Ever since she was a child, Margaret Gould Stewart, Facebook’s director of product design, was “interested in artifacts,” she says, especially functional things that stayed in the family for a long time. She recalls seeing the sewing tools of her great aunt, who had been a seamstress during the Depression, and being amazed to think that a button made 100 years ago could still do its job today.
Today, as a user experience designer, Stewart still deeply appreciates classic design of physical products, even as she focuses on the digital. At Facebook, Stewart focuses on creating a seamless experience for the businesses advertising products on the platform; prior to her time at Facebook, Stewart worked at YouTube and Google.
Stewart says she loves to talk to people about the well-designed objects in their lives; often, deeply personal stories will emerge. So taking a page from her own practice, Fast Company caught up with Stewart to ask her about three physical objects that have inspired her in some way throughout her career.
For a while, Stewart was known at Facebook as “the person with the plates.” This was because when she interviewed for the job, she brought in a set of plates by the industrial designer Eva Zeisel–plates that hearkened back to a huge design decision Stewart had made when she was the director of user experience at YouTube, from 2009 to 2012.
While she was there, the site was embarking on its first across-the-board modernization of its product. It was a daunting task; YouTube’s users were legion, and the possibility of upsetting them was terrifying. Yet so was the possibility of underwhelming them. So Stewart set to thinking: How could she and her team redesign YouTube in such a way that it would be pleasing to millions of users, yet still have character? That’s when she thought of Eva Zeisel, the Hungarian-born American industrial designer who passed away in 2011 at the age of 105.
To explain, Stewart refers to her own wedding. “For reasons that are still mysterious to me,” she says, her family had insisted on buying her and her new husband fancy china. The couple proceeded not to use it for a decade. At their 10th wedding anniversary, she says, “as a gift to myself and my husband,” she sold all the unwanted china on eBay. “We divested ourselves,” she says. And in the place of that china, Stewart bought a set of Eva Zeisel plates from Crate and Barrel.
For Stewart, Zeisel’s plates are wonderful for how they fall square in the middle of what we can call the Disposable-Fancy Axis of Tableware. Disposable paper plates are deliberately hideous, so you don’t form an attachment to them; one notch up are plates you’d find at a greasy spoon diner, serviceable but bland. And on the far end of the fanciness spectrum is china, too elegant for any non-formal occasion. Just below that, per Stewart, is a plate from Heath ceramics, “beautiful, but not everyone’s aesthetic.”
And then there’s Zeisel, whose plates sit proudly in the middle: “Slightly off-white, slightly not-round, and just kind of mysteriously beautiful,” says Stewart. You can have anything on a Zeisel plate: Thanksgiving dinner or an In-N-Out burger. Zeisel did soulful design for the masses.
That, Stewart told her team at YouTube, was what they needed for their redesign. (“I used to joke with my team that Heath ceramics was Vimeo,” she says. “They positioned themselves as for the creative class. They didn’t want the whole world.”) The redesign went off without a hitch, and soon Facebook came knocking–leading Stewart to show up with an armful of plates.
It wasn’t until she came across her grandfather’s drill that Stewart got to thinking about her family’s history of tinkering, and to experience new pride in it.
Recently, her parents were downsizing to a smaller house, and Stewart and her eight brothers and sisters descended on the house to pick over the goods. While her siblings gravitated to china and quilts, Stewart was most struck by a drill.
“That’s your grandfather’s drill,” said her father. Her grandfather had been an elevator repairman, and he used this drill for decades to repair elevators all over New York. Her grandfather on her mom’s side had also been a blue-collar repairman, though he worked on the subway.
It was a moment that helped Stewart redefine her job–especially since at Facebook, she had stepped into a role in designing ad products that don’t face consumers, but rather the businesses advertising to them. “I realized that I came from a long line of workers who were helping people get their jobs done, and that’s a noble pursuit. I come from tinkerers and problem solvers who, if they do their job well, people don’t even notice.”
Stewart recently attended a show about tools at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. She was struck by an ancient Inuit fish hook, used to fish halibut. At first it was the ornate and beautiful carvings that caught her eye. But then she read more about the design.
The Inuits over the years had learned that to fish with any old hook could be perilous. Catch too big a fish, and your canoe might tip over. But catch the smallest fish, and you were robbing those fish of a chance to grow–and for you to catch them, sustainably, in future years.
The Inuit hook was expertly designed and refined to catch only mid-sized fish. The width of the hook was optimized to only fit the mouths of those fish.
At the time, Stewart was thinking a lot about the products she was working on at Facebook, many of which centered around ad targeting. Working by analogy, she made a great leap: The fish hook, like her ad products, was really about targeting, in a sense. And the Inuits had been smart about it, ensuring they didn’t overfish. She returned to their team and challenged them: “What if we approached advertising from the lens of sustainability? What would our business practices look like, if we treated people’s attention and trust as nonrenewable resources?”
Underlying Stewart’s appreciation of all fine design is a simple, humble insight: “Part of the creative process is looking for analogies either in other industries, or in the past,” she says (echoing others). “I think in tech, we tend to believe every challenge we’re facing is new. But I think at their core, many challenges are timeless.”