Moth Fund
Moth Minds
Joseph Cohen: Founder & CEO of Universe
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Joseph Cohen: Founder & CEO of Universe

MM.07 Toolmaking to build a more eclectic internet, technological/cultural progress, and the changing role of the digital designer
I talk to people and record it! Some call this sort of thing a podcast. I call mine Moth Minds and the premise is “interviews with high-agency humans."

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Highlights:

  • The core question behind Universe is ‘how do we empower everyone to build the internet?’ (thus making the web more like NYC and less like suburbia). Making tools in this way is similar to urban planning in that it involves building frameworks and kits that let regular people fill in the blanks.

  • The story of technology tells of a shift from institutional to individual power — one person can do so much more than could’ve done several decades ago. Following this trend, technology should increasingly reflect what humans want: to be able to manifest our ideas, explore and live our lives to the fullest, and have meaningful experiences with the people that we love.

  • One place to take inspiration when thinking of ideas for a company (a process that naturally forces ideas to become higher fidelity by engaging with reality and what people will pay for) is by looking at the best things that people have made in other industries and endeavoring to understand what made that thing great, how it works, and whether there’s a way to remix the idea in a different environment.


MM: Hi everybody. Today I’m joined by Joe Cohen, the co-founder and CEO of Universe, a mobile-first website builder that aims to empower everyone to build the internet.

Our conversation covered Joe's early enamorment with the internet, his view on technological and cultural progress, the changing role of the digital designer, and advice for young toolmakers. I hope you enjoy.

Joseph Cohen | LinkedIn

MM: Hi, Joe, and welcome to the show.

JC: It's great to be here.

MM: Joe is the founder of Universe, which is a magical new way to build websites. My first question for you, Joe, is how did you come to the idea behind Universe, and how do you navigate the idea maze?

JC: I think it's a great way of putting it in terms of the idea maze, because it really has been a maze that's unfolded over almost a decade. I think for me, I grew up in New York, but I like to say that I really grew up on the internet. The internet is where I found my passions, my inspiration, my energy.

I got my first Mac when I was 10 in 2001, and that thing blew my mind. It was Bondi Blue iMac, it looked like it came from outer space. It had the coolest thing on it, which was the internet. It had a web browser, and that opened me up to the world. I'd grown up in a pretty small community, so getting online for me was a revelation. It got me excited about the world. Ever since, I've been living and working and thinking online, but from the beginning I felt like the ways of making things on the internet didn't feel like they were fitted to me and to how my brain works. There are really, I would say, two ways of making things online.

There's writing code, where you have the full capabilities of the web at your fingertips, but you need to bend your brain to work in the way that machine works. You're fitting your ideas into code. By definition, it's an abstraction against those ideas. I found that I can write code, but it's not how I want to think. It's not how I want to spend my time. Then you've got these products that have come around that have built... We call them website builders, and they built these templates for these canned websites that you can then fill in with your own content.

I found that those were frustrating because I couldn't really be creative. I couldn't really make something that was my own. That was a deep-seated idea from when I was a kid, as just a hunch more than a fully baked concept. Then I started my first company which was totally separate. It was in the education tech space. We built a learning management system, a platform for classes online. I realized in building that startup and building that product, even though I have good design sensibilities and know what I want, if I wanted to make a change to our homepage, I'd have to go bug an engineer to do it.

This is eight or so years ago, and I'm thinking, "Man, there must be another way to do this. There must be another way." This is really a design problem, it's not a technology problem. The tech is now here to build alternative ways of building things on the internet that are both open-ended like code, but easy to use like consumer applications. That's possible now.

It became clear that it was possible because of mobile. Mobile was this breakthrough. Mobile wasn't just about phones. It was this idea that for the first time ever, computers would be universal, that my experience of being a little nerdy kid on the internet, that would become mainstream and all the things that nerds do on computers would become mainstream behaviors. That was going to be a revolution.

“Mobile wasn't just about phones. It was about the idea that for the first time ever, computers would be universal — that my experience of being a nerdy kid on the internet would become mainstream and all the things that nerds do on computers would become mainstream behaviors.”

I thought, huh, if you could pair this universal computing platform with an open-ended graphical and visual way of creating the internet, you can change the internet. You can make it something that is a much more democratic and diverse and much more representative of the full spectrum of humanity, of our ideas, of the things you can do with technology. I thought that's what the internet really needed. It needed to reflect back more of the people using it as opposed to just companies in Silicon Valley or people who have technical skills. That really began as the provocation. It was like how could you empower everyone anywhere to build the internet without any technical skills? I was really inspired by some old school products that never broke into the mainstream, but had some really good ideas.

The classic one is HyperCard, which for people in our circles is a touchstone, but I started using HyperCard. I never used it as a kid, it was before my time. But in 2013, I started using it on my modern Mac, and I was totally blown away. I thought, "Wow." For those who don't know what HyperCard is, it's a visual creation tool that allows people to make static pages, but also interactive things. This was in 1987 before the web came out. So a long time ago, over 30 years ago, but the ideas in it were so ahead of their time that I was inspired to take those ideas and put them into the phone. So the initial idea was really a HyperCard for the iPhone. I ended up meeting with Bill Atkinson, the creator of that app, and it was just a super inspiring moment. So, that was the initial inspiration for Universe. Over the years, we've navigated that idea maze.

We've taken iterations and pivots along the way. So the first one was becoming a website builder, not just this HyperCard-y thing. We realized that we needed to make this practical, we needed to make sense to people who weren't into esoteric tools. Then even with the website builder, making it a full-fledge website builder, making it support commerce., and actually now, we're on the precipice of our next pivot in that journey of the idea maze.

I think the question's great because to me, I think the most interesting companies are, or the most interesting projects, are not defined answers. They're really open-ended questions, and the point of the company is to answer that question. So the question at Universe is how do you empower everyone to build the internet? Over time, we get to answer that question in better and better ways as we learn new things, get more resources, build foundational technology. Over time, you should be able to answer that question better and better. That's what we're up to.

“I think the most interesting companies/projects are not defined answers. They're open-ended questions and the point of the company is to answer that question. The question at Universe is ‘how do you empower everyone to build the internet?’”

MM: That's amazing. How would you say that question has evolved over time? Is that something that at the beginning was broader and it got more refined, or is it something that stayed steady?

JC: I think the question has stayed steady. The question of how do you empower everyone to build the internet, that's been the animating question from day one in this 10-year journey, but the answer has changed a lot and will continue to change. It will change in its angle of attack, like how are you empowering everyone? But it also changes in its fidelity. As you immerse yourself in an idea, it gets more high fidelity. It gets more detailed in the picture.

So, that's the biggest change. When you're on the precipice of doing a thing, it's so hazy. It's blurry. Then over time, it gets clearer and clearer and it gets clearer in your head, but also your answer gets clearer. I think that's one of the benefits of doing something as a company, is it forces you to get that clarity. In other contexts that are divorced from a real world thing, you can leave ideas in the idea space. They don't have to engage with reality to get a little bit sharper and more high fidelity.

“One of the benefits of doing something as a company is that it forces you to get that clarity. In other contexts that are divorced from a real-world thing, you can leave ideas in the idea space — they don't have to engage with reality to become sharper and more high fidelity.”

MM: Yeah, and they actually have to prove themselves by having a customer market.

JC: Exactly.

MM: Yeah, super interesting. At a high level, where do you see the future of computing going? How does Universe fit in, and what are the broader trends that you're forecasting?

JC: Well, I think we're recording this in the beginning of April, which is-

MM: Worth time stamping?

JC: It's worth time stamping, because things are changing so quickly, and it's really exciting. It feels like we're at an inflection point moment in technology and computing. It'd be foolish to try and forecast it 100%, because I don't think any of us know where this is all going. That's part of the fun of it.

Look, I think that if we think about what computers are, what software is, at the end of the day, what animates us about this stuff is that these technologies give us US new tools, new tools for doing. What's cool about that is toolmaking and tool using, that's humanity's birthright. That is the thing we do. We make tools, we use them. They allow us to extend our reach, to do things we couldn't have done before. I just had this thought yesterday, it was a dumb thing, but I was on a plane. It was one of those planes where you have to walk up to the fuselage to enter the plane.

There's a ladder. I thought for a second, "Wow, humans created this thing that's so big, it's like a bus that's floating 20 feet above where you stand that you climb into, and then we hurdle through the air across the world." It's just an incredible thing, and that's a tool and it's surpassing our biological limits. But obviously we've been doing that forever, and I think that what we've seen over the past 50 years with computing is really an acceleration of that tradition of toolmaking.

If you think about the past 10 years, we've established a new baseline of tools that are really powerful. We call them apps. Apps are new kinds of tools. They're way more dynamic and they're way more sophisticated than any tool before them. They've now become the baseline for what tools are in the world. I think that we're now on the precipice with these AI technologies and everything else that's happening for a new generation of tools that will just take that to the next level.

I think that these tools will start to feel even more dynamic, even more sophisticated and customized. So, they're just going to accelerate what we've seen. To me, what that means is that for every person, they have their own tools, their own custom interactive tools that allow them to do whatever it is that they want. I think that that's going to just bring up the baseline and be the norm in the future. We're going to look at these kinds of tools like we do with apps today, but I think the implications of that are vast and unknowable in the way that the implications of unleashing apps on the world were completely unknowable 10 years ago.

“What this means is that for every person, they have their own custom interactive tools that allow them to do whatever it is that they want.”

MM: That's a great answer. I love the idea of everyone has their own personal toolkit almost, and they're totally customized to how they work and think. Right now, tools are so one-size-fits-all and it's very limiting. It forces people in directions that not necessarily are the ones that they intended.

JC: I think the key thing there is hackers and nerds, we've customized our tools.

MM: We've had this power for a very long time.

JC: But I think what's exciting is that we now have technology that allows us to customize tools without the user even saying that they want to customize a tool. Just by using it, the tool's becoming custom.

MM: It's a great metaphor. I like that a lot. I'm curious to hear how you think about and conceptualize revolutions and specifically technological ones because it seems like we are definitely in the midst of one right now with AI. But I'm curious how you think about these cycles, and how they interact with culture and all of these broader trends?

JC: Yeah, I want to share this idea with you that I think is worth repeating, which is I have this theory that people often think about the history of computing as a story of computers getting smaller and cheaper and faster. I think that's totally true. We went from mainframes that were instruments of war in the 50s to now a smart computer on your wrist.

MM: Pretty amazing.

JC: That has more computing power than the thing we sent to the moon in the 60s. That's incredible, but I think the more interesting story is the cultural implications. I think really what's happening is we see a pendulum swing of power. I think that the story of computing is actually much more about power than it is about smaller, cheaper, faster technology. What I mean by that is we see a shift from institutional power to individual power, and that really is the story of technology. As a human being today, you can just do so much more than you could've done 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago. I think that story is going to continue, and it's really exciting.

“The story of technology is the story of a shift from institutional power to individual power. As a human being today, you can do so much more than you could've done 50 years ago.”

One individual is going to be able to do what 100 people used to not even be able to do. I think that story is going to continue and continue, and I think that the interesting question is which part leads which part? Is the technology leading the way, or is the culture leading the way? What's the cart pulling the horse? In the sense that if you think about the past 10 years post-mobile, we've seen a number of different moments come into play.

Right now, we're in this AI moment, which to me feels different than some of the other ones in the past decade. But I think they're of a kind. Crypto is the last one, and crypto was all about individual power. It was about this idea that you don't need to be relying on large institutions. A decentralized internet that you're in control of, whether it's for finance or creativity, or whatever.

I think AI is also, in that way, giving you just these super tools, these superpowers and abilities. So ultimately, I think the story of computing is this interplay with culture and this over time movement from institutional, large power, to putting that in the people's hands. By the way, I think that has good and bad implications because obviously, the positives are that individuals now have a lot more capabilities, but really powerful technology cuts both ways.

It also gives people who have nefarious intentions a lot more power, so these are two sides of the coin. But ultimately, that's how I contextualize these shifts. I think Kevin Kelly has talked about this a little bit, but he talks about technology having a way, this idea of what does technology want? I do think that there is that effect here.

I think that technology wants a thing, and I think that's really a reflection of what do humans want? What do humans want? We want to be able to manifest our ideas. We want to be able to explore and live our fullest lives, and have meaningful experiences with the people that we love. That's what humans want. We want to have agency and control over our minds, over our ideas, over our lives, over the world, over our corner of the world. So over time, technology will do that. At the end of the day, we, humans create this stuff. It's a reflection of us.

“I think that technology wants a thing, and it’s really a reflection of what humans want. We want to be able to manifest our ideas. We want to be able to explore and live our lives to the fullest and have meaningful experiences with the people that we love. That's what humans want.”

So I think it's often easier to de-personalize technology when we talk about it, but at the end of the day, humans create technology. Humans create this stuff. One of the things I like to say, and one of the things that guides my work is we often talk about things in business and in markets as inevitable. Like markets have an inevitability to them, like, "Oh, yeah, it's inevitable that smartphones would exist or AI would exist," or something like that.

But it's not really inevitable. Even take the iPhone. Yeah, sure, maybe small phones in your pocket would be inevitable, but would the iPhone be inevitable? Would the interface of the iPhone be inevitable? I don't think so. That's because a group of people who had opinions and values got together and made it happen. So, it's a reflection of that, of culture in that way. I think that software and computing creation is just another form of culture. I think the same could be true for music. Maybe rock and roll was inevitable, but were The Beatles inevitable? I don't know, probably not.

I think that it's easy to lose sight because the work that we do does engage with the market, to think that any effort by one person or group of people is inevitable, but it's really not. We do have an opportunity to channel the course of how this stuff works, and futures are path dependent. So, the things that we do can open up whole new fields. That's why I think there's an imperative to bring ideas into the world when you have them, I think to continue charting a future where people have that kind of agency, and are not just passive consumers of the world.

MM: I love that answer. I always think about small groups of people with a very specific intention and taste. It's like the core atomic unit of change. I'm curious how you think about this theory as it intersects with what to build now and where we are in the current cycle?

JC: So maybe I'll make it specific to Universe, because I think it will help frame it. So, Universe is a website builder. It's a website builder that has a totally new kind of interface that allows someone without any technical skill to make something totally custom. We do that with a grid-based interface that's drag and drop and fun and playful and super powerful.

It works on your phone, so you can use it wherever you are in the world. When inspiration strikes, you can make your idea more real, put it out on the internet, get a domain, all this stuff. Really, I would say it's the best DIY tool for building something on the web, but it is DIY. You do have to do it yourself. By doing it yourself, you're basically playing the role of designer.

You're using this thing to design your idea. We have basically built this design tool in your pocket, and I think that the next generation of tools will behave more like agents, like we talked about. So instead of it being a design tool in your pocket, it's going to be a designer in your pocket. You're going to be able to tell this thing what you want, and it's going to make it, and it's not going to make it 100%.

You're going to have to tinker with it and play with it, and you're going to need to say, "Oh, I want it to be a little bit more like that, or a little bit more like this." It becomes a dialogue. So for Universe, that's what we're all about at this moment. We're taking the next step in our journey of this idea maze and saying, "Look, we actually have learned a lot by building the best design tool, for building things on the web, in your pocket available anywhere."

We're going to take those learnings and say, "Actually, how do we make that 100 times easier? Well, we're going to remove the need for you to play designer, and we're going to just do that for you. We're going to do it by understanding who you are and what you want and what your ideas are. We're going to give that form, and it's going to be fun and playful." That's I think the nature of where we're at right now.

I do think we're at the beginning of this renaissance, so I think things will unfold over time, but that's our animating inspiration right now. It's a designer in your pocket. What does that look like? Just think about that. Okay, I'm a teacher. I'm teaching a class on American history. I want to make a website for my class. So, I tell this thing, "Hey, I want to make a website for my American history class. I want it to look like Revolutionary America. Pull in the Constitution as the background."

That kind of conjuring feels possible now in a way that just was a pipe dream five years ago. I think that's incredibly exciting. So, we are embracing that wholeheartedly and thinking about what the Universe mission looks like in that context, the Universe mission being empowering everyone to build the internet. What does it look like in a world where technology now exists to do a lot more of it for you, and to really augment your sensibilities and ideas at a whole other scale? So, that's what we're thinking about.

“What does it look like in a world where technology exists to do a lot more of [your work] for you and augment your sensibilities and ideas at a whole other scale?”

MM: Amazing. How do you make decisions around aesthetics in those types of scenarios where it is so much up to your individual choices of how you program something to whip them up?

JC: So specifically you're asking if we're playing that designer role, how are we making those aesthetic decisions?

MM: Yeah.

JC: Good question.

MM: It sounds hard.

JC: We're still figuring it out, but that's why it's fun.

MM: Yeah, totally.

JC: A good question or a good provocation animates you to think in that way, because actually if you ask GPT-4 to make you a website for a thing, it can do it, and it'll do it by spitting out code, which is not actually a website. You need to go take that and put it into a development environment, host it, all that stuff. But it's going to look like dog shit. At the end of the day, it's going to look like the average website on the internet, which is not very good. So the goal is here to be like a mirror, but a magic mirror, where we refract back a better looking version of you. That's the job of a great designer, so the best designers in the world don't have rigid aesthetics.

They're actually able to understand their client and make something that represents them, and that can represent itself in many different aesthetics and styles, but they're just principles of good design that are at play in all of them. So I think ultimately, you need to break it down. When we say like a web designer, what do we really mean? Well, we mean content, we mean layout, and we mean style. So content is like what you're putting on your website, layout is where it goes, and style is how it looks. We could even break style down into colors, typography, and then decisions around spacing, margin, all of that.

So you really want to break down each of these different components and then think, "Okay, how can you make intelligent decisions based on each one of those things?" So if we just think about color for a second, color's really interesting, because there are colors that objectively work well together and others that don't. You can actually figure that out mathematically. You can figure out what colors work well together, which don't. Color theory, so we want to programmatically use that framework to match to a user's intent.

So for example, if someone says they want a website that looks like the LA Lakers, we should be able to take that, understand what they're saying, and then map it to a harmonic array of colors that might not be my personal aesthetic, but is what the client or the user in this case wants. So I think that's really it. It's like how do you build frameworks that make it so you can't really make a mistake, but everything feels personalized and it doesn't have a very narrowly defined aesthetic. Yeah, that's how I think about it.

MM: I like that. It reminds me of high up on the ladder of abstraction or something, so that the primitives when you put them together like building blocks, they by default look pretty good. Which is a nice way of empowering everyone. I'm curious, how do you see Universe's role as it relates to the web? Is it a steward? Is it a helping hand, a coach?

JC: It's a great question. So I think the web is the greatest thing that humans have ever built, because it's this collaborative creation. It's been built by billions of people interacting together, which is so cool. It's just so cool that to contribute to that, to that thing, and not just contribute by putting a webpage out there, but building this engine that allows other people to put their mark on this corpus and contribute to it.

So to me, the beauty of the web is that it has no single owner, no primary architect or designer. To me, I think my hope is that the internet becomes more and more diverse and more and more interesting and eclectic. The metaphor I like to use is I want it to look more like New York City and less like suburbia. If Facebook represents suburbia, I want to be the anti that, in that way. So we say, "Okay, so what is the role that we play in doing that?" I think ultimately, the way that you nudge towards the future that you want, my bias is to interact at the tooling layer to build tools that enable the kind of future that you want.

“My hope is that the internet becomes more diverse, interesting, and eclectic. I want it to look more like New York City and less like suburbia.”

So I think our role at Universe is really to engage at that layer of the stack, to influence the output by shaping the tooling layer. So I wouldn't say that we're a steward of the web, because I think that's bigger than any one company or thing, but I think that you can influence the arc of the web by making new kinds of tools. I think that there's a responsibility that comes into play, because I actually think a lot of the web is in a pretty crappy place right now. If you use the web on your phone, it's a terrible experience in a lot of cases.

You go to a website, and maybe you're reading an article, and immediately you get a pop-up for some promo or subscription, and you X that out if you can find it. Then you get this thing on the bottom that says accept cookies or not, and there's a banner, and it's just lousy. I think that ultimately, yeah, the user decided they wanted to do that, but the platforms enabled them to do that.

The tooling enabled them to make those decisions, so I think you have a responsibility as a designer of a tool or platform to arc towards positive patterns. So that's the responsibility and that's what I think our input is. I think over time, hopefully we earn the ability to push forward the state of the web, and not just have it represent all of us, but to really push the boundaries of what the internet can look like and the ways that you can experience it.

We right now have a conception of what a website is, but over time, I'd like to broaden that conception. I'd like for a website to be just a lot more. The internet as a canvas technically is extremely broad, and we don't use 1% of what it's actually capable of doing. So over time, I'd like to stretch that. I'd like to stretch what we think of as a website, what we think of as the internet, and really do that by concentrating on the tool layer and opening up people's imagination in that way.

MM: I like that. How do you see the role of the designer changing, where now, the designer is more shaping the tools that allow anyone to design their own thing? Are you making less decisions that are pixel details and it's more higher level choice architecture? I don't know, just curious how you think about that.

JC: That's the role we've been playing for our whole journey, so for as long as we've been building Universe, we've been designing tools for other people to design. You're a meta designer, in that way. That's what attracted me to the problem in the beginning, because my background is as a designer. So to me, the ultimate UI design challenge was making a design tool for the masses.

That was just a really hard thing. How would you do that without a keyboard, without a mouse on a tiny screen? Impossibly difficult design challenge, but that's the appeal of it. You get to then work on that, and out of that came a grid interface and all this stuff, and you learn about oh, when you're working on a phone, you don't have a lot of XY space, you don't have a lot of screen real estate, so you have to use the Z space.

You have to use time as the element to unveil complexity. So you show one thing at a time, so you learn as a meta designer what your tools are, what your ingredients are for shaping decisions. I think we're now in this next era of meta design, and it's really exciting. I think it's blue ocean. We don't really know exactly what the levers are that we have, but yeah, the way I think about it is the terminal point of design is you're making an image.

You're designing a thing that's one of a kind, it's static, and you're sharing that. Maybe you're making a poster. It's one of one, and maybe you're making a website, and a website is fairly static, but if the user changes their view port, they resize their window, or if they look at it on another device, it changes its form, so it has a little more dynamism.

Then you might design an app that actually holds state and it interacts in different ways, so now you're designing in a little bit more of an abstraction. You might use auto layout, but I think that when you're making a thing that lets other people make things, you're exercising a whole other meta level of design. You're really designing frameworks and kits to empower people. I don't think that that exists actually as a discipline, but it should.

“When you're making a thing that lets other people make things, you're working at a whole other meta-level of design. You're designing frameworks and kits to empower people.”

MM: I agree.

JC: That is a whole pattern and school of design. I think the closest thing to it in other fields outside of computing and technology is urban planning. Because in urban planning, you're not designing the finished thing. You're designing a thing that lets other people fill in the blank. I'm biased, but to me, the most successful example of that is the New York City grid, which was not a fact of nature. It was invented. So New York, until the grid, which was unveiled in the 1800s, it was very shoddy and ad hoc. So Lower Manhattan is not on the grid, so it's winding roads, and this burgeoning city, they were just building it as they needed it.

“I think the closest thing to [toolmaking that we have] in other fields outside of computing and technology is urban planning. In urban planning, you're not designing the finished thing. You're designing a thing that lets other people fill in the blanks.”

At some point, they were like, "Okay, this is the capital of the new world. We need to think ahead, we need to come up with a plan." What they did was they laid out a grid on the city, and it was a pretty regular grid, but it had a few interesting nuances to it. One was that bifurcating the grid was Broadway, which cuts on a diagonal, so it intersects with the grid at different points, creating these really interesting parks. So like, Union Square and Madison Square Park, these are these chaos moments in the grid.

You also have Central Park, which took prime real estate and said no, no one owns, and also there are parameters. So for example, no one building can span more than one square block. So you could do anything you want in that square block, but you cannot exceed that block. You can make the ugliest building in the world, but it can only be one block large, and that would mean you need to put together all the parcels on that block. Then they did realize that this grid was not just two-dimensional, it was three-dimensional.

So people were going to build up, and if people built up, if everyone just filled the maximum space, you'd end up in a city that had no light on the ground. They said, "Okay, actually there's an envelope that you need to adhere to in height." So that's why the Empire State Building, for example, tapers as it goes to the top, because that fits the envelope that the city laid out in the 1900s.

So, I just think that's an example of really good city design, because it's laying boundaries and constraints, but it's not filling in every detail. I think an example of inhospitable or inhuman or inorganic city design is, and designers love these people and love the aesthetics of these cities, but they're not actually good, so the Corbusier vision of a city was you'd have these elevated roadways and you'd never need to leave your complex. They were centrally planned, modernist utopias that didn't allow for any individual expression. The designer knew everything, but the reality is that's a cold world that no one wants to actually live in. It has no personality. Brasilia was the manifestation of that idea, and it's an amazingly beautiful city in photographs.

You look at Oscar Niemeyer's designs and these incredible structures and all this stuff, but it's just not a place you want to be. It doesn't have life. It doesn't have that organic-ness. So I think when you're designing systems for creation, when you're designing tools, you're really playing the role of constraint designer and you want to design really good constraints, and then let people do whatever comes to their mind. So, that's how I think about it. By the way, programming language designers do that. That's what they're doing.

MM: Totally. Yeah, they're just using a different medium. It reminds me a lot too of what people coined to be the Ivory Tower type of design, especially in UI design, where it's like Swiss Grid's very perfect, but it's not actually allowing for much expression or people to customize in any way.

It's just a top-down depiction of this is what is good, you must adhere. It makes me think. I think that one of the things that makes Universe really stand out is the very, very broad spectrum of expression that people can have within the tool, and make something that really feels like them. It makes me wonder, what are some of the craziest things that you've seen made with Universe?

JC: Every single day, we see designs that will totally blow your mind.

MM: That's amazing.

JC: I like to talk about it as yeah, it's this vernacular internet. People are breaking a lot of the patterns that we take for granted on how navigation looks, or how you should show off your products. We've got people starting brands. We have this one creator, she goes by Morgue. She's a TikTok influencer with a million followers. Her idea is she wanted to start a clothing line that was super goth, and there were these spiked hoodies.

Her site looks like you enter this portal of goth TikTok, and that's the tenor of her website, and she's gone crazy with it. Then you have people doing choose your own adventure, weird games, so the types of sites themselves maybe, oh, a shoe wear brand or a personal portfolio, but the way that people are doing that is totally different and the aesthetic that they've chosen is off the wall in some ways.

It's amazing what humans will do, because we get to see what people are making and the amount of work people do, and the way our system works is you have this grid and you can have blocks in the grid, and we have sites with tens of thousands of blocks on them, and that means someone's individually putting this stuff in, and creating all kinds of navigation patterns. It's inspiring, just to see what humans are capable of in that way.

MM: Yeah, that's amazing. It's cool too when they reinvent things from first principles that you're like, "I never would've thought, but it actually makes sense."

JC: Exactly.

MM: My last question for you. I'm very curious what advice you would give to an up-and-coming designer who wants to make things that make other things, and is looking out at this world and seeing that everything is changing and where do they even get started?

JC: That's a great question. My two cents on it, I think that the tech world often confuses itself for the whole world, and it's an important part of the world, but it's a really small part of the world. There is so much amazing inspiration out there in many other fields, both historic and present that should be our muse. I think that a valuable way of making something in a burgeoning new category is to look at the best things that people have made in other areas, understand what makes them great, how they work, and see if there’s a way to remix the idea in this new environment.

“I think that a valuable way of making something in a burgeoning new category is to look at the best things that people have made in other areas, understand what makes them great, how they work, and see if there’s a way to remix the idea in this new environment.”

I also think it's just a good tactic for an entrepreneurial designer who wants to make their own mark, because if you think about it, everyone's circling around the same ideas, and the way that you differentiate is by pulling in inspiration from other areas. So I spend a lot of my time pulling from different things, and that's in the arts, it's in music. For example, the original design for Universe, the app, was very much inspired by musical instruments. I realized that-

MM: I love the little noises that it makes when you play with it.

JC: Yeah, exactly. If you think about tools for making music, we don't call them tools, we call them instruments. You don't use an instrument, you play an instrument. I thought, "Huh, I want to make something that feels like play. I want to make something that allows you to build in a way that doesn't feel like work, because that's where you get the most generative, creative work." So I said, "Okay, let me go deep into this world." I have some experience with these things because I'm a DJ. I spin electronic music and there's actually some really good interface design in DJ equipment.

It's all about these analog controls for manipulating to create an experience. The thing with music tools is that they need to keep you in flow. If you break flow as an instrument or a piece of music or equipment, it's all over. You can't make music without being in a flow state. So I just think it's a really good source of inspiration for software UI design. So I was just talking about cities and urban planning, and I think that's a whole wellspring of inspiration. Graphic design itself, Universe and the grid system, we didn't invent grids.

The Swiss graphic designers, that was their whole thing, like Josef Muller-Brockmann, and this whole idea of reducing the complexity of a space by imposing a grid on it opens up a lot of freedom because now you could think beyond that initial blank canvas. So my advice would be intimately familiar with the state of the art of technology, but then go mine the world and go into the weirdest places, the most untrodden places, and figure out how you can put those pieces together to make something unique. They just make a lot of work.

MM: Amazing advice. I love it. Perfect way to end. Well, Joe, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really appreciate it, and for all the incredible fodder, and I look forward to seeing what Universe does next.

JC: Cool. Sounds great.


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