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An interview with Russell Quinn

Russell Quinn is a British designer and developer with a background in software development tools for game consoles. After parting ways amicably last year with Spoiled Milk, the Denmark and Switzerland-based design and technology agency he co-founded in 2005, he subsequently created the phenomenally successful Small Chair app for McSweeney’s. This has been followed by the Wallpaper* City Guides apps for Phaidon (in partnership with his old company), Creative Review’s Annual app and last month The New Goodbye, a book  app he worked on with Neil Ayres, who interviews him below.

NA: Last year you left Spoiled Milk. You’ve suggested the main reason for doing so was to have a less hectic workload. What with McSweeney’s and Creative Review, and now The New Goodbye, I’m guessing these good intentions to kick back a touch might not have been fulfilled. Do you feel like you made the right move, picking up the machete and cutting a new path once again?

RQ: Maybe, well yes, probably. The main reason I left Spoiled Milk was because my stress levels were reaching critical. I thought I was used to the general strains and worries of entrepreneurship, but in a six-month period I moved to another new country (from Denmark, where he was based at the time), founded the Swiss branch of Spoiled Milk and several new people came onboard.

It was an incredibly challenging experience and good fun, but I was getting sick on a monthly basis and couldn’t sleep. Eventually I realised that while Spoiled Milk had started off as a quite personal project between Casper (co-founder) and me, it had grown to a point where it could never be that again.

This, of course, was a good thing overall. It’s the natural progression for a successful company, but I started to panic that I didn’t know who I was anymore. So I decided to take some time out to just think things over. It turned out that I really enjoyed the freedom to work on a more diverse range of personal projects. Of course, I miss working with the team at Spoiled Milk on a daily basis—they’re great people—but it was the right choice for me.

NA: You got the Creative Review gig pretty much on the strength of putting yourself forward for a job the magazine just happened to be considering commissioning someone for at the time. Am I right in thinking it was a similarly unsolicited approach that landed you the McSweeney’s deal?

RQ: That’s correct. I was brainstorming ideas in a café a few months after I stepped down from Spoiled Milk—days after the details of iPhone OS 3.0 were announced—and I started thinking about marrying McSweeney’s and the iPhone. On one hand, McSweeney’s seemed to be ‘The Saviours of Print’, the epitome of technologically-awkward, but I also knew there would be a large crossover in terms of audience and, well, there’s no reason they shouldn’t define the future of both print and digital publishing, right? I wrote a speculative email proposing a joint project and a couple of hours later I was chatting with an excitable Eli Horowitz via Skype. We fleshed out the concept together and I started work the next day.

NA: Do you think this is simply a case of being in the right place at the right time, or is there more to it than that?

RQ: Well, after four years running a service company, I did make a conscious decision to only do projects that I initiated or felt a personal connection with. I was a little tired of typical client-supplier relationships and wanted to avoid those for a while. Due to the success of the McSweeney’s app, I’ve been given a pretty free hand by the selection of clients I have worked with since, which has been very nice. I’m not really sure how these opportunities happen though. It might sound a bit precious, but I guess I’m always keen to try new things and meet new people, and I’ve never worried about suddenly taking a different direction in life.

NA: Creatively, it’s a pretty good time to be a developer and digital designer. The iPad is potentially—more than likely—going to open up a whole new world to publishing. Are you wary of any pitfalls for the iPad though? Not many people seem to talk about the fact that this is all running off proprietary software at the moment.

RQ: I think any single platform is going to struggle to gain the traction of paper and that’s a real problem if the industry wants to digitise itself. The music revolutions haven’t been down to Discmans and iPods. They happened because of CDs and then the MP3 format. The ‘publishing revolution’ seems to be waiting for this unsurpassable, ubiquitous device, which simply everyone will have. No matter how cool the iPad and its ilk are, they will never reach the penetration of, say, DVD players or just plain computers—portable or otherwise. Whereas the file formats of audio and video—usually the defining terminology amongst the general public—are interchangeable with a wide range of devices, you can’t quite say the same for current e-book formats yet. iPad and Kindle have the potential to make reading a lot more accessible and engaging for a certain demographic, but this device-based focus isn’t going to reinvent the whole industry. The crazy thing is that we already have a rich, open-standards solution for reading: the web. The iPad is an important device because of its hardware and because people are actually willing to pay for some content, but the real change will come when web browsers can fully take advantage of it, whatever the vendor.

NA: In the last couple of weeks we’ve had a firm announcement that Google are developing a touch-based device to compete with the iPad. You were in San Francisco recently (to pick up an iPad amongst other things). Is the situation any different in the US? Has the Nexus (and Android) had much of an impact on Apple over there?

I was in the Bay Area for a month and even in that time it was clear to me that the mobile-device market is a lot more open and diverse (although I can’t say the same for laptops, which were exclusively Apple in the San Franciscan coffee shops.) The iPhone has a much higher per-capita penetration here in Switzerland I believe.

NA: Amongst a certain class of person, the same is true in the UK. The iPhone is pretty much ubiquitous, at least in the design industry.

It’s true. Most tram carriages here seem to be iPhone-only zones at the moment. Apple are very good at capturing the imagination and they’re playing a very important part in pushing the next computing paradigm, but it’s going to be really fun when we have lots of great devices and lots of open formats.

NA: It’s an interesting point. Apple, who have in some ways made this next phase of mobile possible, are in others treading on the toes of its natural development.

So, Wallpaper*, McSweeney’s and Creative Review – that’s not a bad trio to have on your client list. What’s up next for Russell Quinn?

Actually, I’ve just started a full-time position as Digital Media Director at McSweeney’s! While becoming an employee is a daunting prospect after so many years making my own path, McSweeney’s is a truly inspiring place and I can’t think of a better group of people with which to put my plans into action. Assuming my work permit application is successful, I’ll be heading back to San Francisco permanently in October.

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