Why Design at Facebook

The most classic story of Facebook, in my opinion, has nothing to do with its humble beginnings in a dorm room. It has nothing to do with Justin Timberlake swigging booze at a club and rhapsodizing about making a billion dollars. In fact, it has very little to do with the story of any individual.

The most classic story of Facebook is about the product, and this is a story I was told by Aaron Sittig, Facebook’s first designer.

In 2005, Facebook launched a way for people to upload photos onto the network. Of course, it wasn’t the only photo-hosting service at the time. Flickr was the golden standard, and comparing the two feature-by-feature was like evaluating a BMW against a Hyundai. On Facebook, you could only upload low-res photos. They showed up small and grainy and on a page cluttered with links and text instead of on a simple, sparse black background that let the photo shine. There were no handy navigation tools like a preview strip or a thumbnail of the next photo in the set. There were no keyboard shortcuts either, and the loading performance wasn’t great.

Within a year and a half, however, Facebook was the most popular sharing service in the world.


Because on Facebook, you could do something that no other service let you do: tag your friends. Which meant you could upload a photo and say it was of you and your bestie Mike, and not only would Mike be notified of the photo, all your friends would see it in their News Feeds and on your profile.

Have you ever noticed the photos hanging on the mantles and walls of people’s homes? I don’t know about you, but most of my relatives tend not to be master photographers. My parents’ walls are filled with photos where the entire family is posing against what might be generic backdrops of famous monuments, and the lighting’s washed out or the colors are too bluish-purple. In my parents’ bedroom is a photo of me where I’m six years old and the composition is terrible. My parents aren’t bothered by that. What matters most to them, and to the vast majority of people out there, is that when it comes to photos, it’s about the people and the memories. Family and friends congregating at a certain point in time. Weddings and graduations, vacations and family portraits.

People care about the people in their photos a thousand times more than they care about the objective quality of the photos themselves. Being able to relive a party with the people who were there, being able to get snapshots of loved ones who live in another state, being able to laugh at what my friends dressed up as for Halloween the day after— this is what’s most valuable to the greatest number of people.

And this, for me, has always been the story of Facebook: a relentless focus on impact at scale, on making things of value not just for a small group of people born into first-world privileges with niche interests like photography, but for the vast majority of the world.

Should photos be presented in the best light possible? Of course. Should they load quickly? Without question. Should navigating a set of photos be a great experience? Absolutely. It’s pretty hard to argue otherwise, because I can’t imagine anyone, when given the choice, would vote for uglier, slower, harder-to-navigate photos. This isn’t a debate of either/or. As builders and designers, it’s lazy not to not continue shooting for a further star on that beautiful path towards the ideal.

But when we talk about priorities, when we talk about the core of what drives a company, for me Facebook has always been about this: the people we build for are the ultimate judges of what’s good or bad and what matters and what doesn’t when it comes to product and design. The people at large — not you or I, not the CEO, not our friends, not all the greatest creative minds in the world — it’s the people we build for that matter the most.

When I think about the kind of designer I aspire to be, I think about the person who realized that photo tagging was the key to unlocking what it was that people wanted, and who built and shipped that to the world.

If that’s also the kind of designer you aspire to be, then we should chat.

No really, we should chat. I’m serious.

I don’t write about Facebook much as this is a personal blog, and in the day-to-day of design, there are many topics universal to anyone out there who is building a product.

But every company, like every person, has their own story. And at Facebook, we’re hiring designers to write the next volume. From delivering people the most interesting content for them in their News Feed, to helping connect those who don’t have access to basic Internet, to making messaging faster and more useful, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

In my experience, building a great team isn’t just about raw talent and can you do the work? Like with any good relationship, it’s about the fit. Facebook might not be the right place for you, and that’s cool. I know many talented designers for whom that’s true.

I also happen to know many talented designers for whom Facebook is the perfect environment. And that might be you, if you are a designer who:

  1. cares about the mission of connecting and empowering people all around the world
  2. gets more satisfaction out of solving for the hundreds of millions of people you can’t know over the small number that you do know
  3. is curious and adaptable and always willing to learn from the people you build for,
  4. believes in the power of the right tools for the right problems
  5. believes that the best way to get good results is by investing in a good process
  6. is comfortable with some level of ambiguity and chaos
  7. would rather proactively try something than be told exactly what to do
  8. cares deeply about quality and would climb hills after dark for the sake of craft
  9. wants a culture of openness and transparency
  10. understands that you will make mistakes, and that the people around you will make mistakes, and what’s important is learning from these mistakes so that collectively we grow stronger
  11. carries their ego in a nondescript box rather than on a pedestal
  12. envisions an inspiring future and helps others see and build towards it
  13. cares more about solving problems than debating theoretical concepts
  14. would rather achieve results than praise

If you that kind of designer, and you have a few years of experience building things, let’s chat.

Drop me a line with a link to some of your work and which of the above resonated the most with you. Let’s chat.

jouleethezoo at gmail dot com



A collection of essays by Julie Zhuo on design, building products, and observing life.

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