Facebook’s Ben Barry on hacking, learning to code, and thinking on his bike

Give us a brief summary of what you do/who you are.

My name is Ben Barry and I’m a designer at Facebook. I do a little bit of everything, including design, lettering, illustration, photography, motion design, environmental design, web design, screen printing, letterpress, programming, etc. At Facebook, I mostly focus on our visual identity, internal culture, and special projects.

Favorite gadget? Favorite non-gadget object?

Favorite gadget is definitely my iPhone. It’s one of those things that I completely take for granted, and have a hard time imaging how I got things done without it.

Favorite non-gadget object is my bicycle. It’s where I get most of my thinking done.

Where do you get your news?

I feel slightly ashamed to admit that I don’t regularly seek out the news. I almost exclusively find out about things through my friends on Facebook. I suppose I also get a decent amount of news from NPR when I’m driving.

What do you think of the experience on most news sites? Are there some you love? Some you hate?

I haven’t ever really given it much consideration. I suppose the most annoying thing is breaking articles up across multiple pages. Seems to me like they’re gaming the system to get more page views to sell more ads at the expense of the user experience.

On your portfolio site, you talk about coding your own content management system and also using Processing to develop graphics. Did you teach yourself to code? How do you think knowing to code helps you as a designer?

Yeah, I’ve just taught myself. I think it has a lot to do with being lazy when it comes to repetitive tasks, I’m a little obsessed with efficiency. Sometimes I spend more time creating tools or systems to deal with a problem than it would have taken to just solve it with a brute force method. The knowledge I gain over time has been incredibly valuable though and has empowered me to approach things in completely new ways.

I think any skill that a designer acquires can be an asset. While I do think it’s been beneficial for me I don’t think every designer needs to code. To me that’s similar to saying that every designer needs to know how to operate a printing press. Sure, knowing how to operate a printing press might help you design better for it, but most designers can’t and that’s ok. What is important for them to learn are the technical constraints of the medium and how to talk to the pressman to get him to execute their vision. The same is true with programming. You need to know the technical constraints of the medium to know what’s possible and you need to know how to work with an engineer to execute your vision.

You participated in Project M — their website states “We just want to change the world.” — and went to Hale County, Alabama, to help bring water meters to the people. Have you had any other Project M experiences? How did this experience shape how you think about design? Generally, how can designers change the world?

I’ve gone back to Project M several times as an advisor. I do this instead of going to design conferences. For me it’s and incredibly energizing and creative experience.

The most important Project M taught me the impact that we can have on our world and on other peoples lives, and that we have a responsibility to use our skills to improve it. It brings to mind a great video clip of Steve Jobs. I was in Scouts growing up and Project M aligned perfectly with the values I learned there.

I think designers can have huge impact on the world in a number of ways. The most important, I think, is to use their skills to support projects, ideas, companies that they believe will help improve the world. That’s why I left the job I loved making concert posters and identity design to work at Facebook. I never wanted to work at a big company, but I believe that making the world more open and connected is the foundation that needs to be in place for us to solve all of the other problems in the world.

The power of storytelling shows in your work with Project M and Facebook. Would you consider storytelling a design element, just like color, typography and form? How does storytelling play into your work?

To me, story is far more important than formal design. Design only exists in support of the story. Stories can be big and complex, or small and simple. As a designer, everything I do is storytelling in some form or another. Sometimes literal, often times purely visual. For me, the story is the reason I’m doing the project at all.

When I heard you speak a few weeks ago, you talked about designing the f8 conference with only one or two other people. That’s a tremendous amount of work. How do you do more with less?

You work long hours and weekends, and sacrifice other things in your life because you believe what you’re doing is important. It’s staying up until 2 am because the typography nobody else would notice matters to you, or that one poster idea you really liked didn’t quite make it so you come in on Sunday to screen print it yourself. That’s how you do more with less, you get incredibly passionate people point them at a problem and let go of the leash. They will do what’s necessary to do the absolute best work possible with the constraints they’re given (time / budget).

You can only look at one website for the rest of your life. What would it be?

Facebook, of course.

What inspires you? And how do you get over creative roadblocks?

There is no shortage of inspiration for me in this 24/7 connected world. I have a huge catalog of visual inspiration, and mountains of books. To me the only problem I have is that there is too much inspiration, and I have to tune a lot of it out or I would spend all of my time just looking and not making.

Alex Cornell is putting together a little book due out soon about creative roadblocks in which I have a short essay. I go into a lot more detail there, but basically I don’t find myself having this problem often if I’ve done my homework. Gathering all of the information you need for a project and doing the research is a critical step. I find that if I’ve done this well up front, projects go smoothly. Deadlines are also a powerful motivator. If I find myself really stuck I go for a walk or a bike ride or work on something else for it bit.

When are you happiest?

When I get so into something I’m working on that I lose track of time and forget to eat.

How do you explain what you do to your parents?

I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to crack this one. They’ve seen what I do so they understand the tangible objects I create, but they don’t understand or appreciate the process.