Ben Barry used to be called Facebook’s Minister of Propaganda
e has worked in just about every medium imaginable as he is as comfortable screen printing a poster as he is programming a website. He prides himself on the ability to seamlessly transition between mediums with good reason. After all this Brooklyn based designer did the unimaginable. He explained Facebook’s mission, history and culture in the form of a perfectly curated and printed nutshell and he “packaged” the world’s most addictive social media corporate persona. “I think at Facebook I am mostly perceived as the ‘poster / analog guy’, a reputation I sometimes have to work to overcome, and sometimes use to my advantage”, Barry told to The Atlantic two years ago. “I often feel like I have one foot in world of traditional graphic design and print, and another in the world of technology and the internet” he added. Since then lots have changed and he is ready to explore anything. “If you have an amazing project that needs a designer please don’t hesitate to reach out and say hello” says Barry on his website. Well, we had some amazing questions so there you go Ben. Typeroom says hello ;)
How did you get started in design? What is your background?
As a kid, I loved to draw and make things. By middle school I had become interested in architecture and decided I wanted to be an architect when I grew up. In high school we got dial-up internet at home and my uncle gave me an old computer that had Photoshop 5.0 on it. I quickly started building websites, doing online Photoshop tutorials, and participating in online message boards around graphics. I decided instead of an architect I wanted to be a web designer. Fortunately, when I went to college in 2001 web design wasn’t something you could major in, so I ended up in the Communication Design program at the University of North Texas. It was there that I really learned what it meant to be a communication designer.
What was it like working for the world’s primary social tool?
It was very exciting, and often times very surreal. I’ve been fascinated by technology and the internet for as long as I can remember. I signed up for Facebook as soon as it launched at my university in November 2004. However, despite my interest in tech, my education and first job out of school were very much rooted in traditional graphic design. One night after work in 2008, I logged in to Facebook and saw a targeted advertisement in my newsfeed saying “Facebook is hiring designers” because I had put in my profile that I was a designer. I’d been using for Facebook for years at this point, but I didn’t really know anything about them as a company. I clicked that advertisement and started reading. The more I read the more interested I became. That night I sent them a link to my portfolio website on a whim. A month or so later I was moving across the United States to start my new job. At the end of my first day working at Facebook Mark Zuckerberg stopped by my desk and personally welcomed me to the company.
A few weeks later a couple engineers and I built and launched some features for the 2008 election. I have a vivid memory of being in a bar with my new friends and co-workers watching the election returns coming in. I had my brand new—and my first—iPhone open and refreshing the counter for the “I Voted” button we had built for Facebook newsfeed. Every second it refreshed and the number increased by 5000 to 6000. By the end of the day over 5 million people had interacted with something I had designed to broadcast to all their friends that they had voted.
Over the rest of the five and half years there were a lot more moments like this. We often joked that the company was growing and changing so quickly that every six months it felt like we were working somewhere new. It was true.
You’re one of the co-creators of the Facebook Analog Research Lab. What is it all about?
The Facebook Analog Research Laboratory is a printing studio and workshop. Its primary mission is to produce work that reinforces the values of Facebook. It started very organically, as just a place where Everett Katigbak and I could make things to put up around the company. Over time I came to think about the Lab as a place that helped give shape or make tangible the companies culture. I often talked about using art and design to celebrate the things that we thought were good about the companies culture, and question the things we thought were bad.
How did you came up with the idea of Facebook’s Little Red Book?
One result of Facebook’s success was that the organization had to scale quickly to keep up, so we were hiring a lot of new people. Many came from other large technology companies, and often brought with them ideas and processes that were counter to Facebook’s hacker culture. I came to realize that many people did not understand why Facebook operated the way it did because they weren’t around when certain discussions, debates, or decisions had happened. They lacked context. A lot of that information existed in hard to find wiki pages, Facebook groups, or simply in the heads of certain long-time employees. I saw the need to curate as much of that information as possible into an easy to consume package.
How long did it take to finish the project?
It took about a month from concept to completion, but most of the work happened in an intense week or two sprint. I curated, edited, and art directed the project. Tim Belonax designed the book, and J Smith was the copywriter.
What was the process? Please guide us through the steps.
I pitched the idea to Tim, and got him on board. Tim and I then created a very crude first draft that I printed out and showed around to a few folks to get us budget for the project. Once we had funding we brought in J Smith to help us with copywriting and moved forward full steam. When we had a more polished draft we took it to Mark for his input. Finally, when we were happy with the content and design and had Mark’s blessing we had the first run printed.
You’ve been called Facebook’s Minister of Propaganda. Did you ever feel like one?
I’m not really sure what it feels like to be a Minister of Propaganda, so it’s hard to say. Internally at Facebook I tried to use art and design to reinforce Facebook’s values. I did this by trying to package and make tangible abstract ideas. Sometimes that meant a poster, an event, an installation etc. Sometimes it was simply creating the conditions where other people felt comfortable expressing themselves. As organizations grow they institutionalize certain behavior. Recognizing this, I wanted to institutionalize the idea of rebellion so that people always felt they were empowered and had permission to speak up and question or change what we were doing—on an individual and company level.
What is the role of typography in the digital medium/context?
I don’t really see typography’s role being any different in a digital medium or context than it would be in an analog medium or context. To me it’s always about the particular objectives of whatever you’re working on. Sometimes typography needs to be clear and direct, and sometimes it needs to be more expressive and evocative. Digital or analog may impact technical constraints, but to me doesn’t really change the role typography plays.
Who is your favorite typographer and why?
I have a real hard time answering “favorite” questions, because I have a lot of things I like. Folks that come to mind right now as I’m writing this would be Doyald Young, Jim Parkinson, and Joe Finocchiaro. Why? Probably because they’ve all done really incredible typographic driven identity work, which is something I admire.
If you were a font which one would you be and why?
Hah. I never know how to answer questions like this. I chose Alright Sans by Jackson Cavanaugh for my studio’s identity, I’ll go with that. It’s quiet, dependable, extensive, with just the right amount of quirk and personality.
What are you working on now?
Too many things. Right now I’m working on a couple projects for various clients. A lot of the work I’ve been doing this year has been identity projects. I’m also working on a couple personal book projects, and trying to continue to update my website.
What is the best way to end this conversation?