Facebook's popularity doesn't seem to mesh with its bland design

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010

It's a safe bet that no image in history has been viewed as many times, as intently, as the basic Facebook page. The company claims that its 500 million users spend more than 10 billion hours every month looking at that blue-and-gray Web site. In her five centuries of existence, Mona Lisa has not been ogled as much. She must be jealous.

She shouldn't be. Popularity is one thing; beauty is another. No matter how many friends Facebook may have offered up to you, the truth is that your page is ugly.

Look at it: Do its standard grays and blues make you think or feel anything at all? They have all the charisma of a checkbook. Stand a few feet back from your computer screen, and try to describe the gestalt of the design you see. You'll find almost nothing there worth noticing. Just a bunch of postage-stamp photos skittering around a gridded-up page, like the falling doodads in a Tetris game.

At very best, the Facebook page is utterly nondescript. No one surfing to it by accident would say, "Wow, I'd better look at what this page has to offer." But doesn't creating the most-seen image, ever, come with a certain aesthetic responsibility?

Adam Mosseri, a design manager at Facebook, isn't sure it does. "We actually spend a lot of time designing the lack of presence," he says. "Would we want people to come to Facebook and say, 'This is something beautiful,' or 'This is something well executed'? I do think there's a lot of room for improvement in the visual execution, but I can't imagine us aiming for that." He draws an analogy to composing music for films: "The best score is the score that you don't notice, that complements the movie experience. When you start to notice the score, it's distracting, and that's a bad thing."

It's the standard function-over-form argument, and it's not without its merits. But it doesn't have to lead to design that's simply absent, or asleep. Classic modernist buildings -- or Apple's electronics -- can work well and look great at the same time. Their look actually helps us marvel at their functionality -- a big difference from the drabness of Facebook.

Every time an object or image gets produced, "artistic" choices unavoidably get made -- and those choices should always fall on the side of visual significance. Every object we see ought to recognize its duty to make seeing a better, more important experience. Looking good is a crucial function of every man-made thing out there. No design is "just" about what it does, in terms of clicking or spinning or getting us from A to B. Every visible object is also, in its essence, something to be looked at -- a work of art, at least in utero.

A speedy lawnmower -- or Web site -- that looks ugly is precisely half as functional, in the full terms of being an object in the world, as one that works equally well and is a joy to look at. Which leaves Facebook functioning less than half as well as it could.

This matters, because the image Facebook presents isn't tucked away, like that checkbook in your drawer or the hard drive inside your PC. We don't glance at it to get elsewhere, as we do with Google. It is a virtual living room where we spend hour after hour with our "friends" -- and it might as well be decorated with an "Employee of the Month" display from your local savings and loan.

Efficient ugliness?

"What we're trying to do is just make it really efficient for people to communicate, get information and share information. We always try to emphasize the utility component," said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder, in a Time magazine Q&A.

Mosseri, his designer, also emphasizes the company's favoring of function over look. "We're a very small part of the team," he says. "There are upwards of 600 engineers at Facebook, and there are 18 product designers. And we are the only representatives of the aesthetic." (Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is on the board of Facebook.)

But in fact Facebook doesn't feel strictly undesigned and utilitarian, the way the Google home page does. Facebook has almost too many visual flourishes: Those nesting boxes in varied blues at the top of each page; all those hairlines, single and double, boxing-in data and fields; the little dingbats that stand for friends acquired, comments made, links posted and, of course, posts "liked."

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