Liam Sarsfield of MetaLab on Building Tumblr Themes
The idyllic seaside city of Victoria, British Columbia, is home to MetaLab, an interface design agency that’s discovered a profitable business in custom-built and à la carte Tumblr themes. So profitable, in fact, that themes are the main work product of a spinoff company called Pixel Union. Creative director Liam Sarsfield has strong opinions on what makes design beautiful — and how best to make it.
When was MetaLab formed, and by whom?
MetaLab was founded in 2006 by our commander-in-chief, Andrew Wilkinson. He had gone off to journalism school thinking that he wanted to change the world; he quickly realized that that wasn’t the way that he wanted to do it. He took up residence in his parent’s basement, and that’s how it started.
How has the company evolved since founding?
MetaLab has gone from a small cohort of ten or so people to a large-scale agency situated in a castle in the sky. But when Andrew decided to start the company, he was pulling espresso shots. So the first office was out the front of whatever cafe he was working at the time. The second office — the first rented space — was windowless and in a shady part of town. It had a whiteboard that was probably used too frequently. The third office had windows, but they were always at risk of being smashed in. That was our first real office … there was beer in the fridge and it sweltered in the summer. We moved out of that space in August 2011, and we’re now in our fourth office, which is in a good part of town. It’s all windows, and we have air conditioning. We also have an alarm system. There’s still beer in the fridge, but the new employees seem skeptical.
MetaLab is an amazing place to work, but I still think that a lot of us still miss sweating it in the sketchy part of town. The company has evolved into three divisions: Software, Consulting, and Digital Goods (Pixel Union). Software is headed by the bushy-tailed Luke Seeley, Consulting is headed by age-old battleship Mark Nichols, and Pixel Union is headed by yours truly. It’s all overseen by the ivory stare of Andrew.
When did you personally get involved in the Tumblr theme side of things? Had you worked on themes before?
I was hired at MetaLab as an intern in 2010. Previous to that, I had given up design and had committed myself to studying poetry and politics. I was running a small “no-profit” magazine that spent its money whenever it got it (turns out even cheap wine is expensive when there’s 25 of you). I was having a world of fun, but I needed a real job. And I was in a fairly desperate financial situation — about two weeks away from not making rent. Andrew and I had grown up in the same suburb, and I heard that he had some success in design. So I cornered the guy on iChat, we had a coffee, and I was hired as a general intern.
I was handed Pixel Union when we had six roughly built, completely uncustomizable themes. I started loving Tumblr, and I threw myself at the project. Things worked out, and we’re now an independent sibling company. We work out of the same building, but as of June 1, we’re on a different floor. I’ve resigned from my post at the “no-profit” magazine.
What prompted the decision to start creating and selling custom Tumblr themes? When did the first theme go on sale?
Andrew and David were colleagues. They palled around together. We’ve been working with the Tumblr team for what seems like ages — they were the same size as us at a certain point, and there was a great sense of camaraderie. Building for them was just the logical next step.
Our first theme was Fluid, which was offered for free and now has over a million installs. We’re currently in the process of overhauling it because It hasn’t aged well, but that was our first breakout success. [See the updated Fluid Neue theme.] The first theme on sale was Photofolio, an OSX-style photo theme that people seem to really love. We’re working on overhauling that too.
How many staff are focused on building Tumblr themes? Do you anticipate growing that number in the future?
I have a team of eight very happy people, and I’m always hiring. Our next great adventure will be a foray into the Wordpress market. I hire when we can’t possibly take on any more wor,k and I anticipate this is going to be the case again in a few months. It’s a pretty incredible situation to be in, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not tremendously excited to stroll into work.
How many themes have you built in total?
Under my creative direction: 33, with about 1 new theme released each week. We have 44 themes in total.
How do you feel about Tumblr themes as design artifacts? What do you like about them, and what would you change?
A lot of people parrot the refrain that print is dead. They either complain about how Kindles are destroying the romance of books, or they jump headlong into the world of digital, decrying anything that doesn’t glow when you touch it. Both of these perspectives are, I think, ridiculous. Tumblr is an improvement on the medium of the magazine, not just because it glows and is constantly updating, but because you get to choose what editorial you want to see. You only see what you proximally give a shit about. That’s more than just a little compelling for culture junkies like myself.
I hate explaining to people that I make themes. That doesn’t get at the reality of it. I’m in the business of designing digital magazines for the world’s most creative people. I’m in the business of establishing the credibility of the contemporary, fledgeling publishers. I think that a lot of theme shops act a little bit too much like Apple without Steve Jobs — okay, neat, you make cool products and you make a few bucks doing it, but what the hell are you actually doing? This is about getting the world’s art into the hands of the world’s art lovers, and that’s crucial if you think that art is good for anything other than entertainment- - which I do. It’s about making art and, maybe more importantly, ideas, as simultaneously accessible and aesthetically compelling as possible.
What types of themes have sold well, and what types haven’t? Do you have thoughts as to explanations for either result?
Whenever you’re selling lots of things to lots of different people, you have to be attentive to who you’re selling to. Sometimes though, if you want to be a credible designer — or credible creative director, in my case — you’ve got to just go on your nerve. We’re lucky that our production volume is so high that there’s no risk of significantly damaging the operation by releasing something experimental. We’ve got a suite of themes that we know people already love. What will I say about what people like? People like what appeals to a certain ideal of design (say, minimalism) but veers in a slightly new direction. They like cop movies where the cop is actually a bad guy, and westerns where the cutthroat antagonist is a woman. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite difficult to do effectively.
What kinds of theme customizations do users ask for the most?
Ah, the regular stuff really … more than what is technically possible with Tumblr’s current backend. Photo sets with videos in them, text posts that are primarily video content, quote posts that are upside down and rotated 360 degrees.
What’s the most complex custom theme your company has created so far?
I’m also really happy with Kodiak, our horizontal-scrolling theme, and Eclipse, our blog/portfolio hybrid. There’s a lot under the hoods of those themes.
What’s your personal favorite theme in terms of pure aesthetic design, either created by your company or by someone else?
My favorite themes are those that make up our Alaskan suite (Anchorage, Juneau, and Kodiak), which is our take on minimalist design. They’re subtle and refined and that’s incredibly hard to nail down sometimes. They’re also great examples of our technical ability: Kodiak is a horizontal-scrolling theme, and the first of its kind to get it right. Juneau is our homage to the Facebook timeline (with optional featured posts that stretch the full width of a two-column layout). Anchorage, while not particularly technically advanced, is just a gorgeous example of a simple, personal theme.
Our own themes aside, Purify by William Rainbird and Effectorby Carlo Franco are my two favorites. Both do an incredible job of balancing simplicity against functionality. They’re both made by great people too. It also goes without saying that I have a tremendous admiration and fondness for the work of Jonathan Moore. That guy really knows what he’s doing. He’s got a big smile and some big ideas
How do you anticipate the custom theme business evolving over the next year?
I’m not sure; the tin can telephone that we have connecting our offices to Tumblr’s in New York is not very sophisticated. Sometimes, I can only hear the ocean or the sound of my own voice.
We’re going to continue to make amazing themes that are worth forking out money for, and I assume our competitors will do the same. Tumblr’s growing like crazy, and we get that, so we’re kind of waiting for them to get comfortable so that we can start building a better theming experience together.
My team is always sourcing new ideas from people who care about the business of publishing content, and I always want to hear what people have to say about it. We’re wide open to critique, and we’re also quite prompt about responding when someone has a good idea. Anyone and everyone is welcome to get in touch with us. I also love to hear from people who want to work with us — some of the best projects we’ve done have been collaborations. Don’t hesitate to get in touch.
We’re also really passionate about great content. I don’t care whether you’re using one of our themes or not … we’re always interested in sources of fantastic original content because (1) we’re culture junkies and (2) we want to make better themes. We’ve recently purchased a company projector, and we’re planning on projecting some Tumblr best-of’s onto the office wall. We also recently launched our staff blog, which attempts to be a source of everything worth paying attention to on Tumblr (no small feat). If you’re publishing great stuff, we want to hear about it.
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