Interview with Ethan Lipnik, Developer of Acrylic

May 6, 2022 • Extra OrdinaryInterview



A wallpaper designer for your iPhone, iPad and Mac

Ethan Lipnik has just released Acrylic, a universal app that lets you make gorgeous wallpapers with soft mesh gradients or 3D geometric patterns.

It’s intuitive and easy to use — and easy to lose half an hour playing around with it.

Acrylic costs $1.99 up front. No in-app purchases, no subscriptions. Buy it once and get it on all of your Apple devices.

As icing on the cake, 70% of the proceeds to go the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a charity dedicated to “protecting gorillas while helping and educating the people who live near them.”

Ethan and I have previously collaborated together. We prototyped an app for iOS, but ultimately decided the third-party APIs we had to use were too expensive to finish our work.

As they say, real artists ship. Ethan, by this standard, is an absolute app-making machine. Acrylic comes after Neptune, a Twitter client; Syndromi, a YouTube client and OpenSesame, a password manager. That’s not to mention the dozens of open-source frameworks, projects and tools Ethan has published on GitHub.

Interview

I interviewed Ethan over the course of a week before Acrylic’s release.

First and foremost, why a wallpaper designer?

I don’t use third-party wallpapers because I like having light mode and dark mode variants. A wallpaper engine for iOS (and even macOS) that can change the wallpaper to something random is awesome.

Steve Troughton-Smith’s Pastel was a huge inspiration for this.

Press coverage and word-of-mouth recommendations are the biggest driver of app sales. With independent apps, a significant portion of the revenue is made right after the launch. You have chosen to donate 70% of proceeds to charity during the precious first month of sales of Acrylic. Why is that?

I don’t make my apps for money. I purposely chose the first month to donate because I want to use the app to help.

What’s special about the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, your charity of choice?

100,000 years ago, there were three other human species living at the same time. Now there’s just us. There are currently five great apes — we may become the last one. It is important to protect apes since they are our closest connection to nature. Gorillas are gentle giants; we need to help them and all the apes.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund has an A rating on CharityWatch and I truly believe they use every penny they can to help the gorillas.

The price of the app is $1.99 up front with no in-app purchases, subscriptions or features behind a paywall. Picking the right way to monetize a project is a trade-off developers lose a lot of sleep thinking about. Was this an easy decision for Acrylic?

I considered practically every pricing model. I’ve used free, freemium and paid pricing models for my other apps. They all have their pros and cons but for this app I think paid works best. It might change, but right now, the current pricing model works for multiple reasons. I seem to end up making my apps free at some point. It I think the hardest part was deciding how much to donate and for how long.

On your other projects, you have used SwiftUI for a significant portion, if not all of, your user interface. Recently, you’ve been coming around on UIKit. What motivated that shift?

While the codebase is still >50% SwiftUI, I expect my usage of SwiftUI to go down. I started working professionally eight months ago and I had to use UIKit. I learned a lot about some really great APIs like UI​Collection​View​Compositional​Layout and diffable data sources.

I felt I couldn’t deliver a good product if it was 100% SwiftUI. OpenSesame, my most recent app before Acrylic, was 100% SwiftUI but was riddled with issues I couldn’t fix. Working on Neptune 3.0, I really saw what SwiftUI and UIKit can do together. Using SwiftUI as complementary rather than primary helps a lot.

So what parts of the Acrylic user interface are written in SwiftUI, what parts are UIKit, and is there any AppKit in there at all?

I don’t think anything except the project navigator is 100% of either.

I tried using AppKit at first but it really came down to graphics bugs with SceneKit that caused me to use Catalyst. Since I used Catalyst, I needed a strong UIKit foundation since SwiftUI on Catalyst isn’t very good. SwiftUI is still required for some Mac-specific stuff like styled dropdown menus.

The export screen is probably the biggest mix since there’s a UIKit Metal view in a view controller, the buttons are SwiftUI and then it’s wrapped in a view controller.

It ended up being the best version it could be. If I used 100% of either, it’d be a bad experience, and trust me, I tried. SwiftUI will continue being a strong tool in my workflow, but no longer is it the first tool I try.

Many independent developers follow Apple’s lead by closely guarding what they’re working on from the public until it’s ready to ship. Steven Troughton-Smith, you yourself and others in the community have flipped the norm by publicly tweeting the development of your experiments and prototypes from their conception all the way to the App Store. What benefit do you see to this?

For me, the greatest motivator is seeing people enjoy my work. Seeing what works and doesn’t helps a lot with market research. I also find it great for marketing because people can learn about it as I go to build hype.

I do sometimes worry if someone will steal the idea before I finish, which is why there are some projects I don’t talk about publicly. 😉

What can people look forward to in future updates to Acrylic?

I can’t make any promises, but I really want to try out implementing ray tracing into 3D scenes with custom scene creation. Imagine working on a great wallpaper and then you see a switch on the sidebar that says “Ray Tracing.”

I also want to add more options for wallpapers like waves.

Leaning into the wallpaper-specific part of the app could be great, with a “gallery” view — maybe user-submitted wallpapers, or just randomly generated ones based on the color schemes you like.

There’s a lot of places it can go, really depends on if I want/can bring it there.

What do you think you’ll be working on next?

Before Acrylic, all my apps were built out of frustration. I used popular apps and wanted to make a better version, but the question wasn’t “can this be improved,” it was “can I improve this.” It helped me learn a lot, but it became the ultimate ego boost and was a negative way to build apps. I was never adding to it. “Imagine a Twitter client but with a ‘good’ design.” “Imagine a YouTube client but with a ‘more focused’ design.”

Acrylic was my first project built out of pure passion. It felt original. “iOS needs a wallpaper engine and people should easily be able to make good looking wallpapers.”
 


My next app will be my biggest app yet and it’s based on my passion for film making. I’ve been a film fanatic since I was very little, making short films on my portal video camera. It’s time to reenter that art form in the best way I can. I believe it will make a splash for pre-production tools. I can’t speak too much about it now, but I will have more information very soon.

It’s been two years in the making and I’m very happy with how it’s going — a culmination of everything I’ve learned in my 8 years of creating apps, working as a team and delivering a great product.

Isn’t it wild that Acrylic was a free-to-use name on the App Store in 2022?

It makes sense in some ways. It’s not a noun or something even common. I’m sure being in the “Graphics & Design” category also helps, but still. I’ve never gotten a one-word name on the App Store before. I’m very curious to see how SEO (search-engine optimization) goes for it.

It was harder to find a domain name.

Finally, if people want to give even more than 70% of 85% of $1.99 to the Gorilla Fund, where can they go?

Please go to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund website.

Click here to buy Acrylic:

Questions and answers have been edited from their original text for formatting, grammar and accuracy.

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