Making Projector: Things we’ve learned (and mistakes we’ve made) building design tools for non-designers

Trevor O'Brien
Oct 23, 2019 · 9 min read
The next release of Projector is coming soon. You can join our waitlist at projector.com to be among the first to know when it’s available.

When we set out to create the first version of Projector, we wanted to build the most versatile, fun, and approachable design platform for people who were not pro designers. And while we wanted to make tools that were fun and creative, we also wanted them to be purposeful and consequential. So we aimed to build Projector for the workplace, starting with some very specific audiences (marketers, creative agencies, educators) and use-cases (social media campaigns, demo videos, creative pitches and reviews).

Our team has decades of experience building creative software products, ranging from major video games and film industry special effects to social platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Vine.

We had a good sense for the kinds of creative tools we wanted to offer, because they were the ones we’d always wanted to use ourselves. But we had a lot of groundwork to cover to get to square one.

If we were going to build a design platform for today’s workplaces, we believed it had to be cloud-based and it had to feature real-time collaboration. It also had to be snappy and fast. And the basic things we all take for granted in creative software? Things like undo and redo, copy and paste, snap lines for alignment, file uploads, text formatting? Yeah, they just needed to work out of the box. Before we could start building the wilder creative features we had in store, we needed a solid foundation.

If making something new feels comfortable for you, you‘re probably doing it wrong

For the past several months, we’ve been putting those core pieces together, constantly setting early versions of Projector in front of people to take in their reactions and collect their feedback. The process has been fun and inspiring, but also humbling, uncomfortable, and sometimes a little embarrassing, to be honest.

I want to share some of our key learnings so far, and I also want to discuss some of the challenges we’ve faced and decisions we’ve made. And just to keep it real, I’ll also share some of the missteps and mistakes we’ve made along the way.

If you’re someone who’s always on the lookout to try new, easy-to-use design tools to take your visual communications to another level, or if you’re someone who’s interested in building these kinds of design tools, this story is for you.

Versatile design tools rule

We’ve done a lot of hands-on customer research as we’ve built Projector, and it’s been fascinating to learn about the different workflows that go into visual communications at work. One thing that became obvious quickly was just how many specialized tools were involved for most people. Special tools for presentations, others for PDFs, others for video. A whole smattering of different apps were used if GIFs or social media graphics were required. And if you just needed a quick copy change on that PDF? Ah, right, you’d need to go bug a designer for that.

For the many people who aren’t professional designers and who haven’t conquered the learning curves of all those specialized apps, we’ve learned that versatile, approachable design tools are where it’s at. Have you ever seen someone at work totally master an application like Keynote for all sorts of things it was never intended to do well? Yeah, so have we 🙂

That’s why in Projector, we help you create graphics for a wide range of common sizes and formats, including videos, GIFs, presentations, print, and social media. When you first create a new story in Projector, we let you choose from all the specific formats we support.

Once you’ve created your visuals, we let you share them with a link or export them to a handful of customizable formats: MP4, GIF, PDF or PNG. So if you want to make a custom Instagram Story or a quick video for YouTube, you can export your creations for precisely those destinations and take them with you.

A breakdown of different story formats created in Projector by our early community. As you can see, it’s a pretty dispersed distribution.

We’re excited to offer this kind of creative versatility in Projector, and data from our early community shows that offering these different formats is useful and valuable.

Making our tools work reliably across this spectrum has been a major area of ongoing investment for our team, and we still have so much more to do. While we’ve done a good job in building a flexible creative process, we’ve learned from customer feedback that we’ve still got a lot of room for improvement in helping people get started with their visuals.

Don’t worry, there will be more on that in the mistakes section 🙂

Creating with purpose

In one of our earliest Projector prototypes, our visual editor forced people to type out the key message they wanted their audience to remember before it allowed them to make any visuals. I wouldn’t recommend this approach for a real product, but it was an interesting experiment to observe. People were visibly bothered by it. They just wanted to start making cool visuals, and they didn’t seem to like having to think about why.

Relentlessly, though, our prototype kept asking them: why?

After having more in-person conversations around this topic, we realized that oftentimes the goals and motivations behind visual communications aren’t clear at the time of their creation, or at least not as clear as they could be. Based on this research, we decided we would build some tools to encourage people to think more about the purpose and goals of their communications instead of focusing exclusively on their visuals.

To that end, we’ve built a collaborative text editor to live alongside all visual creations in Projector. The space can be used in many different ways — for rough ideas, speaker notes, creative prompts — but it was originally intended as a space for people to shape their early concepts into a structured narrative. We’ve seen many people and teams using it in exactly that way, which gives us confidence we’re onto something.

In particular, we’ve heard from educators in our early community that this narrative space is invaluable when working with groups of students on communications projects. Being able to focus feedback on the underlying story and message — in a space separated from the visuals—makes it easier for students to refine and improve their communications.

Designing in a video world

Another common theme in our customer feedback sessions centered on working with media. Almost everyone we spoke to, no matter which design app they used, told us they wished it were easier to work with GIFs and video. With amazing cameras on our phones, and with consumer apps like Instagram and Tiktok making high-res video ubiquitous in our daily lives, people rightfully expect their visual communication tools at work to handle video well.

From a software perspective — especially a browser-based, real-time collaborative software perspective—working with video presents some challenges. The file sizes are large, and most of the underlying technologies that support video only offer limited editing support.

But we didn’t want you to have to worry about any of that. Our goal was to create a fast, consistent editing experience across all types of media. Whether you want to round corners, add color effects, blur, or crop media, all of those features will work in the same way whether you’re applying them to a video, a GIF, or an image.

To make it even easier to work with media in Projector, we’ve also built integrations with many of your favorite content catalogs: Unsplash, Giphy, Giphy stickers, and The Noun Project. Without leaving your creation, you can search each of these catalogs and pull in visuals that you can customize and style to fit your story. These integrations are fun, but we also hope they save you valuable time that you’d otherwise spend hunting through other tabs.

Missteps and mistakes

We’re deeply proud of what we’ve made so far, and we’re excited for you to try our preview release of Projector and let us know what you think. But that’s not to say it’s all gone smoothly.

We’ve certainly dealt with our fair share of elusive, time-sucking bugs. Months ago, we lost data for a very important customer at exactly the wrong moment (we were devastated by this and committed ourselves to making sure it wouldn’t happen again). We’ve accidentally shipped incomplete features to some of our early customers. 🤦🏻‍♂️ We planned our first ever community meetup at a venue where the wifi stopped working. Whoops.

Most of those issues were unfortunate accidents and oversights. We fixed them, learned from them, and improved moving forward. But I also want to share a more fundamental mistake that we’ve had to dig deeper into in order to build a better product for you.

Never lose sight of the beginning

The current preview release of Projector was built in about a year. In its infancy, all you could do was create shapes and drag them around. From there, Projector’s creative capabilities would leap forward every couple of weeks, and it would feel exciting and energizing for all of us in the office. But we got so wound up in those creative abilities that we’d sometimes lose sight of what the beginner’s experience felt like. There was rationale behind it — you needed to be able to make things before we could really help you get started making things — but it was a mistake not to focus on it more.

As an example: we talk a lot about helping you create videos and GIFs in Projector because it’s something we believe is useful, valuable and unique to our platform. But when you go to create a new story in Projector, where is the GIF button? Where is the video button? How do you make one? Ohhhh. You need to know that once you create any story in Projector, you can always export it out as a video or GIF. That… should be clearer.

Why wasn’t this confusing experience obvious to us earlier on? Well, because we’d lost sight of the beginning, and that never should have happened. As we speak, our team now has its sights on making that experience much clearer, much easier, and much more inspiring.

With our preview release, we want to see how people will push the creative bounds of Projector. We haven’t shipped this version with any templates or any promises to create something beautiful “with just a few clicks.” We want to see where your creative process takes you. But, of course, we know you’ll want faster ways to get started making something amazing. We’re working on something new just for that, and we’ll have more to show you soon.

Our focus is back on the beginning.

Making Projector is hard and we love it

We love hard challenges at Projector, and not just because it’s fun to work on hard problems. When we see early customers’ faces light up when they make something they’re proud of, we can’t help but share in their pride and excitement. It makes it obvious why we chose to tackle such hard problems.

We feel giddy when we get feedback like this from Josh Grau, an instructor at Northwestern and Stanford:

“As a marketer and instructor, I know the power of visual storytelling. Projector helps my students get it, too. They’re excited to create and collaborate together. They’re empowered by their own ideas.”

And also, we all just love making wacky graphics as part of our day-to-day work at Projector. It’s pretty fun 🙃

If you’d like to learn more about Projector or join the waitlist for the next release of our app, check us out at projector.com.

When you create a story in Projector, you can showcase it to a select audience in our publish view. And you can spark a conversation in the comments section.

📝 Read this story later in Journal.

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Trevor O'Brien

Written by

Co-founder and CEO of @projector 📽 I used to make things at @Twitter, @YouTube, @Google, and @BrownCSDept

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