Mike Matas is a very talented 23-year old designer from the United States, currently living in San Francisco. He’s best known for his design work on the original Delicious Library, and working at Apple, designing key parts of Mac OS X and iPhone OS. He’s even been listed as co-inventor on patents Apple has filed.
In 2009, he left Apple. Lately, he uploads the fruits of his also impressive photography skills to his website and blog, mikematas.com.
I’ve asked him a few questions in this interview to learn more of one of the designers of the most innovative and beautiful interfaces of the last decade. Unfortunately, he wasn’t willing to disclose what he’s working on these days, but I’m sure we’ll see a lot of quality design from his hand in the future.
• I consider it the least important part of someone’s life, but it’s interesting to ask nevertheless: what kind of education did you have?
Formal schooling ended for me half way through my senior year of high school when I decided to drop out so I could focus on starting up Delicious Monster. Although that’s obviously not to say my education stopped there. I’m educated every day by the places and things I surround myself with, and the people I collaborated with.
Delicious Library’s wooden shelves were Mike’s idea.
• Naturally. When or how did you gain an interest in design?
As long as I can remember I’v always had that sort of “designer personality” where I enjoy looking at things and trying to figure out how they can be improved. I used to sketch down little ideas here and there, but I think what really set me loose was when I upgraded my design tool from a pencil to Photoshop.
Photoshop did two things for me. First, it allowed me to turn ideas I had into actual designs that other people could understand and get excited about too. Second, the new possibilities that unfolded as I learned the tool inspired me to come up with design ideas I would have never thought of had I not been using Photoshop. The same thing happened when I learned how to use Cinema 4D to do 3D modeling, and more recently when I learned how to use Quartz Composer to do interactive designs.
That cycle of new ideas requiring new tools and those new tools inspiring new ideas has always lead my interest in design.
Time Machine’s user interface was designed by Mike while working at Apple.
• Speaking of inspiration: when it comes to graphic- and UI design, which people, companies or works do you find outstanding, or inspire you?
Something I discovered just the other day is this little bookmarklet called Readability. When you click it, it sucks the article out of the webpage your currently on and displays it in a super clean, easy to read layout. I found that pretty inspiring.
I also find lots of inspiration in design blogs such as Ffffound! and Fubiz.
• What’s your setup and ‘tools of the trade’? (preferred software, hardware, etc.)
My secret weapon is Quartz Composer. These days I use that more than anything else, but I’m still in Photoshop and Cinema 4D when necessary. I use a 15” MacBook Pro, plugged into a 24” Cinema Display when I need a little more space and feel the need to be more ergonomic.
• What would you consider the most important quality in design?
My favorite designs are the ones that don’t just solve a problem, but also engage you on an emotional level—where you take away more from it than just the end result of its function. When there’s that balance between functionality and emotion, the two amplify each other and the result is really powerful. I’m always trying to get there when I’m designing.
Mike and his brother, Jonathan, at the Esmeralda Basin.
• So far, we’ve only talked about you as a single designer, but you probably have a lot of experience with working with a group of designers now. Do you prefer designing alone, or collaboratively?
When people think of a group of designers working together they probably imagine big creative brainstorming meetings where ideas are bounced around and designs are built up on white boards. In my experience that is not usually the case. I’v worked with a lot of other designers but I’ve only really collaborated with a couple of people in my life where I felt like we amplified each other creativity and were able to come up with a design that was better than one each of us could have created on our own. Its great when it happens but it takes the right combination of people and the right combination of people is not always what you have to work with.
Having a group of designers can be about more than indirect collaboration though. The more I work on a design the more I zoom into it until there comes that point where all I can see are the details, not the full picture. Getting feedback from another designer with a fresh eye or putting down my own design for a couple days and looking at someone else’s work really helps me keep some perspective.
These ‘piles’ of photos in the iPad UI is something Mike’s particularly happy with.
• Good points. To wrap up, what kind of changes of the design landscape have impacted you the most since you started working as a designer?
Probably the most significant has been the explanation of application development from the desktop, to web apps, and now iPhone apps. The landscape is just a lot wider and deeper now than it was when I first started. I think it’s pretty exciting!
iPhone’s Maps is another interface Mike designed.
I’d like to thank Mike for lending me his time to answer these questions and lending his great photographs for this blog post. If you’d like to read more about his travels and design work, check out his blog. He’s also on Twitter.