FiftyThree reveals secrets of its elegant consumer tools

Andrew S Allen interview

Andrew S Allen is the co-founder in the design area of FiftyThree

With hugely successful apps such as Paper (opens in new tab) and an award-winning Bluetooth smart stylus Pencil (opens in new tab), FiftyThree (opens in new tab) are a company doing things right. Co-founder in the design area, Andrew S Allen explains why their aim is to make elegant tools that delight consumers every time they use them.

How did FiftyThree come about?

FiftyThree started from the desire to create a new generation of tools for creative thinking​,​ that took advantage of the powerful new technologies in mobile and social​,​ yet were designed and built​ to reflect​ si​mple​​ analog tools like a notepad and pencil.

It's that combination of power and beauty that makes for elegant tools. The company was founded by four creators from different disciplines who met at Microsoft — Georg Petschnigg, Jon Harris, Julian Walker, and Andrew Allen.

Paper and Mix are about collaborating to bring out creativity. Was that inspired by your personal working methods?

The idea for Mix came from a desire to work together. Collaboration is a critical part of the creative process — we all have to share our personal ideas for them to move beyond our head and have impact in the world.

Much of the basic tenets of Mix came from mode​l​ling the ethos we have on our team when we brainstorm — showing rather than telling, an openness to ideas, and a willingness to share and push ideas forward.

Andrew S Allen interview

Allen says not only do we all have a desire to be creative but a need to as well

Why do you think your products have been so successful?

We think everyone has a creative side. Unfortunately for most, it's been ​filtered​ out of us at a young age when we're taught to put our crayons down and start memorizing facts. Once you grow up and get out into the world, you find that creative thinking is probably the most important attribute you bring to a team.

We all not only have a desire to be more creative but a need as well. While we often think creativity is just for artists or designers, in reality we all have moments where we need to think outside the box and solve problems that haven't been solved yet.

Anytime a problem can't be Googled, you need creativity. It's what makes us who we are. Simple tools that can help us think and communicate better and don't take weeks of courses to learn are what will bring creativity to everyone.

How do you approach the creation of new apps? What is FiftyThree's process?

We always begin by looking to the creative process. That serves as our inspiration for new activities, new tools, and new features we build.

How do you plan – or prototype - for usability?

Usability is different for every product or feature. For tools like Paper, we place more focus on intuitiveness than discoverability. We want to make the ink, gestures, and actions feel fast and delightful​,​ not just the first time but the 100th time you perform them. That's very difficult.

Many animations look great on the first play but get tiring on the second or third. To do this, we put a lot of effort in prototyping every key interaction at a variety of levels — visual, motion, temporal, gestural, and even in the final build. At every stage we do a lot of testing and refining.

Andrew S Allen interview

FiftyThree always begin by looking to the creative process in their production

With an abundance of apps readily available, how do you keep your ideas fresh?

We believe in great ideas and great execution. They don't even have to be new ideas — there are many great old ideas that can be reimagined in a myriad of ways. The human creative mind is boundless — there will never be a final chair design, or poster, or app.

Do you expect to see more apps focused on creation rather than consumption in the future?

We think people are at their best when they create — it's what we remember later in life and what lives on after we’re gone. Technology is here to support our need to create​ so y​es, apps for creating will continue to grow.

How did designing a physical product, Pencil, differ from creating apps?

There are many more physical and manufacturing constraints when you build real life products. With digital products you have more room for errors as you can easily ship updates or make changes on the fly.

With physical products, you need to be much more aware of the risks you take with every decision and their impact 3, 6, and 12 months down the road.

What can we expect from FiftyThree in 2015?

We've got a lot of interesting things in the works for 2015 that will expand our vision of tools for creativity​,​ as well as our reach to new audiences.

This interview was originally featured in net magazine issue 264 (opens in new tab) - on sale now!

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Sammy Maine

Sammy Maine was a founding member of the Creative Bloq team way back in the early 2010s, working as a Commissioning Editor. Her interests cover graphic design in music and film, illustration and animation. Since departing, Sammy has written for The Guardian, VICE, The Independent & Metro, and currently co-edits the quarterly music journal Gold Flake Paint.