Why I screenshot

sh pops the question

Three months ago, Sarah Hatter asked me a question that I had intended on answering then and there. In fact I did, but I had intended to expand upon these thoughts in a longer post:

Actually, I take shot primarily for my own purposes — research, learning and as a repository of interfaces that I can dig up later and imitate.

If I had to go out an search for a specific UI everytime I needed inspiration, I’d be a *much* slower designer than I already am! This way I can capture the best of the web *as* I come upon it, when the moment of inspiration hits.

I think this hints at what I said the other day about cleverness: she is the most clever who is the sum of everyone else’s cleverness (Ok, I didn’t say that exactly, but that’s kind of what I was getting at). On top of that, it’s rather inefficient to try to “innovate” your way to the next big thing when most “inventions” are actually evolutionary improvements to what’s come before. As if social networking and Web 2.0 was new! I mean, the version got ticked up from one-point-oh right?

But that’s not really what I’m saying. What I am saying is that I screenshot for history, for posterity, for education and erudition, for communication, to show off and, heck, for my own enjoyment. Call me twisted, but I really get off on novel approaches to old interfaces, clever disk images or fancy visualizations. Jacob Patton once called me the pornographer of Web 2.0. Nuff said.

Still, there is more to be said. For one thing, I don’t screenshot everything that I see or come across. Just like my blog posts, I tend to like to write about things that are interesting to me, but that, if I’m going to share to the wider world, will probably be of some interest to other folks, one way or another. I never assume interest, but, y’know, I do try to make this stuff look good in the off chance that someone takes inspiration from something I’ve uploaded… as in the case of Andy Baio‘s work on the redesign of Upcoming. According to his own recollection of his design process, he relied more heavily on my shots of the Flickr-Yahoo Account merge than on any other online resource for figuring out how to implement the same for Upcoming. So yay? Go team!

This is the perfect example of why my screenshotting of design patterns can be really useful for clever people. When other smarter people have already solved problems, and start repeating the solutions or interface in consistent ways, it becomes a design cow path. These are most interesting to me because, as the patterns emerge, we start to develop a visual language for web applications that can be used in the place of verbal descriptors like “adding friends” or “upload interfaces“. Rather than speak in the abstract, we can pull from an existing assortment of solutions from the wild that have already been proven in place, that you can interact with, and that you can evaluate on a case by case basis as to whether any given pattern is worth emulating in a new design.

I also screenshot as a way of in-between blogging, I guess. Y’know, like Twitter, Tumblr, Ma.gnolia, Plazes and Last.fm (among others) are all forms of in-between blogging. They’re where I am in the absences between longer posts (such as this one) where I record what I’m up to, what I’m seeing and what’s interesting to me. My Flickr screenshots are probably more often than not more interesting than what I have to say over here, and certainly less verbose. And, most significantly, the screenshot is the new photograph, allowing me to connect through images of what I see with other people who are able to see things the way I see them. Imagine life before the original camera, where everyone’s depiction of one another was captured on canvas in oil paint; before screenshotting became a first class citizen on Flickr, we were living in a similarly blind world, cut off from these representations of our daily experience. But fortunately, as of a few months ago, that’s no longer the case:

Flickr: Content Filters

And, following off that last observation, I screenshot for posterity. Now that this internet thing has caught on and it’s been around a bit, it’s fun every now and then to reflect and go back to the days of the first bubble and take a look at what the “it” shine was back then (now it’s the “floor” effect — formerly known as the “wet floor” effect — but back then maybe it was the java lake applet?). Which is all fine and well, but once you start poking around, you’ll notice very quickly that the Wayback Machine is way incomplete. And while Google’s cache is useful, it certainly tends care more about the textual content of a page rather than how it originally looked. And that’s where screenshots could make up the difference, just as photographs of real life offer us a way to record the way things were, screenshots provide a mirror in time into the things we see on screen, into the interfaces that we interact with and the digital communications that we consume (check out this old view of the QuickSilver catalog compared with its current look or how about the Backpack preview or when Gmail stored less than 2GB of email?).

I don’t tend to think about the historic value of things when I shoot them; I do tend to evaluate their interestingness or contribution to a certain series along a theme. And yet, I’m curious to see, over time, just what these screenshots will reveal about us, and about the path we took to get to where end up. For one thing, web application development has changed drastically from where it was just a few years ago and now, with the iPhone, we’re embarking into wholly undiscovered territory (where it’s unclear if screenshots will be possible). But these screenshots help us learn about ourselves, and help us see the pieces-parts of our everyday experience. If I screenshot for any reason, perhaps it is to collect these scraps of evidence to help me better understand and put order into the world around me, to tie things together visually, and to explore solutions that work and others that fail. Anyway, it’s something I enjoy and will probably keep doing for the foreseeable future.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

15 thoughts on “Why I screenshot”

  1. Yeah! I’ve frequently found myself digging through your flickr sets when I’m wireframing or designing… you’ve got quite the resource Chris. Sounds like I’m not the only one, and in fact I’m sure there are many of us – I’ve often thought there’s probably a whole crowd of us flicking through your sets.

    Shot on dude!

  2. That’s a great idea — sort of like code snippets for designers.

    Shortly after reading this post, I found this:


    Thought you would find it interesting, if you haven’t seen it already.


  3. me too – I think it’s a fantastic resource and I thank you for it quietly on a regular basis!

    for me it’s the best way to get a quick handle on how people are doing things these days, from a design pattern perspective.

    thanks Chris – as Andy said – shot on 😉

  4. I too, thank you for all of the screenshots. It struck me yesterday while looking at your screenshots of Skitch and consequently the accompanying screencast, that this is the future of Mac UI that I’d REALLY like to see. The UI’s for Skitch, DivX Player, Delicious Library, Disco, etc. all show a willingness to leap beyond the norm.

    Sure in the case of Disco, the devs caught a lot of flack (some of it from me) for not creating an app that does something useful. Some of my thoughts on that still stand for me. However, what has changed is that because of the leap and bounds progress of UI’s from these various devs, maybe the various devs that DO create useful apps can take cues from the aforementioned apps and bring some much needed excitement to the Mac platform.

    Everyone’s all ways saying that all the Mac needs to gain more mindshare and market dominance is that ONE killer app. Instead, I suggest that what the Mac platform needs is a whole cabel of apps using various iterations of these newer UI’s so that devs (and Apple) can show the Mac as the platform for next generation, cutting edge applications. Imagine what the Mac landscape would look like if every app used effects like the DivX player or were nicely designed like Skitch and Delicious Library? Apps across the board employing ideas such as these would make the Mac platform more compelling and easier to engage. A lot of more traditional Mac devs would probably go on the warpath, but I think this is the evolutionary path that Mac devs should be traveling upon.

  5. I’m so glad you do it, Chris. I find more awesome mac apps (and occasionally web apps) via your flickr stream than any other way.


  6. Another point I’m sure is that some of the screen shots are quite hard to get to — they could be in the middle of an in-depth process, or have certain elements that are hard to set up.

    Chris what do you think of the extension of this — video screencasts, of a similar nature to the screen dumps, with the primary objective being for capturing good interactive designs — stills often don’t do it justice. These screencasts would be small, and very short — certainly no longer than 30s, and sometimes only 5s.

  7. @Julian — man, I’d love to do more screencasts… the idea of mini-flows is a good one, and I’ll have to give it more thought.

    My biggest issue with screencasts is how hard it is to get 30 seconds to look good… and then to compress it right for video. The beauty is screenshots is that they retain fidelity — so you can literally get pixel accuracy for later use and reuse…

    Still, micro-screencasts is a cool idea!

  8. Hey all!
    I’m one of the creators of Skitch.

    I also used Chris’ great resource that he has put on flickr (of which most were posted with Skitch) while designing mySkitch.com!

    I like the ying/yang feel of that 🙂

    Viperteq – Glad you like Skitch. We are certainly getting flack about the Skitch look too. I think in this case though, it is more about style than function. And I don’t disagree, though don’t hate it like some. I did the graphics, but I’m not happy with them yet. I’ll have to work with another designer to get it where I’m happy.

  9. I only do screenshots when something interesting/funny appear an can be deleted in a short period of time. 😛

  10. Hi Chris,
    re the mini-flows, that would be really interesting. There just so little task driven sources of information out there. 

    Regarding the flickr sets I must say they were one of my main sources while working on wirerframes for my projecto – adegga.com. Thank you for putting them up.

  11. Yep, thanks for the screenshots, you’re my inspiration on the west coast.

  12. I find it useful when I am responding to someone in a blog/facebook/myspace/… and it inspires and idea. The ability to grab the image, quickly write out what your idea/thought was and send it to the archive for later development. Chris, if you could shoot me a quick email where I could ask you some questions of this topic about several of the projects I am working on I would be grateful.

    Jerry R. Reynolds

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