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Print your own revolution

I recently had a great chat with Ben Barry, a designer at Facebook. His Analog Research Lab, and the poster-making that comes out of it, was inspiration enough, but it was also inspiring to see how it reminds an organisation to stay true to itself.

One thing I like about being a designer at Atlassian is that you can hack your job to be what you want it to be. Obviously you can’t go about making wholesale changes to a product’s navigation by yourself, and breaking other people’s builds and so on, but it truly is a ‘can do’ place. One of the company’s values that is lived out day by day is ‘be the change you seek’. If there’s something that you think can be done better, nothing’s stopping you, you don’t wait for official permission. It’s incredibly liberating, and inspirational when you see others act on that.

I’ll be the change I seek when it’s easier…

But sooner or later (even in 10-year-old start-ups) everyone gets pulled into the Borg of corporate normalcy. We can’t help but build up assumptions about what we can change, and what is easier left alone. The very tools we use start to restrict our thinking, and the prospect of change starts to look harder and harder.

I recently re-read Gordon Mackenzie’s great book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, which is a reminder to find a healthy balance between respect for constraints and direction, and creative disruption. All ‘out of the box’ clichés aside, someone has to keep poking that corporate hairball and remind us all to stay (to borrow roughly from Steve Jobs) just a little bit foolish.

How to help be a ‘cultural conscience’

I recently chatted with Ben Barry, a lead designer at Facebook. Ben’s most well known for heading up Facebook’s Analog Research Lab, a space where any employee can come in and screen-print a poster, t-shirt, make a lino-cut, anything really. There’s also a woodwork area, where you can make just about anything. And guess what? No HD screens, tablets or 3D printers in sight.

Someone screen-printing a poster at Facebook's Analog Design Lab

A designer screen-printing a poster (image referenced from Fast Company)

What really inspired me about talking with Ben were two things. Firstly, how he just started this screen-printing area up by himself, because he wanted the creative release. He started the lab about 4 years ago; now it has 3 full-time staff, about 4 designers who regularly use the lab, plus a never-ending stream of small groups coming in to see it done, learn, and try out their own hands at screen-printing and other making ventures.

Secondly: the internal effect that the spread of the printed posters has had on Facebook. Ben helps to amplify the hacker/maker culture in Facebook by sticking up the posters all over the various Facebook campuses. During our chat the term ‘cultural conscience’ came up. Through the lovingly hand-crafted posters, and the acts of making art with their hands, Ben and the other designers use these works to inspire and remind everyone in Facebook to stay true to organisational purpose.

The authority of print over pixels

Together, these two things are a big reminder of how designers can instil perceived authority. The posters are made from beautiful stock. They’re given out at events and signed by celebrities. Sometimes they’re framed. Their craft, texture, physicality and permanence — and their rarity — make their digital counterpart look all the more ephemeral, and somehow trivial. This means that the messages carry so much more weight and authority.

Marshal McLuhan has never been more correct when he said “The medium is the message”. Digital efforts to inspire good design are still great and still needed, but they seem to have to resort to other things like swearing to instil gravitas. In an age where a screen tells a thousand pictures, it’s nice to see the lasting authority of a printed message.