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How Letterboxd used Sketch to design a home for cinephiles

If you didn’t rate it on Letterboxd, did you even see the movie?

Letterboxd is a global social network for grass-roots film discussion and discovery. You can use it as a diary to record and share your opinion about films as you watch them — or just to keep track of films you’ve seen in the past. You can also showcase your favorites on your profile page, rate, review and tag films as you add them, and find and follow your friends to see what they’re enjoying. It’s like GoodReads for movies, and it was made in Sketch 😉

We recently chatted with co-founder Matthew Buchanan to learn about how Letterboxd came to be and how they’ve managed to succeed as an independent company. Matthew also oversees product and creative direction, so he was able to share how his team uses Sketch to bring Letterboxd to life.

How would you describe Letterboxd?

Letterboxd is a movie-tracking and list-making app (and website) with a social component. In terms of existing services, it’s most similar to GoodReads, the book-tracking service. Our members log the films they watch—no matter whether at the cinema, on streaming, or elsewhere—and post their reactions and reviews, which are shared into the feeds of their followers, facilitating discussion and discovery. They can also make and share lists (including keeping a watchlist of titles to see at a future date), complete challenges, find out where films are streaming, and generally commune over their shared love of cinema.

How did you come up with the idea for Letterboxd?

In the 2000s, I used a Mac app to catalog my DVD library. It was the pinnacle of skeuomorphic design: shiny plastic cases containing poster art rendered on wooden shelves. The app’s creators teased an online component at one point, but all that came out of it was an HTML export facility. Eventually, we got tired of waiting for someone else to build a good social film app. IMDb had existed for well over a decade, but there was no option to follow others on that platform. So we set about imagining how such a service might look and feel, and then we decided to build it.

Screenshot of Letterboxd film page designed in Sketch

View of film page provided by Letterboxd

We hear Letterboxd is independent and proud. Can you tell us more about what that means to you?

There are a couple of roads you can take when starting a business, and we liked the sound of going at our own pace and growing a product and a community over time. It’s an important part of our story that we were able to fund Letterboxd’s early development (through the design studio I co-founded in 2001) to the point where it has become a viable business in its own right, employing a small team of really cool folks, most of whom were superusers of the platform prior to becoming employees. I’m really proud of that journey.

How did Sketch become your tool of choice?

I could never get to grips with Photoshop for UI design work—it always felt like I needed fifty layers for even the simplest layouts. I started using Fireworks when Macromedia released version one, and really gravitated to what at the time was a unique design tool that was natively vector-based, but also provided rudimentary tools for bitmap editing. That product was mostly ignored following the acquisition by Adobe (and eventually killed), and Sketch debuted just as Fireworks was going through its death rattle. It was the perfect replacement, just at the right time.

Screenshot of Letterboxd profile page designed in Sketch

View of profile page provided by Letterboxd

Tell us about the process of designing Letterboxd in Sketch. Are there any particular features that have helped to make your workflow easier?

Having files available online has been very useful. We started off with our source files in a shared Dropbox folder (a terrible idea), and adopted Abstract when it launched to help with version control. Now that Sketch’s tools are more robust in that area, we are able to rely totally on the first-party product to accomplish what we need.

Our design team is still just two to three people, so we are rarely working on the same file at the same time, but being able to follow each other’s cursors is useful for shared feedback sessions. I also love having a library of components to assist with design tasks, although ours is not as complete as it should be, so sometimes we end up riffing on design changes on top of screenshots, especially if time is limited.

What are some unique challenges you face when designing a social network like Letterboxd?

I’m not sure many of them are too unique! As I suspect is the case with many other product teams, we’re designing extensions and revisions to an existing platform, which has its own business logic and visual approach, established over more than a decade. Sometimes the best way forward is to reimagine how a component works, but we don’t always have that luxury, so in some cases we might make a smaller or different change based on an existing platform convention, with a plan to extend or improve it in the future. We are constantly (re-)prioritizing work to help our members enjoy a better experience and to help our team better tend to our community.

Screenshot of Letterboxd journal archive page designed in Sketch

View of journal archive provided by Letterboxd

What was it like to design for multiple platforms, especially when adding Apple TV to the mix?

I enjoy the challenge. In particular, I’ve thought a lot about whether we should try to present a uniform look everywhere or bend more to platform conventions in order to feel more at home — and more native to that group of users. We tend more to the latter direction, I think, mostly for pragmatic reasons. Even then, there’s a challenge in keeping up with the state of the art.

Our Android app is not using the latest Material Design conventions in some areas, and I’d like that to be an area of focus for us. The technical underpinnings of the Apple TV app came together very quickly, but it was certainly a challenge designing a user experience for that platform, deciding what features made sense to include (we don’t offer logging, for example, because user input via an on-screen keyboard is murderously slow).

What has been your greatest achievement with Letterboxd?

For me, it’s the whole journey of taking an idea, building out a private beta, launching publicly, and after nine years being able to hire our first two full-time staff members outside of our agency. That was a huge moment.

What’s your next milestone?

We don’t like to share plans too far in advance. Right now we’re working on some improvements to our streaming service filters, to make them even more useful, and on our activity feeds, to bundle up multiple entries from individual members. Further ahead we’ve acknowledged publicly that better support for TV series is an area of interest, and not without some very specific challenges.

To wrap up, what movies are you watching right now that you’d recommend?

We’re friendly with one of the production companies involved with the Philippou brothers’ Talk To Me, which A24 will release in the US later this year. I had the opportunity to watch it with them, and it’s an absolute firecracker, if you like elevated horror. I also really loved Rye Lane.

Letterboxd is available for iOS, Android and Apple TV.

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