How Facebook Designs the 'Perfect Empty Vessel' for Your Mind

Tussling with the philosophy that's structuring a billion social lives
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One day in March, I was sitting across from Facebook's design director, Kate Aronowitz, at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park when she told me, "It takes a lot of work to create the perfect empty vessel." In this near koan, lay a design philosophy and an explanation. Facebook as a series of beautiful empty vessels into which users pour their text and photographs, hearts and minds. 

Over the next few weeks, I kept thinking about this near koan: How do you design an empty vessel? Is there any such thing? So I went back to Facebook and asked some more questions.

"We tend to think of everything in terms of social design. The box, for us, is a vehicle to allow one person to communicate with another. It's entirely about who's on the other end of that box, not really the box itself," Facebook designer Russ Maschmeyer told me in a different conference room. "Our overarching design goal is to make that box as invisible as possible, so that your content is the thing that's most important."

Facebook is the New York Yankees of design teams.

That is not as easy or as simple as it sounds. The seemingly small decisions about how boxes should look, how the text of the site reads, and what actions users can take are defining what Facebook is. Like the government backers of the institutionalization of the Postal Service, the monopolistic heads of Ma Bell, the nerds who developed email protocols, or the suits who've directed the deployment of the nation's cell phone networks, Facebook's designers are structuring the social experiences of vast numbers of people. Who they are and how they think will change the way a billion people experience the world, not to mention, what Facebook is.

The company clearly sees designers as a key to its future. Just look at how many they've snapped up. The spree began in June of 2011, when the company picked up Sofa, an Amsterdam-based design studio. Then, in August, they bought Push Pop press, which was seen as an acquihire of designers Kimon Tsinteris and Mike Matas, who designed several of key pieces of the iPhone interface. The next month, Maschmeyer joined up. In December, Facebook bought the check-in service Gowalla, largely for its design team. 2012's haul got started with Elizabeth Windram, who helped design Google Search and was lead designer for Google Maps. Rdio's head of design, Wilson Miner, was the next designer to fall in May of 2012, followed closely by the acquisition of the design research firm, Bolt Peters. In July, Justin Stahl, creator of The Font Game, came on board. In September, design researcher Marco De Sa came over from Yahoo. And finally, last month, Facebook bought Hot Studio, a design agency that had been independent for more than 15 years.

There has been some turnover -- Nichols Felton left this month after two years on duty, and Ben Blumenfeld recently left to work on his design-oriented angel fund -- but on the whole, Facebook's been stacking up design talent by any means necessary. A question posted on the Q&A site Quora even asked, "Is Facebook's stockpiling of design talent bad for the industry as a whole?" Designer and entrepreneur Zach Klein, of Vimeo fame, among other things, put it like this: "Facebook is the New York Yankees of design teams." And that was before Maschmeyer, Miner, Bolt Peters, and Hot Studio.

Aronowitz is the woman behind the hiring-acquiring binge. Elegant, smart, and self-possessed, I think of Aronowitz as the Theo Epstein (former Red Sox GM) of the design world: She seems to be able to create just the right circumstances to bring talent to Menlo Park. Her role is not like Apple's Jony Ive, though, pushing a particular design philosophy throughout the company. She's supposed to build the design team, and release them into the company to work side-by-side with the company's engineers. 

Facebook wants to invite interaction in the most minimal way possible.

As all these designers vanish into the bowels of the company, so, too, does their work. Facebook wants to create design that both allows and guides behavior without calling attention to itself. And what works in the Deep South must also work in southern India and South America. It must work for 16-year-olds and 86-year-olds. 

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Russ Maschmeyer (Alexis Madrigal).

In practical, want-to-send-a-message-to-my-sister terms, this is a good thing. As Maschmeyer put it, Facebook wants to "invite interaction in the most minimal way possible." That means killing as much "chrome" as possible. Chrome is all the little stuff that makes up what you see as the user interface. Chrome tells you what to do. User behavior researcher Jakob Nielsen came up with this general definition:

Chrome is the visual design elements that give users information about or commands to operate on the screen's content (as opposed to being part of that content). These design elements are provided by the underlying system -- whether it be an operating system, a website, or an application -- and surround the user's data.

Maschmeyer gave me a great example of this, which you will no doubt recognize from using the web. "Some sites, when you upload a photo, will take the photo and slap fake Polaroid borders on it and give it a drop shadow and put it in this fake stack with other photos," he said. "Those are all examples of chrome and our goal is to remove as many of those pixels as possible, so your content takes up as many pixels as it can."

In some cases, as with Maschmeyer's project, Graph Search, Facebook is willing to force its users through a quick demonstration -- known as a new user experience, or NUX -- so that they can keep the permanent design even simpler. Even though the grammar required by Graph Search is only sort of intuitive, a couple of simple examples taught most people how to use it. That let Maschmeyer reduce all the permanent user instructions for a complex and powerful search tool into exactly one line of text on a blue background: 

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"Some of the best architecture isn't about, 'Look at this amazing beautiful building I made," Maschmeyer told me, "But look at the amazing activities that I'm allowing people to undertake within this space. And designing the space to facilitate in the best possible way those activities. I think we take the exact same approach with our 'boxes.'"

He continued, "We want to create the space in which people can communicate the emotions, ideas, thoughts, wonderful things they find, beautiful images that they see in the most efficient and clean way possible," he concluded.

"I think we're lucky at Facebook, people share a lot of really beautiful content. We don't really need to add any more to that," another designer Vivian Wang told me. 

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Vivian Wang (Alexis Madrigal).

Similar sentiments have been expressed all the way up the chain and into the mouth of Mark Zuckerberg himself. And I think Facebook has created the most efficient engine for sharing, archiving, and monetizing text and pictures that the world has ever known. 

And that goes for private as well as public communications. A large percentage of the interactions on Facebook happen privately, outside all the mechanisms Facebook has for rewarding and encouraging sharing. Peter Deng, who manages Facebook's communications platforms, told me that people spend a lot of time communicating with close friends on Facebook. In fact, for any given user, 80 percent of the messages that he or she sends, goes to a group of about four people.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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