Kate Aronowitz, Facebook's Design Director, On Crafting A Design-Led Organization

In less than a decade, Aronowitz has hopped between some of the Valley’s most admired startups: eBay, LinkedIn, and Facebook. And she’s learned how to relate design’s importance within a big organization.

When Facebook first reached out to Kate Aronowitz in late 2008, the then-head of LinkedIn’s design team was pretty sure she didn’t want to move over to the social network. She was a new mom. Crazy startup hours were not part of her plan.

A conversation with Facebook VP of product Chris Cox, however, changed her mind. "We’d both just seen the movie Helvetica," Aronowitz tells me when I go down to Facebook headquarters to meet her. Helvetica is a "beautiful, timeless, perfectly designed" font that’s everywhere and yet that most people don’t register as something worth remarking upon, she says. "Chris and I talked about this theory that beautiful design is something that people don’t even really notice."

Today, Aronowitz is Facebook’s director of design, captaining a group that has grown from about 20 people to 90 under her watch and includes product designers, writers, graphic designers, and marketing communications specialists. She’s built up the company’s design research function and spearheaded an aggressive hiring campaign that has convinced some of tech’s hottest designers to give up their much-vaunted independence and come work for the social network instead.

Aronowitz graduated in 1997 from the Savannah College of Art and Design. She laughs that one of her first jobs out of school involved Photoshopping abs onto male models for muscle magazines and nutrition supplements companies. She arrived in Silicon Valley just as the first Internet boom went into free fall. Still, she managed to snag a print design job at eBay and quickly parlayed that into digital work, eventually becoming a senior manager of user experience design.

In 2007, she hopped over to LinkedIn, where she built up their design function and helped establish standards across the company’s growing line of products. "I was really excited to be at a founder-led company," she says, referring to Reid Hoffman, who held president and CEO roles at the time. "When the founder is still there, the mission is still extremely present." A little over three years ago, a former eBay colleague reached out to ask if she’d consider joining Facebook. "Design was just getting big enough that they needed a leader on the team," Aronowitz says. In January of the following year, she started at her current job.

Aronowitz says the things that make her a good design leader aren’t necessarily her technical or artistic chops. It’s the fact that she understands that, in a company, design needs to contribute to the business’s overall goals. "There’s a difference between art and design," she told about 150 people gathered at a Designers Fund event last winter. "I like design with a purpose," she said. "I’m not there to design for myself." She also credits her ability to act as a bridge between the creatives on her team and other functional groups of the business. Adam Nash, the former LinkedIn VP of product management (and current entrepreneur-in-residence at Greylock Partners) who hired Aronowitz, agrees.

"Great designers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they tend to be passionate, creative people," he tells Fast Company. "Kate not only has the ability to work with an incredible breadth of personalities, but also the unique ability to bring out their best work."

Aronowitz says she’s lucky that at her last two jobs, she hasn’t had to do the rock-pushing-up-the-hill work that has historically plagued design teams in the tech world: trying to convince company leaders of the value of design. Dan Nye was running LinkedIn when she first arrived. As an executive at Intuit, he had learned the value of staying close to the customer. And Facebook’s top product executives, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and VP of Product Chris Cox, also have a DNA-level understanding of the power of design. (See "Thank Facebook’s Design Team For Every Warm And Fuzzy Moment You’ve Ever Had On The Social Network" from the March issue of the magazine.)

That’s part of a larger trend Aronowitz sees in Silicon Valley. In an industry where the "tech" part of tech is becoming increasingly commoditized, companies, especially startups, realize that user experience can often make or break a product.

(It’s a point of view reflected elsewhere. After Mint’s enormous success, which was largely due to design (the service was built on top of technology that had been around for a while), Bessemer Ventures grabbed the company’s head of UX, Jason Putorti, and installed him as the first ever Designer-in-Residence at a Silicon Valley VC firm. "We found ourselves very short on great designers for the startups we were funding," Bessemer partner David Cowan tells Fast Company. "We thought, if we could bring in a star designer, it would be a great opportunity to get his input, not just about the specific products our companies were building, but also about the processes they had to design products and helping them hire designers."

And as for the other side of the coin—how she trains her designers to understand the business needs of Silicon Valley? Ultimately, she doesn’t really have to because of the way she hires. As we explained in an earlier Co.Design story ("How Facebook Finds The Best Design Talent, And Keeps Them Happy"), Facebook looks for designers who are "builders." They’re people, Aronowitz explains, who already have a product mindset. They’re not people who only design icons or only produce wireframes. Instead, they tend to be people who’ve already built their own apps or digital services, end-to-end. They’ve been through the process of figuring out what resonates with customers and doubling-down on that, rather than just handling discrete parts of interfaces with little understanding of the bigger picture.

As a result, the vast majority of designers Aronowitz brings in house know how to code. It helps Facebook move faster, because they can hammer out prototypes on their own, and start testing various hypotheses, without having to wait on engineers. It’s a skill that Aronowitz herself doesn’t have, but one she told those gathered at the Designers Fund event will soon be essential. "I never learned," she advised them, "but the next person who has my job will."

And what about those startup hours? Aronowitz says she’s made them work. "I told everybody I leave at 5, and that between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m., I’m a mom," she told the Designer Fund meeting. "You have to stick to your own boundaries, and if you do, others will too."

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