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  • 04.05.12
  • hr

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Portraits by Jake Stangel for Fast Company.

About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan.

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