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Illustration by: Luis Mendo

How Apps are Made

Trench notes on app design

Originally published by: The Message

How are apps made? Painfully with deliberation or effortlessly without thought. Blind inspiration. Eight hours over a lazy weekend. Fifty grand a day. A million dollars a syllable. Do not look for the sense in it.

Apps mirror life in their unfairness. Time spent making an app in no way guarantees successes, financial or spiritual. Grizzled developers toil for years and ‘lose’ to the ‘chain-smoking geek’ in Vietnam with the twitchy bird. Guy doesn’t even want the money.

the room is cold.

Misguided are those who deride the ephemerality of Minecraft — with the mining and use of ‘dirt’ and ‘trees’ and ‘chickens’ and ‘rock’ and ‘fire’ to build everything from the Starship Enterprise to a working CPU — but exalt apps. Apps, too, are ephemeral. Some of the most ephemeral software we’ve ever produced. Ephemeral if for no other reason than because of their gated homes. Our apps cower below the fickle whim of App Store Gods, struck down for no reasonable reasons or for very reasonable reasons. It doesn’t matter which, the end result is always the same: gone, forever.

light fire

So, mitigate? Try as we might to give physical form to our apps — to embed them in pulp beyond the reach of pawing gatekeepers — it gets us only part way. The flip-flop changes that which flips or flops. Makes it something else entirely. In so much as that printout may capture a piece of what an app was, it can never capture it all.

Version 1.2 published in the morning.


Hit the gong. (There is always a gong.)


Midday you realize every tenth screen loads sideways.


Cleanup. (No gong.)

Intone: Dear Gods, accept this update.

Now v1.2.1. v1.2 forever lost. v1.2.1 may work on this thing but not that thing, on this version of an OS but not another. Better luck next year. Archives are for the weak. Tap tap tap.

It’s not that the old days were preferable — software was arduous, distribution cumbersome — but we can still run Arthur: the Quest for Excalibur if we try. We find comfort in that.

stoke fire

There is a method to making an app. Iterative ceremony. Successive refinement not unlike in other crafts. App making as pottery? Place each button atop your bench wheel, sling your mud, refine the reactions on screen to touch, to sound, refine the movement of text, the size of text, the placement of text, typography macro and micro, to hyphenate or not (and if not, why, dear god, why), consider the images, to full-bleed or not to full-bleed, how to dismiss the images — a swipe or a tap or a dreadful [×]. Remove curves. Add curves. Gradients, the gradients. All of this surface and function is iterated about again and again. WUT you say? Yes, Yo, this is how apps are made.

stoke fire

The first pass should be ugly, the ugliest. Any brain cycle spent on pretty is self deception. If pretty is the point then please stop. Do not, I repeat, do not spent three months on the radial menu, impressive as it may be. It will not save your company. There is a time for that. That time is not now. Instead, make grand gestures. General gestures. Most importantly, enumerate the unknowns. Make a list. Making known the unknowns you now know will surface the other unknowns, the important unknowns, the truly devastating unknowns — you can’t scrape our content! you can’t monkey park here! a tiny antennae is not for rent! You want to unearth answers as quickly as possible. Nothing else matters if your question marks irrecoverably break you. Do not procrastinate in their excavation.

the fire is roaring.

The second pass is to give better form to your App Store mandala. Your fog of idea is now cast in harsh binary. Somewhat less mutable. Edges. A messy dream splashed clean with ice cold water. We’re awake. Now the fun. Tighten the core. Reduce interactions to a bare minimum. Sweep all excess. Question all moving parts. We bring with us expectations born from decades of certain software incumbencies — try your best to accept nothing that has come before as a universal truth. There is no back button. The more you question the more you can refine. The more you can refine, the more potential for delight. And if not to delight — through knowledge or navigation or entertainment or communication — then why make? Why toil?

In app making as in life: Be courageous, but not foolhardy.

stoke fire

Passes three through forever. Unknown after unknown are felled. More unknowns emerge. Doesn’t matter. You know you can deal with them. The core is solid. This is worth your time. Self-delusion? A necessary ingredient. With each pass your skin thickens (unless you achieve immediate success and your skin turns to tissue, you become afraid to touch the app, don’t know why it did well, don’t want to bungle it, don’t want to anger those devout; Zuck’ never tissue’d, skin as thick as beef jerky from the get-go, stayed that way, one of many reasons why Facebook won). Bring it on. The core is solid.

Pass four is purely typographic. Two weeks on drop caps. (Switch to a titling font, make the terminals more screen friendly, exaggerate, a little goofy even.)

Pass five is for button physics. Quartz Compose your way to a better, sexier you.

Pass six is home-rolled sync. Don’t question the masochism.

Pass seven is value propositions. You know why (you do, right?) but do the writers or readers or photographers?

Pass eight is …

Step back. Wash thyself. Eat. Run. Jumping jacks. Big salad. Sleep for a week.

Step back.

Deep breath. Approach. Lift. Swipe gently. Is the core solid? Notes in a notebook of everything that hurts. The pointy edges. The dead ends. Is the core solid? The core is solid. Sand, scrub, clean, submit.

the wind howls outside.

Intone: No undocumented APIs were harmed.

the room is warm.

How are apps made? Sometimes like this. Sometimes without effort. Do not look for the sense in it.

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