The Art of Facebook

By Steven Heller
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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!"

Barry says his work is "packaging" the Facebook persona. "Our culture exists, and I just do what I can to give it physical form and make it tangible. I try to reinforce the things I think are good, and question the things I think aren't. I do approach the work with a strong point of view, and I realize that what I choose to celebrate, question, or ignore has an impact on the culture. I'm not alone in the lab, there are several others who work there in some capacity, and we invite other employees to exercise the same creative freedom on our campus."

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The new lab (Ben Barry)

Barry's inventory of physical products includes posters, t-shirts, books, buttons and installations. One of his signature productions for internal use are a series of inspirational screened posters with quotations like "What Would you Do If You Weren't Afraid?", "Move Fast and Break Things," "Done is Better Than Perfect" and "Is This A Technology Company?", which invites employees to respond, sometimes through graffiti. "With the quote posters I credit this antiwar poster for my inspiration," he explains. "I've always appreciated it's directness; it's very no-nonsense, and utilitarian. The quote posters are also very easy to design and print making it very scalable."

Barry's Analog Lab team art directs the physical spaces and signage programs to insure that design reinforces the Facebook culture. And recently an artist in residency program was instituted, where outside artists are invited to create work for a period of two to eight weeks. "To me the act of creating the work is as important as the work itself because we are a culture of hackers/makers/builders," Barry insists. That's why he organizes classes in screen-printing a couple times a week for groups from all over the company. "I'm not much of a letterpress guy myself," he says, "but I'm hoping to get classes for that going in the future too."

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Ben Barry

When Barry arrived at Facebook there already was a healthy hacker culture. Every six to eight weeks they host a Hackathon event. Hackathons are where employees are encouraged to work on any idea they have then show them in rapid fire presentations, usually two min or less. "I got involved making t-shirts and posters to promote the Hackathon events," Barry says. "Over time myself and Everett Katigbak started making other graphics with just the verb/command HACK. These weren't tied to any specific event, we just liked the idea of it being it's own thing that was always present."

Curiously, there really isn't any oversight over the Lab's work. And when it comes to whether an employ will hang one of the Lab's posters, Barry insists that all employees are free to make their own choices. "If people disagree with me I encourage them to personally take responsibility to remove, cover up, or alter my work. I believe that if we empower people to take ownership of their physical environment it translates into how they approach and deal with other aspects of their jobs. We have a phrase 'Nothing at Facebook is someone else's problem', and to me the posters and art are ways to reinforce this idea."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/the-art-of-facebook/275897/