Meet the Designers: Jean‑Marc Denis of Sparrow

The role of the interface designer is not one that should be taken lightly – Without a great interface, chances are that you wouldn’t be using the apps you currently are. If the Safari address bar was hot pink and created in MS Paint, would you still use it? Probably not.

Luckily, it isn’t, and you can use your Mac in pleasure, thanks to countless UI designers working tirelessly to perfect their application designs.

There are numerous wonderful mail clients for Mac OS X, and everybody has their own preference, for whatever reason. However, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who doesn’t marvel at the Sparrow interface – It really is something else.

Today, we’ll be chatting to Sparrow’s designer, Jean-Marc Denis, about his work, inspirations, and the interface design scene.

Tell us a little bit about the Sparrow team – where are you based, how many of you are there, and what motivates you as a company?

Sparrow is a French start-up founded by Dinh Viêt Hoà and Leca Dominique based in Paris. I joined the team after the launch of Beta 1 where no real design has been applied.

Beta 1 was more a proof of concept at this time and we quickly got down to work. I have been in charge of designing the application since then. I live in Toulouse, in the south of France.



Our motivation is quite simple. We want to give Mac users a solid alternative for a unique mail experience.

How did you get into design, and, in specific, UI design?

As far as I remember, I always have been fascinated by graphic design. I really started to digitally get in when I saw some democoders friends work. From Deluxe Paint to Photoshop, there is quite a gap!

It might sound strange but I felt in love particularly with UI design when I started modifying the look of Microsoft Windows and the applications I was using. I released freebies and was part of online communities such as GfxOasis, Neowin, deviantArt, etc.

After buying the first iPhone I made some icons, themes, and modifications for iOS and more recently, for OS X. In the same time I read books, online articles or forum topics about UI/UX. Once I realized it was a real job I decided to offer my services.

Where do you get inspiration from?

Everything! From real life items to any platform applications – I tend to analyze them all with a curious eye. I like to look for computer or user interfaces in movies or tv-shows, especially the science-fiction ones, as they often present interesting ideas.

Community websites such as Dribbble are a fantastic source of inspiration. I am always amazed by the quality and the detail of the work you can see there.

Loren Brichter was kind enough to let us use its sidebar design and gives us advice before each major update.

How do you approach a new project?

I listen to the client project then ask some questions about why, how, etc… After that I use good old pen and paper to sketch what the client has in mind. We discussing both his/her view, and my view, and try to keep the best of them.

When the final sketch is approved I render it with pixel perfect obsession and start polishing it until the final render reflects what we aimed at. At this point I try to test the static interface with people close to me by asking them simple questions “What do you think you can do with this application ?” “What will you click first?” “If I ask you to do <related application action>, how would you do it?”. Sometimes it helps me to point out an obvious action I missed.


Other work by Jean-Marc

After the release, users are always giving feedback about problems they might encounter or features they’d like to see. No project is ever static, and my work is to smoothly implement the features without disturbing the existing and the future user experience.

Apple are starting to introduce iOS-based interface elements to the desktop, and many of these you have also implemented in Sparrow – Do you feel that this is the way forward for Mac apps?

Since many people step in the Mac world after using an iPhone, I think most of these changes make sense. I like the hidden scrollbars because they push minimalism without disturbing the user experience.

The gestures are a big plus for faster interaction. Since Apple released the Magic Mouse, the Magic Trackpad and MacBook are a top seller, Apple’s move in this direction looks logical to me.


More of Jean-Marc's work

Developers are expected to constantly take feedback and update their software – Do you think it is the same with designers, or do users prefer less change in an interface?

I think so – we are in the same loop, close to the developers and the users. People ask for features or propose ideas and sometime they make sense, sometime they don’t. You can’t please everyone unfortunately.

Sometimes the 1.0 interface is too limited to integrate new features effectively, but you don’t have to worry about starting from scratch again.

Why do you think that the Mac has such a wonderful standard of UI design compared to other platforms such as Windows and Linux?

All platforms have their pros and cons. I like Linux UI, and the new GNOME looks good! They have an active community and brilliant artists like Jimmac.

Apple knows that UI and UX is phenomenally important for the end user. Apple HIGs are very descriptive and detailed, they do care about the look and feel, that’s why Apple designers opinion counts.

What’s your Mac set-up like? Do you try to keep your hardware up-to-date?

I am using a 2011 Macbook Pro 15′ plus SSD REV3 minus DVD drive. I am connecting an Apple Cinema Display 27′ to it and a Magic Mouse or a Razer Orochi depending on what I’m working/playing on.


Jean-Marc's Setup

The hardware is a little bit excessive for Photoshop but it’s my main computer. I try to keep it up to date because I am something of a tech nerd!

What apps do you use for interface design work, and what is your general workflow when crafting a new interface element?

I mainly use Adobe Photoshop CS5. I can’t say it’s the best of all applications in the Adobe suite but that’s the first application I used and it fits my needs (even if it lacks of some important features…).

Although I often want to give Fireworks or Illustrator a try, I end up coming back to PS for Interface design.


Jean-Marc's Workflow in Photoshop

For someone interested in interface design, where would you suggest they start?

First of all, I’ll say watch everything around you and pay attention the mechanic, to the details. Try to be curious about every application you use – even real-life things. Why do people choose a certain option more than another? How could you improve it and make the user think less? Most of the time it’s all about common sense.

Another point – you will need to choose an application and try to master it by practicing again and again. Use keyboard shortcuts to make your flow as fast as possible so you can focus on the pixels, not the menus. I’d also recommend to read books, articles, RSS feeds or whatever is related to the domain.

And last but not least, try to take part actively in a community to get feedback on your work. You’ll learn a lot from what other people have to say.

Can you reveal anything about Sparrow updates in the pipeline?

Since our last big release (1.1) we are working on pushing the mail experience a step forward. We listened to all of our users feedback, ideas and wishes. I’m not very good for teasing, but you can look at the attached photo and let your imagination run wild :-)


Exclusive preview of Sparrow 1.2

That’s a Mac AppStorm full exclusive, it’s the first time it goes public. As a sidenote, that will be 1.2 and we’ve already had the mockup for 1.3 since a few months ago – I just can’t wait to push it out to the users. We are polishing it again and again and it’s going to be a huge step for Sparrow.

Thanks Jean-Marc!

Thanks so much to Jean-Marc for talking to Mac.AppStom, we wish him and Sparrow the best of luck in their future developments. We always love chatting to members of the Mac community, and Jean-Marc was no exception. We really appreciate his contribution to the site.

If you’re looking for a new mail client, definitely give Sparrow a try, and if you’re looking for a UI designer, give Jean-Marc a call. It’s easy to forget about the people behind the buttons and menus, but without them, our lives wouldn’t be the same!