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Axl Rose’s voice blares in my headphones as I ride a commuter shuttle to Menlo Park: “Welcome to the Jungle.”* The song is powerful, energized. Red Bull in audio form. Like an athlete before a game, I’m preparing myself for the day ahead. Okay, less like an athlete, and more like a guy sitting on a bus on his way to work. It’s another Monday at Facebook.
Let me back up. When I announced that I was shutting down my design studio, Altitude, and going to work for one of the most influential technology companies in the world, the response was mixed. For the most part, people offered up their congratulations, though there were plenty of questions. Every time I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, I found myself reliving the same conversation, answering the same exact questions over and over. Here’s how a conversation between us might go.
I heard you’re at Facebook now, right? What do you do?
I manage the communication design team. Actually, I co-manage the team, as we recently hired Josh Higgins, of Obama for America 2012 Campaign fame, to manage the team with me.
So you design the website?
No. There’s a team of nearly 100 talented designers who work on crafting the user experience for our billion–plus users across mobile and desktop. The communication design team is actually a group of roughly 15 designers, producers, filmmakers and front-end engineers who work to help people use, understand and (hopefully) love Facebook.
We focus primarily on user-facing communications around our product, but we also handle a variety of other projects. Some examples include the marketing for Home (identity, packaging, videos, web page), Messenger, the Instagram Press Room, 2012 Election Map, F8 Conference, Facebook Stories and Graph Search marketing. The team also works on the identity system, Brand Resource Center, guidelines and icon development. To be fair, this is the work of many people, including internal partners like content strategy and product marketing.
Why did you make the switch? (see also: “WTF?” or “What were you thinking?”)
I’ve always felt that if you’re not learning anymore, you need to quit your job. Yes, I’m talking to you. And if you’re comfortable, then you need to shift gears. I was comfortable at Altitude—made great money, did great projects—but I wasn’t really learning much. I know how this sounds… “Everything was great, so I got bored and shut my studio.” But I tend to do best when I push myself into uncomfortable situations in order to grow: teaching, public speaking, wearing a Speedo.
Facing the challenges of working in-house seemed like just the thing. Add to that the fast pace, amazing culture, huge reach and future potential of Facebook, and I was all in. The opportunity felt once-in-a-lifetime.
What’s it like being in-house after so many years of running a studio?
Freelancing is a little bit like having a one-night stand. Working at a studio is like dating. Working in-house is like being married, except that all the in-laws also moved in. It’s time to learn how to work together.
It’s different, for sure. Designers are a unique subset of society. They’re idea generators, problem solvers, makers, doers and—at times—the centers of their own universes. Today, whether we work in small boutique shops or larger agencies, designers span an ever-growing and sometimes undefined spectrum of roles and responsibilities: packaging design, brand expertise, events and environmental graphics, interactive, mobile, product, advertising, et cetera.
Put designers together in a complex ecosystem like Facebook, with fast-moving teams and a variety of priorities, and it can be very difficult. That said, the challenges we face are actually quite similar to external agencies. The core difference—and what I like best—is that in-house I’m fully invested in the future of the company. I’m not just being invited in as a pinch hitter.
What do you actually do day-to-day?
Mostly I sit in meetings. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, but some days it feels like it. As a manager, my job is to ensure the team is able to do their job effectively. Design is a process, not an artifact. I help steward this process internally, navigating any number of obstacles. I spread my time between direct project involvement, hiring, prioritization and planning, individual support and connecting the dots between groups. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by some of the smartest, most talented folks around. (Pro tip: hire people who are better than you.)
I hear you get free lunch.
Not a question, but yes. The perks are pretty crazy. Bacon any time you want it (almost). Gym. Shuttles, which are a lifesaver for those of us that commute. Then there are those damn adorable foxes—not really a perk, just something that happened.
Have you met Mark Zuckerberg?
Yes. Although I’m not in regular meetings with him.
What’s he like?
What’s he like?
Not like the movie, which I found very entertaining but highly dramatized. While I don’t know him on a personal level, I can say that he’s a strong leader and he’s done a great job of building a company that stands by its core values. Facebook champions openness and transparency in ways that seem quite extraordinary in the corporate world. Here are two examples. First, every Friday, Zuck stands up in front of the entire company and does a Q&A. People can ask anything they want. While many questions are what you’d expect, there are also a lot of tough ones. But Mark stands there and answers them honestly. It makes me proud to work at a company that offers that kind of transparency.
The second example was something that happened during my orientation, when the company brings in representatives from different teams to share the vision, priorities and culture of Facebook. I can’t remember who it was exactly, but one of them dropped a bomb on us. “Our most secret project at Facebook is __________.” We sat there stunned. I’ve been at companies where one design team can’t even tell the other design teams what they’re working on. Here we were at orientation, and the curtain was pulled back to expose everything. That’s how much the company trusts employees, even on their first day. If anything, this should give you a hint of what Zuck is like.
Any advice for someone who wants to work at Facebook?
During orientation I remember someone telling our group that working at Facebook was going to be the most difficult job we’d ever have. He said that if we weren’t ready for the challenge, then we should get up and leave. Of course, no one moved. At the time, I think we all assumed he was exaggerating; that it was just a pep talk.
It turns out this was the best advice I’ve ever received. Facebook is not easy. It’s a unique company—decentralized and fast moving, with an entrepreneurial culture. It’s a jungle. The opportunities Facebook is working on are complex and of a massive scale. If it doesn’t exist, you should build it. If you don’t like it, you should change it. The people that thrive in this environment are those who love a good challenge. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because you are constantly being pushed beyond your capacity. It’s definitely the most difficult job I’ve ever had, but that’s why I return every day—to venture into uncharted territory.
*If you’re not familiar with the song “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N' Roses, then a) you should go have yourself a listen, and b) I’m getting old.
Brian Singer is a San Francisco-based artist and designer. He currently manages the Communication Design team at Facebook, where he leads a group of designers, engineers and filmmakers.
Brian is the creator of The 1000 Journals Project, a global art experiment that has been covered in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal,
and many others. It is the subject of a book, a feature length documentary, and was exhibited at both the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
In 2013, Brian joined the national board of AIGA, the professional association for design. Prior to that, he was president of the San Francisco Chapter of AIGA and served on the advisory board for the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery.
AIGA has partnered with The Creative Group (TCG) to create “INitiative,” a national program to help in-house designers make a greater impact at their companies, evolve
professionally and connect with a broader network of peers.
Section: Tools and Resources -
INitiative, in-house design
I was also interested in the idea of irreconcilable differences and how two extremes could be combined into a coherent whole. As an example, I looked for the most beautiful typeface in the history of typography—as well as the ugliest one—and for a way to meld them.
Section: Inspiration -
How do we think outside the box? How do we generate new ideas? Lisa Schneller shares some answers to these questions, culled from her experience at AIGA San Francisco’s “D. Talks: Power-Up Your Creative Process” with Maria Giudice of Hot Studio, Ji Lee of Facebook, Rick Byrne of CBS Interactive and Josh Levine of Great Monday.
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