"As the lead designer of the most successful shareware and commercial screensavers ever made, I oversaw the evolution of the screensaver from its origin to its zenith as an art form, viable product, and part of the common consciousness."
My Role as the Screensaver Designer
I was lead designer of the Magic Screensaver, After Dark, 86 different After Dark animated displays, the Inner Space screensaver game and a version of the Pointcast screensaver. In Silicon Valley, I am known as ‘Mr. Screensaver’ but it’s not commonly known elsewhere. We did not adapt After Dark to work on Windows. Rather, the Mac After Dark was adapted to follow our successful design. At one point, my screensavers ran on virtually every computer as both the most purchased and most pirated software at the time. It was enough to have that much positive impact without everyone knowing my name. There are two versions of the greatest compliment my work has received. I have received thousands of hand-written fan letters and emails over the years along the lines of: “I love my screensaver. Thank you for making the only thing on my computer that I don’t hate.” The other great compliment was from Steve Wozniak a few years ago. He told me he had always been a huge fan of my work and was honored that he finally got to meet me. I was flabbergasted by that one.
The Cultural Impact of Screensavers
I’ve mentioned the points above chiefly to point out the impact screensavers have had in the world. When getting public praise, I would often think “Why are people fussing over this? It’s just funny or beautiful animation that plays, by definition, when you are not at your computer.” Clearly, the concept of a screensaver is more than animated toasters and aquariums on your screen. When Ian Macdonald and I started, we treated the screensaver as a trivial way to experiment, which is why we gave it away as freeware. However, my artistic temperament demanded that it be interesting. We asked for nothing, but users started sending us money and demanding features. Each time we responded with a new version, the email and money doubled. The idea of a screensaver as a valuable, even lucrative product evolved quickly. In doing so, we started to see that a well designed and well-engineered screensaver met a huge emotional need in the market. While users justified purchases because it literally “saved their screens” and secured their workstations when we introduced the first large-scale password protection, users *wanted* our screensavers because they impacted how people felt throughout their day.
Why Users Loved Screensavers
As we evolved Magic into After Dark, we refined our winning formula. Users loved screensavers because:
1. Screensavers offered a lush, amusing experience, but only when you weren’t busy.
2. You didn’t have to find it, run it, or maintain it. It took care of itself.
3. It didn’t ask anything of the user, but it was safe to play with and customize.
4. It never crashed, unlike most software in that era.
5. Choosing animations and customizing allowed users to express their individuality without doing much.
Metaphorically, the screensaver was the equivalent of a pet dog who fed himself, was always ready to play and amuse you, but never bothered you when you were working. To continue the metaphor, it was also like a dog that protected your computer from screen burn-in and unauthorized access. It’s part of why we were tempted to call After Dark “Magic After Dark” because it had a unique value proposition. It was the #1 selling computer product of any type. After my time with screensavers, it ceased to be a viable product but remains a great platform for incredible artists and animators. My approach to product design as a User Experience Designer is all based on what I learned from screensavers. The base deliverable was trivial; animation that played when you weren’t there. However, even the most trivial product can be elevated to the realm of awesome through mindful design.
Back in the day, Microsoft made an offer to buy and publish our work. Unfortunately, this was just after we agreed to let Berkeley Systems publish it. Consequently, Mystify your Mind and Starfield Simulation are Microsoft copies of our screensavers Magic and Warp, Flying Windows was a Microsoft inside reference to Flying Toasters and Inside your Computer was a Microsoft inside reference to our screensaver game, Inner Space. A competing screensaver at the time, Intermission, went so far as to make an ability to play our After Dark animations as a selling point.
Read Bill Stewart's in-depth article: "UX lessons from designing After Dark (screensavers II)"