Dimension of Digital Design

Dimension of Digital Design

Selling high-tech app design with old school pen and paper, 29th Drive puts a literal spin on the new “flat” design trend

By Jimmy Magahern  •  Photos by Adam Moreno

The digital design business has gone flat. Literally.

You can see it in the simplified geometric shapes Google uses for its new product icons, and in the colorful solid tiles used throughout Windows 8. Gone are the drop shadows, gradients, feathered edges and other elements that for years have given digital images their 3D look and made them pop from our screens like the objects they imitate.

Even Apple, the biggest holdout clinging to the realistic, texture-heavy “skeuomorphic-look” championed by Steve Jobs (for example, the wire-ringed address book for its contact list), recently unveiled that it’ll be shifting to the flat look in the new operating system coming out this fall for the iPhone and iPad.

It’s a style that can take some getting used to. At its best, the flat user-interface design scheme can be charming and direct; at its worst, it looks like amateurish child’s play.

For Kevin Goldman, founder and design director of 29th Drive LLC, a 2-year-old digital design firm located in the Scottsdale Quarter, it’s an approach whose time has come.

“A lot of design purists like to think they’re not influenced by trends, but everybody is,” says Goldman, 42, who runs the small eight-person company with his older brother, Gregg, who functions as the company’s president. “And there absolutely is a very robust conversation in the design community right now around skeuomorphism—that question of, should a software interface resemble physical, real-world objects? Or is a software interface something that’s unique unto itself and doesn’t have to look like physical materials?”

Clearly the Goldman brothers fall in the latter camp. In fact, if the flat look is the newest trend in digital design, it could be said that nobody does it flatter than the team at 29th Drive.

Pens before Pixels

Spilling a stack of paper sketches onto the conference table while Gregg, currently in Los Angeles drumming up business, looks on from a large monitor hooked up via a GoToMeeting conference call, Kevin demonstrates a website design he’s developing for a client, using nothing but oddly cut pieces of paper.

“Let’s say I’m with a client and this is an iPad app with a little gear menu,” he says, positioning a small square of paper with a hand-drawn box and two buttons over a larger sketch of an app home page. “There might be this little box that pops up, and you’ll have a couple of choices, and then the box flips over and you get these other options,” he says, flipping the paper over. “And then if you click ‘No’ here it slides away,” he adds, sliding the strip under the palm of his hand.

It may seem that Goldman is taking the flat approach to its most childlike extreme. But in fact, he says this is how his team likes to prototype web and app designs for their clients, which have included Microsoft (for its Silverlight and ASP.net products), Sonos and a variety of engineering-type firms who best understand their code-based approach to web and app development, which he calls UX (for user experience) design.

“The difference between print design and digital design is that print is static, whereas with digital, there’s a temporal experience,” explains Kevin, who stresses that 29th Drive does not do print work. “There’s an aesthetic to how the app moves and feels through time, with all the feedback messages, hover effects, subtle animation, loading indicators and all these interesting moments that happen while you use it.”

The screen shots may not dazzle on Dribbble, the popular show-and-tell site for graphic designers, illustrators and typographers, Goldman admits. “But when you interact with it, and the flow and the motion and the ease of use and the speed and all the subtle cues that are given to you throughout time, that may be beautiful and extraordinarily sophisticated.”

Goldman feels that fluid digital experience is best demonstrated, ironically, by the old school pen and paper method, at least in the early stages of selling an app or website design. 29th Drive has even launched its own line of physical sketch kits called Inkwell, which it sells to other UX designers, and hosts monthly webinars teaching designers how to put “pens before pixels.”

“It’s just so much quicker to use pen and paper, as opposed to creating Photoshop comp after Photoshop comp,” he says. “We’ll shuffle paper around and make the interface out of paper. It’s all very quick, and by being quick, it really allows you to find better ideas, and also avoid the trap of refining a bad idea.”

Battle of the brand

Gregg Goldman admits the company name, derived from the street in West Phoenix where he and Kevin grew up, can sometimes throw off clients who come looking for an actual 29th Drive around the Scottsdale Quarter.

“We had a different name at first,” he says over the webcam, “but a friend of ours said, ‘It sounds made up. And if there’s anything about you two, you’re not made-up guys.’ So we picked a name that was genuine to who we are.”

Gregg, eight years older than his brother and the more business minded of the two (he studied finance and law at ASU before working as a music business V.P. at Sony and Warner, while Kevin majored in industrial design and later moved to Seattle to launch his own web design service—and play bass in the indie rock band Maktub), says it hasn’t been easy persuading the city’s creative coders to stay in the Valley and come work in North Scottsdale.

“There’s a brain drain, a creative drain, of people leaving here to go to a design town like Austin, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle or Chicago,” he says. “So absolutely it’s hard to find the right people here.”

Kevin adds that it’s twice as hard talking techies into working in North Scottsdale. “Scottsdale has a brand, and North Scottsdale has a brand—and it’s not the brand that designers want to be associated with,” he says. “So designers, even if we find them in Phoenix, they don’t want to drive up to North Scottsdale. This is the land of Lamborghinis and plastic surgery. And here we are, this little firm that looks like a startup when you walk in the office. We dress differently, we have a foosball table and bikes at the front desk instead of a secretary. We’re kind of the anomaly in Scottsdale Quarter.”

Nevertheless, Kevin, who moved back to the Valley five years ago with his wife and two kids and now lives just a couple miles away from the office, and Gregg, who splits his time between Scottsdale and L.A., believe there’s a need for a good digital design firm in the Airpark area—and enough high-tech hipsters here to help them build usable, functional and fashionably flat apps for Arizona businesses.

“We just don’t sell them on the fact that we’re right next door to Dominick’s,” Gregg adds, with a laugh.