Facebook design: Pro and con

The Facebook homepage.
The Facebook homepage. (Nicholas Kamm - Getty)
Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2010; 10:29 AM

The Post's Blake Gopnik asked two designers about their views on the strengths and weaknesses of Facebook's design.

The case for a better Facebook

Paddy Harrington Paddy Harrington is creative director of Bruce Mau Design. A longtime Facebook user, he voiced reservations about the site's design in a phone call from his office in Toronto. This is a condensed version of what he had to say.

I've been a member [of Facebook] for a while. And I'm trying to figure out how to get away from it. I think it's truly akin to trying to break an addiction. And I mean that in the most serious way.

I've been doing a lot of reading on the neurotransmitter dopamine, and, for me, it's sort of like the design of the [Facebook] page itself is purely driven by the act of trying to promote the act of seeking, and seeking is all about delivering small surprises, which trigger dopamine, which puts people into this happy, hazy place where they feel comfortable. But ultimately, it's really detrimental. It has the same kind of effect as cocaine and amphetamines.

So, for me, it's almost like Facebook is an optimized dopamine trigger system. How do you get as many little surprises, and promote the act of seeking, in as high a concentration as possible, within 1280 by 720 pixels?

I open up my Facebook page, and I see this news stream, and I see people I know giving me little surprises that are completely meaningless. I don't really care that "chicken-noodle soup stinks." But somehow it rewards me at some basic neurological level, because it's a new piece of information that's related to someone I know. So it triggers a reward, but it's a completely empty reward.

If you look at the development of Facebook pages, with each [redesign], they're just compressing the number of new updates that are visible on one page.

If you were to look at [a Facebook page] strictly speaking as a graphic design exercise, then absolutely it's [bad]. But it feels as though it's impossible for me to read it that way, because the design has become invisible to the function of the site. [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.

It's utilitarian, it's functional, it has kind of given up on how it looks. It's basically a series of windows through which you can experience the content. It's a Web site designed by engineers.

People say that design is how it works, not how it looks. Well, I think that [Facebook] is that in the purest sense. The problem is, the "how-it-looks" part is a key delivery mechanism for any responsible design practice.

But what you're finding here is an utter disregard for that.

I think the motivation really is about refining and distilling the act of seeking, which for me is what makes Facebook the most brilliant or the most evil graphic design experience that exists today. It's one, or the other.

What Facebook is doing right

Bill Moggridge

Bill Moggridge is the newly appointed director of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and a leading authority on interactive design. Moggridge spoke about the social networking site from his office in New York. Here is some of what he said.

The thing that matters [in Facebook] is the way you navigate. The satisfaction that you get, in terms of the design of the interactive behavior, is in how it allows you to go back and forward, and get to the information you want, and not feel interrupted by the two-dimensional presentation. So I think the 2-D works best [online] when it's actually a little laid-back and rather distinguished, perhaps -- not too aggressive, and trying to focus on the things that you can do in a behavioral sense.

Google fascinates people because of its behavioral performance -- the fact that you can put in your request, and you can go to what they recommend, and you're usually satisfied with that. That's an incredible technical achievement, but I think it's supported by a visual presentation that is extremely laid-back and modest, and not at all what you would think was visual for its own sake. And I think Facebook learned something from that.

What I'm saying is that the design of the interactive behavior needs to be the most important thing if the interactive behavior itself is the most important thing -- which it clearly is with Facebook. Facebook, in order for it to deal with all that complexity of behavior, needs to be designed in a way that's relatively subtle. And perhaps that's a good excuse for it not being obviously visually full of personality.

One of the big differences between art and design is that art is mostly about commentary -- it's making a statement that you're expecting other people to contemplate and be moved by, emotionally, or altered by, in terms of their perceptions.

Whereas design is really about solving a problem that makes something more pragmatic, and useful, and valuable or valued, and of course you can add qualities of aesthetics to that, that make it also a delight. At the same time, if it fails on the functionality side, all is lost, whereas if it fails on the delight side, it might still fit into a lot of people's lives in a satisfactory if not an exciting way.

The visual quality may be something that could be very modest, and still be entirely appropriate. You could even say that of Craigslist. Although it's the most horribly boring typographic exercise you've seen in your life, the fact that [Craig Newmark] wants to express that he's just got a list, and that list is very useful to people, is something that has a design quality about it.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company