How California-based Hipstamatic surfed the vintage trend to bring some warm analogue charm to your iPhone camera
Whatever your take on skeuomorphism in app design – and Apple itself is guiltier than most – in some cases it fits the required aesthetic perfectly. Based out of SoMa, a large neighbourhood at the centre of San Francisco’s burgeoning tech scene, Hipstamatic specialises in iOS photography apps that tap into the trend for authentic, analogue imperfection.
“We work out of our work/play space, Haus of Hipstamatic,” begins CTO and co-founder Ryan Dorshorst, who heralds SoMa as the new Silicon Valley. Raised in the “corn fields and cranberry bogs” of Wisconsin, Dorhorst graduated with a BFA in graphic design, before moving to Minneapolis to run a design and branding studio. After launching Hipstamatic, he relocated again – this time west – and ended up in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, Hipstamatic’s creative director Aravind Kaimal hails from south India and emigrated to the States aged 17 to study in Chicago. “I started my love/hate relationship with design while working at various publications and ad agencies,” he recalls. “My artwork is influenced by the chaos and simplicity of the two cultures I grew up in.” A strong advocate of driving forward creatively and never getting too comfortable, Kaimal is constantly on the hunt for fresh challenges.
So what appeals about the photography genre in particular? “All of us went to art school and love photography,” shrugs Dorhorst. “When we made the decision to develop a product for consumers, rather than do work for clients, we decided that creating one of the best iPhone apps we could was where we were going to do it.
“We tossed around lots of different ideas, including a retro weather radar app, and landed on a photography app. It was something that we were interested in and that we would pay for ourselves. That’s actually a really important question to ask when developing your product and/or business model – would you buy it? If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘maybe’, you might have a problem.”
Hipstamatic has released a whole host of different apps following a similar retro/analogue theme, including shared camera tool Disposable, darkroom kit Swankolab, photobooth simulator Incredibooth and also Hipstamart, which sells digital and analogue supplies and accessories to make the experience even more tangible.
But its original self-titled app – which provides users with a range of lenses, filters, films and camera interfaces – has been the overwhelming success story. “When we look at our community, we see everyone from lay photographers to professionals embracing Hipstamatic. That’s pretty incredible,” smiles Dorhorst. “Hipstamatic photos have been published by publications such as New York Times, Harper’s Bizarre and Sports Illustrated, to name a few. Our community is talented beyond words and we’re constantly inspired by them, which is a pretty good sign of all around success.”
Although close-knit and collaborative in approach, Hipstamatic is divided into three main departments: art (design and UI); science (engineering and development); and communications, such as PR, marketing and social media. How these interlink and work together varies based on the project, and has evolved since the company’s been in business. “Early on it was a very linear process,” reveals Dorhorst. “We collaborated on ‘white-boarding’ our apps to figure out the UX and flow, and after that I would start engineering and Aravind would build UI. There would be a little bit of back and forth as things developed, but since we both have design backgrounds there would be a lot of design decisions I could make while engineering without additional feedback loops. It’s what we called the Design-Build model.”
With a larger team now in place, a lot more time is spent planning ideas before launching into making them. “We try to get as many decisions made as possible upfront, to minimise wasted time during engineering,” he confirms. “It takes a lot more time to re-engineer something than to re-design it.”
Like most successful app developers, Hipstamatic swears by the power and value of simplicity in terms of UI design. “It’s the underlying factor that contributes to a beautiful interface,” insists Kaimal. “People want instant gratification and to achieve that you need an interface to easily direct them to the end product. This is especially the case in photography apps. They need to be able to get an end result – a beautiful photo – as quickly as possible.”
Designers can’t afford to get hung up on too many frills, he argues, although given the aesthetic appeal of Hipstamatic’s suite of apps, it’s clear that the company puts the chrome higher up the list than some. “There’s always a balance between something that’s too simple and boring, and something that’s interesting, yet easy to use,” reasons Kaimal.
“You have to decide on the overall aesthetic first. Is it skeuomorphic or is it clean, Swiss and minimalist? There’s trend to consider too and Apple’s definitely leading the current skeuomorphic trend. It comes down to what kind of app you’re making, what it’s supposed to accomplish and then coupling that with who your target audience is. A skeuomorphic design can make your UI feel more intimate and approachable, but it can also quickly become novel and has the potential for getting in the way of the core task that the user is trying to accomplish.”
Over-complication, he points out, is a very real danger in any mobile application. “The key ingredients of a photo app are that it accomplishes only a very small list of core tasks, efficiently and intuitively,” he believes. “You should be able to tell someone what your app does in one sentence.” The classic ‘elevator pitch’ mentality applies strongly to apps in particular, he adds, because users will tend to use them for one purpose and then put them away.
“I think it definitely helps to have a real-world analogy when trying to design an experience for users to have on a very new digital platform,” believes Dorhorst. “It gives the user something to relate to and a way to evaluate and even understand how to use your product. It does come with its own set of baggage, however, and it’s really a matter of weighing this against the cool factor. For example, switching lenses and films in Hipstamatic is super cool and feels very analogue and right, but it does require a lot more gestures than a simple ‘choose a filter’ UI in other photo apps.”
It’s always a good idea to survey the rest of the competition when it comes to the design of a new app and this stretches to the icon as well. “We look at the other apps in our space and figure out how we can stand out against them in the App Store,” reveals Kaimal. “Early on, Hipstamatic was the only one with a predominantly black icon, for example. This philosophy comes from our background. We’ve all had experience in the advertising world and very clearly understand the need to make something different in order to be seen. We also try to stay away from default Apple-style icons – reflections, highlights, glossiness and so on.”
Another common pitfall that Kaimal and his team have identified is when designers simply pull out a graphical element from the UI and drop it into a rounded rectangle shape, without considering how it works as an icon. “We all have the limitation of using a rounded rectangle, so thinking of creative ways to work around this can yield some very interesting results,” he advises.
Hipstamatic is dedicated to iOS as a platform, but even within this tightly walled garden the company is focussing the design process on one particular device, rather than scaling across iPhone and iPad, for example. “It’s actually a tricky design problem – the two different devices have vastly different screen sizes and usage patterns, and this is partly the reason we haven’t ported Hipstamatic to iPad. We designed it specifically for the iPhone screen size and usage model and it never made sense to us on a tablet device.”
In fact, Incredibooth is the only app to date that has been successfully carried across both iPhone and iPad. “It’s always been a party app and is a lot of fun on iPad,” he insists. “It’s always pretty tricky to build a scaleable UI, but it’s a really interesting challenge and opportunity at the same time. Are there ways to give your users additional functionality or a new experience, given a larger screen?”
Another fundamental consideration when it comes to the UI design is how to keep the user aware of where they are within the app at any given time. “It’s all too easy to get lost navigating through countless levels of UI and we’re constantly trying to think of new ways to solve that problem,” says Kaimal.
“It’s an interesting challenge. The end goal is to make it as easy and quick as possible for the user to accomplish the task the app is built to do. If the user can open your app, easily do what they want to do and put their phone back in their pocket, you’ve succeeded on at least that most basic level.”
The Hipstamatic icon is highly distinctive, and part of a trend for photo-realistic graphics. When released, it was the only predominantly black icon in its App Store category
“If it’s a premium product with a specific audience, a paid app with in-app additions makes sense,” reflects Dorshorst, who adds that ad-funded apps should invariably be free
Another spread from Snap.“Other magazine apps use crazy gestures and strange interactions, but we wanted a simple page-flip experience to avoid any confusion,” explains Dorshorst