Democratizing Design: A Conversation with Ellen Johnston of Makr

EllenJohnston (1)Designing business cards and wedding invitations is a not your typical DIY project, yet an app called Makr is putting the business of branding into the hands of anyone with an iPad. Run by designer-turned-CEO Ellen Johnston, we profiled the app last year as a way to create personalized holiday cards, though in practice Makr is used more often by entrepreneurs who want to take control of the look, and costs, of their own logos and printed materials. She works with a team of eight at The Yard, a co-working space we also inhabit, and recently told us about the inspiration for the app, her management style, and Makr’s latest features.

What was the inspiration for Makr, and when did you start to begin real work on it?

I’m a designer by trade. As someone who loves designing things, appreciating design and teaching it, I find it completely frustrating that complicated, expensive software creates such a barrier for people to design. As a UI/UX designer, I started designing for mobile pretty early on, witnessing first-hand a shift in accessibility to technology and how people interact with it. I saw an opportunity to harness the powerful devices that we carry with us everyday as empowering creativity tools. My team and I started working on Makr in the Spring 2013 and launched the first version of our product on the iPad that November.

How has it evolved since you launched? What have you learned about the app, and running the company, since it’s been out in the world?

We’re constantly inspired by how people use Makr, and that definitely influences our product and content development. Since launch, we’ve been seeing people use Makr for branding design–for Etsy shops, weddings, personal brands and more. They’re creating designs that speak to their personality and aesthetic, then applying them in multiple ways. This discovery led to a lot of the product decisions we’ve made post-launch, such as our logo creation feature, which allows users to design, export and apply custom logos.

You ran a creative agency, Happy Media, prior to Makr. How has your work life changed since you’ve turned your attention to Makr? And how does The Yard fit into that?

The startup life is very different from that of an agency! Sleeves rolled up, we move super fast; we’re ultimately in charge of our destiny, which is cool. Because we have to learn and evolve so quickly, we organize “sprints” in which we set ambitious goals for ourselves, and then figure out different initiatives to get us to the finish line. We’re constantly looking at data and determining what’s working, what’s not and how to respond accordingly. We’re a collaborative team–everyone participates in the product decisions we make, and everyone has a lot of responsibility. The nice thing about working at The Yard is being around a lot of companies that take a similar approach. It’s great to be part of an environment where there are a lot of passionate people working on big ideas.

What’s life like on the Makr team–how many people work on the app, what are their backgrounds and what is a typical day like for the company?

It’s exciting. We’re heads-down right now, with (an exciting!) product launch around the corner. We’re currently a team of eight, made up of a good mix of folks, from engineers to designers and people with product backgrounds. Our typical day starts with a team stand-up–a quick pow-wow where each of us updates the team on what was accomplished yesterday, what will be accomplished that day and any blockers they have. Since we have to move quickly, making sure everyone is communicating and on the same page is really critical.

Makr was designed to serve both “experienced” makers and creative professionals who need marketing materials and business cards, and crafty folk who want to design their own invitations and gifts. Do you know now which crowd uses it the most?

Most people use our tools for “branding,” a concept that’s evolved a lot over the last few years. Traditionally branding was something that was very corporate in nature, but now people are branding themselves in one way or another–from personal websites to Twitter banner images to NikeID sneakers. At its heart, branding is a way to visually identify yourself, a business or an idea and to apply it across multiple touch points. Our key demographic is people who are creative in nature, but not design professionals. We provide great design tools to democratize design–to empower the masses to be creative and expressive.

People can now design and export their own logos–is that something you intended to introduce all along or was this an idea that came from users?

As we started to see our core users creating branding pieces, we quickly recognized that the cornerstone to branding–the ability to create a logo–was missing in the app. It’s the key design element that can be used online and offline and easily applied to multiple products to create a consistent, cohesive brand identity. We’ve seen an awesome response to our logo functionality. On the business side, we’re seeing a lot of traction with logos, but what’s most rewarding is to see what people are creating. We’re seeing creative entrepreneurs like Etsy sellers create and launch brands practically overnight. People are using it to brand their weddings, from the invitation to the event itself.

What’s next for Makr? Are you working on any other new features?

We’ve got some exciting endeavors up our sleeve, scheduled to launch in late August. In the context of rethinking branding, we’ll be adding some cool, fun new features and expanding to reach more people with our tools. Stay tuned!

This interview is part of a series of sponsored profiles on businesses that operate out of The Yard, a co-working space on the Williamsburg/Greenpoint border with outposts on the LES and NoMad (5th Ave. at 27th St.).