Mixel and Primitive Tools

The actual art-making tools available in our social collage app Mixel are pretty basic, with no modes and no calibration options. We shipped them that way for a good reason: we didn’t want people to feel that Mixel is a software application that they have to ‘master.’ A few moments is all you need to learn how to use all of the tools in the app, top to bottom.

Some people say that the tools are primitive, especially the cropping feature, which is downright imprecise. That one in particular is something we definitely want to improve, and we even intended to make it more powerful before we shipped the app but we ran out of time. We also left it as it was because we saw something really interesting in our beta testing that informed our whole attitude towards creative tools: imprecision is liberating. No one who tried to use Mixel’s crop tool to cut out a foreground image from its background ever felt that they were somehow “not using it right.” The tool is so rough and inexact that people believe there’s really no getting it wrong.

For us, that was a powerful realization, and one of the key insights that helped us make something fundamentally different from all of the other art software out there. The hugely constraining limitations of our toolset in effect let people off the hook, unburdened them of the pressure to make things perfect. It lets users create mixels in a few minutes, casually, almost without time to let their inner inhibitions about Art-with-a-capital-A take over. That’s exactly what we were going for.

Knowing Your Own Tools

We were lucky enough to nail those tools down pretty early in our development process without spending a lot of time refining them. In fact, the vast majority of the design and development effort on the app was spent on building all of the social gestures that wrapped the creation tools — liking, commenting, sharing, reusing pieces and remixing mixels — and getting those key interactions right.

So the toolset as it stands today has been essentially the one I’ve been using for a good six months now, day after day. At the time we launched the app last week, I was pretty confident that I knew them inside and out and, understood the full extent of their limitations and capabilities.

That all changed when I saw people start pouring into Mixel late last week. Something unexpected happened then: I’d open up my iPad, fire up Mixel and see something made with those same tools I’d never thought of before, something ingenious or unexpected or just plain beautiful. And this would happen again and again, several times a day, every day since last Thursday.

People Get Ready

Here are a few examples of that. But before I show you the work, a side note: you can now link directly to the works themselves within Mixel (the app) if you’re viewing the sharing pages in mobile Safari. That is, if you’re reading this blog post on your iPad, you can click the thumbnails below to see each collage at full-size on the Mixel.cc Web site. From there, you’ll see a new button that says “Open this in Mixel.” Tap on that, and the iPad will open up the app.

Jeremy Zilar

Jeremy insists that Nicholas Kennedy Sitton should get credit for the technique he used to ‘collapse’ this street scene here. Still, Jeremy is the one that introduced it to Mixel. It’s just one photo, cropped, slightly reduced in size and rotated in place, over and over. The effect is mesmerizing.

Mixel by Jeremy Zilar

Ariel Aberg-Riger

Most of my own Mixels have been kind of overflowing with imagery, edge-to-edge within the canvas. But Ariel has been building a body of work within Mixel that’s delightfully minimal.

Mixel by Ariel Aberg-Riger

Graham Hicks

It’s pretty hard to get more than one straight angle when cropping an image in Mixel, but Graham somehow manages to get a shattered glass effect in the way he arranges his collage pieces. Look carefully at how he aligns contrasty shadows within an image with similar shadows within others to create the illusion of fault lines that run throughout the composition.

Mixel by Graham Hicks

Christopher Lewis

There’s no text tool within Mixel, which was a purposeful omission; we wanted to encourage people to express themselves visually rather than textually. But Chris essentially scratched out an alphabet using images. It’s beautiful but the best thing about it is, like everything else in Mixel, it can and has been reused by others.

Mixel by Chris Lewis

Paul Soulellis

At first I thought Paul pulled off the cloudy, atmospheric effect in this mixel with a transparent PNG of some mist or cloud forms. But looking closer at it, I realized the misty effect is just the same image of the moon, enlarged so tremendously that its edges become distinct.

Mixel by Paul Soulellis

Luke Lambert

This mixel by Luke blew me away when I first saw it. It’s also a great showcase for the new open-in-app button from our Web pages that I mentioned above, as it demonstrates an artistry that’s only viewable within Mixel itself. Once you open it to its full size, you’ll see what I mean.

Mixel by Luke Lambert

It’s All (Visual) Talk

Finally, just to be clear: Mixel is not just about showing off your kung fu collaging technique. The core of the experience revolves around art as conversation. That’s best demonstrated in the many, many, many remix threads that are happening within the app right now — almost all of the ones I’ve listed above are parts of great threads, or will be before too long. Here’s my favorite remix thread that I came across this evening; it was kicked off by Ian Adelman with this hilarious identity cross-fertiization.

Mixel by Ian Adelman

If this all looks like fun to you, that’s because it is. People are telling me that, in the few short days since it was released, they’ve become practically addicted to Mixel. You can download it here and get your fix right now.



  1. Hi Khoi — Great work on Mixel and I agree that the tools are almost entirely intuitive. But I will say it wasn’t until I watched you demo the app in a video on Gigaom that I realized you can cherry pick/borrow/reuse individual pieces from other collages. Otherwise, you are totally correct: It is addictive and the imprecise-ness of the tools is part of the creative charm… and challenge.

  2. After spending way too many hours playing with Mixel, I find the crop tool at times liberating, and at others deeply frustrating. But I think you put that energy in the right places. The social / collaborative aspects of Mixel are what make it truly unique, and totally addictive. Looking forward to watching the platform evolve.

  3. The crop tool is pretty bad and it limits what you can do with Mixel, so I’m glad to hear that you know that already.

    I do have one point of basic confusion. I don’t understand why this is an ipad-specific app. Why not desktop or just html5?

  4. Michael: Mixel wouldn’t work on the desktop or in a browser. It’s naive to think that those tools would offer the same experience. Either that or it’s disingenuous to suggest you believe otherwise.

  5. no, i’m not suggesting it would be the same experience. i understand that browsers are still quite limited. people are reluctant to use desktop apps, that would have been a complete fail.

    anyway, i don’t really have a criticism here – it’s more that i can’t puzzle out why the ipad is a natural platform for this. it’s quite limited (quite disappointingly imho) in terms of content creation.

  6. Michael: I think that’s not a very open-minded way of looking at it. You won’t be able to create an Excel spreadsheet or retouch a Photoshop image on iPad the way you can on a desktop, it’s true. But the kind of works you can make with Mixel are just not possible on the desktop. The multitouch interface is much easier to master and much more direct than using a mouse, and the overall ecosystem gives users a strong foundation for intuitively exploring mixels.

  7. Khoi, you’ve done a fantastic job so far with Mixel. The restraint it demands makes me forget my bad Adobe-Creative-Suite-induced-habits and just have fun making art. I’ve ordered a stylus so I can make more precise crops, but I think that says more about my perfectionism than Mixel or iPad.

    I have what I suppose is a feature request:

    I was recently working on three mixels simultaneously, and sharing some of the elements between them. Once I’d finished them and was ready to post, I realized they’d be perfect as a string of remixes, but the only way I knew to make this happen was to recreate two of them from scratch. I let my desire go and just posted them all individually, but I can see wanting the ability to somehow say “make this mixel a remix of that” much like you can reuse a piece (maybe even a similar pop-over UI? I’ll leave that to you — the app’s interface is great).

    Anyway, if there’s a better place to leave feature requests (or bugs or praise), let me know and I’ll use those channels in the future. Thank you for your wonderful work.

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