Designer Caitlin Winner On Why She Gave Facebook’s Icons A Much Needed Gender Makeover

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By Caitlin Winner – 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”.

Lady with chip in shoulder

Lady with chip in shoulder

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In comparison to the new lady, the old man icon seemed stiff and outdated so I smoothed down his hair and added a slight slope to his shoulders.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.

three in a row_facebook

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.


Moving Fast — With Help From Friends

Timidly, I saved out a new version of the glyph file, not sure if I was breaking any rules and half expecting a bunch of angry designers to message me asking why I was messing up Facebook’s glyph kit. Instead, and somewhat magically, the new icons began to appear in new products across the company and our many platforms.

Matt Sain, a front end engineer, dropped the new male and female silhouettes into desktop web for employees and then shipped them to the whole world without much fanfare. Lexi Ross, a Product Manager, hacked several much needed additions to Male and Female gender options in profile creation and added the corresponding alternative silhouettes. Brian Frick, master of icons, updated the entire glyph kit about 6 months ago, re-working and adding many new icons, informally adopting the new people icons in his work.


Friend icons by Brian Frick

It turns out this kind of self initiated project is not unique at Facebook. Last year, designer Julyanne Liang worked with engineer Brian Jew to give the non-American half of the globe an accurate world view from the notification icon. Since then they’ve added an Asia-centric globe, too.

Globe icons by Brian Frick

Globe icons by Brian Frick

Symbols Matter

As a result of this project, I’m on high alert for symbolism. I try to question all icons, especially those that feel the most familiar. For example, is the briefcase the best symbol for ‘work’? Which population carried briefcases and in which era? What are other ways that ‘work’ could be symbolized and what would those icons evoke for the majority of people on Earth?

All those good intentions I met on the first day were real. We all want to continue to make Facebook the best it can be, to have culture of doing rather than complaining, to grow a company where ideas can spread organically, and to build a platform that is relevant for people from its core features down to the smallest of icons.

Have ideas about other icons that could use a refresh? Send me a note, I’d love to hear them.

About the Author

caitlinCaitlin Winner is a design manager at Facebook and enjoys painting in her spare time. You can check out her work here, and follow Caitlin on Twitter.

This piece first appeared on Medium, and is republished here with permission. 

  • Ginafred

    I’ve been thinking about that briefcase for awhile now, along with some of the other outdated metaphors like the floppy disk icon and the old-school telephone. When the metaphors stop making sense, it’s time to rethink what we’re saying.

    • I once worked on a product that used a pink pig to represent “save”. Unfortunately it was a favorite feature to one of the principals, so its probably still there if the company hasn’t gone under. As you say, symbols matter – good ones are invisible, poor ones cause a momentary stutter in our comprehension which is then multiplied by every user who encounters our systems.

  • Jennifer Smith

    Awesome, Caitlin! Thanks for the art e a nd for recognising your colleagues in it too. Thanks Matt! Thanks julyanne. Thanks Brian.

    • Jennifer Smith

      And lexi!

  • Lyin’ Williams


    • xistknight


  • JPGal

    Three cheers and keep up the good work!

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  • xistknight

    Oh Jesus Christ. Really?! Really? Is there so little going on in your life that you feel the need to do this?

  • Nirali

    Love that you used the phrase “lean in” 🙂 This was lovely. The little things really do matter.

  • Antonio Clarke

    I’m not sure if I understand. Essentially, it wasn’t fair that the man was in the front, because that made women look like they were in the shadow of men, which is bad. So instead, the women were moved to the front, making the men look like they are in the shadow of women, which is okay. Is that right?