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!


Add Yours
  • What exactly are his side projects? No names were given, but I want to check them out!

  • I love sparrow and after using the lite version for a month I purchased it yesterday. The whole reason for it’s awesomeness is it’s UI, it rocks. Good job Jean Marc

  • Great work on designing Sparrow UI, Jean-Marc ! Thanks for this interview ! Here is a nice quote: “People ignore design that ignores people !” Sparrow team did a good job not ignoring people while designing the UI.

  • How can you make an in depth article about the Sparrow UI and not even mention Tweetie? The guy seems talented but not even giving a nod to Loren Brichter who’s design he basically ripped off for the design of Sparrow is just bad taste.

    • I Agree, Sparrow is great because it is like Tweetie (now the offical Twitter app) and they sit together so well. But at least credit the inspiration for a design!

    • They didn’t ripped Tweetie UI. Sparrow team was liking the Tweetie UI a lot, they first asked Loren Brichter if he would let them use an interface that use the same kind of architecture. Thay already told it in others interviews.

      Sparrow is not a “Tweetie clone”. Yes the left side column listing account / main option is kind of the same, but all other interaction are very different inline options for a tweet post vs. sliding panel on the right for emails.

      • It most definitely is a Tweetie clone imo. Put the two side by side, add some blur in photoshop, and you’f be hard pressed to tell them apart.

        That said, if Tweetie gave him permission to do so, then who cares if they look alike. If anything though, praise him for his idea of Sparrow, not the design. The design is unquestionably copied from Tweetie.

  • Nice article about a good software and a good team, but, what ? A french team ? OMG, but there is no french version of sparrow yet, what the hell ? Guys, you know that most of french people enjoy a software in their mother language, so please, make an effort, for others languages too. There not a lot of things to translate. I think this is a good software but we need more functionalities like making rules, viewing subfolders on the sidebar and more…

    • @lbstephane
      Sparrow will be translated in French, Russian, simplified Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and German in 1.2.

      Label management will be greatly improved in Sparrow 1.3.

      Just a few weeks to wait until Sparrow 1.2 is available.

      @Christoffer Du Rietz
      Loren Brichter is advising Sparrow and we never miss an opportunity to give him credit.
      Thanks again Loren.

      • Good news :) Thanks for your work !

  • Been using Sparrow since it’s Beta day’s….Just fab…:)

  • Can you publish a workspace you’re using in photoshop?

  • thanks again for sparrow
    i like it very much – GUI, way it works,
    after 30 minutes of S.Lite using I ve bought full version

    and nice to see who`s behind the scene
    bonne chance a tout equipe de SParrow, bonne chance a Jean-Marc

  • Great interview guys!

  • Great interview and an amazing app, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Mail and I haven’t been getting along lately, I can see sparrow being upgraded to the pay for version very shortly :)

  • Great interview, and i am loving Sparrow.

    Btw, what app is that airplane monitoring snapshot titled “Other work by Jean-Marc

    • It’s was meant to be a flight tracking application but never been released

  • Sparrow is just a brilliant app, thanks for the interview.

  • Yeap! Brilliant app. I had no need to buy it, but … Bought last night just to say “Thanks for great app”

  • Is there a way to put images in the signature? That’s the only thing holding me from switching from Mail to Sparrow.