January 16, 2023 • Louie Mantia

I never had a “real job.”

In 2004, I got my first iMac. I was 16. I started doing occasional freelance icon work for people who found me on Internet forums. When Apple introduced iPhone to the world in 2007, I was about to start my second year in college. And I did, but now with a genuine computer in my pocket. I used to carry around a flip phone, an iPod, and a Sony Clié.

Having been deeply entrenched in icon and theme customization on my Mac, when the original iPhone was jailbroken, that was the first thing I wanted to do. I didn’t ignore apps per se, but they weren’t what I jailbroke my phone for.

I made several icon sets that replaced the default app icons plus a few popular jailbreak apps at the time. It was fun, and made me feel more like it was an actual computer in my pocket, because I was customizing it in the same way I would have on my Mac. I distributed these themes through something called Installer.app. At this moment, I made perhaps the luckiest decision I ever made in my career.

All of my theme names were prefixed with my own name, Louie Mantia.

I don’t know why I did it. Maybe I didn’t know what to call them, maybe there wasn’t an author field at the time. That memory is lost. But what happened next, I remember well.

More people started to find me on the Internet, specifically people making iPhone apps. They needed app icons, and I was one of the first designers (if not the first designer) making icons for iPhone outside of Apple’s own team. That led to me working with new clients.

Jorge Llubiá and Pedro Cuenca are two Spanish developers who made a Mac app called Xslimmer. They were—I think—my first-ever clients. They made one of the first iPhone apps too, Sketches. In June of 2008, they took me to WWDC, and I got to see Steve Jobs introduce iPhone 3G, the App Store, and roll out the device around the world. Developers around the hall cheered when their country was displayed alongside music from “it’s a small world.”

From the iPhone SDK release in March ’til July, app developers everywhere were cramming to get their apps ready for the App Store, and a Belgian entrepreneur named Bart Decrem did something extremely smart: he bought up lots of the original jailbreak apps and hired the developers who made them. These were the most enthusiastic and scrappiest of developers, because even before the App Store, they were making iPhone apps. Sean Heber made 30 apps in 30 days. Nate True created Tap Tap Revolution. This was the start of Gogo Apps.

Because I was also part of that early jailbreak community, Bart hired me too. I was the only visual designer at Tapulous, so I suddenly had a lot to work on. The main focus was converting Tap Tap Revolution into an App Store app. It got all-new songs, was redesigned, and was renamed. I was doing a lot more than icon design at this point, like interaction design, interface design, and …game design? I was coming up with new exciting gameplay mechanics and inventing a two-player mode.

The entire company met up in St. Louis, since it was centrally located in the country. I just happened to live there already. We worked out of my college library. We got St. Louis barbecue. Honest-to-god, I didn’t know that was a thing until everyone started asking me where to get it. We were working on so many apps. Some never, ever shipped. Besides Tap Tap Revolution (developed by Nate True and Guy English), there was FriendBook (a contact-sharing app, developed by Mike Lee), Collage (a photo-sharing app, developed by Sean Heber), and Twinkle (an app that augmented Twitter, developed by Tristan O’Tierney and Layton Duncan).

It was clear I wasn’t going back to college. I dropped out, moved to the Bay Area, and worked for Tapulous (formerly Gogo Apps) full-time.

A window display at the Palo Alto Apple Store (flipped), with app icons of some of the very first apps in the App Store, like Enigmo, Facebook, Apple’s Texas Hold ‘Em, Super Monkey Ball, Twitterrific, and Shazam. The third icon on the top row is my icon for Sketches.

A few days after the App Store opened, Tap Tap Revenge launched, and it soared to the top. It was the most-downloaded iPhone game in 2008, with one-third of all iPhone owners having downloaded it. It felt incredible.

Our team started talking with people at Apple. We got a request for a high-resolution version of the gameplay screen. No additional details were given. I redrew the assets for that resolution, not knowing what it was for.

Tapulous started to fall apart. At least, the original version of Tapulous did. Without getting into details, there was a culture clash. A lot of the developers wanted to focus less on chasing the top charts and focus more on making quality indie software. Panic, the Mac software company, came up a lot in conversation. Basically, we all wanted to be the iPhone version of Panic. That was never going to happen. A bunch of people left, myself included.

In September of 2008, I started looking for other jobs. I was talking with people at Apple. And Cabel Sasser from Panic introduced me to the crew at the Iconfactory. I have always admired their work. Every one of them were people I aspired to be. Ged, Corey, and Talos invited me to North Carolina for an interview. After, Corey sent me an offer. I wanted it. I made up my mind. But Apple wanted to have me in for interviews anyway.

I walked into 1 Infinite Loop, sat down, saw Steve Jobs walk by me, and looked up at the 3-story banner hanging in the atrium. So that’s what that high-resolution artwork was for.

The funnest iPod ever.

It was surreal to see Apple use Tap Tap Revenge, an app I designed, as their primary marketing image for a hardware product. And it was the perfect end to my work at Tapulous.

Going from being a kid ripping DVDs in my St. Louis basement bedroom to having my work on stage behind Steve Jobs was kind of a lot for one summer. In a way, it felt like the last “summer” I’ve ever had. I feel very lucky to have been able to do all of this exactly when I did.

But before I embarked on my journey to the Iconfactory in North Carolina, I had one more app to make.

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