The Art of Facebook

Inside the company's Analog Research Laboratory, where designer Ben Barry is "packaging" Facebook's corporate persona
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Ben Barry

Facebook is, it goes without saying, a digital company. But tucked into its Menlo Park headquarters, is something called the Analog Research Laboratory, founded by a devout hands-on, silk-screen printer and old school graphic designer named Ben Barry.

"I think at Facebook I am mostly perceived as the 'poster / analog guy', a reputation I sometimes have to work to overcome, and sometimes use to my advantage," Barry told me in an email. "I often feel like I have one foot in world of traditional graphic design and print, and another in the world of technology and the internet."

When hanging out with his peers from school, a graduate in communications design from the University of North Texas, Barry notes he is usually the most tech-savvy person in the room -- he writes software, builds websites, and is routinely a maven for the latest app or gadget. But when he's at Facebook "I'm usually the least technical person in the room, I draw on paper, design logos, fuss with typography, print posters, and make books."

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Ben Barry

His Facebook colleagues think of him as someone who is very focused on the company's culture and brand, internal and external. Indeed for the past five years, Barry has been dubbed Facebook's "propaganda minister." However, "It isn't a title that resonates with me," he says. "Propaganda minister just sounds bad, I don't want to control people, I want to inspire and empower them. I do what I do because I believe culture is incredibly important to any organization, but especially one growing as quickly as Facebook. I do what I do the way I do it because I believe that taking the time and care to put ideas into physical form elevates their importance and makes people pay attention."

How he does what he does is decidedly DIY. In 2010 when Facebook was in the process of renovating a new building, Barry had his eye on a large warehouse space that was included on the lease. While designing the look of a Facebook developer's conference he got the idea to repurpose some materials for the decor. The director of facilities showed him the warehouse in order to see if the previous tenant -- a medical device company -- had left anything that he could transform for his design scheme. "There were lots of cool lab cabinets and shelves that I liked, and so I ended up getting a key to the building so I could organize things," he recalls. "After the conference everything was brought back to the warehouse for storage and I still had a key."

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The old lab (Ben Barry)

Barry laid claim to the real estate, going in at night and on weekends, setting up screen printing facilities in one corner, drawing tables in another. Over time he kept adding tools and materials, and gave it a name -- The Facebook Analog Research Laboratory. The name made the entity "bigger than any one designer." The Lab just recently moved into Facebook's brand new space and now includes a wood shop that employees can use. The new space is much more visible on campus, and employees stop by all the time for inspiration. "It's awesome," he says, "but sometimes we have to lock the doors and pull the blinds so we can actually do some work!"

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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