Design Story: Shawna Davis and Mario Verduzco on HTC Themes

We’re back again with Design Story–your peek at what goes on inside the designer’s mind. This time around we’re talking with Lead UX Designer Shawna Davis and Senior Visual Designer Mario Verduzco about HTC Themes and customizing your phone’s interface.

Could you each talk a little about the idea behind HTC Themes–what is it and how did the project start?

Shawna Davis: Themes is a way for people to deeply personalize the look and feel of HTC phones. You can change your Home and lock screen wallpapers, your icon set, font, notification sounds and even your color palette.

We tried to make it as easy as possible, while still providing a wide range of choice. You have three ways to create a theme–using the Themes app on your phone, using Theme Maker online or using Maker Pro online. Each tool gives you a different degree of control over what you can customize, depending on how much time you want to spend on a theme.

On the website, you have the option to publish your theme to the store so anyone can download it. It’s really fun in that way–anyone can become a designer.

Mario Verduzco: I think the interesting part from my side is letting the user create their own—not necessarily design–but mood.

Depending on your hobbies and interests, you just upload an image to get started. For example, some people are animal lovers and they’d like to have something catered to that lifestyle. It’s so easy to snap a picture of your pet and get a complete theme for your phone based around that image. It makes the phone your own.


Mario Verduzco and Shawna Davis

Was it hard to give away some of HTC’s ability to craft the visual design, given that Themes is based around co-creation and personalization?

Shawna: I wouldn’t say it was hard to give up that control. We just really cared about setting people up for success when creating a theme–that was the challenge.

We wanted to draw in those people who don’t think of themselves as creatives and say: “You know what? We’ve figured out a way to make this complicated process easy and fun for everyone.”

Mario: Browsing other people’s themes is actually a great way to get inspired, so I’d say the co-creation aspect is essential to the community.

Maybe you never thought about using pink in a theme, but then you see someone else using the color in an interesting way. That’s the cool thing about having a community–letting people create themes and publish them for others to use, too. The community builds on each other.

Were there any restrictions you had to set for user-created themes?

Mario: Not necessarily for visual elements, but there were things we didn’t want to let people change. I can imagine someone liking to have the header text center aligned instead of left aligned. In my mind, that would be having complete control over your phone’s theme.

Shawna: We considered giving the designers, as we call people who make Themes, the ability to change behavior or layout. At least for the first release, we decided to focus on setting people up for success. We didn’t want it to get confusing for users.

I think the color palette is a great example of a complicated experience that we simplified through restrictions. You only have to pick four colors, but we expand them and deeply apply them throughout the phone. You get the most bang for your buck, or rather for your time, compared to our competitors’ experiences.

Mario: For color especially, we had to figure out how to cover as many scenarios as possible. On the backend, the team worked really hard to figure out how to expand the four selected colors into everything needed for the phone. There were a lot of limitations to work out on how to implement transparency, texture and other nuances you might not notice unless you look closely. We took care of all the under-the-hood bells and whistles so you don’t have to worry about anything.

There’s a lot of magic in Themes, it seems.

Shawna: Yes, that was part of the goal. If you want, you can make a theme on your phone in two steps–choose a wallpaper and a style. I think that’s pretty cool, maybe a little magical.

Each style is a combination of icons, sounds and colors that were carefully chosen. Like Mario was saying, the color selections expand and map to different areas all over the phone, including the icons in some styles.

I noticed that HTC has some themes available for download in the store, in addition to the user-created content. How did you create or decide on the official HTC themes?

Mario: The visual designers in the Taipei and Seattle studios were invited to create themes to support the initial launch and at least half of them submitted at least one. From there, we reviewed them as a team, narrowed down everything to around 15 concepts and shipped the One M9 with the nine that were the most complete.

Shawna: I think it’s interesting to note that, while selecting those default themes, there was a really wide variety of designers, from multiple locations and countries.

Mario: With different interests, too. You have Pastorale that’s done in a vector style–flat but very playful–all the way to Origami with its sweet folded paper icons. The one I designed had a very minimal tone in contrast.

Shawna: Tilt, right?

Mario: Yep, that’s me–just black Tilt.

Shawna: We have that good range because we have a good range of designers.


Foreground: some of Mario’s themes–from left to right, Nimbus, Amoeba, Tilt and War paint. Background: one of Mario’s personal works.

How are you feeling about the project and how it’s been received?

Shawna: The response has been quite strong–more than I expected. I remember we had something like a million users in the first couple of weeks and something like 5,000 themes submitted for approval. It was kind of nuts.

In my mind, there’s a lot more we can do in the community space to encourage more involvement, but there’s already a large group out there making stuff with our tools. In that sense, it feels like a win.

What can we expect next from the Themes team?

Shawna: We’re really focused on making your phone come alive. There are some exciting theming options for the Home screen that we’re batting around right now, but nothing specific we can reveal just yet.

Mario: Definitely more flexibility, as far as customization. We’re also improving the online tool to help people stretch their creative muscles. I think some people are afraid to try, but there’s nothing to worry about. We made it so easy, you just need to have fun with it.

Let’s talk about you on a personal level for a bit. Mario, where did you grow up and what’s your background?

Mario: I grew up in Mexico City when it was the biggest city in the world with a population surpassing 24 million. When I was a kid, design itself wasn’t out there. It was more about working in the finance district or with numbers and spreadsheets. I’m the first designer in the entire family.

I remember my grandfather asking my dad: “What is he going to do? Is he going to make comics for the Sunday edition of the local newspaper?” That’s the perspective towards design, at least that’s what it used to be. Nowadays, people value design a little more.

My background deals more with stuff like posters, magazines, editorial layout and typography. From my perspective, those are the basics for any designer. If you know how to put things together on a canvas or layout–and catch the eye of your audience, regardless of their trade–you can do anything, right?

I became more of a digital or visual designer when I joined HTC—10 years ago. I remember my first task, when I arrived at HTC, was to create a set of icons. In the first two or three weeks I created a set of over 1,000 icons. I was so excited.

How about you, Shawna?

Shawna: I am from Portland, Oregon, which is known for being weird. Growing up there, I went to an alternative, arts magnet school. So, I was always encouraged to be very expressive and different as a kid.

Later, I studied Fine Arts in college and assistant taught one of the foundation courses. That’s when I really cemented my love for the creative process and established a desire to share that, and make it accessible to anyone who’s interested.

My dad is an engineer, so he introduced me to technology very early on–I went to computer camp when I was ten. Expressing myself using high-tech tools just makes complete sense to me.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Mario: My inspiration comes from a need of being creative. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, sit down at my computer and start work on a shape that I had just been dreaming about. I’ll do a rough pass, save it and polish it the next day. I really do work in my spare time.

It comes naturally. It’s not like I sit down and go oh, I need to create this or that. It’s like, “oh, I want coffee… Oh, I want to design…” I can’t just not do it.

Shawna: I have a problem solver mind, so if there’s an interesting problem at hand, then I can’t stop thinking about it. I mull it over wherever.

Of course, you’ve got to pick a problem to solve. In this case, I guess inspiration came from the idea to make personalization accessible. That was something I could really get behind.

I drew a lot inspiration from the rest of the team, too. I love to start with a user need, get people in a room together without prior expectations and have everyone generating ideas around it. I’m always amazed at what comes out of that.

A lot of those ideas maybe don’t fit together yet or seem impossible. That’s great! It puts me in my zone to do one of the things I do best, which is to help synthesize those ideas, so strong ones can blend and are possible.

Lovely talking with you both, but that’s all our time for now. It’s been amazing learning more about what drives you, your team and your projects. I’ll look forward to chatting again when there’s more news from the HTC Themes team.

While you wait for the next design story, try designing your own theme. For the latest information about our smartphones, you can always visit HTC.com.

  • Kwadwo Boadu

    Great insight, I really enjoyed reading this! I think the fact that it also came to older HTC phones, via simply being placed on the Google play store was a big win. As someone who changes my background on a weekly or fortnightly basis having themes has really helped that. Now I’m just waiting for Sense 7 so I can change more with themes and get on board with making some on the computer and not only on my phone. PS the Nimbus theme is one of my favourite stock themes.