A Work in Progress

Israel-born Ben Blumenfeld says that five years as a designer at Facebook is like working 30 years somewhere else. If the social network that serves 800 million people doesn't keep changing, he asserts, it will die.

In late 2006, designer Ben Blumenfeld had just begun working at a small company that dealt in e-commerce. This was shortly after he quit CBS, where he had spent two years designing the sites of the television programs "Survivor," "Big Brother," "Late Show with David Letterman," "CSI" and others.

"One of my friends told me about a company that was looking for designers, and asked whether it would be okay for them to call me," Blumenfeld says in a Skype video interview. "I said no, I don't want to talk to anyone, but he said, 'Sorry, I already told them they could call you.'

Blumenfeld Facebook - Jan 2012

"The guy who called me was Jeff Hammerbacher, one of the first employees at Facebook. He said they were looking for designers, but I said, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' He offered to fly me out for free, to meet the team. I asked him where they were located, and he said Palo Alto. At that time my older brother was already at Stanford and I said to myself, why not. I told him I would come, but I was honest with him and said there was less than a 1-percent chance I would be joining them. He said, 'That's fine, we'll take that chance.'"

When he arrived in Palo Alto, from his home in Los Angeles, Blumenfeld began to feel differently: "Everyone I met there was simply unbelievable. At other companies where I had worked I always thought I was the best designer, but then I got to Facebook and said, 'God, I am so bad.' The first designer who worked at Facebook also knew how to design wonderful fonts and also wrote the code for the Macintosh version of Napster. Nobody has that range. He studied philosophy at Berkeley. Most of the designers usually come from design schools, and there I encounter designers who came from Stanford, Duke, Berkeley - the best universities. The more designers I met, the more I realized that this was the place all the good ones come to, and that if I wanted to be in the best place, this was the place."

Blumenfeld was offered a job. "They said they wanted me and asked what would make me move here. I asked to speak with Mark Zuckerberg to hear what his vision is; to understand what he wants to build. They said, 'No problem, talk on the phone and ask him anything.' We had an hour-long conversation in which I asked him very direct questions, such as: 'What is your goal? What do you want to accomplish? How important is money to you, and more.' He was very open. I asked him what he was going to do, and he said: 'We're going to change fundamentally the way people communicate with each other, and we're going to get everyone in the world to join us.'"

Really? That is what he said, even back in 2006?

"Yes, that is precisely what he said. I laughed a bit ... and he said, 'I'm serious, we're going to get all the people in the world to use Facebook.' That's when I realized that this guy was serious and that if they were willing to invest in me, it could be an interesting opportunity. The reason I had left CBS was that I realized that the better I did my job, the more I would get people to watch TV, and that wasn't why I went to study design. I wanted to help people understand the world, themselves, their friends."

When you joined Facebook, how many employees did the company have?

"Around 200."

And today?

"Something like 3,000."

Professional at 17

Blumenfeld was born in 1979 in Afula. At the age of 6 he moved with his family to Los Angeles because his father, a physician, wanted to develop professionally abroad. He and his entire family remained in the United States; today he is engaged to a woman, Jocelyn, who he met at Facebook, where she worked in risk management.

His attraction to design began at a young age. "As a child I always loved to draw, from the age of zero. In fifth grade I began buying magazines about computers. We had a Macintosh computer that we'd bought from a friend of my dad's, which had the second version of the Photoshop program installed on it, and I began playing around with it. That was 20 years ago. With my bar-mitzvah money I bought a nice colorful Macintosh, and I was already doing a lot of 3-D at 13."

By age 17, though still in school, he was already working professionally. "My father had a friend in this field [advertising]. He called an ad agency he knew and told them he had a very talented kid who knew 3-D. When I got to the interview, the first thing they asked me was whether I was looking for my dad.

"I waited in a large conference room. The VP came in and asked who I was. I told him I was there about a job interview and he said, 'God, you look very young to be a graduate of a design school.' I told him I wasn't. He paused and said, 'Just a second, how old are you?' I told him I was 17, still in high school. He looked at the other guy in the room and asked him what they were going to do ... The other guy gave him a look that said, 'We need this guy, no matter how old he is.'

"I showed them my portfolio and they hired me. It was fun but also tough. Everyone there was at least 30 years old. When I graduated from high school they offered me a full-time job, and offered me a serious salary, but my parents made it clear to me that there was no way I wasn't going to college."

A good Jewish family after all.

"Precisely. Looking back, it was undoubtedly the right decision. I went to study design at UCLA, a broad program that doesn't necessarily train you for a profession: They want you to learn to read design and think design, and if you go there and you're serious you can leave there and do just about anything in the field."

In 2001, at 22, Blumenfeld graduated after four years of design studies. His first job was at Adams Morioka, then a leading graphic design firm in Los Angeles.

"I worked there for three months, and then they fired me. It was strange, because I felt that on every project I brought them cutting-edge added value, in terms of 3-D or digital.

"Suddenly after three months, they told me that they felt it wasn't working out. I said, 'What do you mean it isn't working out? I'm bringing you skills you don't have.' I was astounded. So they said, 'Believe us, you'll thank us for this someday, you should be focusing on what you love and not on the branding world' ... I had never failed at anything before.

"I thought, 'There's no way I'm telling this to my parents,'" he says with a smile, adding that thereafter he joined a small firm called BIG Interactive, where he did web design, and then moved to CBS; subsequently he joined a childhood friend as the design director at Varien, which dealt in e-commerce and was bought by eBay.

'Very few egos'

In February 2007 Blumenfeld began working at Facebook on the product-design team, which is responsible for creating all of the options offered to users - photos, groups, news feed, and more. "After a year and a half at product design," he notes, "we realized that we had a problem with the way in which we communicate Facebook to the world - with everything related to our visibility. How you explain to people what each thing is?"

That led to Blumenfeld's setting up Facebook's communication design team, which he managed for the next two years, until he felt he would prefer to go back and focus on design rather than management. "Being a designer, and managing designers are two different things, especially when you're talking about smart and talented designers. I was good at it and I loved it, but not like I loved designing. So I said that I wanted to go back to design full-time."

What is your job description today?

"We call it design lead. At Facebook you can be a designer or a manager, and that's it. There is no art director or creative director, but it's not difficult to tell who is more senior: There are designers who've been there longer, there are those who work on bigger projects. Still, at the end of the day there are very few egos and a lot of people who are working together."

Does Facebook have a chief designer?

"Yes. Mark Zuckerberg," Blumenfeld says with a grin. "That's a joke, but it's also true. Every decision ultimately has to go through him. The only people you have to convince are the people on your team and Mark."

What can you tell us about him? What sort of person is he?

"One of the images people have in their heads is his character from the film 'The Social Network,' but he is very different from what's depicted there. He is very considerate, very laid-back, super-intelligent. It's really impressive to see how he thinks about very complex systems. He has also become a really good designer: He can look at your computer and say that [a] space needs to be seven pixels, not six. On the other hand, he's still a 27-year-old guy, without a doubt a nerd, who likes nerdy things, and considering all the things he deals with, he's pretty modest. I can think of other people in a similar situation who let it go to their heads, and he's really not like that.

"On top of that, he has a simply unbelievable memory. For example, every Friday there's a meeting with him, and any employee can ask him anything he wants. One time my fiancee asked him a question and the answer he gave wasn't that great. Four days later she gets a two-page e-mail from him in which he writes, 'Hi, the answer I gave you wasn't good enough, here's a better answer.'

"This guy has so much on his mind, but he remembered the question and four days later answered it again. He can walk down the hallway and suddenly say to you, 'You know what, we need to do more research in this or that direction,' and you think that he probably does that 200 times a day. A week later he passes by and says, 'You remember that thing I asked, did you do it?' and you hadn't been certain whether it was serious. How does he remember all this stuff?"

What was your fiancee's question?

Blumenfeld smiles and replies: "I can't remember."

Who moved my lamp?

Today some 800 million people around the globe use Facebook, and the quality of their experience is the focus of the design team's work. For Blumenfeld in particular, in recent years, this has meant dealing with education of users and launching new products. "Because we have so many users, each time we launch a new product, it's very complex. The last thing I worked on was the Timeline."

But you're constantly changing, switching the location of buttons and so forth.

"That's true, the site changes a lot."

And people get annoyed.

"Yes, obviously. I'll give you an example. Imagine that each day you come home and find that the lamp in your bedroom is in another spot. You'd be frustrated."

Correct.

"On the one hand, we need to be able to undergo continual change, because if Facebook doesn't change it will die. That is a fact. On the other hand, the challenge is how to explain to people what it is we're changing and the reason for it. It's easier for people to accept a change when you explain it to them, when you give them time to understand. If we go back to your bedroom, the change can be explained by the fact that you need better light next to your bed, so you'll have an easier time reading. So tonight I'm going to move the location of your lamp and you'll be ready for it. Try it for a few weeks and see how you feel about it. That is a completely different experience from coming home one day and finding that someone has moved your lamp."

How do you decide to make a change? Does it derive from strategy or from design? That is, you see that users aren't pressing a button and you say, let's change it, or because you have decided on a new feature?

"Both. There are changes that derive from the fact that we have a feature that no one is using and we check why. Sometimes we want to clean up the design and make everything look better. It's funny that you say design and strategy are two different things, whereas they are one thing. If you as a designer move the button that adds friends just in order to make the page prettier, you may have that moment screwed up the whole Friends thing on Facebook. Designers need to understand a lot more than aesthetics. You need to understand that there is significance to every decision you make."

One of the major changes Blumenfeld was involved in this past year involving turning the personal profile page from the news-feed format into the Timeline profile format.

"The Timeline is a good example of something that Mark thought up," he says, "that your profile doesn't have to represent only what's going on with you right now, but rather to represent your entire history. It was a Facebook decision that was intended to let people tell a richer and more complex story about their lives."

Blumenfeld is not worked up about the fact that one's entire history is suddenly accessible, nor about the tremendous change the company imposed on users' habits. "Historically, the move to news feed was also a big change. Instead of going to your friends' profiles to see what they're up to, suddenly everything led into one page. It was the same thing: Suddenly all of this information became very accessible. If the access to this information enabled you to know more about your friends, and before Timeline you knew what my friends were doing now, now you can also know their whole history."

It's a little scary.

"Not long ago I was at the home of my fiancee's grandmother. We were looking at photographs from the '40s and '50s, a picture here and a picture there. You had a certain sense of a story, but not the whole story; there were a lot of gaps that couldn't be filled in. Now imagine our grandchildren: They will be able to know who Grandpa was, what he believed in, what music he liked, how much he ran each month, what he ate. It's incredible.

"It's a very big change - it's supposed to be. Does it grant you access to information you didn't have before? Certainly. Our job, among other things, is to enable everyone to control the information that he wants to share with everyone else, and I think that we have improved greatly in this. For example, when you join Timeline, you get a week to go over your profile and delete things you aren't interested in revealing. We believe that when people have more control over what they can share, they will share more."

How do you envision Facebook in the future?

"Imagine that with everything you do, your friends and family are there. For example, I arrive at a hotel in a new city. I go up to the reception desk and because they have access to my profile they say: Hello, Mr. Blumenfeld, how are you, we've put you on the top floor because we know that you hate noise. You walk into the room, turn on the television, which gives you information on which of your friends is in Los Angeles at the moment. You pick up the phone and your friends are on speed dial instead of random numbers, and the music they're listening to or that you like is there too."

What you described is completely Big Brother.

"You can control it. You don't have to use it, but if you are somebody who wants his friends and family around him, you need to have that possibility. You need to be able to get into a car and say: Give me music that my friends are listening to right now. Why can't you do that now? Why can't the car tell me that my friend is eating lunch around the corner, so that maybe I can join him? These are the sorts of experiences we want to make possible. I don't know that everyone on Facebook will give you the same answer, but I believe that many think like this."

What's next?

"Three weeks ago, I began a seven-month sabbatical. It's amazing. Five years at Facebook feels like 30 years anyplace else. Even when you're not at the office you're thinking about it, because you come home and you use it, your parents use it, the family, friends, everyone. You enter an airport, a restaurant, anywhere. You can't escape it. And everyone asks you questions.

"In addition, I am involved in a nonprofit organization called the Designer Fund, which came into being five months ago, that connects designers with start-ups and tries to get designers to be entrepreneurs as well. What is stopping designers who work for other people from initiating stuff of their own? They say that they know how to design but not how to manage, that they have no money, and this company is trying to remove all the obstacles, by way of financing, internships, education, technical help, and more.

"Programmers have their heroes - Larry [Page], Sergey [Brin], Bill Gates - people who founded companies that changed the world. Designers don't have their heroes yet; they're generally behind the scenes, and we want to change that."