Inside Facebook's Analog Research Lab with Tim Belonax

Tim Belonax in Facebook's Analog Research Laboratory [photo: Andria Lo]

Along the walk to the cafeteria, a poster reads: "Eventually everything connects." Another, "People not pixels." In the atrium, "Hack the graph," and in the corridor, "Empathy. Have some!"

This sounds like it could very well be CCA's campus, but it's actually Facebook’s. Each poster is stamped at the bottom with the words: "Poster brought to you by your friends at the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory."

Facebook designer and CCA Graphic Design faculty member Tim Belonax calls the Analog Research Laboratory -- known around Facebook simply as the Analog Lab -- "a playground for a print designer. There are very few places around the Bay Area where a lover of handmade graphic design would encounter such amazing facilities."

Wired magazine has called it "Facebook's secret propaganda arm." The Huffington Post dubs it "a slogan factory where techies get tactile."

Intro to Facebook

Belonax originally joined Facebook's communication design team in 2011 to work on F8, the company's annual developer conference. In his off time he frequently found himself venturing into the Analog Lab. "It was like a hobby, or at least it started out that way, but you know how things go. I realized that the fruits of what happens in here end up getting reinvested into so much of my work."

The Lab had humble beginnings. Two Facebook communication designers -- Ben Barry, whose background was in screenprinting, and Everett Katigbak, who came from a letterpress practice -- literally hand built it in a warehouse at Facebook's old campus in Palo Alto, using whatever materials were laying around.

By the time the company was planning its new Menlo Park campus in 2012, the Analog Lab had developed enough momentum and proven its value to such an extent that it was built into the new site plan. It had gone from a mostly personal diversion to an active driver of company culture.

"We established its worth through doing things, making things. We'd put posters out, and people would get interested and want to come make their own. We started seeing it activate new aspects of what Facebook does and how the company imagines itself."

An Amazing Array of Facilities

Today the Lab has an amazing array of facilities not only for screenprinting, but also for letterpress and sign painting. What in the "old" days of 2011 was a casual offering of demos led by Barry and Belonax has become a rigorous schedule of instruction, thanks to the newest members of the Analog Lab team:

Drew Bennett
Jez Burrows
Blaise DiPersia
Hannah Fletcher

Teams assembled across Facebook come in for a few hours to work on a message they want to propagate and are taught how to print and disseminate the information.

The Lab also now has its own curator, Drew Bennett, who coordinates Facebook's artist-in-residence program. Past CCA affiliates who have completed the residency include the following:

Chris Duncan (Painting/Drawing 2003)
Barbara Holmes (Furniture Program interim chair)
Jay Nelson (Painting/Drawing 2004)

And Facebook is now expanding the reach of the Lab by sending its work to its other corporate campuses throughout the world.

Watch a time-lapse movie of Barbara Holmes installing a work at Facebook »

An Internal Provocateur

The Lab's role, if it could be said to have an official one, is to insert ideas into the physical realm that reflect and respond to Facebook's culture -- a culture that is already, Belonax says, very open to new ideas, experimentation, and critique.

"There's just something really interesting that happens when you see a message on a paper poster."

Consider, for instance, the recent launch of Internet.org, a global partnership instigated by Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg that gathers together technology leaders, nonprofits, local communities, and experts to bring the Internet to the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't have it.

There was a big external PR push, of course, but "there was also an internal push to actively discuss the ethics of connectivity, if you will. And the Lab was uniquely positioned to get Facebook employees thinking about it." Zuckerberg’s now-famous essay "Is Connectivity a Human Right?" started as a poster.

Is This a Technology Company?

Other posters continue along this vein: "People over pixels" and "Users, People" (with a strikethrough in "Users"). Both aim to reiterate that Facebook's mission is essentially about humans, not machines.

One of the first posters produced by the Lab asked, provocatively, "Is this a technology company?" This deliberately disingenuous question ruffled some feathers. The slogan came from the weekly companywide Q&A with Zuckerberg. "Facebook's mission is to connect everyone, and nowhere in there is the word 'technology.' But Facebook cannot exist without technology. So there you are."

The Lab is independent of Facebook's marketing and publicity offices and strives to keep it that way. "I would say we've definitely put some things out there that, for one reason or another, the company doesn't want to, or isn't ready to, address from a more official PR perspective."

On Hackathons, and the Seepage of Ideas

Which doesn't necessarily mean that the topics the posters propose don't make it out into the world, directly attributed to Facebook. Take for instance the idea that "The journey is 1% finished." That idea came up in 2010, the first night Belonax visited the Facebook campus as a guest artist together with CCA alumna Emily Craig (Graphic Design 2009) for a Hackathon. (A Hackathon is an event in which teams focus for a short but intense period on a specific idea. Facebook's "Like" button was developed during a Hackathon.)

And the Lab itself remains mutable. "Two weeks ago it looked quite different than it does now. The formalization here is more in terms of production, not so much about the physical space."

The Lab is about the culture of Facebook, but it's about the unplanned aspects of its culture. And, like the company in which it is situated, the Lab is only just beginning to figure itself out. Fans of all things handmade will be happy to know that the history of the Analog Research Lab is only 1% finished.

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Tim Belonax’s past work includes designs for Chronicle Books and "A Machine For Typographic Generation," an all-in-one stencil that can make any letter or number in the Latin alphabet, for The Thing Quarterly.

Belonax was a designer at the San Francisco firm MINE from 2005 to 2010. His recent freelance projects include work for Southern Exposure, Lorraine Wild’s Green Dragon Office, CalArts, and frog design.