How Infographics Guru Nicholas Felton Inspired Facebook's Timeline

The surprise star at Facebook’s f8 conference was Nicholas Felton, whom Facebook’s head product developer credited with inspiring the layout of the revamped profile page. How’d that happen?!

For those of us who’ve been wondering what info-design wiz Nicholas Felton has been up to since he lit out for Facebook in April, we finally have an answer: turning the way we consume social media completely upside down. Or, more precisely, on its side.

Felton rose to design-geek fame in 2005 by charting a year of his life in annual-report format, and with its unique mix of solipsism and design savvy, it was, perhaps, only a matter of time before Facebook started to incorporate his ideas.

"His work was a huge inspiration on a lot of the big ideas that we presented today," Facebook VP of product Christopher Cox said yesterday. It was the f8 developers’ conference, and Cox was talking about Timeline, the hotly anticipated third-generation redesign of Facebook’s profile page. Timeline exchanges Facebook’s standard single-column, scroll-down format for a more horizontally oriented tile-based interface that’s designed like a "scrapbook-on-steroids," as my colleague E.B. Boyd put it.

If Timeline is successful, it could alter how people absorb data not just on Facebook, but also on the rest of the Internet (making a lot of money in the process). How? Simply by turning everyone into Nicholas Felton.

[A snippet from one of Felton’s annual reports]
We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, here is what’s new about Timeline: Right now, your Facebook page discriminates against the past. That’s a design problem: Click on someone’s profile, and all you see are their latest updates, their latest likes, and their latest photos. You have to scroll and scroll and scroll to get any sort of sense about who someone is over any time period larger than a day. Facebook, according to Cox, was struggling to solve this problem before Felton came aboard: A prototype that he nodded to in his presentation, at a glance, seemed cluttered and busy.

Timeline, by contrast, includes an actual timeline, organized in tiles across two columns like a virtual noteboard, that lets you present your autobiography from birth to now. You do it in your own words and with your own pictures, which means you’re free to highlight the milestones (the wedding, say) and bury the embarrassing moments (the bachelorette party). Then you top it off with a mega-huge panoramic photo of yourself or, for the camera-shy among us, a "unique image that represents you best," to quote the site. The tiles within your timeline can also include apps: One for tracking your music (and letting others listen to it as well through Spotify), and another to track the movies you watched (with Netflix), and another to track the number of miles you ran, and even the precise route you ran (with Nike+). In short, it centralizes and publicizes all of the details in your life that you never fully log.

All of which should sound astonishingly familiar to anyone who has been following Felton’s career. Felton spent years obsessively logging his quotidian doings, from what he ate every day to how many photographs he took, then published the data in sets of beautifully minimal infographics. His Feltron Annual Reports were a smash. Recently, he elaborated on the idea to create Daytum (with Ryan Case, also now at Facebook), an app that allows users to generate their own data-viz diaries. Timeline is the same basic conceit, except the data at hand has become pictures, musical tastes, movies, and whatnot. Watch the introductory video of Timeline above, then watch this old video of Daytum below. Note how the basic UI—the large tiles, the side-by-side columns—is the same.

There’s a neat logic to the format: Tiles travel well; they work as nicely on laptops as they do on an iPad or an iPhone. Perhaps more importantly, they allow Facebook to dump a whole boatload of stuff on your profile page and still keep its appearances relatively tidy. Just look at examples like Good.is and the Lisa Strausfeld-designed website for New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. At the heart of the tile layout is a new way of visualizing web content, which also allows complexity to be hidden behind a clean grid. Does this augur a shift to a more horizontally oriented Internet? The conventional wisdom is that vertical is better. But maybe we’re starting to feel the influence of tablet computing and the new, wide-lens UIs it demands.

Ultimately, the hope is that Timeline will turn Facebook into even more of a central hub for your life, by capturing a bigger chunk of it. In doing so, it would encourage people to spend more time on the site, which could redound to benefit of Facebook’s bottom line, whether through ad revenue or app fees. On Wednesday, Christopher Cox recalled that when he first got wind of Felton’s work, he and his Facebook colleagues had one reaction: "We have to try and hire this guy."

Now you know why.

Timeline isn’t available to the public just yet; check back on Facebook in the next few weeks (as if you don’t already check it every other minute).

Add New Comment

16 Comments

  • Abigail Rudner

    I am relieved after reading the comments below. One person's gold is another person's gunk. I suggest you understand, really understand what the work guru means before using it so casually.

  • Alan

    I'm surprised to learn that something so visually cluttered and aesthetically poor was actually designed by anyone. Certainly not anyone with a grounding in the visual arts. Thank goodness Social Fixer can deal with some of it.

  • Bramster2008

    Timeline is CRAP..the organization is messy, you have to concert your head left to right constantly..its too damn slow because it tries to load too much.

    Ive never been bothered enough with previous facebook revamps, but this is downright god-awful.Google+ is in my future

  • Pilotibus

    Yes, Timeline is CRAP and I will leave if they force it on me. It's bad enough having to look at the pages of a few unfortunate friends who happened to click on the wrong  trap / link. PITIFUL. Wretched design. Wretched.

  • Guillem

    You've made countless mistakes in spelling the guy's last name. And in multiple articles too ! (see  "Facebook Hires Infographic Gurus Nicholas Felton And Ryan Case")

    Not very professional.

  • Dkenn777

     I really HATE this new time line feature as most to on face book. I don't want everyone viewng my past and especially having it forced on me as a user is pisses me off more.  

    Leave simplicity alone or Facebook will fall the same fate as MySpace!

  • Andrew Davis

    Pretty Cool!

    I hope that Facebook releases the Timeline soon.
    It has been long enough... :/

    Anyway, I've put together a new website with Hundreds of Free Facebook Timeline Covers:
    http://designfacebookcover.com... 

    Feel free to use them on your Facebook Profile. :)
    -Andrew Davis

  • Facebook Cover

    My Facebook Timeline is embarrassing. "1665: 'The Gr8 Plague! LOL!'" I was young, alright?