Martin Taylor is a pretty icon-ic fellow, and not just because he designs the icons you see and use in Dreams! As the senior UI designer at Mm, he's responsible for designing the way that you lucky folk get to interact with our games, crafting a positive and logical gameplay flow. Most recently, he designed the wonderful user interface for Tren, our latest Mm Original all about toy trains and childhood nostalgia, concepted by our new creative director, John Beech. But Martin's talents go far beyond the UI realm, as he's also worked as a web designer, freelance game reviewer, and GTA modder. That's quite the CV to get through. Guess we'd better get started!
Hi Martin! What do you do here at Media Molecule?
I’m Martin, and I'm the senior UI designer at Mm. I suppose the latest thing I worked on was the user interface for Tren, which entailed designing the main menus, icons, graphic design, branding, basically all of the non-game elements of the experience. It was a pretty huge project to be part of, as there was only one of me doing all of that, but it was such a pleasure to work on such a special game.
Prior to that I worked on all of the UI for the Dreamiverse, which included creating all the social features like the comments system and cover page - I guess anything that you might call the front-end of Dreams. But I also worked really hard on the icon set used in the Create mode, which is basically my baby. We’ve got 1487 icons in the game, which was a huge undertaking. I didn’t draw every single one, but a good chunk of them was me. It didn't start off with that many, the list has definitely grown over time, and it’s by far my biggest contribution to the game.
Before that I originally started at Mm as a web designer on Tearaway. I actually joined the team about three months before Tearaway launched to design the photo portal for Tearaway.me(opens in new tab), the website for the game [Ed's note: Type "wassail rave" into the crafty codes box at the bottom, you'll thank us later]. Previously I’d been the web designer at the gaming news website Eurogamer, so I was used to designing fairly simple content websites that have a clear, defined structure. Then I joined Mm and it was like... go make Instagram.
It was a real jumping in at the deep end type of situation, but then I had the chance to work with the web team on a variety of projects. Somewhere along the way it all started slowly shifting into UI design, as there wasn’t a UI designer at the studio at the time. Since shipping Dreams, I’ve worked on a number of internal projects, some of the Mm Originals and updates - but Tren is by far the biggest project I’ve worked on since, and honestly the thing I'm most proud of.
How did you approach designing the social features of an enormous creation software like Dreams?
Unsurprisingly, being part of the web team, we approached the social features of Dreams with a web mentality, as if we were building a social media website or something. The main thing to consider was: how did we want players to interface with the game? We wanted the experience to be as close to the same experience across web on indreams and in-game as possible. It was a really massive project that spanned right up until the launch of Dreams, so about six years. As part of that project, I had the chance to work a lot with the systems team for Dreams and learned a huge amount from that.
Having worked across a lot of different departments at Mm, do you like the freedom of working across teams?
Definitely. You hear about people wanting to change careers every five years or so, but one of the nice things about working at Mm is that you’re given the opportunity to work on different projects within the studio, so you literally don’t have to go and find a new job if you feel the itch. It can be hard to get bored at somewhere like Mm, as opportunities to try something new regularly spring up. For example, I saw the opportunity to work on Tren as exciting as it was an opportunity to work on an actual videogame UI; the UI work on Dreams was much more like trying to translate social media or web UI into a game creation suite. So I geared myself up to move onto that, and I feel like I’ve changed career three times just from working at Mm, which is cool.
What does good UI practice look like from your perspective?
UI design wasn't really a specialism when I first started working at Mm, but nowadays you’ll go around and hear people being UI or UX (user experience) specialists that literally just touch the UX and don’t do any of the art or design along with it. But my work is much more general as I like to get stuck in to all bits of the process. I often start by trusting my gut instinct, but luckily we have a lot of great user testing at Mm which allows us to gather a lot of data. I think that’s the most important part of good UI design, where it’s data driven based on how people interact with the game.
Of course, there are more general good design principles that can be applied; clear typography, is the screen arranged in a way that facilities your hierarchy of user needs, et cetera - but user testing is key. Working on Tren has been interesting, as the user testing was vital to see people playing the game and using the UI, which was really useful. In some cases it can validate your assumptions about what people need, and other times there’ll be something on the screen you want them to see or use and they won’t notice it at all! So that’s the most important thing, getting it into players hands to try it out, otherwise you'll never know what the players are getting up to in the game.
Out of the various projects you've worked on at Mm, do you have a highlight?
I feel like Tren is honestly my best work, as it's the culmination of all these years of me learning the ropes. A lot of my work in Dreams was like, let’s just see how this goes. And that's not just me - it was a big experiment for everyone. But a lot of the things we added to Dreams... like, a threaded comment system on a PlayStation is a weird thing to do, and I think we did a good job. It’s not visually spectacular, but in terms of interacting with the coMmunity in that way it was unusual and quite a bold thing to do. But Tren is the best of all the lessons I’ve learned over the years and we made something that’s very focused with clear goals. Having those goals allowed me to just polish and iterate on that, and I’m really proud of it. I hope people are enjoying it, as we were fortunate to get given quite a long time in the oven for this project. I hope the amount of effort and love we put into it shines through, right down to not just the front-end UI, but also the creation kits.
I worked very closely with Catherine, our collections expert, to create something that felt very unified with the world of Tren. We wanted it to feel like you just got home from a toy shop with a whole load of new Tren boxes, and you take off the lid to see what’s inside. It’s like a present. All of the packaging was designed as if it was a real toy, which was a massive undertaking but it was essential to make it feel like it was part of the same world. Same with the Play & Edits tutorial system that Kevin Watts worked on, it binds everything together. It was very ambitious, and that’s why we spent so long on it. But it was totally worth it in my opinion.
You said that pre-Mm, you worked at Eurogamer. That’s obviously quite a different working environment, so how was it going from a game website to a game studio?
It was a challenge at first, but definitely the change I needed at the time. I started writing at Eurogamer sometime around 1999 as a hobbyist freelancer. They’d pay me £50 to review a terrible game, and it wasn’t always fun, but as a roughly 19 or 20 year old, that was all I wanted to do with my life: play games and write about them. Eventually I became a full time writer for them, but quickly realized it wasn’t for me. For me, reviewing games destroyed a bit of the pleasure that came with playing them, as you had to critically analyse everything so much that I didn't find it enjoyable anymore. At uni I had studied graphic design, so I went a bit further in that direction, which ended up me teaching myself web design. I worked for a bit at a small website agency, but then later on got back in touch with Eurogamer and had the chance to work there again as the website grew. So I was very lucky to have the chance to help grow that site, and work on some of the branding as well. That was the start of me being able to experiment with different projects and opportunities. Eventually I started to feel the boundaries of what was possible there, and wanted to get out of my comfort zone.
Luckily, from the work I did there, I had met some of the team at Mm, and heard there were some jobs going. I smashed together a portfolio for what I thought Mm would want, and sent off my application. Like, I knew that they would want to look at the source code of whatever website pages I sent them, so I made sure that the source code had memes in it to give it a bit of humour and personal flair, which Mm is obviously known for. I think they really appreciated that I put a lot of effort into my application, as it wasn’t just a list of my previous work, but that I had included so much personality. I think when you’re applying for a job you really want, it’s great to put a bit of extra effort in to portray yourself as a good fit for the studio. It’s important to show you can put love and attention into whatever you make, so making fun stuff is a good way to show you’re the right candidate.
You sort of preceded the next question a bit, but do you have any tips for anyone looking to get into UI design?
Without wanting to talk about courses and software and stuff that’s easy to find online, I think firstly it’s important to identify if you have a natural curiosity for how people interact with things in general, and then nurture that curiosity. That’s not necessarily exclusive to video games either; since I was a kid I have always been interested in signs, labels and infographics – different methods of instructing and directing people, particularly in ways that are graphically pleasing. I loved airport signage, so if you think that kind of thing is interesting, that’s a good start! And then marry that with an appreciation for graphic design, typography, colour, layout and motion.
My earliest steps toward my job – long before I knew what UI design was – started in the Grand Theft Auto  mod community. I started off building fan websites, and as the mod scene bloomed I tried to find ways to contribute to the tools we needed despite started not being able to code, so I would try to describe functionality to programmers by mocking up layouts for programs, like a mod launcher and script editor. I’m fairly certain this planted a seed in my brain that led me to where I am now. I suppose the main point here is that making things is very important! Practice designing things and describing interaction to see if you like it and are good at it.
Mm staff seem to have a lot of interesting items on their desks. What’s on your desk at the moment?
Aside from computer stuff I’ve got a few little trinkets that bring me joy; a photo of me with my son when he was a baby, a Feisar Wipeout ship, a couple of Monster Hunter cats - one of which is satisfyingly also in Feisar colours - and a teeny tiny little PlayStation model that I built in kit form and has a working disc tray complete with tiny little discs and a tiny little memory card. It’s tiny! Speaking of Wipeout, it's one of my favourite franchises, and an absolutely excellent example of UI design and game design in general. So you might notice that I took a bit of influence from that for Tren. Keep an eye out for it - it's not exactly subtle!
To wrap up, what are your favourite Dreams, and are there any that you'd like to recommend?
I have recently enjoyed Amenjo1’s superfast racer COIL very much, which made me nostalgic for an old PC game I used to play called Ballistics, though I'm not very good at either. I’m also a big fan of “lost city” and murky cave exploration type stuff, so I enjoyed Chris_Redwalker6’s Golden Kingdom a lot, which is absolutely stunning, and feels like an amazing, treacherous and expensive queue for what could be the greatest theme park ride in history. It's no surprise then that I'm also a big fan of Jungle Bill, as I love hiding things behind waterfalls, and the feeling of exploration that comes with it.
Finally I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention Todu’s endlessly fascinating perversion of the Dreams icon set, particularly Text Gadget Laboratory and "Text Gadegts/New Fleck" City which tells me that I thought I knew how Dreams text gadgets work but I absolutely do not. We did a big icon drop last year and then it was amazing just watching people use icons designed specifically for UI in really weird ways. Also Looking Through - A Visual Puzzle Game, which is a delightfully playful hidden object puzzle game. There's just so much great stuff in Dreams, and I love seeing creators find all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to use the icons I worked on!
The Dreams User Guide is a work-in-progress. Keep an eye out for updates as we add more learning resources and articles over time.