A look inside Facebook's Analog Research Laboratory.

Facebook's Ben Barry On How To Hack Your Job

Former Rolling Stone journalist and author Julia Cameron once said, “What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do. When we do what we are meant to do, money comes to us, doors open for us, we feel useful, and the work we do feels like play to us.”

Quotes like this sound great, but can a career ever work out that way? Ben Barry, a designer at Facebook, will you tell it can. Walking the halls of Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, you’ll see his work everywhere, including a signed poster from President Obama. Today, he’s helping design the company’s new campus, laying out materials for its f8 developer conferences, and coming up with ways to visually represent Facebook’s famous hacker culture.

We sat down with him on the eve of Facebook’s move to their new headquarters to ask him what it takes to do great work, having the guts to believe in yourself, and how the importance of personal projects can help you land your dream gig.

How did you get hired at Facebook?

I was happily living and working in Austin, Texas and then one day an ad showed up that Facebook was looking for designers – targeted at me because in my Facebook profile I had listed “designer” as my occupation. I clicked over, applied, and next thing I knew I was in Silicon Valley interviewing. I had only worked for really small shops up until then so it was a bit different to come on board with such a rapidly growing company but also a lot of fun.

Are you a specialist or a generalist?

I consider myself a generalist. I’m interested in all sorts of stuff. I write code. I screen print. I dabble in letterpress and bookbinding. I sort of want to do it all and also be good at everything. I have some close friends that are incredibly talented specialists and I get sort of envious. They’re super-badass at one or two things. They’ve been able to focus and become experts, but I guess there are too many things I’m interested in learning. I’m thankful that the current technology trends at play in the world have made it possible for me to dabble in these different areas without having to specialize.

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Internal poster Barry designed for Facebook. Two-color screen print.
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What’s your take on Facebook’s success?

Every generation builds on the technologies and infrastructure of the previous generation. Facebook had all these technologies available at just the right time so a college kid named Mark Zuckerberg could launch this company with his friends from their dorm room. It wouldn’t have been possible 5 or 10 years prior.

Thirty years ago it took a lot of people to create something of value, and we’ve been investing in the technology so that now just one person can add more value to the world. So, we’ve been working really hard at further creating technologies like the Facebook Platform that enables individuals to have greater impact through their work by being able to easily make their products social.

How do you spend your time?

It’s different every day depending on what projects I having going on. Most of the energy the past two years has been put into thinking about the role of the Communication Design team. Now, I’m spending a lot more of my time helping to make sure the hacker culture stays intact as we grow.

How have you grown in your position?

In addition to web design, I’ve always had an interest in traditional print design. We had a bunch of leased space, and I was able to get access to one of the warehouse buildings to set up a little workshop in the back by the loading dock. After work and on the weekends, I kind of secretly built out a little screen printing studio. Once I got it setup and working I was able to start making posters that I put all around the company. Now it makes up a big part of my job, even though nobody asked me to do it and it’s not what I was originally hired to do. I didn’t ask for permission, I just did it.

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The Facebook Analog Research Laboratory, a screen printing studio and workshop that Barry set up with the help of Everett Katigbak.
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What do you think is key to moving ahead in a creative field?

Something that is often overlooked with creatives is time management and getting shit done. You can be the most talented designer in the world but if you don’t follow through and get stuff out there, it doesn’t matter.

I have several friends that are incredibly talented. They will start on projects but rarely follow through. They get bored or distracted or discouraged that it’s not “perfect” and give up. Following through and finishing things is one of the most important things you can learn.One of my favorite quotes is “Done is better than perfect.” That doesn’t mean making crap – I believe you should always strive for the highest quality you can – but you have to finish. I think a lot of my friends in this situation don’t realize how in-demand their skills are. I think if you follow through on projects and just put the tiniest little effort into promoting yourself and have the tiniest bit of self-confidence, you can get the job you want.

What unspoken skills help make for great work?

The skill I often see overlooked is design thinking. I say this half-joking but half serious: the most important piece of software a designer can know is TextEdit. Sitting down and getting thoughts in writing about what it is you’re doing, who it’s for, why you’re doing it – once you have that clear understanding, it becomes much easier.

If I don’t do this first, I find myself sitting down thinking “Uhhh…. What do I do?” When I have thought through and done that work upfront, I sit down knowing the problem and it becomes really easy to solve. It sort of designs itself if you do that design thinking work first.

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A poster Barry designed at a recent Facebook hackathon.
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What soft skills do people often underestimate?

Pitching and presenting your work well. It’s something I see all the time as students and I probably did as a student myself – making excuses. But fortunately I had a professor who said, “You never make excuses for poor work.” You just never go into a meeting saying, “Well, if I had more time or this isn’t very good…” No. Even if you’re thinking those things, you sell it and don’t ever make excuses. [Laughs] The other thing of course is never show anything you don’t want to have produced. I try to live by that.

Any advice for those aspiring to do great work?

Well, one of the first student portfolio reviews I ever did involved sitting down with this student’s work, and she had a lot of business-to-business corporate projects in her portfolio. I was flipping through it, and I stopped and just asked her, “Is this what you want to do? Is this the kind of work you want to do for the rest of your career? If it is, then this is perfect.”

There was nothing technically wrong with her work. The layouts were beautiful, the photography well-selected, but it was completely, in my opinion, boring and uninspiring. There was nothing innovative or disruptive about it.

If design is just a 9-to-5 job for you then that’s a different set of requirements. I guess everything I’m saying in this interview is not to those people though. To me, it’s a calling. You come home and you can’t turn it off. I’m speaking to those kinds of people. So my advice is to figure out what kind of designer you aspire to be and then focus on doing that kind of work.

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Stationery designed for Mark Zuckerberg.
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How do you breakout and answer that calling then?

I’ve always done a lot of personal projects. At Facebook, I wanted to set up an entire print studio because that’s the kind of work I wanted to be doing. I came in on the nights and weekends and built it. Over time, I got more and more requests to do that type of work, and I’m able to justify that as my job.

You have to make those opportunities happen and take those risks. I’ve always said that if what I’m doing isn’t resonating with where I am, it’s better for me to go somewhere else where it does. So, if you want to get into a certain type of work, you just have to do it on your own terms so that people will then pay you to do it.

Do you ever struggle with self-doubt?

Definitely. One of the benefits of having all these great design books and online resources around me is they really inspire me and other times it’s like “Fuck. I’m never going to be that good.” It can be really easy to fall into that trap and stop making things, but you just have to realize that everyone who is successful has made plenty of mistakes along the way.

I have always had this view of the world that everybody has access to the same resources I do and if these people can do it, I can do it, too. I recently came across this video after Steve Jobs passed away. It resonated with me a lot.

What advice do you have for people starting out?

I look at a lot of my mentors, and they’re very good at building that relationship with the client and pitching and selling their ideas. They’re all amazing storytellers, and it became immediately apparent to me my first year out of school that I was terrible at this.When you’re in design school, it’s so easy to do good work. You want to do good work. Your teachers want you to do good work and that’s pretty much it. But it’s also completely unrealistic, because you don’t have to deal with budgets or clients.

When you come out of school you have to convince people that you have good ideas so they will give you money to do stuff. A big part of this is knowing your own weaknesses and then identifying and partnering with people that can help you accomplish your goals.

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Poster designed for Barack Obama’s visit to Facebook, and signed by the man himself.
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What was it like designing the print materials for President Obama’s visit to Facebook last April?

We only had about a week and a half notice before he was coming. The first thing I thought was “Okay, Obama’s coming and I gotta design a poster and somehow get him to sign it because when else will you ever have an opportunity to have the President sign something you designed?”

But I got sucked into doing a bunch of other stuff for the event on top of traveling and other project work, and it comes down to the night before the visit and I still hadn’t designed or printed the posters. So, I go to dinner at our cafeteria and I had a few ideas but I knew they weren’t good enough. I flipped open my laptop over dinner and worked on a concept, burned the film, and screen printed 50 posters.

Now it’s about 10 o’clock and I’m cleaning up and I knew I wasn’t going to get close to the President and I figured the only way it would get signed was if Mark [Zuckerberg] would ask him to do it. So, I snapped a photo with my phone and shot an email to him asking if he’d try and get him to sign it. I’m about to leave it on his desk and he writes back saying something like, “Yeah, it looks awesome. I’ll try and get him to sign it.”

As I’m stacking up the posters about to leave for the night, I realize I misspelled Barack Obama’s name on the poster. I was pissed. What could I do? I went back and output new film, burned new screens, and printed an edition of 10 correct posters. Mark was able to get him to sign it and now it hangs in our offices, so that’s pretty cool. The phrase “pain is temporary, film is forever” comes to mind with a project like this.

More insights on: Career Development, Risk-Taking

Jake Cook

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Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.
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