Assembly: The Art of Play & the Democratization of Design

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Thanks to touchscreen devices and easy-to-use apps, designing and sharing your art, illustration, and photography may seem more like play than work. And Pixite wants to make sure you’re having fun, no matter what you’re making. In a relatively short time, Pixite has released a number of apps built for designers and non-designers, and I previously wrote about them on HOWdesign.com, in Exploring Pixite Apps: The Bright Side of the Pixel. With their latest app, Assembly—named an App Store Best of 2015—you can mix and match collaged elements, edit and style them, and use precision smart snapping alignment to fit things together just right.

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But as more and more apps like Assembly make it into the hands of users, specifically non-designers, how will this democratization of design impact designers? And what’s the future hold for app developers who are going head-to-head with Adobe, especially in light of Sketch’s recent success?

I interviewed Pixite’s Eugene Kaneko (co-founder and product manager), Scott Sykora (co-founder and lead developer), and Ben Guerrette (creative director) to learn more about Assembly, as well as the state of app design.

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What can Assembly offer the Luddite, who knows nothing about technology or design?

Eugene: Assembly is a new approach to graphic design. Instead of having to draw something from scratch, it contains a whole bunch of well-designed shapes that you can bring together to create beautiful designs. Here’s a good example. We have a Characters Pack that contains basic bodies, hair, face, shapes, etc. Bring those shapes together, you can build your own characters. With our Badge Pack you can create family crests, badges, and other awesome looking logos. We have a total of 13 themed shape packs now and [they are] growing. The Assembly app experience is simple enough to be mastered by newbies, but there are features that even the expert designer can appreciate. The app was designed from the ground up for touch devices. Intuitive use of tapping, dragging, and such is integral to the experience.

Scott: For a lot of people Assembly reminds them of being a kid and creating artwork from construction paper or on an art board. It really is as simple as that. You don’t need to know anything about technology or graphic design. It as simple as selecting and dragging shapes with your finger and seeing where your creativity takes you.

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How do you make the user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) appealing to adults, while also having that childlike quality that Scott references?

Ben: An approach we take frequently when solving the challenge of balancing play with powerful tools is through a UI layering system. Up front we present the basics of what’s needed to be creatively successful quickly while presenting the deeper features contextually a layer down when you might need them. So from a kid’s point of view, he or she sees the shapes collection and wants to explore what’s there that represents their interests. The adult or serious user might be a little more calculated in their selections with some preconception of what they plan to create. Either way, they’re both exploring, and the library of shapes is what unifies the two.

At its core, Assembly is shape play and exploration. We’re all familiar with this form of interaction of play through LEGO, wood blocks and even Colorforms. As adults, I’d like to think that we’ve retained that side of us and can still tap into it. It’s less about striking a balance between childlike interaction and serious design than it is about bringing play back into our adult lives. For kids, it’s how they function day to day so it’s easy to pick up. For adults, there’s some nostalgia there that might bring back those memories and experiences.

From a design and UI perspective, I’m in the less is more camp. It just needs to get out of the way to let the UX do its job. I think sometimes we tend to underestimate the intellect of children and don’t give them enough credit. A bubbly looking colorful interface design may get a kids attention but won’t necessarily hold it. It’s about the experience. Good UX is not successful based on age. Good UX just works for everyone. The iPhone itself proves that.

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Why do you think that playfulness is important for designers and non-designers?

Scott: I think for a lot of people true creativity comes from a state of play. This is a state you get into when you don’t have specific goals to achieve and aren’t constantly fighting with your tools. Instead you’re just exploring the possibilities of what you can create. It’s hard to explain the feeling in words, but that sense of relaxed, enjoyable exploration is an incredibly important part of the creative process. It gives an artist/designer a space to open up and stretch their creativity before deciding on a goal and going into polishing mode. I think for both designers and non-designers this state of play is incredibly relaxing and fulfilling.

Why might designers initially consider Assembly too simple, less robust than other apps they’re used to, and why should they give it a chance?

Eugene: Assembly is a totally different approach to graphic design but we’ve had plenty of professional designers rave about how they love Assembly and how Assembly has changed how they work. Getting an idea onto paper is just so much faster in Assembly than other vector apps. And being able to do it on the go is another big advantage. You can export your project as SVG so if you want to work on the design on the desktop in another app, that’s also easy to do.

We’ve just started with Assembly. We’ll be adding tons more powerful features so in terms of robustness, we’ll get there. Here’s a perspective from one of our users, Josh Fortune, on why he used Assembly to do all the character designs for his last animation project.

Eugene: Bottom line, it’s more efficient and more fun. Using Assembly, you’ll be doing actual work but it’ll feel like play, and you’ll do it faster. You’ll find that Assembly pushes you to be more creative and produce better work. As designers (and every professional), it’s important to always be on the lookout for tools to make your job easier. We feel Assembly is one of those tools.

Scott: I think for a lot of professional designers it’s actually a relief to play with an app that takes a much more fluid and simple approach to vector design. The artist doesn’t need to deal with knobs and handles and Bézier curves and instead gets back to what they’re really there for: the art. We hope we’ve created an environment that encourages creativity and flow instead of just cramming every tool and option into a giant menu. We want the artist to stop thinking about how to use the tool and instead start imagining as they create their work. Once they’ve reached their limits or want to use another tool it’s easy to export to SVG or vector PDF and tweak it in almost any other tool.

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What would you say to those who believe that apps like yours democratize design?

Eugene: It allows people who have never done graphic design to create something that goes beyond what they think they can do. The main issue with designing, drawing, what have you, is the blank canvas syndrome. Assembly lets you overcome this by providing a huge library of basic and themed shapes. It’s just a matter of selecting shapes and putting them on the art board. Experimentation becomes easy and natural. You don’t have to think about paths, curves and other vector related nuances. You don’t even need to understand what vector art is. Yet you’re able to do create it.

Will people create not-so-great design? Of course. Will other people create amazing designs? Absolutely! Assembly just makes graphic design more accessible. We hope that Assembly allows everyday people to tap into their visually creative side and create beautiful art that was once reserved for professional graphic designers.

Scott: Being a professional has never been as simple as mastering a tool, and more complex tools do not make better art. In the end creativity has always been in the artist not the tool. We hope we’ve opened up the world of graphic design a little to people who may have been intimidated before. That said, there will always be a place for professional designers and artists and clients who value them. I hope that bringing a little more awareness to graphic design and vector art will bring more respect to what true professionals can do.

I don’t think the tool on its own ever causes better art, but instead it’s the combination of an artist and what the tool brings out in them. I think sometimes simple tools with very specific limitations can free a designer to be more creative than they would be with complex tools that can do anything. One example is a pen and paper. This could be considered very limiting (no colors, no erasing) but in that simplicity comes a kind of freedom where artists can explore much more and not worry so much about making the end result photo-realistic.

A tool needs to be an extension of the artist. They need to feel comfortable with it and empowered by it. In that sense the tool is very important in that it has to be a right fit, but the right artist can pick up many tools and do amazing things with each. I like to think of it like a musical instrument, the music truly comes from the musician but each instrument can bring out different emotions and musical voices from the musician playing it. It is most definitely more about the creator than the tool used, but the tools used can empower that creator in different ways.

If your apps make design more accessible to the general public, what could that do to professional designers?

Eugene: This is a difficult big picture question. Perhaps with more competition, a tool like Assembly commoditize[s] the work those professional designers do. But I think these new tools are needed to push the industry forward. While it also may mean more competition in the future, these new tools will also let you do your job better. For the professional, it might mean greater segmentation of the market and the need for carving out a niche to fight commoditization. It also means a whole new generation of professionals with better tools. I hope new tools like Assembly reinvigorate the graphic design industry and keep it exciting.

Since you mention competition, who are your competitors?

Eugene: Assembly really is in a class of its own. Though you may point to other vector tools like Adobe Draw and Graphic from Autodesk (Indeeo), these are full-featured tools geared toward people who have used Illustrator. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Over and Canvas, which are great for simple things like overlaying text on photos or images. Assembly is somewhere in the middle.

There are a lot of tools to choose from now. Consider Sketch, which started out very slowly, was picked up by a lot of developers, became a hit on the App Store, resulted in developers/designers abandoning Adobe’s apps in favor of Sketch, and then found Sketch leaving the Mac App Store. According to Sketch, their departure meant the ability to give users direct, and more frequent updates. What’s your take on the state of app development, and where do you see Pixite, and your suite of apps heading?

Eugene: I think the Mac App Store and Sketch had a great symbiotic relationship. [The] Mac App Store has helped sketch grow their user base and at the same time helped build the Mac App Store’s reputation by allowing it to distribute one of the best tools out there for developers. It sounds like Sketch is big enough now to continue outside the Mac App Store and be successful. It’s a great position to be in.

We love the idea of growing slowly and becoming as successful as Sketch in terms of it being an essential tool for professionals. We’re nowhere close yet, but are constantly receiving feedback from our users and are constantly pushing Assembly in the right direction. It’ll be exciting to see where Assembly will be in the next year or so.

Edited from a series of interviews. All screenshots courtesy of Pixite.

Follow @addyfams, @creaturesandcolour, @aaron_smillie, and @vco.design on Instagram to see more art and design made with Assembly. And explore Assembly on Instagram using the #assemblyapp tag, and on Twitter by following @assembly_pixite.


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