Inspiring Interview: App Design Lead, James Mackenzie


James Mackenzie, App Design Lead at PORTER magazine for Net-a-Porter, talks about jumping from print to digital and never looking back…

How did you get into app design?

I was working as a print designer at British GQ and suddenly the iPad started to be mentioned alongside a digital version of GQ. I was a little apprehensive at first, I won’t lie. I had never really enjoyed digital design – I had a love of print that had strong foundations. Saying this, at a point where app design was so new, it was the most exciting thing to get involved in within the publishing industry for a good while. I jumped fully into the digital team and have never looked back.

What are the key points to remember when creating a brand app?

The first important thing to remember is a brand’s heart and design. Moving elements onto an app is easy, but they need to have the right home, styling and relevance. Working on PORTER magazine was an exciting challenge for me. It was a launch, so it took a while to fine tune its design while keeping some elements of our sister brand Net-a-Porter. Also, remember to keep it simple; iOS 7 actually makes things pretty easy to design for but you have to pick the right elements. Also think about functionality and what’s worthwhile inside the app. Don’t add big functions for the sake of it.

What mistakes do brands commonly make?

I think often brands create apps for the sake of creating an app. Often a responsive website is enough. An app should provide a function.

Which app do you wish you had designed?

SoundCloud. I love love love the app. It’s really intuitive; I didn’t need to see any first-time use pop-ups. It just felt natural and I liked exploring it. Also, the way that you see a track playing merges with the latest iOS design styles in a really simple, elegant way. I’m a total fan and am very jealous. Beyond that… Pinterest.

Why do you think apps are an important part of brand marketing?

Apps are important because everyone uses smartphones now. I look at everyone on my train journey to and from work and they are all using them. To listen to music, read or just play games. People don’t really look up at things anymore, you need to hit them on their phones.

What do you think is the next step for app design?

I guess whatever Apple has in the works, although I doubt it will implement any more drastic changes to its design. Beyond responsive content (with them introducing a variety of screen sizes and devices), it will be important for brands to not create too much work for themselves, while also being innovative. UX [User Experience] will be just as important, with the trends of navigation bars and losing the ‘hamburger’ icon to allow for quicker use. I think it will be hard for people to stretch their hands across the new larger devices. I like that a lot of the technology is steering itself towards health and connectivity… that excites me.

Are there particular industries that apps work particularly well for?

Social. I think messaging is the big thing now. WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger – they all work nice and simply. I think the fashion category needs to step up a little more… It’s all personal preference though.

Do you think apps have made brand promotion better?

I guess they have heightened awareness in some areas, when they serve a function such as Facebook on-the-go, which is great. I am yet to be wowed by a brand app beyond magazine content and social.

How important is good imagery?

Imagery is very important. Its rare to connect people with a lot of copy now. Whenever I have done user testing, people connect with images before text. This means that you need to connect with your user straight away. Good quality images are expected, most devices have retina screens now and bandwidths are bigger, it’s all expected and reflects on a brand. I also think an image has to look right on a phone as much as an iPad or desktop. So you don’t want to strain your eyes on a phone to see detail… if you do, allow a pinch and zoom. It is exciting to see that mobile photography is starting to take its own state in the industry, fltr magazine from the British Journal of Photography is a great showcase for how we use our phones to archive our lives.

What piece of advice would you always give a brand considering an app as part of their collateral?

Firstly, do you need an app? Would it make sense to have a responsive site instead? What makes your app stand out from others – why should it take up precious space on someone’s phone? And, ultimately, why should they go back?

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