Facebook Design in conversation with co-authors Fuchsia MacAree and Scott Boms on their book and the importance of listening
Facebook’s Analog Research Lab is a creative studio for design and art-making operated by a team whose projects explore and express ideas, values, and new perspectives in tangible, physical forms through the lens of the company’s cultural zeitgeist. These projects and the dedicated Analog Research Lab studio spaces dotted across Facebook’s global campuses are built on passion and hard work as a reflection of Facebook’s creative spirit.
Scott Boms is a designer, printmaker and the Design Lead of Facebook’s Analog Research Lab based in Menlo Park, California. In 2017, Scott partnered with Dublin-based illustrator Fuchsia MacAree, an alumna of the Analog Research Lab’s Designer in Residence program, on a special project about listening. Fuchsia is known for her direct, expressive, and genuinely empathetic illustrations, carefully chosen color palettes, and an intrinsic curiosity about the world.
That project ultimately made its way into the world as a book called Being Hear. Created in response to observed behaviors and questions about the effects of technology, it charts a multi-sensory exploration of what it means to be present and our ability to listen to each other and the world in modern times.
One year on and at the end of touring the book to Facebook offices around the globe, we caught up with Scott and Fuchsia to learn more about the impact of this project and their creative and editorial process.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. What prompted this project about listening?
Scott: Discourse in general was a hot topic at the end of 2016, as it continues to be today, but there was a particular moment that came out of a poignant question asked by a Facebook employee that I’d call the real moment of conception for the project. The question — how do we give people ears to listen? — although direct on one hand was also one that had many layers to it. In other words, it was the perfect prompt for a project like this.
Although moments and prompts in a similar vein often come with a sense of urgency, this one took a while to properly unpack. I knew we needed to create something in response or as a reaction to this, but it was clear that quiet observation, research, and reflection were necessary to do so appropriately. That one question prompted many, many more about the nature of listening, how it impacts us in the physical world, as well as how we listen when we interact with each other online and with the tools we create to communicate with each other.
From there, I think you could say inspiration came from how we were able to work together, the research rabbit holes we went down, and the sometimes wildly unexpected connections Fuchsia and I collectively drew lines between along the way. Curiosity is what drove us — and is ultimately something we aimed to express within the book itself.
Fuchsia: I had been a Designer in Residence in the Dublin office in 2016, and for me this started when Scott asked if I wanted to work on a project with them in the Analog Research Lab in Menlo Park.
The idea of spending time on a project all about empathy and awareness was really appealing to me. Many of us work in such fast-paced environments that it’s easy to be constantly busy and to never take a step back to just be silent and listen — both emotionally and literally.
In a broader sense, I wanted to make something engaging that wasn’t too prescriptive, something that elevated other people’s voices, but wasn’t too serious. I also wanted it to be something that could exist at home or in work, to be leafed through rather than read cover to cover — something for people to find their own way through.
Q: How did you know where or how to start?
Fuchsia: I’m a big believer in research through practice, trying things out and learning from the process. Research and drawing overlapped all along the way, and some of this work made the cut. For me, having access to a Risograph machine in the Analog Research Lab was great for this project because I could make little zines as I went. These served as mini deadlines. When something is printed, it becomes final in a way for me, and I find it easier to move on.
Geography contributed to the immersive and social experience of the project. We started in California, but I was also in New York and Dublin over the course of the project, all the while working with Scott. I did a lot of reading and deep dives into articles the Facebook community had written. At the same time, I was also sketching and trying out different ideas. Gradually pieces of the book emerged from all this.
Scott: The way this project unfolded was unconventional, at least in terms of how I’ve worked in the past. Fuchsia and I needed a way to work together easily and created a shared spreadsheet as a rudimentary editorial tool for collecting and organizing ideas, especially early on. It allowed us to draw connections and ask questions along the way. By the time we had enough material to pull together an edit of the book in the late summer, we were able to do so quickly while also identifying gaps and the other questions we needed to answer.
The entire process felt conversational in a way. We took the topic of the book to heart in how we worked together. There was a lot of question asking, quiet reflection and—most importantly — listening to each other.
We aimed to make something that gently reflects an ideal of the world where the design and content transitions between moments of activity and rest in a natural way — the way conversations naturally ebb and flow. It ultimately became a collection of narratives and illustrative explorations that rewards observation and patience. The simplicity of Fuchsia’s illustration style and minimizing the amount of texture and detail needed to convey an idea intentionally became an expression of that ideal.
Q: How did the process of making the book influence the outcome?
Scott: I’ve always tried to be patient, quiet and observant in how I work, but working with Fuchsia on this project helped me understand more clearly why that’s important. Part of listening is knowing how and when to ask questions — not necessarily to interrupt someone, but to help drive a conversation in order to actually learn something.
We were only in the same place twice while making the book — at the outset during the first two weeks when Fuchsia came out to Menlo Park and later when I was in Dublin, and we assembled the first edit. It meant that most of our interactions were virtual — over email or VC calls. A spotty internet connection can mean awkward delays and unintentionally speaking over each other, which forced us to be more patient, to listen and reflect without feeling like there was an urgency to respond to each other’s thoughts in the moment. This drove how we thought about maintaining the rhythm and pacing throughout the book — not too fast, not too slow, and leaving room for pauses and quiet moments.
Fuchsia: It has made me slow down a little in my process, in a good way. Sometimes I can blindly fire ahead with an idea for a drawing not thinking about whether it’s actually working. To be aware of this and to work in a more considered manner means I can avoid a lot of frustration. I also think that, since making this book, my personal work has changed and become more subtle. I notice quiet moments more now.
Working on a book especially feels like you have a duty to make something which can continue in its next life on someone’s table or shelf. It’s going to have a life span well past the time it took to create, so it’s worth putting all you have into it.
Q: What was the most surprising discovery you made working on the book?
Fuchsia: Something I hadn’t considered before we started was how linked the subject matter and the working process were. A lot of the content in the book is a direct reaction to my experiences. My normal environment of Dublin, the relaxed feeling of California, and the hectic nature of New York all crashed together to affect different parts of the book. I was in these different environments, learning about the world around me and seeing things from a different perspective, while creating work about observing and listening. This is something which relied on my being present in the situation. One couldn’t exist without the other.
Another surprising result was that it changed my perspective of my social situations. It made me a little more aware of dynamics, and some of the practical advice in the book helped me in real life situations.
A part of the book deals with being an ally and directing questions to a person who is being talked over — I’ve found this a subtle tactic to make a social situation more diplomatic when one person is being very dominant. I’m lucky that my day-to-day work environment is a freelance studio with friends, so I manage to avoid a lot of office politics, but this kind of domination still happens all the time in the pub and at social gatherings, so I still get a taste of it.
There were also so many fun, small and surprising bits of research that went into the book. We were thinking about listening in a very literal way, as well as in an emotional way, but the literal examples had an unexpected link back to the meaning behind the book. For example, I found archive footage of elephants in London being given custom-made earmuffs to protect them from the sounds of planes taking off at Heathrow. This made for a fun and strange image, but it also touched on compassion and empathy.
I also looked into what sounds were sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft. This started with the fascination that we literally sent a record into space on the off chance an alien would come across it. But of course the real audience for these sounds weren’t aliens, the audience was us. We were trying to sum up our own existence to ourselves. I was especially delighted to find the recorded messages of greetings for extraterrestrials. Broadcast in the most common languages of Earth, they’re sweetly polite and mundane for our first contact with other planets. They almost sound like having a neighbor over for tea. For example the greeting recorded in the Amoy dialect of Chinese reads: “Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us, if you have time.”
Scott: For me, I think the most surprising discovery might be just how important the idea of listening is in general. Listening is something most of us probably don’t think about too often, yet it plays such an important role in how we experience the world.
Not listening means missing out on or misinterpreting critical pieces of information that might affect our life, friendships, or job. Think about how sound can heighten a physical or emotional response to an experience — whether in the real world or the digital one. Think about how you might miss hearing an oncoming car while listening to music or a podcast with headphones on. What about the challenge presented by electric vehicles which are even quieter than their gas-powered counterparts? We rely so heavily on our visual experience and perception, yet sound and our ability to listen plays an equally critical role.
Q: What’s missing today to allow people to truly listen to each other and not just hear, but understand the things we’re each trying to communicate?
Fuchsia: I think it’s a lot about ego going unchecked. The more everyone realizes we’re all small parts of the same big puzzle, the better. All the social movements happening at the moment mean it’s an interesting time to be living, in terms of empathy. We’re all constantly being forced to examine our behavior and privilege with a critical eye, which can only be a good thing.
Scott: Ego absolutely gets in our way when it comes to listening. We too often listen to respond — to provide an answer, a confirmation, or a rebuttal — and in doing so, miss the point entirely. Maybe we’d be better served knowing when to just be quiet. Sometimes bearing witness to another person as a sounding board is what they need — and enough.
It also comes down to making space for ourselves to be present. It’s become very easy to treat our days like a game of Tetris, bouncing between appointments and obligations, watching the clock — or deeply entranced by our phones, thinking more about where we need to go next and what we need to say or do rather than being present to absorb and truly understand what’s happening. Without presence, we fail to listen with the intent to understand. And without understanding, we become effectively lost.
Q: What does it mean to really listen?
Scott: Listening helps ground you. Stopping to sit and listen to the birds, the rain tapping against a window, or even watching cars whiz past outside for just a few minutes is an easy way to combat some of the anxiety and discomfort that comes with the constant acceleration of the world and our ability to understand our place in it, especially in relation to the experience and perspective of others.
Fuchsia: It’s easier than ever to feel a low sense of anxiety from all these screens we’re surrounded with. Taking a moment to recalibrate, step away from screens and just be aware of your surroundings can give you a little bit of perspective and take you out of your own head for a moment.
Q: Where do you hope Being Hear takes people?
Scott: A place of genuine humility and empathy. Real empathy starts with listening to understand, not to respond.
Fuchsia: I gave some copies to friends and family and was warmly surprised by the reaction the book received. Some people said it gave them the tools to be much more aware in the workplace and to be more self-reflective.
I think illustration is such a wonderful tool to present ideas to people in an approachable way, and hopefully what we put into the book achieves that.
Being Hear features more than 70 curious and delightful original illustrations, essays, and interactive activities that draw from a distinct geographic influence and reflect the journey the authors went on during the book’s creation. Printed copies of Being Hear have been donated to the Design Museum in London, where the proceeds of each purchased copy go to youth-focused design programs. Because of the intentional analog nature of interactive aspects of this work, a digital version will not be made available.