Decoding Design

Designing tools for designing apps: the next big wave?

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Start-ups and device makers alike are creating tools to help non-designers launch their own mobile-phone applications. Rather than feel threatened, smart designers see a new market.

Could today's true app-design challenge not be about designing successful apps themselves, but instead about designing the most elegant tools to help other people make apps?

So suggests an article in the July 21-27th issue of The Economist. The piece focuses mainly on the trend of do-it-yourself apps, going so far as to publish the rather non-Economist (and more Paris Hilton-esque) declaration that "DIY is hot."

And that declaration is made without irony; the article goes on to describe several examples of software tools that allow people with no programming skills or formal design background to create working applications for mobile phones quickly. Or without hiring a designer. These include offerings from start-ups such as Conduit (valued at $1.3 billion when J.P. Morgan acquired a 7% stake earlier this year), AppMakr (which has aided the design of 10,000 apps to date), and GameSalad (which counts among its users those who make their entire living from designing apps as amateur designers).

The typical business model is "free" tools, but with a subscription for tech and other support services. All of these examples feature easy-to-use, simple interfaces that help non-professionals put together games, small-business applications, and other creations without writing any code. (See below for the mix-and-match graphics offered by GameSalad, as seen in a screenshot.)

Plus, device makers are designing the app-design tools, too, The Economist reports. Research in Motion, Blackberry's creator, has a new app-creation kit aimed at non-designers and Apple has applied for a patent that suggests it's pursuing a similar, DIY-app-friendly approach.

The visibility and success of do-it-yourself design tools via services such as Tumblr (for blogs) or even Instagram or Hipstamatic (for artsy, filtered mobile-phone photos), combined with an increasingly common design literacy among everyday people (thank you, Apple and Target): these phenomena are contributing to a compelling larger trend. That trend is--and forgive me for this sentence--designers designing how we design. It's my paraphrase of The Economist's own conclusion in the DIY apps story this week:

"Professional app-makers may not be shaking in their boots yet. But the clever ones, like AppMakr, are moving from creating stuff for mobile phones to creating the stuff that creates the stuff for mobile phones. App-creating software could be the machine tools of the mobile world."

Or at least the next big wave of innovative design. And a way for the most talented professional designers to compete on a new playing field.

Images: Jeni Rodger/Flickr; GameSalad.com

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure