I’m known for creating screensavers that became the world’s #1 top-selling product. It’s a recent pleasant surprise for my work to be recognized by art museums as significant in the history of design.
Everything we take for granted came from somewhere. While screensavers are now built into most devices with a screen, there was a time when they weren’t. My design work propelled my screensavers such as After Dark to be the most popular and essential computer product in the world. We sold more screensavers than people bought Microsoft Word, Mac computers or even Windows itself for a time. With a product that retailed for $49.95, it was huge business.
A business success based on great design
It’s a great home-grown business entrepreneur story, but an even better story about the power of great design.
I’ve done a lot of other successful work including inventing homescreen widgets used by over a billion users daily, but designing and creating screensaver products that outsold everything is what I’m known for. I designed over 80 screensaver animations, the Magic and After Dark product lines, several screensavers for Microsoft, a version of Pointcast for AOL Time Warner and the Inner Space screensaver game.
Design museums that showcase my screensaver work
- The Museum of Moving Images in New York City (NYC) had a significant screensaver exhibit featuring my work just a year ago.
- The Computer Museum in Mountain View, CA has featured my work on After Dark for years.
- The Het Nieuwe Museum in the Netherlands has a current exhibit on the cultural impact of screensavers, featuring my design notebook, my work on wall-sized displays and will be hosting me as a featured speaker in May. Some images of the exhibit are shown below.
Exciting news! Due to popular demand, Het Nieuwe is extending the display of Sleepmode featuring my work from June on to the end of August.
The design significance of screensavers
Being a good designer means I love good design and hate bad design. Most people think of ugly software as bad design. Bad usability is even worse. As a career designer, I dislike bad usability in a very specific way because I can imagine how things can be made better. When faced with something bad, I wonder “why are the most useful features hidden away?” and “who did they design this for?” Complaining is easy. I did something about it when I created screensavers. I envisioned software that regular people loved using. I recognized that the amazing potential of software to be useful was generally hidden by the clunky mess that made it hard to use. To paraphrase Mark Twain:
There’s little difference between a product which does nothing useful and a useful product that’s unusable.
Therefore, I designed the screensaver product to be a) incredibly useful and b) an awesome experience. At the time, everyone needed a screensaver to protect your screen from burning in and it was the only way to password protect a computer. Monitors cost $300-$500 and the value of protecting company information was worth at least as much. The 15-40x return on investment (ROI) made it easy to sell site licenses. However, features are like apples, a commodity that anyone can copy.
What was unique was the experience of After Dark. It’s useful features were combined with the most usable and fun interface and content that anyone had ever seen. User-centered design and relentless iteration made it so successful. Magic, the predecessor to After Dark, was released and iterated 24 times before After Dark 1.0. That gave us time to develop personas and research into the needs, context and problems that users faced.
Raising users’ expectations
Screensavers were a key turning point in the expectations of users. When I was designing screensavers, most software wasn’t very good. By not good, I mean
dogshit software that was so bad that you needed to read a textbook before using it. No kidding. There was no online help, no googling for answers and when one thing crashed, you often had to restart your entire computer. Frustrating!!
Use of my screensaver products was a completely different experience. For example, when someone installed After Dark, all the defaults were set up so it would just work. When they walked away or stopped working for a while, it blanked and animated the screen. With a wave of the mouse, it disappeared again so you could get back to work. It was so simple, that instead of taking it for granted, almost every user opened the panel and customized it, tinkering with dozens of animations, setting up a password lock, configuring hotkeys to activate it or prevent it from interrupting a presentation. There were tons of features in After Dark, but the UX was so simple and usable that hundreds of millions of people loved using it, as did reviewers who praised its finesse and usability.
By letter, email and in person, thousands of users have told me a) they loved my screensavers and b) it was the only software they didn’t hate.
From my fan mail and in-person discussions with users, I know that people loved After Dark primarily because it was fun and effortless to use, unlike everything else on a computer. That is why competitors with superior animation never made any headway. We had a beautiful looking product with great animations, but it was the EXPERIENCE of using it that people loved. It’s like people. You may love that your partner is good-looking, but it is the way they treat you that engenders love and opens you to their beauty. My design focus was quality of experience.
After Dark wasn’t the only well-design software, but it probably had the biggest impact at the time in raising users expectations because it was as big then as Facebook is today.
In remembering screen savers, many people accept the following myths:
The myths of screensavers
1. Nobody needed a screensaver
2. Screensavers were for home use
3. Screensavers weren’t that great
4. Screensavers were toys
Myth #1 Nobody needs a screensaver
The common saying “nobody needed a screensaver” is wrong. Users have shared burn in horror stories for decades! In the old days, every screen was vulnerable to to burn in, if you didn’t buy a screen saver. Modern devices and screens are built to be less susceptible to burn in, but they are not completely free of it. Additionally, it is a waste of energy to to keep all of the pixels powered when you’re not using a screen. Therefore, many devices now incorporate screen blanking. When I developed screensavers, everyone needed them. Even on a 2015 smartphone, burn in occurs, as you can see below:
Myth #2 Screensavers were for home use
Home users loved screensavers, but they were originally created for business use to literally save the screens. Businesses spent a lot of money buying, maintaining and replacing computers. They sought out ways to get more use out of valuable assets. When we developed screensavers, every screen was vulnerable to burn in.
Years before lock screens were added to the OS, I introduced screen locking as part of screensavers. The ability to lock a PC and data from prying eyes meant a lot to business users, but it didn’t mean much to home users. Was it worth paying for a small utility that protected your data and prevented the need to toss a $450 monitor? Absolutely. We had tons of home users, but they were initially a secondary market until much later when screensavers became “entertainment software”.
Myth #3 Old screensavers weren’t that great
1989-1993 did not produce the funniest or most distracting animations, but it was the golden age of screensavers that actually did something useful.
The ideal screensaver:
A. blanked the screen when you were not using it to be MOSTLY black
B. animated something to let you know the computer is still on
C. did NOT distract everyone in the office from working
Magic and After Dark 1 and 2 were designed with restraint for a business context. Home users liked to be amazed and amused, but business use required restraint. Imagine a huge office full of computers, some in use, and many running a screensaver. If half the screens showed scenes from The Simpsons or Jurassic Park with sound blaring, it would drive everyone crazy. No business wanted to buy, much less site license, an anti-productivity distraction tool.
After Dark for Windows was the #1 selling business utility and the most pirated software in the world. Getting into an office was the way the product spread virally. After Dark offered a variety of experiences that felt premium but would let people zone it out. Everybody got a chuckle out of my Aquatic Realm or Jack’s Flying Toasters, but these things were relatively innocuous once you’d seen them a few times. The trick was to make something cool, but not so cool that you couldn’t stop staring at it.
Myth #4 Screensavers were toys
Screensavers were utilities that were fun to toy with, but not toys per se in the early years. A toy’s only purpose is to be played with. Screensavers were like a funny, likable co-worker. A funny co-worker is great, as long as he has a reason to be there (ie. actually does useful work and doesn’t stop others from getting work done). When millions bought or pirated After Dark, they were inviting a part of me into their daily lives. I loved the opportunity to lighten up the drudgery of computer work, but there’s a line between engaging and providing a toy. Most users enjoyed customizing the fish in Aquatic Realm or the darkness of their toast. The magic of it was that you didn’t have to guess at the effect of changes; the animation changed as you tinkered. It was designed to be magical for a few minutes, but not interesting enough to waste your day.
The psychology of screensavers
Armed with our knowledge of the screensaver purchasing cycle gained from Magic, I designed around the psychology of the buyer.
USERS NEEDED IT
Screensavers served two needs, saving the screen from burn in and locking a PC. CRTs with phosphors could definitely burn in. The ability to lock a PC from prying eyes made it a “must-have” utility.
USERS WANTED IT
Configurable animation brings an elevated experience and fun into the workplace. Office work or doing your taxes at home is often drudgery forced upon you. Back then, most software sucked. To be desired by users, the product had to be simple and fun to use, not just nice to look at.
USERS COULD JUSTIFY IT
The ability to lock down a PC with a password was more pivotal than saving the screen. IT Managers and CEOs were happy to approve purchase orders for a product that protected company data. I addressed three personas: the worker, the IT administrator and the owner/decision maker. For home users, all three were one person.
The design credo
The psychology of the screensaver customer led to my design manifesto and guidelines:
Manifesto: Zero cost of ownership software
For most software, 90% of the cost of ownership occurs after the purchase. My goal was to produce software that offered value with almost no cost of ownership at all.
High maintenance people and things have a high cost of ownership. Most software was painfully technical and unforgiving back then. It wasn’t easy to install, learn, use, recover from mistakes, upgrade or maintain most software.
The average person felt you had to be a genius to work a computer. After Dark showed that normal people could enjoy software.
Therefore, After Dark was designed to please even those who hated computers, software, technical jargon and complexity. To do that, it needed to offer zero cost of ownership. You bought it, it worked, and everything was easy, fun, engaging and painless. Valuable features with no pain. What a concept! It’s a common theme for today’s modern apps, but it was a unique approach at the time.
Over time, screensavers became toys and some were just an entertaining waste of time. The products I worked on were not. They served a purpose and made people happy. I saw my work everywhere. One outstanding experience was when my partner and I saw the movie Malice. In a particularly tense scene, the screen filled with After Dark’s Flying Toasters to establish a plot point. We broke out laughing at the absurdity of seeing our work fill the screen in a big box office movie. Other patrons could not understand why we were laughing at a murder scene.
Postscript: where it began
If you missed it, read Part I, the Magic of Screensavers.
Then follow up and read Part II about After Dark and Flying Toasters.