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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  • guest817

    i wonder how many idiots in the comment section actually work in design sectors of the tech industry. It's easy to criticize when you don't know jack **** about what you're talking about. Please enlighten me with you people think is "well designed"

  • Sidsel Dorph-Jensen

    I really like the new timeline on Facebook. Yes, it takes some time to get to know how to use it, but I think the layout is so much more pleasing!

  • Kyja W.

    I am surprised to hear so many people trash facebook. I love it. I've more or less loved every change they've made since I got on in 2004 when they opened up to my college. Yes, that reflects my age. I wonder if that makes me a minority here. Clearly, the design isn't trash - people of all ages and backgrounds use it on a daily basis. Give credit where it's due.

  • Margo Dunlap

    It drives me nuts that Fastco keeps describing Facebook as design-driven, because the entire website is absurdly confounding. It is a hot mess of features and preferences, and causes a not trifling percentage of it's users a great deal of anxiety. Anxiety should never be a product of a design-driven experience. 

  • Billz Clinton

    Frankly, Creative and Art directors at some of the countries best digital agencies could make Facebook into an amazing experience. Facebook's UI and overall aesthetic are terrible.

  • Patrick King

    I wouldn't want to be in Kate's shoes, reading these comments. Or even working under her. But I am happy that virtually every commenter has weighed in with the same opinion of Facebook's design. Or lack thereof. It's first no-nonsense debut was probably their best template ever. Everyone forgets that college students flocked to Facebook en masse to escape the visual and audio hell that MySpace had become. It was clean and fresh and orderly.

    Timeline is clearly a joke. No one likes it. But I'm also wondering how much latitude Kate or her team have, when the geniuses in IA and UI, not to mention Mr. Z himself may be dictating their every move. Mere visual desingers, heaven forbid we even call them graphic designers any more, are at the bottom of the totem pole in too many quarters of the online process.

    Perhaps an article interviewing a handful of the scores of designers who would be happy to share their opinion and critique this tool that we’re practically forced to use. Whose management loves to keep their giant team busy constantly altering what we’ve barely learned to use since the last big brother like makeover.

    Not one person, to my knowledge has ever been too happy with a single Facebook design overhaul. Even laymen have learned enough about the web to articulate their frustration, often quite vocally. But as it always seems to fall on deaf ears at Facebook I must question where and how they are doing their user experience testing, other than the employee cafeteria. 

  • Zoc

    Design of FB is reflecting company's soul as every design does, they don't care much of users. It's a worst UX ever, even worst than VCR manuals. Does she know that design is everything. I don't know how she could go home at 5 with so many problems on plate. Every single designer that I know could just dream to go home at 5.

  • tatorriols

    I find the hiring process to be a particularly interesting piece of information, given that many companies struggle with over-paid, under-experienced people that only know how to arrange pieces in a puzzle, but rarely find the courage to actually learn and do something great for for Kate, and the negative comments about her I only have to say this: she is working as the head of design in one of the biggest internet companies in the timeline or no timeline...she must be good...I for one would kill to head a design team that makes stuff for 780 million people to use...its like the mother of all ux challenges...

  • Jun_Wee

    The new facebook design - Timeline, is absolutely terrible and I am still receiving posts from friends on my wall and news feed on how terrible it is. There is no point introducing change for the sake of it unless it is for the better. Just like the game of Tetris, errors pile up and the goal of seeing success becomes slimmer and diminished. Fix the errors cos' no one can reign as king forever. A better networking platform might form in the future and facebook will be the talk of the past like Kodak and other companies who failed to follow up on what's going on outside of their company.

  • Achal Augustine

    LinkedIn design was and is terrible. I would never take credit for that terrible site

  • Artichoke Design

    Facebook's design is what it is. Working for a large organization you never truly get what you want, It's always about compromise. It seems the FB design is a reflection of this process.  It's a bit clunky in places, and feels very much legacy based.  This is possibly due to users hating change and I'm sure every change they (FB) make, even small ones, they wound be pounded with negative comments from their users.  Facebook also has a very technical design component to it, and I guess that is a reflection of their leader. 

    Google+  has been lucky that they have launched with a new clean slate,  and  have designed possibly the  best UI, UX design I've seen.  Unfortunately it's a  ghost town. 

  • Kathy

    A pretty blonde woman is getting undeserved attention? No way, that wouldn't ever happen.... She's a genius! 

  • MT

    I seriously hope you're actually a man named Kathy, as women throwing other women under the bus is very 1975.

  • cra5hed

    That's why more designers are doing stuff for themselves and crowd sourcing investment is becoming a hot topic at the moment. Most business is really basic logic dressed up in ridiculous terminology (something that Nassim Taleb likened to the catholic church's use of Latin during the middle ages in his book fooled by randomness) and smothered by heaps of bureaucracy, so perhaps it is business that should be learning to talk to designers, since money is just money but once an idea is realised it is only unique and original once.

  • cra5hed

    The problem with a lot of designers is they forget that they are not just tasked with making a product or service look attractive but also more importantly communicating and delivering easily accessible information to the end user/consumer. I realise that the FB UI is a work in progress and I like the progression from where it was last year; but there are a lot of issues with particular regards to structuring and ordering of news feeds which I would have done differently. Also I probably would have used a horizontal scrolling structure for the time line to make better use of screen space, not to mention placate more users making the jump to tablet browsing.

  • Ben Griffin

    "Beautiful design is something that people don’t even really notice"
    "Design needs to contribute to a business’s overall goals"
    “There’s a
    difference between art and design”
    “Design should have purpose”

    True enough... but these are such basic and, by now, very well established principles. The conversation has moved on - as anyone who has had to convince company leaders of the value of design is well aware.