Meet the Designers: Chris Downer of Realmac Software

So often, we marvel at the quality of interface design on OS X – the clean, simple layouts, and how you know exactly how to use an app when you first use it. But do you ever stop and think about why this is?

It doesn’t just happen by accident. There are UI designers working tirelessly to make an app look and feel absolutely perfect.

Chris Downer is the UI designer for Realmac Software, the company behind such OS X greats as LittleSnapper, Courier and Rapidweaver. Today, we’ll be talking to Chris about his methods, inspiration and much more.

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

Realmac Software is a small company based in Brighton, in the UK. There are seven of us and we are motivated by our love to work hard making nice things for Macs!

How did you get into design, and specifically user interface design?

I’ve always been fascinated in design for as long as I can remember. Whether that be architecture, product design or even things like album covers and movie posters.

I really started to notice UI and icon design when bored one day, I discovered the world of ‘deskmodding’ back when I was a Windows XP user. I thought that it was pretty cool and wanted to join in, so I started making the icons that I couldn’t find a replacement for and shared them on sites like DeviantArt.

I continued this until I got my first Mac and I was blown away by how different and brilliant the UX was in comparison. That’s when I took the time to really look into UI design and research it whilst practising my skills in Adobe Photoshop – and I haven’t looked back since.



Where do you get inspiration from?

I think much of my inspiration has come from looking at a lot of various applications, both Mac and iOS, and seeing how they are designed and then looking at alternatives or improvements that can be made to them.

Many of the apps that have inspired me the most are usually Apple’s own, just because such a large majority of them are very well designed so you can always take inspiration from them.

I’m also very much inspired by a lot of things I see in everyday life, especially the little details. I often think that when these are converted into skeumorphic UI design, they can add really nice touches into an application and this familiarity can genuinely improve a user’s experience.

How do you approach a new project?

Starting a new project is a very exciting time with a lot of ideas being thrown around. I usually start by writing a lot of things down, just to get all my thoughts on paper. These things can be UI ideas, things that could lead to possible features, and weighing out the pros and cons a certain direction could take.

Once I have scribbled down everything that came into my head, it’s time to start wireframing how I think something should look, going through alternative ideas, and combining and consolidating what I think would work best. After this, it’s time to start mocking it out in Photoshop.

I think that everybody is bound to come across even small hurdles that they have to overcome along their way, as the project is constantly evolving. But that, in my opinion, is one of the many things that makes designing UI so fun.

Apple are starting to introduce iOS-based interface elements to the desktop – Is this a good move, in your opinion, and one you will follow?

This is something that I have mixed feelings on. I do love iOS, and I think it’s great, but I feel that there are various elements that don’t belong on a desktop.

But there are also iOS elements that I am definitely going to welcome, and have done so already including popovers and switches, let alone gestures which we have also been promised in Lion.

I do think it’s a good move as I believe Apple are ultimately trying to merge iOS and OS X into one and there is already plenty of evidence to suggest this.

When designing interfaces, especially for OS X, is there a sense that you should stick to what people have learnt to expect, as it will be easier to use, or do you feel you have freedom to innovate as well?

I think it all really depends on the project in hand. If the application you are designing is for a vast audience, then you would want to stick to what people to know, but you will also want to try and include new things that’ll set the app out from the rest to make it unique.

If the application is for a specific audience who may be more proficient or experienced than your average user, then I feel that gives you a bit more leverage to innovate, knowing there is less of a chance of the user being confused by something.

Regardless of your audience, you will want to ultimately design an application that looks great, feels unique and is a pleasure to use.



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

Without sounding too much like a fanboy, I do really think it’s down to the people who work at Apple. Steve Jobs in particular, who has recognised the importance of high standards of design and it’s something that Apple can pride themselves on.

I’m sure that designers on the UI teams of Windows and Linux for example are very talented and passionate about design but I don’t think their companies really “get it”, which means ultimately, and rather sadly, their standard of UI tends to be lacking. Especially in comparison with that of the Mac.

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

At work, I’m lucky enough to have an awesome 27″ iMac, which is just perfect for designing on. I’ve got this set up with a Magic Trackpad, which I do all my designing with. I definitely prefer using it over a mouse. I find it really fluid to use and more accurate for intricate work.

At home, my set-up is, rather shamefully, a lot less impressive. It’s currently a 13″ first-gen unibody MacBook Pro. It’s badly in need of an update, but I guess I’m just holding off until Apple announces brand-new models which will hopefully be this summer.


Chris's Workspace

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

For UI design, I purely work in Photoshop. On occasion I need to delve into Adobe Illustrator too, but luckily that’s not very often.

My general workflow is usually to assess what is needed, sketch out a few ideas on paper, work out the pros and cons something would take, and once I’m happy with it, I’ll add it to the mockup.

When it has been added to the latest build of the application, I’ll test it out to make sure I’m really happy with it, making a few changes if necessary and then move on to the next thing.

Sometimes there are things that you really need to use to test them, although the idea could seem great in the mockup which is why I find testing them so important. If it doesn’t fit or work well, then I need to go back a few steps and try something different.

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

I think it’s best to begin by really looking at user interfaces. Try and understand why the designer may have made that particular decision, or think of any alternatives that could have been made.

When I was starting out, I thought a good interface was the one that looked the best, instead of looking under the surface, getting to grips with Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines and how people will interact with it from a UX/psychological point of view.

With the theory, there is also the practical side of things in Photoshop or whatever app you find best to use. The best way to go about this is simply by practicing. As it is with many other things in life. You’ll continually improve with each thing you make.

I think it’s also very important to try and get as much feedback as you can over sites like Twitter and Dribbble for example. I know this helped me improve greatly.

Can you reveal anything about future Realmac products in the pipeline?

Sadly there isn’t too much I can reveal. We’re working on so many awesome projects right now and I can’t wait for them to be announced. You may have already heard from our blog that LittleSnapper 2 is one of the projects in the works, and I can tell you that it’s going to be great!

Thanks, Chris!

Many thanks to Chris for talking to Mac.AppStorm and sharing his tips, experiences and opinions. We really appreciate his contribution, and wish him all the best with Realmac and future software.

So, next time you see a well-designed app, think about how much time and effort went into the creation of its interface – Countless hours of tweaking and perfecting, planning and wire-framing.

It can be easy to forget about the people behind these apps, but they’re the ones that make your lives so much easier and your operating system so much nicer!