Aaron Sittig was Facebook’s first-ever designer, brought over to the company from Napster by that company’s cofounder and then-Facebook president Sean Parker. It’s probably not too much to lay responsibility for the explosion in social media sharing of photographs at Sittig’s feet: He was the one who came up with the idea of tagging photos on Facebook, which overnight sent usage figures through the roof. Sittig left Facebook in 2010 to explore other opportunities, but came back less than a year later and now directs overall product architecture, ensuring that the user experience remains cohesive across the social network’s growing number of products and platforms. (Fun fact: Despite a rocky start--CEO Mark Zuckerberg originally thought Sittig was a bit of a slacker--the two have since become close friends. Zuckerberg served as best man at Sittig’s wedding last fall.)

Rasmus Andersson (pictured on right), who hails from Sweden, calls himself a “designer-slash-programmer.” He was Spotify’s original designer, working on everything the logo to the interface. He’s also an open source software developer, and last year, he created his own front-end programming language, Move—managing to code the prototype in a single Sunday. And if that’s not all, his photography has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and The Economist. “I very much appreciate craftsmanship in all forms,” he once told an interviewer. “I tend to choose products [for his own use] where a lot of work has gone into details and which are designed for functionality rather than style.”

Mike Matas worked on the interface of the original iPhone, and the Nest Thermostat, under his old boss, Tony Fadell. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surprisingly similar to Jobs, Matas says: “They’re both pretty down to earth, very approachable, and have their ear to the ground about how people are using their products and what they want out of them.” Matas cofounded Push Pop Press to reimagine the book in the digital age and helped produce the Apple award-winning tablet version of Our Choice, Al Gore’s follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth. At Facebook, he’s working on new ways for people to display the content they put on the social network.

Facebook’s most recent hiring coup, Elizabeth Windram was a long-time staff designer at Google, where she worked on search, Google Maps, and YouTube. (Pictured: Drawing tools that she created, for created custom Google Maps.) ReadWriteWeb once called her “one of the world’s top designers.” Windram had barely started a new job at Quora before Facebook wooed her away.

Like other tech companies, Facebook brings coveted employees on board through “acq-hires”—the outright purchase of organizations whose products the company might be indifferent too but whose teams are bursting with talent. Such was the case last year with Dutch design and development team Sofa, known for its Mac applications, like Kaleidoscope and Versions.

As with many designers who decide to join the social network, the size of Facebook’s audience seemed to be a factor in the Sofa team’s decision to close up shop and go in-house. “We expected to keep working at Sofa forever,” the company wrote on its blog after the acquisition was announced. But “we believe that at Facebook, we will be making a real difference to a lot of people’s lives.”

Facebook Director of Design Kate Aronowitz says that going back and adding visual polish to the site is one of her team’s priorities these days, and sure enough, soon after coming on board, members of the Sofa team were shipping upgraded versions of icons and other visual elements.

Nicholas Felton is the author of the mind-blowing Feltron Annual Reports, tracking the minutia of the information designer’s life and earning themselves a place in a MoMA exhibit. Felton and his partner Ryan Case formed a startup, Daytum, to allow other people to track their own lives, but decided to join Facebook last year after realizing that the social network was basically trying to do the same thing, just on a larger scale. Felton and Case helped bring Timeline to life and continue to work on it today.

Facebook snapped up the Austin, TX-based competitor to Foursquare in December not to absorb their location-sharing service but for the quality of their design and development team. (The service was shut down three months later.) Cofounder Josh Williams is a visual designer by trade and started Gowalla to encourage people to explore the world and share their discoveries. Those sensibilities will now reportedly be put to use enhancing Timeline.

Co.Design

How Facebook Finds The Best Design Talent, And Keeps Them Happy

Facebook has hired designers from Nicholas Felton to the mind behind iPod’s original interface. But the key is keeping them happy—and elevating them with vast responsibilities.

If you take a close look at Facebook’s S-1 registration statement, you’ll notice something striking: Designers are called out as key to the company’s long-term strategic success.

Tech company filings often call out certain job functions—like engineering—and the organization’s ability to fill those positions as crucial to its success. But designers? That’s almost unheard of. And yet, there they are. In the section titled “Factors Affecting Our Performance,” Facebook’s filing reads: “We have also made and intend to make acquisitions with the primary objective of adding software engineers, product designers, and other personnel with certain technology expertise.” And in the section titled “Competition,” it says, “We compete to attract and retain highly talented individuals, especially software engineers, designers, and product managers.” (Emphasis added in both cases.)

The mentions underline the importance (little-noticed until now) that Facebook places on its design team. In a story on that team, which ran in the April issue of Fast Company, VP of product Chris Cox and others told the magazine how the company is looking to its right-brainers to help them do something that’s essentially never been done in software before: Design interfaces that catalyze emotions, rather than simply enable users to accomplish tasks.

Chris Cox

Designing for Facebook, Cox said, gets at “the science of things you can’t reason about, that you just feel.” He added: “That’s why, when we’re trying to accomplish something that’s pretty new, it’s important to be iterating in that [design] mindset.”

That mindset is only going to become increasingly important. Facebook executives say they’ve only scratched the surface of their road map. As a result, the company’s been on a hiring tear, tracking down and convincing some of the tech world’s brightest design talent to join the company, including, most recently, the team at Gowalla (brought in via an acquisition) and Elizabeth Windram, a former staff designer at Google who was snatched away from Quora just months after she joined that company.

CLICK ABOVE FOR OUR SLIDE SHOW OF FACEBOOK’S NOTABLE DESIGN HIRES

Notably, tracking down the right people and persuading them to join the team is so important that Facebook doesn’t leave the job to HR alone. “We started keeping a dream team list about two-and-a-half years ago,” Director of Design Kate Aronowitz tells Co.Design. “We thought, ‘What if we could assemble all these people in one room?’”

Nicholas Felton and Kate Aronowitz, Facebook’s Director of Design.

The design team themselves maintain a Facebook Group called Design Recruiting (yes, the company uses the site as one of its core productivity tools) that team members fill up with the names and portfolios of designers they admire. And Aronowitz says she herself regularly cuddles up with an iPhone or iPad before bed, surfing through a series of apps, looking for flashes of genius.

Members of the design team reach out to targets themselves, meeting up with them at conferences or inviting them out for dinner or drinks, both to test for fit (“see if our values line up and see if we get excited about the same things,” Aronowitz says) and to make the case for joining Facebook.

For some targets, Facebook even brings out the big guns. Both Nicholas Felton, the information designer behind the wildly popular Feltron Annual Reports, and Mike Matas, who worked on the original iPhone and then cofounded Push Pop Press, which created the Apple Award-winning tablet book version of Our Choice, Al Gore’s follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, got personal invitations from the main man himself, CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (The email Felton saw in his inbox was so casual that at first, he tells Co.Design, he thought it was just a message from Zuckerberg to all Facebook users.)

That email led to a visit to Facebook headquarters for then-New York-based Felton and his partner Ryan Case. Zuckerberg took them on a walk through the leafy Palo Alto neighborhood where the company was located at the time. He asked them what they were hoping to do with Daytum and talked about his own visions for Facebook. (Matas tells a similar story, of how an initial invitation from Zuckerberg to come talk about Push Pop Press led, several months later, to a formal offer to join the company.)

For all the outreach Facebook does, the bar to actually getting in the door remains high. “I only hire about one out of every hundred portfolios I look at,” Aronowitz told a group of designers at an event at Dave McClure’s 500 Startups last winter.

Encouraging People To Be Owners, Not Just Employees

Facebook isn’t looking for your run-of-the-mill “pixel pusher.” When we meet at Facebook headquarters, Aronowitz ticks off three qualities she looks for: A personal vision (about what the world needs or where design is going), a sense of ownership over the projects they work on, and a “builder” mindset. “We’re looking for people who can say, ‘I have a product idea, I can think through a need, I can think through a customer base, build something, ship it, and then iterate based on how it’s being used.’”

That’s because once they get to Facebook, designers don’t sit in a corner and wait for people to toss requirements at them. Rather, they enjoy an unusually high level of involvement in the product, starting at the very beginning as executives and product leads discuss what they should build. “Here, the designers will be in almost every conversation about their product,” Aronowitz says.

The designers’ involvement is so deep that they often partner with product managers to lead feature teams. Sometimes they even take the lead on their own.


Sofa, the firm that created ingenious apps like this one, was bought outright by Facebook. The team now works on polishing the site’s icons and visual elements.

Last year, for example, we wrote about how Rob Mason, a fresh-faced young graduate from England, with little more than a few Facebook apps under his belt, was handed responsibility for the Skype integration barely moments after he’d walked in the door. “Go figure out what the experience of doing video calls on Facebook should be,” he was told. He spent a few months tinkering around with it and eventually threw out the book on historical video chat conventions, coming up instead with something simple, straightforward, and so easy to use that, as one of the designers said at the time, even his mom could figure it out.

When the designers they hire are particularly good—when the company believes in their own unique genius—the company gives them free reign to come up with their own portfolio. When Matas joined Facebook last year with his Push Pop cofounder Kimon Tsinteris, for example, the two were given an office and told to think about what new features and products they thought Facebook should be doing next.

Keeping Them Close To The Leadership

“If you can hire people that are good,” Cox explains, “you’re crazy to not give them the chance to set up the definition of what they’re doing.”

And not to keep them close. Both Zuckerberg and Cox spend the bulk their days in product meetings, working cheek-by-jowl with designers and product managers, hammering out the company’s next feature sets.

In the old Palo Alto campus, the company’s designers were parked in the same giant, open-plan room where Zuckerberg, Cox, and the company’s other top executives sat. The new Menlo Park campus has nine buildings and room for 3,200 people. And still, the designers were put not just in the same building, but on the same floor—just one open-plan space over—as Zuckerberg and Cox, all of which facilitates the impromptu executive-designer desk-side conversations and hallway conferences that employees say is one of the keys to the company moving fast and generating breakthrough ideas.

“Design is more strategic than ever,” Aronowitz says. “Designers who come to Facebook have a massive scale of audience and a pretty big impact.”

Portraits by Jake Stangel for Fast Company.

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58 Comments

  • Mark

    Facebook has learned well from their competitors. Create the illusion of exclusivity (Gmail's launch–by invitation only, Google + launch–by invitation only, Pinterest launch–by invitation only, etc...), and even if you eventually let anyone and everyone in (Kate Aronowitz? Hardly a nationally recognized design leader), you still create that aura of being in the "in club".

    The commenter who said it's about PR was spot on. Facebook's PR team pitched an idea for a story to Ms. Boyd, and she unwittingly became a pawn in their manipulation.

    A brilliant PR article placement by Facebook. Completely leads the reader to think it's about hiring great designers/doing great design, but really it's a time tested strategy to make mediocre talent believe they have the best jobs in the world.

    Well played Facebook, well played.

  • Vic

    Best design talent?!?! Really?!?! Or is there a facebook I don't know which is actually better designed??

  • Myasara

    Well this comes as quite a shock, given the lousy design of the new Timeline. Not only is the strong panoramic inconsistent with the proportion of almost everybody's photos, it takes up a colossal amount of real estate on an image for a site that's meant to be about sharing information. Add that to the almost incomprehensible layout of the timeline itself, where comments on the same post can be found all over the place instead of beneath it as it should be…  and used to be. Sorry, but $$$ doesn't equal talent, and FB may be throwing it around for some big names but the design is sub-par.

  • Jo Nathan

    I agree. I do not get facebook's timeline concept in the least. I'm a graphic designer myself and say cheers to innovative design but it's like user interface and ease of use weren't considered at all. What is the whole purpose of having each story side by side like that? Isn't the content being in one single procession easier for users like it was on the facebook wall?

    ~J 

  • Amanda Berry

    Lets face it if Facebook employed proper designers people's pictures wouldn't be cropped into squares, or in the case of image links into portrait format rectangles in the new timeline format. That isn't good design it doesn't perform the function it's meant to and isn't aesthetically pleasing when it crops images inappropriately and insensitive to their compositional and artistic integrity. 
    I'm an artist/designer myself and a see no reason why image display in timeline should be completely inconsistent with e.g. the 4:3 (landscape) aspect ratio of the vast majority of digital photographs, let alone the rarer 3:2 aspect ratio of DSLRs and the increasingly popular 16:9 aspect ratio of HD monitors. I can see some sense in design consistency but wouldn't it be better if the design was actually compatible with digital image standards? Or is that asking too much? lol  Well if Pinterest can get it right why can't Facebook, it isn't rocket science.

  • Will Dwiggins

    I think this article when coupled with the comments (the negative ones) brings out a very interesting thought. A site that is not very intuitive, asthetically pleasing or user friendly has managed to become the most powerful media tool since the internet started. What I see here is that they have seemed to mastered the art of subtlety. They use a blue that is comfortable, professional, and clean. Their ads and aps are simple without too much texture. Even their logo design contains a quiet genius. Using the first two letters of each word in their name, creating a very common acronyn on a very common color backdrop. Most people don't realize, but we have been trained to see that blue and think. Facebook has used its popularity to get the letters fb plastered everywhere. Most people don't stop to realize that repeatedly using acronyms in association with imagery is one of the most efficient memorization we know of todate. Essentially, facebook has sneakishly branded our brains with their brand. We see a blue square with rounded edges containing the letters FB and we instantly think OMG facebooks! I'm totally obsessed with that place, let me click and like this ridiculous thing I won't remember in five minutes. They have also tied in two incredibly important elements. Socializing, and the ability to make ourselves the superstars of our own drama sagas. Humans today are very into popularity, self importance, and letting the world know exactly what they are doing. We get to be our own paparazzi, and facebook has supplied an environment for it. Yes, some people only use it to connect with loved ones (I count myself as one such person), but the vast majority of us are glued to tech. We are an electronic generation where people want a digital social interface more than the live version, and facebook once again rises to the occasion. Are they capitalizing on people's less noble characteristics, absolutely, but that's part of their genious. They meet people where they are to get exactly what they want from them; capitalism at its finest. It sounds wicked, but in truth, it really is genious, and the people with the visual and psychological understanding are, and will continue to be, designers. It makes perfect sense. Yes facebook, from one of the people who likes you the least, you are hearing it, you are absolute genious.

  • Jennifer Franco

    This article is better than breakfast.
     
    "...they enjoy an unusually high level of involvement in the product, starting at the very beginning as executives and product leads discuss what they should build."
    Making breakthroughs requires breaking barriers and making those uncomfortable changes in the way people view the project they are working on. The feeling of ownership and responsibility, of being the main man of your work, of working for your vision. I think that's just dandy. I'm excited to see what Facebook has to offer in the coming years.

  • vickytnz

    While Facebook does have some great design talent that has come of their own, I am concerned at how they're showing a habit of talent acquisitions: buying a startup not for the product, but the talent, and then shutting down the service. Did those people necessarily want to be working for a big company? I think Instagram is a strategic product hire—Facebook is yet to really do images well—but in general, they do risk swallowing up small companies that might have grown.

  • Justin

    Good read.

    Design is not purely aesthetic, in facebook's case the aesthetics are more about creating a space that isn't overly branded and feels more open and inviting for the user to jump in to it's features. The designers are focusing an emphasis on how the company will evolve in features and function of the site. As much as people don't like change, evolving is necessary because they would surely evaporate in this industry much like MySpace, hi5, and many other had. Many of the changes they have made overtime have been pretty subtle, and some not so subtle. People insist the design isn't that great, but I could argue the very opposite easily. Those who claim facebook's design isn't very good have a rather face value understanding of what good design really means. They actually have some incredible designers there despite what you are seeing on the surface. Im actually surprised as a digital company that they have pretty awesome print designers too. The one thing I've seen though, it seems like they prefer hiring through acquisitions of somewhat successful startups or name recognition of known designers which is easy to overlook a talented designer who may not have success in creating startups or hasn't made a name for themselves in the social blogosphere but can be equally as talented. I'm not saying its wrong, because there is no right, it's just an approach being utilized.

  • Shyam Habarakada

    This was a good read - Thanks. 

    On the point about "designing to create emotions never having been done before in software" .. I think that's an overstatement. Good software games have been doing that for a long time. It is true that facebook has the opportunity to continue that are a much more direct and human-to-human level.

  • Stuart

    Speaking of vision and design.. A clear direction to pursue is the mobile version of Facebook. I think the Android Facebook app that ships with Android Devices is in dire need of tlc... But Im sure the guys at Facebook are well aware of this. 

    Looking forward to the future Facebook has to offer the world.

  • Robinsbug

    You should have voice switch over or voice comand just say it and yes very good articles

  • Tony Moura

    As the manager the manager of the largest groups on Linkedin for UX and a 15 year Sr. UX Architect. I not only see what the industry is doing but also the salaries employers are offering. I also happen to get a ton of calls as well but am amazed that in Silicon Valley they are paying so little compared to the east coast. I've seen starting salaries of $120K in the valley when the same salary would be $140K in DC.

  • royhobbs23

    I love the philosophy of elevating design to a field that is important and letting designers run their own projects.  I think these are all things that companies should be doing now days frankly.  If they are not they are missing the bus.  

    However, I have to agree with a lot of the comments here.  Giant egos, lots of money being thrown around for what?  Facebook sucks.  It's not highly usable, it has tons of information overload problems, and it really doesn't look nice visually, which is also important.  It has huge amounts of users because it IS the most popular, popularity does not equal quality, nor does it mean good design, it just means popular.   Also, it seems like their lead designer was at eBay for years... well, just take a look at eBay over the years and see how much their design has improved, oh wait.  Nevermind.

    Hopefully Facebook actually utilizes these people and does make changes, but frankly I would be just fine if Facebook ceases to exist by the time they get around to it.  Good luck to you all at Facebook, for your sake and the design world, I hope you succeed. :)

  • Karen Mayer Johnston

    If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Just when I was getting use to facebook (not to mention showing my friends who didn't know how to use it) facebook completely changes its format. I rarely use the site anymore....the new one is not nearly as intuitive.

  • salleedesign

    Haha! As a Designer and "UX thinker", I had a great time reading all those hate comments. Facebook IS beautiful and extremely well designed. You don't see it maybe, but you DO spend hours of your day on it. There a reason behind that. The design is made to drive you to STAY on the site. And I'm not surprised at all to read that facebook has the top UI & UX designers of the world.

  • Marco Berrocal

    I've always thought that since Apple shifted things around, it's a good thing to be a designer.  Now it's way more valued than what it used to be.

  • Kevin Soon

    Hopefully this means better UI is headed to Facebook's platform - and soon. It seems that they've already taken a few cues from G+, and given the almost 'dream team'-like status of their creatives, one could only assume their hand-picked hiring process will be beneficial in the long run. While Timeline was a step in a 'new' direction, Path and 37signals are already on the copycat boat. Great article, though seems a bit misaligned towards a site that is hardly recognized for its content-flooded nature. Had this been about Apple, I'm sure we all would've swooned by this point ;)

  • Abcontador

    Facebook is terribly designed, in almost every way. The user experience is poor, the IA is wonky and the look and feel is ... ugly for lack of a better word. the reason people use the site is because their friends and family are on it, not because it is a great site and great experience. But, this world of ours is screwed up in a lot of ways. Bush was elected twice for example, and religion keeps growing like a cancer, so FB success shouldn't surprise anyone, anymore than the success of shows like Hoarders.