Design Education: Interview with Ben Blumenfeld, Designer at Facebook

By November 1, 2011Posts

Ben Blumenfeld contributes his thoughts to our exploration of expectations and experiences about design education. Ben managed part of the design team at Facebook for 2 years and recently moved back into a lead design role.

You’ve worked on designs that reach millions of people all over the world. As a Design Manager at Facebook, what qualities and skills did you look for when hiring designers?

We tend to look for a very specific type of designer here at Facebook. First off, of course, is if they’re a great designer—visually and conceptually. After that, we look for things like self-started projects, ability to work through ambiguity, are they mission-oriented (meaning do they go after work that is meaningful to them), and do they have a focus on impact or results. You’d be amazed how many designers are okay creating beautiful things that have no effect on the world around them.

In your opinion, what qualities and skills cut across disciplines and should be core to design education?

  • Presenting: How you present and talk about your work is often more important than the work itself.
  • Conducting Research: Are you solving the right problem? How well do you understand the problem?
  • Writing: So much happens through emails and other forms of written communication. This is an essential skill.

What is your academic background? What were your biggest takeaways from school as you made your way into the professional world?

I studied design at UCLA. I was very explicit in choosing a school that wasn’t only a design school, as I think a broader education makes a better designer.

My biggest takeaway looking back is that school is a wonderful playground for exploration, though is a good deal removed from the constraints found in the professional world. At the same time, I think professionals could benefit a great deal by harnessing that unfettered spirit they had in school and bringing that to their professional work.

I also think schools do design students a big disservice by pushing them into the world of client services. I want to see more schools producing design leaders and entrepreneurs. We’re starting to see it now, but not nearly enough. That’s one of the reasons I helped start The Designer Fund.

When I was in school, a lot of students thought that being a designer means knowing how to use design software. I frequently hear complaints that recent graduates don’t have critical skills like communicating with clients, thinking strategically, researching, and business analysis. Do you see this as well?

At least with the people we’ve hired here, I’ve been impressed with the soft skills in young designers. They’re way better at design and communication than I was at their age. I think they’ve simply had access to the tools and information at a much younger age. It’s really amazing. When their age does show through, it’s simply a matter of giving direct and honest feedback, no different than for more seasoned designers.

What advice do you have for young people trying to prepare for a career as a design professional?

  • Impact over pretty.
  • Learn the fundamentals.
  • Learn to code.
  • Find great mentors and learn as much as you can from them, but teach them as well.
  • Also, print out Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth and refer to it often (you can also download the PDF).

About Ben Blumenfeld

Ben Blumenfeld has managed design at Facebook since 2007. While at Facebook, Ben has contributed to projects like Timeline and Peace on Facebook. Ben also helped start The Designer Fund, a community of designers who invest in designer founders through mentorship, angel funding, and access to their network. Ben was previously the Design Director at Varien (now Magento), and a designer at CBS.com. He studied design at UCLA. You can follow him on Twitter @blumenfeld or subscribe to him on Facebook.

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