Facebook IRL: A Short History of Facebook's Design Aesthetic

I wasn't inspired to write on the occasion of Facebook's 10th birthday until I saw Christopher Butler's post regarding the fetishization of vintage objects and vintage-looking environments in Facebook's marketing videos. That's to say that in 2014 the way that Facebook markets Facebook is through showing us images of pre-digital technologies: paper, typewriters, etcetera, nestled in scenes of modern, cabin-lit vintage perfection. It is a perfectly on-trend aesthetic, neither fresh anymore or out of date yet, but Facebook's attachment to the aesthetic of the vintage is fascinating for a number of cultural and technical reasons.

Facebook Aesthetic Pre-History

Facebook's interest in the vintage is relatively recent. When I began working at Facebook in 2005 the physical aesthetic of the company was as yet undesigned (at least by anyone whose primary job at the company was physical design) and consisted largely of furniture culled from the Design Within Reach store across the street in Palo Alto. But since it was 2005, the furniture was less mid-century modern and more along the lines of a nameless futurism: gray, modular, somewhat uncomfortable couches strewn with blankets made out of inorganic materials (the Berkeley trend of superorganic fabrics was not happening in Palo Alto, which preferred synthetics).

The main feature of the office at this time was the screen, and lots of them. The more screens the better. One's status at the company was delineated, in fact, by the size of one's screen and how many one had on one's desk. Entry-level employees had 25" monitors while engineers had 32 or 36" monitors. Some engineers had more than one extra monitor on their desk. Some people flipped their monitors vertically resulting in a cascade of code flowing down the screen. By 2007 monitors had been added to every wall of the office that had space to fit a monitor. We were always monitoring something. This aesthetic, ironically, is the closest Facebook ever got to the aesthetic of "Hackers", which is one of Mark's favorite movies.

The Orange Aesthetic

2007 was also the year of F8, the Facebook Platform launch, and the aesthetic of that conference was the defining one for Facebook and tech for several years after. I call it the Orange aesthetic: it seemed to rely on the presumption that orange and red and other bright colors were the colors of TECH and the NEW. You knew you were at a tech event because there would be orange, and yellow, and always and only a sickly day-glo green. No organic colors were allowed during this period in tech aesthetics.

Photo of F8 2007 from the Oodle blog which covered the event

Photo of F8 2007 from the Oodle blog which covered the event

The Primary Aesthetic

In 2008 we moved to a new office at Hamilton and University in Palo Alto. The office looked to be in what was an old 1960s bank building, with massive poured concrete columns and lots of glass. This was the first time that the office could be designed in advance of our occupying it (when we moved to 156 University in 2005 there was nothing but desks in an empty room). The Hamilton office was fitted with bamboo floors for skating and ripsticking but that was the only organic element in the space. Everything else was in primary colors of red or blue. When my internationalization team moved in we added flags to the rafters for texture and color, to break up the monotony of all the hard edges. It was a pretty space due to the views of Palo Alto and the mountains (we were on the fifth floor), but it was cold in tone like the bank it once was; sometimes I would go eat lunch in the garden at my apartment complex for greenery and to get away from all the glass. The heart of this space was the game room full of wierdly garish yellow and orange furniture where boys would play video games, visible to everyone behind glass walls. It was the only room with any carpet or softness of any kind, really, but the blankets and carpet were still synthetic. Tech had not yet gotten into organic materials.

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The Bunker Aesthetic

In 2010 we moved to the "bunker" in what was an old Hewlett-Packard building. It was another massive concrete structure but low to the ground, and buried behind trees. It reminded me of the old 1970s Motorola building where I did a technical writing internship in college, but unlike that building this one was somewhat weirdly updated to an aesthetic that was neither old or new, industrial or white collar. The primary colors had been thrown out in favor of muted colors like dark green and gray. Floors were concrete or industrial carpet. There were many dark corners and yet it still always seemed full, each room a mass of desks and monitors. The air had that subtle sound of HVAC that you often hear in industrial buildings, and the sound seemed to intensify the quieter the room was. I moved around a lot in this building, I think looking for someplace warm and cozy to work, and often ended up in the cafeteria, which was full of fluorescent white light and long white cafeteria tables, but always had good desserts on deck.

When the time came that year to design F8 I told Ben Barry, who now occupied the role of Physical Designer at Facebook, that the aesthetic for this F8 should be more organic because the Orange Aesthetic (which I never liked anyway lol) was getting so tired. He agreed and incorporated a more organic looking aesthetic for the "graph" with finer lines (think of trees, I said) and green instead of orange. It's still a bit lime green but it was an improvement.

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This marked the slow and steady turn in tech design to what I will call The Reclaimed Wood Period.

The Reclaimed Wood Aesthetic

We are now firmly in the Reclaimed Wood Period of design, in which every available surface in hi-tech environs is covered not with monitors but with reclaimed wood (or wood that at least looks reclaimed). This aesthetic is mirrored in Facebook's turn in its branding away from orange images of screens (which was actually an F8 t-shirt design around 2007 and 2008) to images with no screens, as in the Paper promotional video.

What does all of this mean? I have thoughts on what it means that there are no screens in Facebook advertising anymore but I will have to post those in a followup as I have to run to Sightglass (a coffee shop composed exclusively of reclaimed wood, speaking of being in the High Reclaimed Wood Period) to meet about an app...