Facebook Made An Awesome Change To Its Friends Icon

Photo: Courtesy Facebook.
We know Facebook has a "woman problem" — specifically, a problem hiring more women. But, turns out, there was another women's issue that may have escaped your attention: the subtle sexism in the friends icon on Facebook's app and website. The company's design manager, Caitlyn Winner, noticed it right away, and she's who we have to thank for changing it.

In a post on Medium, Winner outlines the process of redesigning the friends icon, which has been live for a year now. The original icon featured male and female figures; the male was in front, and a smaller female figure was behind. Now, the female is in front, and both are of equal stature. What first irked Winner was seeing the female icon alone — she had an asymmetrical chip in one shoulder where the male figure normally slotted in. Winner wrote:

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.

Winner played with the placement of the male and female icons, their size and orientation to one another, and their hairstyles (the woman's hairdo is decidedly less helmet-like now). Winner's self-initiated project resulted in new icons that can now be seen all across the Facebook platform.
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We chatted with her via email to find out more.

What do you do at Facebook, and how long have you been there?
"I manage a team of eight designers. We work on posting tools and sharing experiences. I spend a lot of time recruiting for the Facebook design team, and once a month I host Draw Club. I joined Facebook just over two years ago after leaving the startup I co-founded in Germany, called Amen."

When did the friends icon first start bugging you?
"My first project at Facebook was a very people-centric one. It never shipped, so I can't describe the details, but I ended up using the people and friends icons pretty much daily in my designs and became very attuned to the their nuances."

Did you think about making the two figures next to one another, rather than staggered in front of one another? Why didn't that work?
"One of the biggest challenges with using icons in interface design is making sure that people can understand them at a glance, and at all sizes. This is doubly true for icons that don't have corresponding text label, like the 'friends' icon in the Android navigation bar. My first priority was to make sure the new icons were legible, and explorations without a shoulder division were not successful."

How long did it take to come up with the final redesign?
"About three months, part-time. My then-manager was very supportive of my explorations [and] encouraged me to continue iterating on the icons as a side project."

What do you hope people will get out of this new icon?
"Symbolism is important; it can also be very subtle. The new, woman-first icon has been live for almost a year, and it wasn't until telling the design story that people began to publicly react. During that time, I hope that women who signed up for the platform or considered careers at Facebook felt a little more welcomed there."

Since embarking on this endeavor, Winner says she's now "on high alert for symbolism." She tries "to question all icons, especially those that feel the most familiar," and strives to make Facebook a platform that's relevant to everyone, "from its core features down to the smallest of icons."
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