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Facebook’s Product Design Director on maintaining a productive work environment

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Geoff Teehan is a Product Design Director at Facebook who works on News Feed, interfaces, and feed ads with his teams. Previously, he was one of the co-founders of the influential Toronto-based design agency Teehan+Lax.

Recently we had the opportunity to chat with Geoff about his current role, what he’s learned in the year since shutting down Teehan+Lax, and some of his philosophies for maintaining a productive work environment.

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Tell us about your current role at Facebook.

I’m in charge of 3 main groups: News Feed, interfaces, and feed ads. Interfaces is our way of keeping standards and guidelines across all of Facebook. It’s the group that looks holistically across the entire experience.

There are other teams–like search, profile, notifications, etc.—that are in charge of some very specific areas of the application. As a result there’s not one group looking after the whole platform outside of the interfaces group. Its role is to create standards and guidelines and make sure that the experience is great. A design manager works with me on that, as well as a team of about 10 or so designers.

“We can do better work when we collaborate.”

Feed ads is the advertising experience that you see on the News Feed. The design manager on that is Jessica Watson, and she has a team of about 6 designers.

Then there’s News Feed. I act as a design manager for that as well as the director, and I have about 8 designers on that team. In total, my whole group is about 25 people and we oversee a lot of the bigger parts of Facebook.

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I spend the bulk of my time working on News Feed, though I’m involved on projects inside of that group and other groups. As a side project, our team works closely with the interfaces team—we’ve been publishing a lot of design resources, tools, and files that help the broader design community outside of Facebook.

Since you mentioned being both a design director and design manager, what are the main differences for you in terms of your responsibilities in those 2 roles?

As design director, I’m there to support the design managers and set them up with the environment they need to run the product team. That means having a high-level visibility around what they’re working on, meeting with the design managers, and understanding what’s working and what’s not. Finding out where they may need help, and making the appropriate connections or giving appropriate guidance.

On the design manager side for News Feed, I’m involved more strategically in what we’re doing, and from an execution and directional side of things as well.

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For the other 2 groups, the design managers maintain close relationships with the designers and the individual contributors underneath them to manage their career growth. The work I do on the other areas, interfaces and feed ads, is relatively minimal because I have great design managers who do the job there and can manage up to me when things aren’t working.

What are the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing?

One is that this is a very large organization, and as big as it is, it’s relatively flat in its architecture. There’s a lot of autonomy given to the people doing the work, which is great. While there is process, there’s not so much that it gets in the way of doing the work.

There are also a ton of different working styles here. Sometimes, those things can be difficult to work with. There are people who have worked here for a while who are very proficient and good at what they do. They know the ins and outs of this place, and they like to work with a lot of autonomy and relative isolation—much like a lot of designers. Some of them are very successful at that. I think that’s okay, but I think as the company has grown, that becomes a little bit more challenging to work within.

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I really prefer and think we can do better work when we work in pairs or we collaborate a little bit more. Figuring out ways to get people working in a more collaborative way has been a challenge. You can’t just put 2 people in a room and expect them to work together. There are certain dynamics and fit involved.

There are also times in a project where you really do need to just sit, put your head down, and do some work. And there are times when you need to come up for air and regroup with other people, get other opinions, and jam on ideas.

“You can’t just put 2 people in a room and expect them to work together.”

With regards to team management, are the challenges similar to what you faced when you ran Teehan+Lax versus what you’re facing now at Facebook?

I think it’s different. What came in the top of the funnel at Teehan+Lax, at least in terms of the talent, were usually from the same walk of life. They came from similar companies to Teehan+Lax. There wasn’t and still isn’t the type of atmosphere in Toronto that there is down here in the Bay Area. You get wildly different types of designers here, and that’s a big difference. The designers who would come to Teehan+Lax typically had been working at other ad or design agencies previously.

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As different as I like to think that Teehan+Lax was, to a certain extent, our working style wasn’t unfamiliar to people who were coming in the door there.

Earlier on in your career, what was the turning point where you knew you wanted to start an agency rather than go work for another company?

It happened twice, actually. When I first started in the mid ’90s, I was working for a company that was doing web hosting, domain purchasing, and web design. Then the company went bankrupt.

I decided to take a stab at doing my own thing, and I did that for about 2 years. Then one of our clients, a big digital agency called Modem Media, came along and I ended up taking a job with them. Making money again was nice, and so was not having to worry about some of the things you worry about when you own your own business. Focusing on the work as a young designer was a refreshing change and something I think I needed.

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That was great, but then it happened again: The dot-com bubble burst and I didn’t have a job anymore. I’d been working with Jon [Lax] at Modem Media, and we decided to start our own thing. We figured we’d do it for 6 months or a year, or however long the initial contracts we had would last, and then we’d go get “real jobs.”

It wasn’t until we signed 3-year leases for photocopiers that we realized we were in it for the long haul. Obviously we were subletting a space and we’d bought equipment, and we even had one staff member. So it wasn’t like we weren’t committed. Even still, it felt like we could get out without too much damage.

But signing the lease for the Xerox copier made it feel like something long term. It was like $10,000 or $12,000—it wasn’t an insane amount of money, but back then it was this real commitment because getting out of that lease would be a big pain in the ass.

Geoff's pens.

Geoff’s pens.

You guys grew Teehan+Lax into one of the more well-known and admirable design agencies and about a year ago, you and your partners decided to part ways. When you’ve built a business to the level you had, when do you know it’s time to move on and try something new?

I don’t think you ever know. I think you guess. We had, for some time, thought about it and talked about it, but not in serious ways. We had people, agencies, and companies offer to buy us and most of the time, we wouldn’t even entertain those ideas. It wasn’t one thing that happened—it was a lot of different things.

We’d done a lot of work, and we’d changed a lot in how we did that work. We’d really focused in on product design, and saw changes in the industry where product design was becoming internalized within companies.

“It’s easy to get comfortable and complacent, and that’s when you stop growing.”

Figuring out what to do after an initial 90-day engagement and how to continually improve a product was difficult. Working at a distance and doing things for startups or for well-established digital companies has its limitations. There were times where we embedded ourselves in companies, and I think that goes a long way especially if you’re building something at scale. You really need to understand the inner workings. You need to work with a lot of different teams cross-functionally, and that’s very difficult to do in a 90-day contract.

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There were many other things, too, where even the personal desires of many of us differed. With everything factored in, we had to have that conversation and try to figure out the right thing to do. Could we have just kept running Teehan+Lax for a while? Yeah, for sure. I think our desire to continue to want to reinvent ourselves had waned a little bit. It’s a pretty exhausting exercise that needs to happen, and it has to happen on top of a lot of other things beyond just doing the work. Ultimately, nobody was really interested in doing that anymore.

It was about growth, too—the company just desired to keep growing. No matter how much you want it to stay one size or no matter how successful you are, the company just wants to grow. We talked about opening other offices. Again, nobody really wanted to do it. The challenges it presented didn’t interest us. I think if we had kept going, it would have been like a sitcom that stayed on a few too many seasons and became unfunny.

What was the thing about Facebook that drove you guys in that direction?

We looked at a lot of different options for a long period of time and put a lot of thinking and due diligence in before landing here at Facebook. We met with a lot of great companies, and some not so great.

Facebook painted a clear and compelling picture for us. They were incredibly open and honest about what they’d be working on, what they valued, and where they wanted to take the company. They also did a lot of good research on us to understand what our strengths and weaknesses were. Early on we had open and honest conversations about some of that stuff. It was very genuine.

Compare and contrast that to some of the other companies we talked to and in some cases, they just wanted us to come onboard and figure everything else out after. And that just doesn’t fly.

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The other thing about Facebook is that while everybody at Teehan+Lax didn’t come along, Facebook probably worked the hardest to maximize as many people as they could. There were some people who simply weren’t interested, and then some whose roles inside of our company just made little sense at Facebook. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it’s something that made sense.

It’s been a year since the announcement of your agency closing. Looking back, what are some of the takeaways from the whole experience?

Leaving anything is difficult—no matter how good or bad it is. For the record, Teehan+Lax was amazing. But I think as humans we just generally struggle initially with change, and as we get older we resist change more. Coming to Facebook has taught me to grow through real change and to be more cognizant of how I’m actually doing. It’s easy to get comfortable and complacent, and that’s when you stop growing or find yourself in less-than-ideal scenarios.

I’m now a big believer in forming habits. It’s how I did a 180 on my health and made changes to how I work. I make commitments to do something for 60 days straight so they stick—that’s about how long it takes for us to form habits.

“Make a commitment to do something for 60 days straight so it sticks.”

What are some of your routines or ways you’ve learned to structure your day to accomplish everything that you need to do or be a part of in a day?

I get up early, at like 5am, and I work out for 90 minutes. I think about what the one thing is that I need to accomplish that day. I don’t have a work priority list and a personal priority list—I have one list and I prioritize everything on it. Whether it’s a phone call, setting up a meeting, a recruiting thing, writing a brief, scheduling a car service—all of those things are on the list. I take a clean look at it every single day and decide what I’m going to accomplish, and I try not to take on too much. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and stretched out if you try to take on too much.

Facebook has a heavy meeting culture–at least I know it does on my team–so I try to protect my calendar as much as I can. I’ll put in blocks of time so that people can’t block me out. If something is important, they’ll reach out via email or Messenger and I’ll open up a time. I found that helps me stay focused on the things I think I should be focused on. Protecting my calendar has been a very good exercise and productivity boost for me.

“Don’t take on too much.”

Managers should look out for the calendars of their team. They need to have good, clean blocks of time to do work, so making sure their meetings are grouped together is key. On Wednesdays we have a work-from-home or no meetings day here. It’s a nice, full workday and that’s been positive. But periodically it’s important to ask your team how their calendar looks. If it looks like a shotgun blast, that’s not a great way to do a lot of good work.

Geoff's desk.

Geoff’s desk.

What are the tools you use that you’re touching on a daily basis?

  • Todoist
  • Messenger
  • Facebook Groups
  • Medium

Face-to-face communication is the tool I try to use more and more. I’m doing a lot more writing now, so Medium is something that I use a lot. Primarily it’s communication tools and organizational tools.

When you find yourself disconnected from what you find meaningful about your work, how do you get yourself back into that space?

It ebbs and flows. There are days where you’re just not feeling it. Maybe you haven’t really had any wins, or progress feels slow, or the stuff you’re testing or putting into market isn’t doing as well as you’d like it to.

“Managers need to make sure their team has clean blocks of time to do work.”

I think that now that I’ve made some personal changes I’ve gotten better at that. I do yoga every day, and I find that gives me some good time in my own head. It’s helped me feel less discouraged and keeps me more vibrant and interested, even when things aren’t as good as they can be. I also don’t keep stuff inside like I used to. I talk to people about it. I have a few people that I trust in my life now and openly communicate with them. Sometimes the act of sharing the things that aren’t going as great as you’d like with someone else, is helpful.

What is the best career advice you’ve been given?

I think the best advice I’ve received was never given—it was always learned. I think when people just tell you things, we tend to throw them away too easily. While we may take in the words, they often don’t mean much until we’ve experienced something.

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When people say “Time goes by quickly, so make the most of it,” or “You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it,” it doesn’t mean much. Sure, they’re overused and vague, but they’re actually very true. Sadly, I think 99% of people can’t hear them for what they are, because it’s too difficult for our brains to comprehend the scale of what they mean.

For example, my eldest son Cole turned 15 recently. It was a big moment for me—I realized in a year he’d be getting his driver’s license. It made me think about how quickly it really does go by. Of course, I’d heard that phrase a thousand times, but it didn’t sink in until the passing of time gave it true meaning.

Why do you do what you do? What makes your work so meaningful to you?

Over the past year here the team’s grown immensely. I think it was 10 or 11 people when I joined, and now it’s at 25 or 26. It’s really enjoyable to see that growth. Not in size–that’s definitely one thing–but it’s more about seeing people grow. Watching them progress through the work that they’re doing that you’re hopefully guiding them on. That’s really enjoyable.

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I’m a product designer at heart, and one of the primary things that I love is shipping products. Putting tests in the market even if they’re not doing well is just fascinating and I love it. Facebook has been such a cool place to do that, because you’re working at such scale and there’s so many talented people here and they’re able to push out tests so quickly and with so many iterations. It’s fascinating and empowering to understand how quickly you can get real feedback on whether your idea is working.

To understand that making something 2 pixels larger has meaningful impact in terms of how people engage with it, that’s unreal. It’s unbelievable to me the nuance when you’re working at a product of this scale, and how the smallest decisions can have such great impact. We never really got to experience it at Teehan+Lax to the scale of this even though we worked with some of those companies like Google and Facebook and other large companies. Even though you’re partnering up and you’re working closely, you’re not really as involved over a longer period of time to really understand. Being on the inside now, it’s been pretty eye-opening.

This interview was originally published at Ways We Work.

Read more Design Chats

Author

Amandah Wood
Amandah Wood is the Founder & Editor of Ways We Work, an online publication dedicated to telling stories of how people do the work that's meaningful to them.

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