Thinglist isn’t like most iPhone apps. Its promo video includes no glockenspiels, acoustic guitar strums, or coffee-sipping cafe dwellers. Instead, a man appears from of the darkness and says, "You know, I don’t have the best memory" as a piano drones ominously in the background. If you weren’t keenly aware that this was a trailer for a to-do app, you might think you were watching the first few moments of a bloody film noir.
Thinglist is the first iPhone app from Elepath, an artist collective cum tech startup founded by Jake Lodwick of Vimeo and College Humor fame. It’s simply a colorful list of things you want to remember, but whereas most to-do apps ask you to create categories or tags for your various to-dos, Thinglist provides you with a neat grid of nine categories: bar, book, food, idea, movie, music, person, place, or product. Elepath developer Kyle Bragger, who pioneered the project, sincerely hopes that most things you want to remember fit into one of these nine categories. "I just sort of winged it," he says. "It’s me guessing at what would work."
"I just sort of winged it. It’s me guessing at what would work."
In the end, it takes just a few taps to jot down that brunch place you’ve been wanting to try. Once you’ve noted some things you want to do, you can view them all in a list or narrow them down by a category like "bar" or "book." The app's regimented approach towards productivity is unconventional, but Bragger is no stranger to "winging it." He built Forrst, a Tumblr-esque site for sharing code, in just two weeks. It grew to over 50,000 users. He also built TinyProj, a listserv for short-term software engineering jobs, which racked up 10,000 subscribers in a month. "That’s been my MO," Bragger says. "I like to build stuff around some sort of thesis or experiment, get a polished minimal version in the wild quickly, and see how it works."
His position echoes the mantra of Elepath and its sentimental founder Lodwick, who plays the frightening man in the app’s promo video. He constructed Elepath as a place where he and his colleagues could build "tools and toys for the modern mind." Lodwick built his career on going with his gut — Vimeo, for example, began as a repository for his own video projects — and he hasn’t lost his taste for wacky filmmaking. He produced the Thinglist trailer as a homage to an odd TV commercial made by Jim Henson back in the '60s. Bragger admits he’d love David Lynch to produce the next one.
Thinglist’s creators are interesting enough, but they managed to build a to-do app that stands out in an incredibly crowded category. Lodwick admits that most "successful" apps are inherently social or viral, but Thinglist takes the opposite approach. The app offers no social feed of your friends’ to-dos, like Well, or even a means of tweeting something you want to do. "We’re building something to solve a problem and considering that it might not need social — and that’s it," Bragger says. It’s meant to be a better version of the iPhone notepad that so many of us use to remember restaurants we want to check out. Since the app is so bare-bones in functionality, it’s very fast, even on older iPhones. Thinglist feels even slicker thanks to an array of fanciful animations from Pasquale D’Silva, who has made swiping between to-do’s amusing as well as functional.
As nice as it looks and feels, Thinglist is far from "feature-complete" compared to most to-do apps. The app fills a space between Clear and the labyrinthian OmniFocus. Unlike the app Recall, Thinglist doesn’t provide links to purchase the books or movies you’ve saved. There’s also no way to archive things you’ve completed (there’s only the option to delete), and there’s no cloud sync to a web client. Like Clear, Thinglist stands out for crafting a simple design that incentivizes repeated use — a delicious blend of colors and cardboard cutout art reminiscent of the new filmmaking app Vine. Where many new apps choose a trendy font like Avenir or Helvetica Neue, D’Silva chose Dosis.
"I had no profound goals to speak of. I just wanted this to be a thing!"
Thinglist isn’t for everyone, but Bragger and Lodwick might not mind too much if that’s the case. "We went from zero to shipping an iPhone app in a few weeks," Bragger says. "I had no profound goals to speak of. I just wanted this to be a thing!" Lodwick, an experienced serial entrepreneur, takes the more philosophical stance. "To me, the challenge is getting the right people in the door, [like Bragger]. They have to be curious, playful, and talented," he says. "And then it’s just a matter of time before we have a hit."