Q&A with Kat Topaz

Excerpts from PNCA design students asking Kat Topaz how she made the transition from Print to Mobile, March 2014


Describe your change from print design to mobile?

I wasn’t looking to change. I love publication design. My entire career has been about publication design one way or another – either as an art director, or creating/redesigning magazines, newspapers, annual reports or setting up templates and production processes to be successful.

I love working with writers, photographers, illustrators and printers. Some of it is the rush of the short deadlines and small budgets which can produce some of the most creative solutions. But a big part is that it’s a form of design where there are measurable results. If I do my job well, more people will read the content and be engaged by it. And I can prove it through returns, page count (advertising sales) and reader interaction.

When Jason (Porath) approached me and asked me to leave Topaz Design to create apps with him, I said no – I’m really happy, but let’s just try one project together. Well, we did one app together and that was it – a total game changer. I realized that creating digital publications (aka apps/folios) is the next generation of publication design. To be able to take all my experience and passion and be able to apply it in a space where the best practices haven’t been created yet — is the greatest opportunity I can imagine as a thinking designer.

Publications are evolving at the fastest pace in history. Every generation of readers is more savvy than the one before. Readers know how to find what they are looking for and if it’s not what they want, they don’t stay. Designing to help them navigate and dig deeper in the areas they are interested in, is incredibly powerful.


How is designing for mobile different from print?

The best way I can explain it is to tell you to stop thinking of people as readers and consider them users. This helps you remember that no matter how amazing you think your design is, if a user has trouble navigating it, then it is not successful.

When I’m designing for print, I begin with aesthetics by thinking about the brand and messaging. But with mobile, if I don’t first nail the navigation, the end result won’t be successful.

The other day I was excitedly telling my print class about the process I go through when I start to design an app. One of the students said that listening to all the things I consider made her want to throw up. And it’s funny, because her awesome comment reminded me of the feeling I had when I designed my first beautiful digital book. It was like I was rubbing my stomach, patting my head, chewing gum and jumping rope all at the same time. It was exhausting, so many balls in the air. I was so used to designing for a 2 dimensional page — that when confronted with the possibility of movement, videos, sound, 360s . . . I was completely overwhelmed.

But I don’t add interactivity for the sake of interactivity, I only add it when it actually adds value to the experience, it makes designing much more clear and deliberate. It’s very similar to my style as a print designer. I like a very clean page. I don’t add things unless they add value, which has really helped me in the digital world where there are endless options.


What is your process for designing a mobile app?

When I started as a print art director, one of my first questions was: who gets final sign off on the cover? Was it the editor, the publisher/ad director or the art director? Every publication was different but I quickly learned that it’s not that black and white.

Writers come up with as many great cover ideas as the designers come up with headlines. Collaboration always produces better solutions than working solo. Creating apps is similar, we constantly overlap UX, design and development. None will work well unless they all work well/together. When Storycode started we sat around the same table. Constantly brainstorming and influencing each other. As we continue to grow, we are looking for ways to preserve that.

One thing that is different from print, is how “user testing” is such a key part of an app’s success. It has made me much more humble too. Some ideas that I thought were the greatest solutions didn’t pan out when presented on a tablet to a user. Being able to have stages in the process for testing on users is crucial.


Why do you design without music? 

Everyone loves to ask me this, I think I must be the only designer that doesn’t listen to music when I design. I can’t. I am so easily influenced. The tone/mood of whatever I’m listening to is reflected in the design. I keep my walls white for the same reason.

One great idea I saw while visiting Robert Newman, who was the Design Director of Details Magazine at the time, is how he had lined his walls with old Blue Note records as inspiration for the feel of the magazine. I loved this. When I am working on a project I hang up the three adjectives that best describe the brand/tone I am creating and look at them throughout the project. I rarely look at other designers’ work, I find myself subconsciously influenced. Plus, it automatically starts you down a path that might be very different from where you would start if you hadn’t seen their solutions.

Instead I strongly believe that the best place to start is by experiencing life, having as many experiences and influences possible to make you a richer, deeper designer aka not working all the time. Years ago Dan Zedek, Design Director at The Boston Globe, talked about Inspiration Days he started with his team. Every week one person had a fun day out of the office to be inspired. They could choose do anything they wanted to do other than stuff like doing their own laundry. The next morning they would share what they experienced to the rest of the team. Could you imagine how much more creative and inspired your team would be if they had more time to go to museums or movies, kayaking, or a letterpress studio. I think this is brilliant.


What was your favorite app to work on and why?

This is tough, because I know I always say whichever one I have just finished. In this case, I just finished an app for Sotheby’s International Realty and it’s true it’s currently my favorite.

We basically took 32 existing folios, tore them apart and put them back together. Most of the content ended up in a single folio. Then we had another folio just for agent resources and another 7 versions for 7 more languages. Because of this it was key to create a custom storefront to house all the folios. But since most of the content needed to be login protected, we created a storefront that had some customer facing content in addition to the bulk that the public can’t view.

We needed to make sure we created a visual experience that felt cohesive with their print, web and marketing efforts. While we were creating the app they were in the midst of redesigning their website and launching a new marketing campaign adding to the challenge. Of course this is why it was so much fun. I love working with so many pieces and considerations. We incorporated parallax and other effects into the DPS.

Plus I got to work on it with all my favorite people. Relationships are so key. Not only was I working closely with the Storycode team, a group of people that all have incredible respect for each other— and also show no problem pushing each other, but we had a fantastic working relationship with our client. They were so responsive and open, it created an environment where everyone was very open for change, resulting in a very innovative product and successful launch.


What do you recommend for designers who want to get into mobile?

I’m not going to presume there is one best way to do this. There are so many different paths you can take to get to the same place.

Find whatever opportunities you can, and learn. Stay at a job only as long as you are learning and growing. And the Adobe DPS tools are available to anyone that has indd 6 or later. So its within your grasp to stay up all night and teach yourself the tools you need to create an app.

But remember that’s all they are; tools.