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

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; E01

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."

All this busywork functions as decoration -- but only in the way the paint job in a doctor's office does. It is "visual thinking" -- one definition of art and design -- but with a dunce cap on. Those dingbats look they've come straight out of clip art. The blues and grays are standard corporate crud. (Mosseri says they may have derived, initially, from his boss's colorblindness. The site has been blue since before Zuckerberg hired his first designer.) The trademark no-caps font of the "facebook" logo is so generic, so nearly characterless, that it could as easily say "instafund" or "pharmaweb."

Google's home page -- Facebook's obvious competition for "most-viewed image" status -- is also about function ruling form. But at least it makes function its true design principle, in classic modernist style. The standard Google home page is basically a box to ask a question, a list of places to get it answered and a button to launch your search. On a white background. (The actual Google logo is hardly good typography, but all that white around it keeps it in its place.) The principle that less is more is a design gesture in itself. It may be a bit stale, but it's still workable.

The Facebook page has neither gesture nor principle. It's just there, like the buzz of your computer's hard drive.

Stephen Doyle, an industry leader who was presented with the National Design Award for communication design at the White House last summer, is willing to cut the site some slack. Making the old function-over-form argument, he said that "sometimes the job of design is just to get you safely across the road. . . . If [Facebook] had a real wowy design, I think we'd say, 'Get out of here, Facebook.' " He referred to the site as "a kind of cellophane container" for all the homely stuff its users stick in it. "It's hard to design when you have absolutely no control over the content."

But then, studying the site more closely with his design professor's hat on, he finds that cellophane to be messy and covered in gunk. "All those little icons through the text are pretty darn annoying, and you want to brush them away," he says. He's also not a fan of the boxes and lines that clutter the page: "It's very noisy. It could be streamlined." As for Facebook's color choices, "the world's favorite color is blue . . . to me that means that [good design] should be not-blue" -- it should distinguish itself, rather than sooth us into a coma.

If Facebook is really a vehicle for its users' identities, Doyle wonders, "why does my Facebook page look the same as your Facebook page? Why doesn't my Facebook have a fake-wood surround? . . . Your image choice is completely different from mine, so why do we both have a blue box on our page?"

Those blue boxes, and all the visual noise they bathe in, end up having an important effect, he says. "Which shoes you're wearing always changes how you stand, and how you feel." Facebook's home page is wearing tennis shoes, Doyle says, "with Velcro. It's probably time to change them."

'The purest form of evil'

Here's a really spooky observation: No one seems to notice.

The massive Design and Applied Arts Index, which searches more than 500 magazines and journals, doesn't yield a single article about Facebook's design.

When Doyle did his Facebook critique for us, you could feel that even he, one of the country's top designers, had never really looked at the site that popped up every time he checked his feed.

It's almost as though, in the process of using Facebook, our eyes and mind don't even notice it's there.

"Social networking should be designed to help people connect without feeling that a layer of technology stands in the way," writes Bill Moggridge, director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt design museum, in a book called "Designing Media" that was published last month. (See sidebar to read more of his defense of Facebook's design.)

Moggridge might be right, if we lived in some ideal, Vulcan-mind-meld world where true transparency could be achieved. If we really couldn't see the Facebook page, an art critic could hardly complain about its looks. Down here on Earth, however, every time we "just" want to use an object, we also have no choice but to take in its visuals. With Facebook, the kind of "transparency" that Moggridge imagines seems just another word for corporate blandness. There is a complex visual interface involved with using Facebook, but the goal is to keep us from caring about it -- and getting us to care is one feature of any decent work of art, or of any object that stops to consider its own place in the world.

Or maybe the point is that, if we don't care too much about Facebook's design, its content gets a free pass, too. You could say that Facebook's mind-numbing design is meant to keep us numb to fussy distinctions such as those between "friends" and friends, or between "liking" and liking.

I wouldn't be the first to feel that there's something chilling about Facebook's ability to cloud our minds so we barely even see the screen we're looking at. "I am absolutely convinced that Facebook is the purest form of a certain kind of evil that we have in our collective culture right now," says Paddy Harrington, design director of Bruce Mau Design, one of the world's most prominent and forward-looking firms. (Culture-savvy clients have included Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as Zone Books.)

Harrington says he's been a heavy Facebook user, and is trying to kick a habit he likens to drugs or nicotine. The site, he says, feeds you little doses of information about your so-called "friends," one at a time, until you can't seem to do without those snippets of data. "[Facebook] is so much about an addictive behavior, you're quickly subsumed into the experience, without seeing the visual expression of the thing at all," Harrington says. (You can read his attack at length in this article's sidebar.)

Facebook, he says, has "become less about my friends, and more about the experiences of my friends. . . . In some ways I don't even care who they are or what they're saying -- I just need that small reward" -- the reward of getting something, anything, out of those friends, one update at a time. You don't go to Facebook, that is, for the quality of its content. You head there for its quantity and its never-ceasing supply, reliably delivered, almost like a morphine drip, by its generic design.

Any really fine design -- any image at all worthy of the eyes of half a billion viewers -- would aim for more than soporific neutrality. It would try to wake its viewers up to the thrills that can come with looking.

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