Bobby McKenna is a designer at Vine, the popular six-second video-sharing service owned by Twitter. McKenna helped design every pixel in the app, from its vibrant color palette to its rich paper-like icons. McKenna has a style that is uniquely his own, and which has inspired a new wave of mobile apps and sites that embrace flatness without eschewing character or depth. He took a few minutes to talk to The Verge about building Vine’s dead-simple capture screen, why establishing constraints make for great design, and Nickelodeon’s cartoon Doug. You can find him on Twitter at @bobby, and on Dribbble here.
Where are you right now?
I am sitting in a leather recliner in my hovel of an apartment, trying to ignore the leaky faucet in the bathroom, and half paying attention to SportsCenter. Three hairless cats are curled up at my feet. I’m wearing a quinceañera dress.
How did you end up at Vine?
Rus Yusupov (Vine co-founder and creative director) and I have worked together off and on for two or three years now. I did a bunch of illustrations and stuff for his old shop, Commercial Pop, back when I lived in Philly. When he started Big Human (a product design studio that lives one floor below Vine), he asked me to design the identity. A few months later I moved to New York, and Rus asked if I’d be interested in spending some time as a freelance art director at Big Human… or if I’d rather work on this thing called Vine.
Having never worked on anything digital, I was excited for the opportunity and a little worried that I’d blow it. But I knew that if I wanted to live with myself, I had to say yes. So I said yes. And then a bunch of other stuff happened, and now I’m doing an interview with The Verge.
What tools do you come back to, again and again, both analog and digital?
All the standard digital stuff — Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. I actually use Adobe Bridge, which a lot of designers think is bad, but they’re wrong. It’s not bad. It’s good.
"I don’t get too wrapped up in expensive pens or notebooks with weird European nonsense grids."
On the analog side of things, I don’t get too wrapped up in expensive pens or notebooks with weird European nonsense grids. Just whatever writing instrument and scrap of paper is nearby. Actually, I don’t think I’ve bought a pen or pencil since like eighth grade. Not sure where this cup full of pens and pencils on my desk came from. Starting to feel kind of nervous about it.
What’s your process like for designing? Do you tend to over-design and then pull back, or do you keep things light from the get-go?
I tend to spend about 50 percent of my allotted time sweating and worrying about the thing I have to make, 30 percent nervously puking it out onto the screen, and 20 percent trying to arrange the puke into something that looks not terrible. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Whether you’re designing a logo, app, icon, or book cover, are there any basic processes or rules you adhere to?
I’d love to be one of those guys with a really methodical Process With A Capital P, but my brain just refuses to operate that way. Those guys seem so confident and relaxed. Not me. I’m a wreck when I’m working, especially if it’s on something I care about.
"If you give me a blank canvas and tell me to make whatever I want, I will lose my mind."
The only consistent element of my "process" is my need for constraints. If you give me a blank canvas and tell me to make whatever I want, I will lose my mind. So even when I get a brief that’s like, "Hey, we trust you. Just make something cool," I have to tie one hand behind my back before I can really get started.
You’re big into GIFs and pictograms. What can you do with a GIF that you can’t do with other mediums?
It’s certainly easier to be funny or absurd when you can make a picture move and loop. Looping can take a mediocre joke and make it hilarious just through sheer force of repetition. It always reminds me of that old Simpsons bit with Sideshow Bob and the rakes.
Man… what if there were an app that did like, GIF, but with sound. Somebody should make that.
On my (desperately in need of an update) personal website, I use obnoxious GIFs to weed out people I don’t want to work with. Kind of like psychedelic concert posters from the ‘70s — if you can’t read this crazy lettering, you probably shouldn’t come to the show.
What design element, big or small, in the Vine app are you most proud of?
Stripping the capture screen down to its most essential elements was a very satisfying process, and I think the resulting design has enhanced the experience of recording a video on Vine. It’s just you and the thing you’re making. No extraneous bullshit.
I’m also very proud of the intentional misspelling of the "wierd" channel.
What was your favorite cartoon growing up, and why?
I really liked Doug. It’s a show about a normal kid in a town full of weirdos, which is kind of how I’ve felt ever since I moved to New York.
How would you describe your visual aesthetic as a designer? When Vine launched it felt very on-the-ball visually, and now many apps and sites are using similar designs.
I’d like to think that I always provide the appropriate solution to a problem. But the truth is, for better or worse, every designer has little tics and tendencies — moves you can fall back on when nothing else is working.
My inclination is always to use as few parts as possible to build a machine that works. And if I can make that machine sort of silly and not too self-important, that’s a huge bonus. I like design that winks at its audience. I think my work does a pretty good job of that, Vine included.
"My inclination is always to use as few parts as possible to build a machine that works."
Which artists have inspired your work most? Any particular pieces that have really informed what you do?
No single piece of art has ever stuck with me quite like Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini. It’s this surreal visual encyclopedia of an alternate universe with its own culture and logic and science. It’s disturbing and funny, often at the same time, and I hope to one day be so disgustingly, unfairly wealthy that I won’t feel bad about spending $2,000 on a copy of a weird book.
In your Bucket List (on your website), we noticed that you would someday like to design a cover for Time magazine. What makes a good magazine cover?
Not sure why I said Time. I guess it seemed like a sort of iconic thing to work on when I was writing that list.
But pretty much anything Bloomberg Businessweek does falls into the category of "good magazine cover." While every other magazine on the rack is screaming, "PICK ME UP I WILL TEACH YOU HOW TO DO SEX AND HAVE ABS OH AND ALSO TERRORISTS ARE TRYING TO POISON YOUR CHILDREN," Businessweek is just whispering, like, "Yo dude, check out this quietly genius insight that we’ve expressed through a visual medium," and you’re like, "Okay, I will spend $5 on you."
Like that one with the horny airplanes? Come on. How do you not pick that up?
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