With the release of OS X Mountain Lion yesterday, we’re seeing a new wave of the old skeuomorphic design debate – has Apple gone the wrong direction with their Notes and Reminders UIs? Should life-like metaphors give way to something like Microsoft’s entirely digital Metro principles? Perhaps. But sometimes, just sometimes, we come across somebody who designs such beautiful skeuomorphic designs that it’s impossible to completely disregard the concept.
Michael Flarup is one such person. Working at Robocat, he designs apps and games that are as much fun to look as they are fun to use. Not only that, but the Danish designer gives a whole lot back to the community – almost all iOS icon designers will have at least tried, if not regularly used, Michael’s App Icon Template. Michael was happy to answer some of my questions, and gave some fascinating answers:
Hey Michael, thanks so much for joining us on The Industry. Tell us a bit about yourself and the work you’re doing.
Thanks for having me, pleasure is all mine. I’m a pixel pusher bred from an academic background with a penchant towards entrepreneurship. I push pixels and ideas abroad from my little freelance shop Pixelresort, and locally through my iOS dev team Robocat. I’m involved in a range of startups and an initiative for helping out university students start their own thing. I’ve worked as a photojournalist & a cinematographer, but most of my professional career is build around my love for creating icons and interfaces.
How did you get into the design industry?
Right out of high school I wanted to work with digital design, I loved being part of creating things out of nothing. That love was slowly suffocated as I attended two years of “design education” surrounded by people that didn’t instill me with the greatest confidence in the creative industry. To my teachers dismay I had the nerve of passing my final exam and after that I fled the creative field and quickly enrolled at University to study some hard science, baby!
University was a blast. I was elected chairman of the natural science frat bar and was slowly pulled back into design as we elaborately created events with flyers, websites and posters. The student union and the PR section of the University got wind of this and had me design a series of books and posters. As I got involved in more initiatives, It seemed I was beginning to redesign the world around me, but with a certain playfulness and selectivity that helped me rediscover my hunger for the creative process. This was about the same time I got my first Mac and launched Pixelresort. Before I knew it, my freelance career had gone international.
After getting my Bachelors degree in Computer Science 3 eventful years later, plans were drawn up for me and my friends to take our Masters degree at another University. We had our master thesis planned out, and as the only one with a portfolio at the time, I helped some of the other guys write their motivational applications. That summer I was the only one of us that didn’t get accepted. This effectively derailed my academic career. Luckily I had a blossoming freelance career and I would quickly launch into my entrepreneurial adventures putting me on a solid course into the design industry.
If you hadn’t become a designer, what do you think you’d be doing now?
Not a lot of people know this, but I got a good portion of my ECTS points in University from studying geography. One of the directional changers in my life happened right before I started University.
I happen to have spend a substantial amount of my youth in Thailand, my father moved there when I was young and I have been in love with the place ever since. Unfortunately that also meant that I was on a beach on the 26th of December, 2004 when the largest modern natural disaster struck South East Asia. The choices that we made those days would come to have a huge impact on my worldview, fostering a selectivity that I think govern most of what I do today. This in turn meant that I would spend some of my time at University doing earthquake studies & early warning systems, combining my love for computers with my interest in geography or whats commonly known as Geographic Information Systems.
If I hadn’t rediscovered my love for the creative process I would imagine that I would have continued work in that field.
What does a typical day in the life of Michael Flarup look like?
Like most self-employed people I have a very varied work schedule, I like to work remotely and I like to focus intensely on whatever I’m involved in at the moment. This usually translates to largely different days, but if I had to choose one typical day it could look something like this:
Wake up, drink a large cup of coffee and head to the Robocat office at about 10-11. Lunch and meetings with the guys and collaborators. I usually spend the rest of the regular work day with a mixture of whiteboarding and Photoshopping, supporting my developers and making decisions about whatever product we’re working on. I bike home through the streets of Copenhagen at around 18 and have dinner with my lovely girlfriend. Spend a few hours quality time, usually consuming the latest TV series we’re into. I continue work from around 22-03 on more Robocat products or whatever freelance projects that’s currently on my table. Somewhere in between all that I surprisingly also make time for trail running, maintaining a large group of lovable idiot friends, comics and most importantly, playing both board, card and computer games.
On your site, you give away a whole bunch of neat resources. How important is it, in your opinion, to contribute back to the community that fostered you?
Giving away things that can help other people is awesome. I have daily interactions with people who use my App Icon Template and it’s humbling to see so many people benefit from something like that. I definitely feel that there’s a whole new generation of designers coming of age, and that anything we can do to help them out by sharing the “wisdom” of our experiences, shortcomings or resources is a step in the direction of strengthening the design environment. I don’t think that everybody has to be a big proponent in this contribution, but I sense that every little bit helps.
You live in Copenhagen, Denmark. Does you location impact on your work in any way, and if so, how?
Copenhagen is a wonderful city and there’s so many talented people in Denmark working, due to the geographical size, in very close proximity to each other. That makes collaborative projects much easier. On the downside, Denmark has one of the highest taxation levels in the world with almost 50% of our income going to the welfare state, so it can be tricky to compete with designers from other countries.
But other than that, I don’t feel that my location impacts me that much. It’s a very globalized world and I enjoy working remotely when I travel.
You design apps for Robocat, a development team who make both apps (Thermo, Dunk), and games (Treasure Trouble, 101st Airborne). How do the two compare, and which do you prefer making – apps or games?
That’s a very tricky question. Making utility apps like ‘Outside‘ was our claim to fame but there’s something inherently interesting about the process of developing a game. If anything I’d say that we’ve always approached all of our products, utilities or games, with the same playfulness that is commonly known from game development. That aim to entertain and make people feel like they’re part of the experience is something that I see bridging both our apps and games.
In short I have love for both categories and the different work that goes into the creation of them. I feel equally excited about each process. As a side note, I’d love to work on hybrid concepts that might marry utilities and games, utili-games?
What is your workspace like? Are there any design tools that you simply couldn’t live without?
I don’t consider myself a particularly talented illustrator, but I’m really happy about my 21″ Wacom Cintiq tablet screen thing. It allows me to sketch out concepts directly in Photoshop and I use if for almost all of my app icon work.
Other than that my workspace is divided between my Mac Pro and triple screen setup at home, and my MacBook Pro + old lumpy Cinema Display at the Robocat office.
And finally, for those looking to get started in the big bad world of design, what tips or advice would you give?
If you want to become really good at something, you practice. Design is no different. Don’t get discouraged by mistakes and try not to be too harsh on yourself. Most talented designers I know started out doing shitty work, we all did. We all have some cringe-worthy beveled-laden horrific pieces with poor font selection hidden away in archived folders somewhere. Don’t be disheartened if your work instantly doesn’t look like someone who’s spend half his adult life in Photoshop. We all got to start somewhere. Be nice and work hard, it’s an amazing industry to work in.