For the last year or so, a designer by the name of Nicholas Felton has been hunkered down at a desk just 15 feet away from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's. Felton is something of a design superstar—his stunning layouts chronicling his life have earned him a spot in an exhibit at MoMA—but in Silicon Valley, his ilk are known as "pixel pushers." Yet Felton's proximity to power is no accident. Facebook is one of the very few Valley companies whose senior management, starting with the CEO, understands design as a sustainable competitive advantage. "We're not just responsible for the pixels," Felton says. "We're responsible for a lot of the core ideas for how the product works."
Zuckerberg and VP of product Chris Cox hired Felton last year (by buying his startup, Daytum) to oversee the development of Timeline, the life chronicle that, since this past January, has become the personalized profile page for each of Facebook's members. Zuckerberg, Cox, and Felton talked daily about the development of Timeline. The key design breakthrough came at a meeting that Felton and the CEO had last summer. "[Mark] drew the idea on the board," Felton says. "His idea was, 'Have we tried something like having this center line down the middle that would divide the two columns and act as the spectrum of time?' I started playing with it, and it worked even better than I anticipated." So instead of assembling users' past activities as a vertical set of "bricks" stacked on top of each other, Facebook adopted a timeline—the standard for historical chronicles since, well, the beginning of time. (Zuckerberg could not comment for this story due to SEC regulations regarding the company's quiet period.)
Felton smiles when asked if Zuckerberg, a programmer, has a design sensibility. "It's surprisingly good. I've been really impressed by comments that he'll make about letter or line spacing." But more than that, Felton respects the freedom Zuckerberg gives him and his colleagues to experiment. "There's a lack of attachment to the way the company has done things previously," he says. "It kind of threw me at first."
Facebook is playing a different design game than the rest of Silicon Valley. Instead of obsessing about making tasks like posting a photo easier or making the interface more beautiful, Facebook is getting its product out of the way. The goal, explains Cox, is to "make the experience of using Facebook as seamless and easy as talking to people in real life." That sounds like the absence of design, but the simplicity of the look and the reach of the service has attracted top designers, including Rasmus Andersson from Spotify and Mike Matas, who worked on the original iPhone at Apple. Remembering his first meeting with Zuckerberg, Felton says, "The more we talked, the more we realized that our desires for [Daytum's] product were really aligned with what Facebook wanted to do, and we had the opportunity to do it on the biggest playing field in the planet." In the past three years, Facebook's design team has grown from 20 people to 90.
"The biggest thing that's different is that Facebook is not about human-computer interaction," says Cox. Most designers in the computer industry have focused on helping humans interact with machines. But Facebook is about human-to-human interaction. "We don't want people to remember their interactions with Facebook," says director of design Kate Aronowitz. "We want them to remember their interactions with their friends and family." Cox calls this "social design." "It's more like designing a plaza or a restaurant," he explains. "The best building is one where the people inside get it and work together and are connected. That connectivity is created by how everything is arranged."
But describing the company's goal as "designing a plaza" leaves out the biggest idea behind Facebook's design. Facebook doesn't just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions. It wants you to have the same feelings—the positive ones at least—that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person. The company shorthand for this is "serotonin," the neurotransmitter that sparks feelings of happiness. A sticky note with the word scrawled on it is tacked on the wall of a design meeting I sit in on. "That's our term for those little moments of delight you get on Facebook," explains Julie Zhuo, a design manager. And Cox clearly understands this as well: "It's the science of things you can't reason about, that you just feel," he says. "So when we're going off to create something new, it's important to be iterating in that mind-set."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.