Tinkering

October 19, 2016

I remember when I became interested in design, but it was not obvious at the time that software design was what I was after.

I was fourteen, and I had my own computer. It was a stupid Windows PC but the time was right for all sorts of wonderful things. There was the ability to theme the UI to different colors and styles. I downloaded every theme from Javier Ocasio (KoL). You could change icons easily with tools made just for that. I’d install an app that made a fake OS X dock on your PC to launch apps from. Y’z Dock. I downloaded icons from Everaldo Coelho and Jairo Boudewyn. I was constantly tweaking and changing things. And Konfabulator widgets.

And then there was even a thing called PearPC that allowed you to install OS X on a PC. That’s when I started using OS X.

I had Panther. I installed Shapeshifter, and CandyBar, and Pixadex, and Mighty Mouse: apps that were created to help you customize every aspect of your computer. You could change the theme, from the window controls to the menubar, to scrollbars and buttons, and skins for specific apps. People used to skin apps on OS X that we don’t even care about today, like DVD Player. People made custom skins for DVD Player’s remote.

Then I actually got a Mac. I got an iMac G5, brand new. It had OS X Tiger. Themes had to be updated, but they were updated, at least some of them. I downloaded everything from Max Rudberg. Milk, EYLO, Aluminum Alloy. There was a site dedicated to all this: MacThemes. Phill Ryu threw this together with help from others, and there were reviews of themes, download links, all on a beautiful (and yes, “skeuomorphic”) web design. I started downloading icon sets like MINIUM° and SNOW.E2 from Sascha Höhne, and everything from the Iconfactory. Ged Maheux, Corey Marion, Talos Tsui, David Brasgalla, Anthony Piraino, David Lanham. These people were my heroes. They drew things I could only hope to draw one day.

MacThemes Forums. This is how I met so many designers like me. Sebastiaan de With, Mischa McLachlan, Philipp Antoni, Henri Liriani, Louis Harboe, Taylor Carrigan. We posted icons and themes, and screenshots. So many screenshots. A thread of hundreds of pages of screenshots so everyone could see what your computer looked like.

Somewhere in here, I got my first paid job. I got to make an app icon and UI for an app called Xslimmer with Jorge Llubiá and Pedro Cuenca.

And suddenly: iPhone. As soon as there was a way to jailbreak it, we could customize it. I found the folder, like many others, where the icons were. I replaced them. I drew my own. I attached my name to the download in Installer.app like a lucky idiot, and people started to notice me who previously hadn’t.

And I got to meet Cabel Sasser and Steven Frank from Panic. These guys made CandyBar, one of the apps that truly influenced the course of my life.

Without all this, without all these people above, without everything happening just like this, I wouldn’t be designing things like I am today. I might not be drawing icons and making apps.

I started working at Tapulous, and made Tap Tap Revenge with Nate True and Guy English, and it became the first incredibly popular app on the App Store. I met Clarko and Mary Ann Brunson and Lucas Newman.

And Brad Ellis. Who would’ve thought I’d start this company with him four years later?

I moved across the country to work for the Iconfactory: my dream job since I was sixteen. I got to make Ramp Champ with Sean Heber. I got work on Twitterrific with Craig Hockenberry. The people at the Iconfactory are some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met in my entire life. They treated me so well and helped me grow into the designer I am today.

After that, I was able to move all the way back across the country again and work for Apple where I got to make icons for Apple. For Apple. And after a brief stint at Square, I get to work for myself, at Pacific Helm and now at Parakeet. I get to make my own apps. I get to work with all sorts of people on all sorts of apps.

I’ve met a lot of great people that have genuinely inspired me. Neven and Christa Mrgan, Joey Ellis, Mark Kawano, Tim Van Damme, Johnnie Manzari, Jeff Broderick, Brian Benitez, John Gruber, Greg Maletic, Elliott Harris, Michelle Morrison, Nick Paulson, Shahrouz Tavakoli, Wil Shipley, Bradley Lautenbach, James Dempsey, Brent Simmons, Lia Napolitano, Phred Lender, Benjamin De Cock, Caleb Thorson, Luka Grafera, and many more.

This is the only way I can see how it could’ve happened.

Just the other day I was wondering… what happens now? Not with me, but with the next fourteen-year-olds who are ready to be inspired. Do they look at Dribbble and decide to make things? Do they jump in and make an app?

I started by tinkering, customizing. Just as an engineer might. You start with something that exists and you change it to understand it. You do things on your own. But now… companies like Apple have locked down things like theming. It’s so hard today that no one even bothers. Changing icons is hard too. With some apps you can’t even do it without an app breaking because of code signing.

Most of the people I know listed above have a similar story. Maybe young people will be inspired by our apps, maybe they’ll be inspired by our art. But will they be able to tinker like we could?