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A small image change, a giant message

Facebook headquarters is an amazing place. The snacks are free, the sun always shines and everyone is full of the best intentions. During my first week I encountered hundreds of people earnestly trying to make the world a better place. I also foresaw how easy it would be to adjust to this new normal and lose perspective. I made a quiet promise to not complain about anything ever and to remind myself of that commitment (should the micro kitchen ever run out of goldfish crackers), I hung a poster over my desk that said “stay humble”.


Much to my dismay, not long into my tenure as a Facebook designer I found something in the company glyph kit worth getting upset about. There in the middle of the photoshop file were two vectors that represented people. The iconic man was symmetrical except for his spiked hairdo but the lady had a chip in her shoulder. After a little sleuthing I determined that the chip was positioned exactly where the man icon would be placed in front of her, as in the ‘friends’ icon, above. I assumed no ill intentions, just a lack of consideration but as a lady with two robust shoulders, the chip offended me.

I shared my complaint with a designer friend and she helpfully pointed me to the poster next to mine which proclaimed, “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” The lady icon needed a shoulder, so I drew it in — and so began my many month descent into the rabbit hole of icon design.

After fixing her shoulder I was tempted to remove the Darth Vader-like helmet and give her hair some definition. Ponytails felt modern, if a little youthful, but at 32 pixels the pony resembled a small rodent more than a hairdo. Silhouettes with long hair or very full hair were similarly hard to disambiguate at reduced sizes and eventually I landed on a slightly more shapely bob.


In comparison to the new lady, the old man icon seemed stiff and outdated so I smoothed down his hair and added a slight slope to his shoulders. In updating the man I discovered the many places on Facebook where a single figure is used to represent an action, like in the ‘add friend’ icon. It didn’t seem fair, let alone accurate, that all friend requests should be represented by a man, so I drew a silhouette for cases where a gendered icon was inappropriate.


Next, I was moved to do something about the size and order of the female silhouette in the ‘friends icon’. As a woman, educated at a women’s college, it was hard not to read into the symbolism of the current icon; the woman was quite literally in the shadow of the man, she was not in a position to lean in.

My first idea was to draw a double silhouette, two people of equal sizes without a hard line indicating who was in front. Dozens of iterations later, I abandoned this approach after failing to make an icon that didn’t look like a two headed mythical beast. I placed the lady, slightly smaller, in front of the man.

The old ‘groups’ icon featured two men and one woman, the woman sat in the back left behind the larger centered man. It was an obvious refresh to use three unique silhouettes instead and, here again, I placed the lady first.



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