If art can reflect the society around it, the posters hanging on the walls in Facebook's offices right now arguably are in a unique position to offer commentary.
Scott Boms is the man responsible for those posters. He's the lead designer within something called the Facebook Analog Research Lab. The lab's home base is in Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, and designs posters, paintings, installations, and books that adorn all of its offices around the world. As Boms explained it Wednesday evening to an audience of fewer than 100 people at New York City's Type Directors Club, the artwork is designed to reflect the company's culture--but also to create important dialogue among employees.
A few recent examples include a stark "Black Lives Matter" print. Another features a ticket on which are printed the words "Give More Than You Take." A series of colorful prints exhorts employees to "Be the nerd." Another poster, which went up in 2016--the same year Facebook was accused of helping spread misinformation during the presidential election-- reads, "Slow down your hurry up." Boms said that one was specifically designed to encourage employees to think about what's happening around them and why.
"It really breaks the bubble in many ways," he told Inc. "We don't want to make things just to make people happy or to make them feel comfortable--or ask when it's appropriate to push the needle a little bit."
Despite being onsite, the lab is distinct from the corporate space. Boms said the posters are rarely used for Facebook or its initiatives and "never come from the top down." One misconception that irks him? That these are motivational posters. "We try to run away from that as quickly as possible," he said. The artwork, Boms argued, is a reflection of the people--or at least the people who make up the company.
Tech companies lining their walls with colorful posters and inspirational quotes is not a new concept. New Jersey-based industrial research company Nokia Bell Labs has a history of collaborating with artists since the 1960s when it was owned by AT&T. Google, Amazon, and Airbnb have artist-in-residence programs. Austin-based Bumble, maker of the social and dating app, hangs posters that say things like "Make the First Move" or "Be the CEO Your Parents Always Wanted You to Marry" on its walls.
True to Boms's words, corporate artwork can, indeed, spark reactions among employees--and not necessarily positive ones. Last August, at least 10 LGBT posters at Amazon's headquarters were defaced.
Some of the more provocative works of Facebook art have come from outside artists. Last December, artist-in-residence Luiza Dale blew up the "terms and services agreement" and printed it on sheets of paper that employees could take. Dale, who spoke at Wednesday's event, admitted at the time that she felt somewhat hesitant and wondered if she was violating her nondisclosure agreement. She went ahead anyway. "My intention was to bring light to foggy pieces of information," Dale told the audience. Both Dale and Boms said neither received any backlash from the company.
The lab hasn't always been a part of Facebook, and it has something of its own scrappy startup story. In 2010, Facebook designers Ben Barry and Everett Katigbak, who sat in front of computers all day, were yearning to get their hands dirty again. Without formal approval, they began building a space in the back of an office in Palo Alto where they could hack things together. They used cheap, rudimentary equipment to screenprint posters. (Screenprinting involves a blade or squeegee to force ink through mesh creating a pattern.) Soon enough, the posters made their way onto the office walls and have stayed there since.
Boms, who first joined Facebook in 2012 to design the marketing for products, now leads the lab, which has grown to 25 people or so. In 2016, the lab launched the invite-only artists-in-residence program, bringing people outside of Facebook to incorporate more diverse viewpoints. It has outposts in at least 10 cities including New York City, Seattle, London, Dublin, and Austin.
The first posters, which came in 2011 and used only red ink (because it was cheap), reflected the "move fast-break things" mantra; a couple of years later, the focus had switched to "move fast-build things." In recent years, they have acquired a more progressive cultural dimension. And while no posters explicitly reference Facebook's data leaks and Russian meddling scandals, several do allude to them, though some are more critical than others. One recent design says, "Nothing at Facebook is somebody else's problem."
Another poster reads, "Orville Wright did not have a pilot's license." The quote is from the book Orbiting the Giant Airball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving With Grace.
"It very much encapsulates the idea that Facebook is doing this thing that no one has ever done before--so there have really never been rules on what to do," he said, alluding to Facebook's recent troubles. "Even if there are no boundaries, you have to set some to make sure things are going in the right direction."
He says the lab's work, though subtle, is important. "If nobody valued it, we wouldn't be here," he said. If anything, "we're at the forefront of reminding people that work is not everything," he added.