An Interview with Designer Ben Barry
Many people have probably heard about the Facebook Analog Research Lab. The entity that developed into a powerful voice for culture, rebellion and inspiration across Facebook offices. I wanted to learn more about the guy behind it and how this major staple at Facebook originated.
Ben Barry is an extremely talented designer that has inspired me for years. So you can imagine how excited I was when he agreed to sit down and chat with me for a while. If you haven’t seen his work before, you’re welcome.
Design as a practice attracts people that are naturally curious. How does curiosity play a role in your life?
Ben: I remember in school at UNT taking a class called “introduction to communication design” Professor Eric Ligon said “designers really need to be good at trivial pursuit”. You need this depth of knowledge and world experiences of how things work where you can draw from that stuff and reference it or learn from it. I just try to be really open and learn from different things. Expose myself to different ideas and view points. I don’t think that I’m the best at that but it’s something I try to do and be open to.
Do you feel empathy has played a role in your work?
Ben: Yeah! I think empathy definitely plays a role in my work. I think about how people will receive things and how they will react to things. Not just frustrations but how to make something as easy as possible. I’m a pretty easy going guy but I’ll get annoyed by things where people didn’t take the time to actually think through it. Just bad experiences where people didn’t care enough to see how something can be done better. I think a lot of my empathy comes from personal frustrations with half assed experiences.
Could you explain the greatest adventure of your life so far?
Ben: I worked on something called Project M back in 2007 that was definitely a formative experience. Just being there and thinking about design as a means to accomplish something else. Not just an end. It challenged me to think about how I can apply design to positively change lives. We found that a lot of people didn’t have access to running water or used contaminated wells. Many families couldn’t afford the cost of water bills. So we helped raise awareness and get online sponsors to get their hookups for water.
Also, before I left Facebook. I took a 6 month leave. I had been all over the U.S. but I had never traveled abroad. I finally had the money and could afford to do it. I booked a ticket to London and then bought a rail pass. I had no plan at all. Not really the right thing to tell immigration. They almost didn’t want to let me in.
Did you go alone?
Ben: Yeah, I did. I had friends traveling the same time or lived over there. I spent 2 months traveling Europe and went to Hong Kong and Tokyo on the way back. That was an incredible experience!
Were you intimidated doing it on your own?
Ben: Things like Facebook and the internet kept me connected to my friends. I did a project where I shared one photo a day to Facebook. So I still felt connected. People would see my photos and tell me stuff I needed to do or hook me up with friends. I didn’t feel that I was out there alone. I actually didn’t think about it much until after on how technology has played such a role in that experience.
When I look at your work you design for so many mediums. You do everything from brand, print to interface design. What motivates you to learn and work on such a variety of things?
Ben: There is a certain pride in being able to do everything myself. People will ask, “Who did you get to build it?” I’d respond, “I fucking built it.” I really enjoy the learning process. I like shifting what I’m working on. One day I’ll be coding and another day I’ll be drawing. I really do self identify as a generalist.
I love the quote by Tibor Kalman. “Do everything twice. The first time you don’t know what you’re doing, the second time you do, the third time it’s boring.”
Once you’ve done something a couple times you have figured out the basics. Though, sometimes I’m really envious of people who specialize. They are just so incredibly talented at that particular craft. For me, I just really enjoy new challenges, learning and growing.
How did The Analog Research Lab come about? What were the biggest challenges.
Ben: Yeah, so, when I started at Facebook, I interviewed with Ben Blumenfeld. He was my first boss at Facebook. We talked about my screen printing background during the interview. At the time, Facebook still had a very young startup vibe. Even though they had hundreds of people at the time. We started talking about the idea of having an art room for Facebook. I imagined how cool that would be. I think that was really the seed for the idea.
Later, I started participating in the Hackathon events and helping them make t-shirts and posters. Everett Katigbak, (who co-founded the lab and started at Facebook the same day as me) and I started trying things like getting local screen printers to burn some screens for us. We would make shirts for people or work on some kind of art installation.
Facebook was still small at the time and we really didn’t have any room to have a physical space because we were growing at such a rapid pace. In 2009 we moved into a building that was in Palo Alto, an old HP or Lucent Technologies building that was their medical division. That building was huge and we still outgrew that in like a year.
So we got another building down the street. It ended up having a huge warehouse space and they had looked into renovating but the roof needed repair and had some parking issues. So the decision was made that it wasn’t going to get built out.
Through working with the facilities team we got keys to that space. It wasn’t up to OSHA code and we really weren’t supposed to be in there. We just started putting things in. It was really hacky for about the first year. A lot of my personal stuff is still in The Lab today.
Then Jim Merryman who was Director of Facilities left and hired his replacement John Tenanes. They were giving John a tour and, at this point, we had set up a pretty nice shop. He was like “What is this?” Ha. We ended up getting an email from John asking us what we needed and wanted. So he really became a champion of the lab and helped us by embracing it.
“My first ask was actually for running water. I was running water from the janitors closet across the building.” Haha.
At that point we were working with the facilities team to build the official lab that is there today. Then it became very legit. Now they have a full time staff.
When you were planning the official lab… What was your goal or motivation?
Ben: Initially, the lab for me, was just that I loved to make things and have beautiful craftsmanship. The function was to be this critical voice within this growing community/company.
So many people were coming in to the company. We were hiring so many more people all the time and it’s diluting the initial culture. So the culture needed to evolve as we were bringing people in from other companies. Once the influx really started happening I remember having lots of conversations like “This is how we did it at X company” I don’t care how you did it at that place. It doesn’t matter here because this is Facebook and we need to think about our core values and the right way for us to do this.
A good example of this was that a lot of companies have Corporate art programs. When Everett and I created the artist in residency program we made it an actual residency program. Facebook has such a hacker/maker culture we didn’t just want to buy art and hang it up.
“The act of making the thing is just as important as the thing itself.”
So we really wanted to reinforce that when we structured that program. So an artist would come in and spend a period of time engaging with the community and leave something meaningful behind.
Where did the name Analog Research Laboratory come from?
Ben: We wanted it to sound really official. Haha. It was totally made up. When you give something a name and a logo it becomes a real thing. But the idea was that it needed to exist as an entity larger than Everett and I. The name came out this idea from when I was at Decoder Ring back in Austin, TX where this guy Paul and I shared a room. We were always joking a lot. While we interviewed interns one of their resumes said something like they did “analog and digital design”. Some how that became a joke between all of us. I thought it was really funny. So being at Facebook surrounded by all these engineers I thought it was an ironically official name.
What role do feel that ARL played in the growing company?
Ben: I don’t think I thought about it much at the beginning. I started to try different things and see what worked and what didn’t. As an organization starts to scale something goes wrong or something bad happens. The natural inclination is like “Ok, how to we build rules or processes in place to prevent that thing from happening again?” There are a lot of good things that can happen but there is also a lot of bureaucracy that can start to build up. So you end up with people that say this is how we do it but they don’t really know why. So you end up with these institutionalized behaviors.
“I became very interested in how we can use art and design to institutionalize this idea of rebellion.”
When you are at Facebook and are a Facebook employee you are always empowered and expected to speak up or question why something is how it is. You have the power to change it or make it better.
My goal was to set in place conditions where people felt that they had permission to behave that way. So, using art and design to reinforce that mentality. I actually had a logic for which walls I would put stuff up on. When we started this was how the building was designed but over time we consciously designed the new buildings to follow this same logic.
There were cement floors that intersected with walls and carpeted spaces that also intersected with the walls. The carpeted spaces were where all the desks were and the teams sat. So, that space was owned by the teams that sat adjacent to them. But the walls with concrete floors were the walkways like the street and were the public space. I’m no more empowered to put stuff up or take stuff down then anyone else. So, I would put stuff up because I felt like I could. People would come to me and say “I don’t like this thing that someone put up.” I would respond by telling them “Take it down or put something over it. It was my responsibility. Take ownership because this is everyones community.”
This is something I didn’t get to earlier… but when people found out who was doing posters people would say I have this idea for a poster and you should make it. I would say “No, you should make it.” So, I started teaching classes and helping others create. This is something they still do today. So, again this wasn’t my responsibility it was all of our responsibility.
I’m not going to take something down or cover something up unless I have something better to put up.
So my belief was that if people felt empowered to control their physical environment and change that, that would translate into how they approached the rest of their job.
One project that sticks out to me was The Little Red Book. How did that come about?
Ben: Yeah, as we were getting larger, we moved into the new Sun Micro Systems campus. It felt very different. Now you walk up and it was an actual campus and it had a very different vibe. There was this institutional memory and things that were formative moments within the company from before me and through the hyper growth period. There were moments that sparked internal discussion through our company groups or company all-hands that became debates. If you weren’t there when those things happened, you didn’t really have the history. My idea was to take all of this stuff and package it to hand to people.
Facebook being a tech company. Why did you think to do something a printed book and not a microsite or something?
Ben: I think for me the web is really great for a whole lot of things. For content of this nature there were really only two formats that I thought were acceptable. The problem is that if you do it on a wiki page or microsite it’s really hard to capture a tangible sense of how much information is there. (Ben grabs a book off of his desk) I understand intuitively how heavy and big this book is and have a sense of how much information is inside this. You don’t get that sense of how much weight through the web. I do think it is achievable digitally through things like video. But the other aspect of a book is that someone took the time and resources to take the information and put it into this physical object. You just have this energy or respect for it.
Part of that is, especially in a context like Facebook, where so much of the communication is digital then a physical book stands out more. It creates a signal of importance. If everything was printed you wouldn’t get that feeling or have that kind of impact.
As I was leaving Facebook, I started to worry about the saturation. The work of the Lab was amazing. There is art and posters everywhere and beautiful signage. My concern was that it has become largely decoration and lost its ability to be critical, start a discussion or shape the culture. It’s become this background noise. It’s beautiful and amazing because most companies have those shitty 8.5×11 poster about a blood drive.
I was thinking about this before I left. I did, so it’s kind of a mute point, but I was thinking about what could be done when we had all white walls. You put up a poster and could make an impact but eventually it got too noisy and saturated. I wanted to get this guy in LA, who is famous in graffiti circles, he rolls around LA, vigilante style, to buff out murals and graffiti. I wanted to get him as an artist in residence. Set him loose and reset everything. In order to get that kind of impact you of have to do something radical.
You seem to be comfortable working alone. How was that at a big company like Facebook?
Ben: I was originally hired as a Visual Design. They needed someone to work on that side of things. But, I actually really love the immediacy of having an idea and being able to go into the studio and just make it. I frequently describe myself as an introvert. Jessica Hische once said to me, “Ben, you’re not an introvert, you’re an omnivert.” Ha. I aways thought that was funny.
I like to get into a flow when working where I just start making. Anytime I have to email or call someone else to do something, the creative process grinds to a halt. It becomes a logistical process. It then feels like work. The more I can do myself the more I enjoy it because I just get lost in making things.
How did you learn to work in print?
Ben: I took a class in college, but at The Decoder Ring Paul Fucik, who is a master screen printer, really taught me a ton. We did an art print series where we did 15–30 color screen prints. Those were really insane! I just love the immediacy of having an idea and making it.
Your working independently now right?
Ben: Yeah, so,I left Facebook in 2014 and moved to Brooklyn since then I have been doing work independently. Now I’m back in San Francisco and I work on a project to project basis.
For someone who enjoys doing work for yourself… How do you approach working with clients?
I don’t think of it as work for myself but I think of it as work with a point of view. Sometimes, I have potential clients come to me and they want someone to execute a very particular vision.
So I just ask a lot of questions. I’m curious “why are you doing this?” I have a certain kind of mentality. They saw my work. They liked my work. They hired me. They want, in my mind, me to do more of what I’ve already done. That work is what it is because of the way I operate. Part of my job is to ask these questions to gain a point of view and express it. I think it’s really important. Even if… it isn’t not what you’re initially asked to do.
Clients sometimes come to me ask for something but what they really want isn’t actually what they ask for. In those cases, I try to help them realize this.
What would be a piece of advice you would have for the next generation?
Ben: When I finished my internship at Decoder Ring they said they really wanted to hire me after I finished school. So, before I graduated, I reached out to a guy named Christian there. He told me they weren’t doing as much business at the time as expected so they were going to be able to hire me. So I knew I had to go out and find a job. I spent the summer traveling and interviewing anywhere that I could, mostly Seattle or New York. Christian ended up calling me back and saying they really wanted to hire me and made me an offer. The offer was far lower than any other offer I had at the time. Either way I already knew I was going to take the job when he called me. The point and advice is that, especially when your young, it’s not about prioritizing money over opportunity. I took it because of the amazing people and projects at a small place where I would get exposure to a lot of things.
“It’s important to make a living. But also important to always try to work on projects you want to work on, with people you want to work with.”
Also, if something doesn’t go right don’t take it too hard. Just fix it and move forward. What’s the purpose working all the time to make this money if you don’t have time to enjoy it.
This interview was originally published on curiousclub.co
Photography by Will Miller