The Leaders in Design Series1 is presented by 2.
When Flipboard3 launched on the iPad in July 20104, it was heralded as much for its design as for the novel way it aggregated and delivered news shared across multiple online networks. Thus it was described not as a social newsreader, but as a social newsreading magazine.
Credit for the design of Flipboard’s iPad app5, as well as its more recent iPhone edition6, is largely due to Marcos Weskamp7, who has served as Flipboard’s head of design since March 2010. He works alongside two other designers, Johan Prag8 and Didier Hilhorst9, within the broader Flipboard team.
Before Flipboard, Weskamp worked as an experience designer at Adobe10 for two and a half years, where he focused on new technologies. Weskamp says that one of his favorite projects was a mass visualization11 he and a team developed for the Encyclopedia of Life Project, which was inspired by biologist E.O. Wilson’s call12 for the creation of “an electronic page for each species of organism on Earth.” Using a raw database file, Weskamp and team were able to create a touch-enabled visualization for each of the 1.8 million species in the database.
We interviewed Weskamp about his work at Flipboard and his approach to design.
Q&A With Marcos Weskamp, Head of Design, Flipboard
Tell me about your approach to design. When you’re creating something new for Flipboard, how do you begin?
There is just so much we want to do for Flipboard, so many ideas on how we want to evolve the product that often I feel we just don’t have enough time. At work, all the walls around my desk are plastered in sketches and ideas we want to work on.
Although we have a product roadmap of where we want to be one to three years from now, we are steadily moving forward on that plan, but often each new design element takes hundreds of sketches and many weeks of “design review” (our weekly team discussions where we talk through new thinking, share design mock-ups and collaborating on challenges). Our approach is very simple — it’s driven by what we want to build and then finding the best, most beautiful way to get there.
Flipboard is often described as a digital magazine. What about the magazine aesthetic — and experience — does Flipboard aim to preserve?
I am a huge fan of magazines. I grew up reading National Geographic, Life and Popular Mechanics. If there is one element I’ve always admired from what they do, it’s how every element placed in the page has a specific purpose. I just love how each story flows into the other one, how your eye can surf each page by jumping from headline to headline to photo, to pull quote and into an article. In the magazine world, each page is a small composition of a larger piece, and everything is in a way trying to pull you in to read the story. You can easily scan a magazine, and the moment something interests you, just dive in. I just love that, and I think we had forgotten about it on the web.
On the web, we’ve placed too much emphasis on navigation, on giving you a thousand options of different places to go after each article. The sense of a large composition is lost. At Flipboard we are laser-focused on bringing that immersive, flow experience of a magazine, while also allowing you to dive into the best content of everything you really care about.
How is Flipboard designed to encourage leisurely reading?
On Flipboard, we encourage readers to do just one thing: flip. Just open the app, and flip from left to right. By minimizing friction and encouraging readers to focus on the content, we become transparent. And that, we believe, is the secret of great design.
Flipboard completely reengineered itself for the iPhone13. Can you tell me about some of the design decisions that went into optimizing the reading experience on that device?
We spent a long time working on porting the Flipboard experience to the iPhone. For starters, we knew that the usage patterns were going to be very different. While on the iPad we saw very long sessions happening mostly between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m., we knew that on iPhone we’ll see very short ones that would happen throughout the day. For that reason, we thought we had to create one space where you could see the best from everything you subscribe to. Pick up the most interesting stories, photos, videos shared by your friends throughout all your social networks. We knew we’d have very little time to show you the best content of everything you care about. That’s how Cover Stories (our centerpiece on the iPhone) was born.
On the actual interface we created piles of sketches and a whole lot of prototypes. We knew it was not going to be a case of just porting the iPad UI, but rethinking it from the ground up. We settled on the one option that would allow you to surf through all that content as fast as possible, while retaining the magazine glossiness.
Flipboard is adding more services and content all the time, most recently audio. How do you keep the interface and navigation simple?
By simply focusing on the experience. Anything that is not content is considered superfluous. We just focus on how to wrap the right UI around that content without creating tension with the reader’s intent, which put simply is to read, listen, enjoy.
Where do you look for design inspiration?
Mostly by paying attention to and understanding what readers want to do. However sometimes I realize that we might have been focusing too long on a particular task we are trying to achieve. That’s when I decide to go off the grid for a few days. I try to find areas without cellphone reception where I can go on a spiritual retreat, where I can focus on simple every day tasks. I know that when I come back, I’ll be able to look at our work with fresh eyes. And every single time I get the opportunity to do this, I always feel like we find a new turning point.
What do you read on Flipboard?
Pretty much everything! Cover Stories, National Geographic, Wired, Facebook14, Twitter15, Mashable, 500px, Technology, Design are just a few of my favorites. I love looking at a Twitter search through Flipboard, or photo groups on Flickr16. 500px Editor’s Picks are just fantastic.
How important is design at Flipboard? What is the company culture like?
Very important. I often feel that at Flipboard, we are all designers. Everyone at work is in a way responsible for the user experience. From those pixel-pushing the surface, to the guys working on the server infrastructure — everything touches design. A faster server response has a huge impact on design, and we thrive working on all those tweaks. Every Friday at 5 p.m., we hold a show-and-tell demo hour we call “Mock O’clock.” Here, everyone in the company has the opportunity to show the latest they’ve been working on. It’s really cool to hear the “oohs” and “aaahs” during this time, and very often these little projects end up in the product in one way or the other one.
How many designers work under you?
I work along two other fantastic designers. Johan Prag, who has an extensive print design background, and Didier Hilhorst, an incredible designer obsessed with everything from the smallest detail to the largest workflow. I think we make a great team. But I can’t forget about the rest of the company. More than often, many outside the design team have made huge contributions to the design of our app. Our iOS team is incredibly sharp in thinking about user experience. Our co-founder, Evan leads the pack in that front. And what an incredible team. True warriors. So meticulous about every single detail in the app. These are the guys who stay up all night, who work through weekends, just to get that transition right.
I often think that none of this work would be possible without having a true visionary guiding us. Mike [McCue], our CEO, is as obsessed with detail as the rest of the company is. He is the one that often finds icons that are a pixel off, and at the same time is continually redefining where the product needs to be. I feel super humbled to have the opportunity to work this amazing team.
Flipboard launched just a few months after the iPad did. What the team so sure the device would take off?
We all knew that if the rumors of Apple coming up with an iPad were true, it would truly revolutionize the way we look at the web. The PC OS was ready for a consumer-focused reset. And that’s exactly what the iPad brought.
Why the name “Flipboard”?
It was just perfect for what we are trying to do. The name needed to include movement and reflect the notion of new information coming to you, much like a “flip board” at a train station. But it also had a place, a sense of something physical. And I hope it’s quite obvious by now.
Have you started thinking about a web version of Flipboard? What might that look like?
Right now we are focused on the iPad, iPhone and preparing for the Android versions of our app17. The web will require ground-up thinking, and that decision is a little ways off right now.
Do you still think there will still be room for individual news apps in the future, a la The New York Times iPad app?
Absolutely. Individual publications are the foundation of the way we read. There is so much that goes into each magazine number, so much thought on editing, design, voice, flow and composition. All this would be impossible to replicate algorithmically. Magazine apps fullfill a very specific need. We are fullfilling something completely different. We want to give readers the best of their content, from fresh photos of your family and friends, to articles they are sharing to all the different topics you care about. These are two completely different worlds.
Any side projects we should know about?
No side projects except an occasional trip beyond the grid that allows me to fully unplug and recharge. Whenever I get the opportunity, I find places in the map that seem interesting, and without much planning I throw my backpack in the car and takeoff. Bonus points if there is no cellphone reception there. I post photos of those outings at marumushi.com/photos18. Other than that, I am 100% focused on making Flipboard better.
Series presented by Volvo
The Leaders in Design Series19 is presented by 20. Experience the newest Volvo for yourself. Step inside the 325hp 2011 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design at 21.
^Leaders in Design Series (mashable.com)
^launched on the iPad in July 2010 (mashable.com)
^Flipboard’s iPad app (itunes.apple.com)
^more recent iPhone edition (mashable.com)
^Marcos Weskamp (twitter.com)
^Johan Prag (twitter.com)
^Didier Hilhorst (twitter.com)
^mass visualization (www.adobe.com)
^E.O. Wilson’s call (www.youtube.com)
^completely reengineered itself for the iPhone (mashable.com)
^preparing for the Android versions of our app (mashable.com)
^Leaders in Design Series (mashable.com)