For this conversation about design in Web3 we didn’t have to look very far for the perfect person to talk to: we sat down with Matt Innes, who’s currently working on Wildland’s product design, UX and UI. Matt has plenty of experience designing products and brands with a focus on crypto and web3 and he runs his own design studio - Idealogue. He has led design for projects including Streamr, Vizor, Golem, Counterparty and Hive Wallet.
You’ve been in the design game for over ten years. How did you discover your passion for Web3 projects?
Matt: A lot of what passes for design is just dressing up products to sell more of them, so a lot of design roles are not really about solving problems, but just selling more stuff. That has never really appealed to me, while the tradition of craftsmanship and making great tools that you see in cultures like Japan has always been something I’ve respected.
I started working in crypto in 2013, and while it was definitely chaotic, the creativity at work there, making entirely new and often weird business models, along with a desire to up-end the status quo, was something that appealed a lot to me. Even then it was pretty clear that total surveillance in exchange for uploading cat GIFs was an awful dead-end business model.
So for me, bringing high standards of craft to building tools for a better internet, that is something that seems like a worthwhile thing to do with your life, and I guess it sums up why I’m working in Web3.
Would you say designing for Web3 projects differs in any major way from designing for other digital products?
Matt: Yes & no. No, because a good design process works for any kind of digital product. But also yes, and for several reasons. One is that Web3 is still in its very early days, so a lot of infrastructure is still being built or just doesn’t exist yet, which means that you cannot make the same easy assumptions about how features like identity, authentication, real-time notifications, or even payment rails will work.
Also you need to put a lot more consideration into your target audience — are they crypto only, or are you crossing into a mainstream audience? Abstracting all the complexity of crypto away isn’t a good idea in the long term, because users ultimately do need to learn how it works, at least at a high level, as they need to be responsible for their own security.
But a lot of thought has to go into progressive disclosure of information and in some cases into providing crypto-native and non-crypto-native paths through an app. Compared to Web2, Web3 definitely leans towards educating users about crypto, and I guess this is one of the main differences in this stage we’re currently in anyway.
What about those in the design community who don’t work with Web3 products? Do you think there are any misconceptions about Web3 in that space?
Matt: There do seem to be a lot, especially with the NFT boom, which has brought a lot of interest from visual artists, writers and musicians. Pretty similar to the early 2010s when everybody thought Bitcoin was just for drug deals and crime syndicates, the design community seems to somewhat split about Web3.
Plenty of designers for a couple of years now have been able to see that Web3 is an exciting area to work in with the potential for tools and services that work outside of the SaaS and surveillance capitalist business models. Then there are those who still have the early 2010s mentality that it’s all scams and crooks.
But a more interesting misconception I’ve seen recently, seems to be that Web3 can only be apps running on a blockchain and storing all their data there. This particular line is kind of interesting, and holds that blockchains are going to destroy people’s childhoods by making everything they post public and accessible forever without any way to delete, because blockchain.
But this seems like a bit of a naive interpretation of something as broad as Web3, where you can totally build social apps that allow for deletion of content, anonymous posting, disappearing content, whatever you want. Web3 doesn’t have to mean you store all data in a blockchain.
Store and move your data in a decentralised way, use IPFS, use Wildland, use Streamr or whatever, but the idea that blockchains should store all app data seems really odd to me, still - it looks like this is how some people in the design world are interpreting Web3.
I guess it does depend on whether you consider Web3 to be the decentralised web in a broad sense, or more narrowly. But surely if we’re going to claim that this shift towards a user-controlled web can be reasonably labelled “Web3”, it has to be something broader than simply apps running on a blockchain.
How important do you think design is nowadays in making a project stand out in the vibrant world of Web3 compared to the other things that make up a project?
Matt: I’d say it is pretty important, though of course I guess it’s pretty obvious I’d say that, as a designer. But a lot of projects do neglect it, and that is one of the signs we’re still pretty early in the life cycle of the Web3 ecosystem. Because Web3 contains so many new concepts for users coming from Web2, it needs to have standards higher than Web2 to overcome those barriers.
And there are some great projects with high design standards, like Matcha, Uniswap and Helium. But a lot of projects could lift their standards. I find it galling that many high profile projects have so little respect for or understanding of typography. Apps are just conversations between people and machines. Machines need code, but people need language, and typography is the carrier for language. If we only care about the code but not the language, we’re just making apps for machines, which seems fairly pointless.
Are there any trends in Web3 design which make you think: “Ok, that’s been done to death now. Let’s find something else!”
Matt: Maybe a few. Monospaced typefaces, perhaps a few too many hexagons (looks sideways at Wildland logo), emojis for DAO & DeFi project logos, yet another NFT avatar series with (insert your choice of monkeys smoking cigarettes, goats or zombies).
But the surface visual trends don’t move me much one way or the other: when you have an explosion of projects it’s inevitable to see trends, not all of them will care enough to find an original way to communicate. Overall things in Web3 are getting better, more usable and trending in the direction of openness and community participation, so if there are few overused visual trends, in the bigger picture this is more amusing than anything else.