see to me when they resort to technology as the first solution that can be the sort of band aid that can solve all of our world's problems, and when you kind of think about it, I like to kind of teach them and mentor them to think about well.

There are other means than just using technology as that vehicle for the solution, maybe there are more analog ways that have less friction, less onboarding and less resources involved.

Maybe it's just really just a human talking to another human so that's something that I try to challenge as a designer and also as a manager of are we being pragmatic about that this is the best medium to express our solution and technology, sometimes it's not the best medium.


Wilma: yeah now that makes a lot of sense it is probably really interesting to have the sorts of discussions of like you know, are we using technology and appointed specific way to try to get to a certain kind of experience, or we sort of just like fascinating technology, because we haven't thought of another better solution.

Yeah and so I'm curious, I mean the hospitality industry has changed a lot and I think in our generation we even know when anything so like when I used to travel with my parents. So I love to hear from you first like you know what you think has changed most kind of generationally from kind of like.

I don't want to say old school necessarily. But like how we used to travel like you know 20 years ago, a generation ago, but also the sort of accelerated rate of change that we've seen a lot of in the pandemic. Like you know,what trends are you seeing in the industry and what do you feel is changing the most?


Courtney: Yeah so it's so funny you mentioned, like the travel of our parents generation versus ours, because my memory of traveling so I'm from a big family and basically we would stay at any type of like budget hotel that we could find and it was the most cookie cutter uninspiring experience.

But travel now for our generation, I feel we have a lot more demands that we put on our travel, you know, I think, with the rise of an airbnb generation that's used to you know going into embedding in local communities.


Courtney: Having a really discovery oriented travel experience I think that's something that we're really demanding experientially from our travel and one thing that I'm finding really interesting is that in our guests research is that, you know, having those types of modes of travel from your experiential leisure traveler to your business, you know day to day travel those worlds are starting to blend so I had really interesting interviews with guests.

When I first came to Sonder where people were explaining to me: “Oh, I go on a trip from Monday through Thursday, but actually stay the weekend in the city, because I actually want to explore it.” And what this kind of tells me as a moving trend is, you know, how precious people find time and how they want to utilize their time. It’s not just about this nine to five job and staying in a cookie cutter hotel room, but they actually want to be staying somewhere that's more inspiring from a day-to-day where they're able to discover new things about a city, a culture and ultimately about themselves and so.

That's a larger shift that I see that's been ongoing of tapping into this more discovery oriented very design driven and experiential type of travel experience.

Another thing that I've been thinking about especially you know, with the advent of coven is this idea of contact list or touch list and that's something that's I think a really foreign topic for hospitality, which is so much about.

When you think about hospitality you think about human service and human service being able to unlock this incredibly memorable, thoughtful and compassionate experience that you hope to have as a traveler and that I think is a really interesting tension to be building into actually read in the times, the other day, I think it was an op-ed article around, like how we need to rethink the service industry and hospitality about you know, there is a human who's waiting hand and foot to serve another person.

And that has really interesting implications, not just from a societal perspective, but in a coven where we're trying to basically stand six feet away from each other and be away from humans and so you know when we bring it into the context of how we're trying to revolutionize hospitality at Sonder we're not just thinking about it from an efficiency and operations point of view of lower overhead trying to give a guest and more independent experience but we're also thinking about: what does it mean to to design a hospital experience profitable three and four someone feels cared for?

And thought for but also trying to overturn you know let's say traditional service design models and an understanding that actually some of a lot of our guests who we speak you don't want that anymore. They want to be able to like go out grab their own food they want it, they don't need a bellhop to carry their luggage to their room, a lot of these sort of traditional norms that you assume and hospitality are things that we're seeing from a research perspective that our guests are don't want anymore.


Wilma: So, as you notice all these friends like, how is this changing like your team's design principles now and how you approach decision making of like you know what dishonor actually like launch and bringing to their experiences.


Courtney: yeah, so I think you know, at the absolute foundation is, we want to make sure that we're designing work that first we're understanding what our core guests' needs are and what their overall changing attitudes and like behaviors are towards travel.

And again, like what that's been pointing to, and this is even pre covid, our guests are a lot more independent and autonomous and they're savvy about how they're spending their dollars and so.

If you imagine that kind of like, typical like 90’s, I was thinking about like the home alone in New York, when the main characters like sitting in this fancy, like, hotel room I think it's at the Plaza. With the plush bathrobe and the full room service like that's such an old I think like idea of what hospitality can mean.

And you know what we try to design for still ensuring that a guest feels cared for and thought of but trying to also think about you know they are savvier and they want to, they want to have more control over how they spend their dollar, not just on this day.

You know they don't want this idea, this antiquated idea, of an all inclusive experience, where you have to eat at the hotel sleep at the hotel be entertained at the hotel and so the way we try to design our sondra experiences.


Courtney: You know, we design every single touch point from the spaces to the check and experience to all the digital touch points and service touch points. And we really focus on this day, but what we try to do is try to embed into a city and a little bit more of an authentic way of how we curate different partners around us every- everyone from cafes to exercise places to cultural hotspots and we try to see the city as an extension of a Sonder but we don't try to own it all under one roof, we really try to partner with different types of local local businesses to make sure that guests are experiencing an authentic experience of the city, but not necessarily feeling as a designer that we need to design every touch point just because we want to.


Wilma: Now that's, that's, really interesting and I think definitely speaks to the fact that, like for,I think for users, now like the definition of luxury, I think, is much broader than it's ever been and means totally different things to different people when they travel or really when we do anything nowadays, everyone has their own definition of what that great experience looks like, and this has been like a profoundly, like, interesting conversation, I really liked the number of topics and being able to talk about.

One thing I'm super interested in, you know, I could imagine someone listening to a conversation like this, especially young designers who trained, maybe so far only in one discipline and, were really interested in working in kind of multi disciplinary intersection of design, you know what advice would you have for new designers coming off of how to build the kind of the skill set and ability to think?


Courtney: Wow that's, that's, a hard question I would say, you know, one of the best advice that I got from a mentor was i'm trying out the thing, and this might be counterintuitive because this is a, this is a question around planning, I would best advice my one of my mentors gave me was try not to think so many steps ahead like be really present with what your gut really wants to follow like.

In the now like in the present and, if you follow that type of like extreme curiosity and sort of like insatiable kind of hunger, you have to learn about something in the now in the present that just you know ends up leading to all the different steps, and you know when I envision every single career steps that i've taken I actually, i'm such a i'm such a visual person I like to think about: what does that experience feel like and I always imagined that I love swimming and I love jumping off cliffs that's a good, very good next…. So I think about that mentality of what am I really interested about I think about does this experience excite me to that point where it feels like I actually don't know what's waiting on the other side.

I would say that's the best advice that I could give is following that, following your gut and following what you're just so curious about at that moment.


Wilma: Yeah I think that's great advice. And so kind of just thinking about like all of these who talked to us too far, you know what is top of mind now as you think about the future designs that could be designed in industry, but also design education and also kind of technology, you know what are, what are you optimistic about today?


Courtney: You know what I'm really optimistic about. The fact that I thought I found that, you know, you and I both studied a particular design major in college and the sort of expectation is, you follow that track of whatever that design major set you up with. That's what you're going to pursue almost like becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

What I'm really excited about that I'm seeing for this generation of designers is actually such a blurring of boundaries across discipline and I think a lot of that is due to the fact that these newer generations are actually digitally native they're, they're, actually so well versed and.

They can do everything from design a physical product or piece of furniture to, actually, representing themselves digitally Designing an APP or website and so that type of fluidity across disciplines, I think, is super powerful and and.


Courtney: And it makes me really optimistic that there is there is this kind of growing generation of problem solvers that don't want to put the title or a label on the type of designer they are and it's more like oh i'm a designer and, therefore, that synonymous with being a confident problem solver.

Regardless of the medium that comes my way and so those are, that's one of the things that really excites me from I would say, just like a design education and a new generation of designers coming into this world.

And I would just say, apart from outside of design, one thing that I've been excited about is, in this kind of increasingly digital and zoom world that we've had for almost the past year and a half, I've actually been thinking so much about the word decentralization.

And not decentralization, in the context of like Oh, this is a hot kind of like tech term that has to do with, like, cryptocurrencies, and all this type of stuff but it's actually around like. You know, being digital and being in all of our spaces, I think there's a few centralizations of power: going on and and, if you think about even environments.

Are the decentralization of, of how people express power over you in a space, given that we are in our digital world, and so I think you're starting to see people think about new possibilities because of, because of what has happened,I'm seeing. People in my circle thinking about completely new careers to be pursuing that have nothing to do with what they've been pursuing for the past 10, years, there's a type of optimism and there's a type of importance being placed on how we spend our time on this earth, and what are the types of problems that were that we really dedicated to solving and are they meaningful and so that gives me a lot of optimism to see.

Despite a rather dark year that there is that kind of renewed energy and commitment to a really genuine purpose that we have as humans, so I would say, those are the things that are getting me really excited and optimistic now.


Wilma: That's a wonderful closing answer, Courtney. Thank you so much for joining me today, this has been really fun.


Courtney: Thanks so much for having me Wilma.


Wilma: And thank you to everyone out there who's watching optimistic design today to learn more about Courtney’s work with Sonder, please go to Sonder, S O N D E R dot com.

And to follow along and hear more from Optimistic Design, you can head to

And please join us again next month, as we continue to take a future focused look at design at the future of technology. I’m your host Wilma Lam, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

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