To get some insight into the world of User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design, we sat down with Julian Wright, Creative Director at July Rapid.
Int: Hi Julian, thanks for joining us. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get started in the industry?
JW: Long story short, I studied commerce and economics only to realize that I could not see myself making a living out of it. I had to be doing something I was passionate about. And my passion was art. As far back as I can remember, I have memories of painting and designing. So I started working in that area. What started off as a career in freelance print and graphic design led me to becoming the Creative Director at July Rapid.
I’ve been working for 8 years in mobile/ UX design; 3 years in print and graphic design.
Int: So, who’s your favorite artist?
JW: As mainstream as it sounds, impressionist Vincent Van Gogh has always been one of my favorites.
Int: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your other interests?
JW: Talking about interests, I’m a very outdoorsy person – I love fishing, camping and trekking. I’m also into photography, especially nature and wildlife. (See Julian’s portfolio at http://julianwright.daportfolio.com/)
Oh! And there’s music — which is a very big part of my life. My father, a musician, has been a strong musical influence in my life. Many of my friends say I have a great taste in music and if that’s true, I owe it all to my dad. It’s because of him that I have grown up around music and musicians. Although I listen to everything, jazz, rock and roll, motown & classic rock are my go-to genres.
Int: When you first entered the industry, what was it like? What was design like? Can you tell us how design has evolved over the years?
JW: The UI design industry was quite a different beast 8 years ago when I first started doing mobile design. Back then, skeuomorphism was all the rage. That is, making your interface represent its real-world counterparts with buttons and switches that look realistic. Having those meant you had a cool app. Every app design was incredibly unique and came with its own challenges. Every app icon was itself a piece of art. And every app experience was different.
The downside, though, was that ‘form overplayed function’. One-third of your interface was merely there to make your app look pretty. In several instances your design would end up compromising your user experience just to make your interface look more real. These were still great apps that worked really well. But were they the best user experience? Did we really need to have a wooden frame with a beautifully rendered shadow every time we viewed a photo? Did your book app really need you to spend 3 seconds unclasping the shiny chrome button on the supple leather book cover and flip it open before you could continue reading your book on your iPad? While it was fun and you enjoyed how real it felt the first few times, it soon lost its charm and became a hindrance to the task every time you opened the app.
When it comes to design, I think the words of Dieter Rams ring true:
Good design is as little design as possible.
The industry today has come a long way from the leather-clad books and buttons that look like candy. Today, mobile design has become more mature and more focused. Skeuomorphism is all but gone from most modern apps. In places that it still exists, it is only to enhance the usability of the interface and create context — not as a mere ornamentation.
App design now focuses on clean, simple and concise user interfaces where the focus is on the content and the task at hand. As Jeffrey Zeldman said, “Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”
I think the “flat” design evolution has come about because we, as app users, have evolved. We don’t long for shiny candy buttons or fancy looking dials anymore. Today a great app is an app that empowers users to get their work done in the fastest and simplest way possible — be it browsing through photos or booking a flight ticket. We have thrown away all the bells and whistles (iOS 7 & Material Design).
Look at a regular spoon. You have evolved or at least learned to use it without having to comprehend how it works every time you pick it up. Similarly, UX design is evolving to become an extension of ourselves where the interface is so natural and simple that it is almost invisible. Or, at the very least, transparent.
Int: What’s your approach to design and how do you stay up-to-date with the latest design trends?
JW: Every new design project makes me feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Each new challenge is approached with a healthy dose of excitement, eagerness and impatience. I think that is the best part of a design cycle because at this point the possibilities are endless. Having the challenge of creating something new and unique is what drives me every day to come to work.
In terms of design approach, I think a lot of people fail to grasp the scope of what UX encapsulates. UX is not just UI design; it involves so much more than building static sketches, wireframes and screen mockups. So in terms of design process I see a strong shift towards dynamic interaction prototypes rather than static wireframes. A prototype that you can click/tap and feel brings so much more to the table than the most detailed wireframe. If it is live and visceral enough, it goes beyond the technology and visuals and becomes an experience — something which any stakeholder will find much easier to identify with.
An inherent love for technology and design is the main driving force behind what keeps me up to date on the latest trends. From VR to wearables to the latest design paradigms from iOS or Android, you tend to gravitate toward discovering the latest design trends and developments if you have a passion for what you are doing. Also, being part of such a strong design community tends to always keep you up to date.
Int: Who would you say has influenced your sense of design?
JW: I would say the biggest influence would have to be Steve Jobs’ philosophy of design sitting at the intersection of the liberal arts, technology and humanity. This fundamentally changed my approach to design. It made me realize that design is so much more, that technology alone is not enough, and that the visual aesthetics of colors, typography and UX elements are not there just to make your product look good.
Design needs to be influenced by the culture and humanity of who you are building the product for: real people. Through design you should be able to elicit an emotional connection with your user on a more personal level. When you take this approach while building a product, then technology and visual aesthetics become the medium of creating that connection and not the driving force in what you are creating. I would also like to mention Dieter Rams, whose principles of good design lie in the same vein.
Design paradigms are constantly changing and are evolving at a faster rate than ever before. It is these timeless principles that I use as a yardstick to evaluate every new piece of work I put out.
Int: Tell us about some interesting work you’ve done for a client.
JW: I have been lucky enough to work on some great projects with even more wonderful people. I would like to talk about the most recent project I worked for an emerging video streaming service.
Two brilliant young entrepreneurs from Columbia University came to July Rapid with an idea to turn video streaming in India on its head. The design challenge here was to create a premium video streaming service which was clean, modern but at its core felt purely Indian. It had to, at the forefront, be simple yet highly functional. The main challenge was to understand how the Indian audience consumes media differently than the typical western user.
We created a flat UX experience, where the entire app was not more than 2 layers deep. This made navigating through piles of content simple and fast.
Indian content is, by nature, extremely colorful and vivid. This called for an interface which would sit in the background and give the focus to the content and channel providers.
We created a recommendation engine which would allow users to send content recommendations to their friends and create friend groups to share content. This is something which is uniquely Indian as Indians tend to validate the value of content against who recommended it to them, rather than against the amount of views or ratings the content has.
Int: There’s some interesting art on your wall (Batman). What’s the story behind that?
JW: The concept of Batman is something which has captivated me from a very young age. Batman has been the inspiration for many of my illustrations, including this one; the biggest one I have done so far. I’m a comic book geek at heart and Frank Miller’s Batman holds my top spot by quite a margin.
I have always loved the comic book medium and feel it hasn’t received due credit for its quality of writing and art work. Comic books and graphic novels create a visceral — if not surreal — version of the characters and their worlds. And in my opinion, very few, if any, movies of the superhero persuasion even come close to being able to capture that. A few of my favorite names in the medium are Frank Miller (obviously), Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Jim Lee and Jeph Loeb.
Int: What’s your personal motto?
JW: It’s tough to put down one single motto. First because I have had so many great influences that I have tried to do justice to. But also, as I have grown, I look at them from more mature eyes and I see more layers and intricacies which a younger me completely overlooked. So my mottos keep changing and evolving in both personal and professional ways. If I had to put it down to a motto in terms of design, here’s one that works well for me: The simplest option is always the best option.
Int: Julian, thank you for your time. It has been really great talking to you.