Jonathan Topf — ustwo Games

Lead designer on Monument Valley 2 by ustwo Games. He took a meandering journey through, film, animation and robotics before setting in the fertile grounds of mobile games.

What led you into design?

It’s been a meandering journey. I remember playing with flash, a moment where a few things clicked, it was the first time I had all the tools in front of me and it was just down to me to play. I also got into film and motion graphics through skateboarding, but I was nervous to commit to film-school so I took a detour for a couple of years in engineering and mechanical design, which in retrospect was hugely important. After that, I got back to moving image with a degree and then an MA in animation. I worked for a few years in animation and VFX before finding the huge umbrella of games, where I sit now.

What does a typical day look like?

Typical doesn’t seem to be a thing for me, work tends to happen in short bursts of a month or two where I develop a routine, then we cross into a new phase of a project and everything changes.

I’d say generally I start the day walking into the studio in South London, grabbing breakfast at the canteen and then talking over the day with my producer. Then there’s space for an hour where I can put on either a designer, coder or production hat. I have a couple of stand-ups to attend before lunch then the aim is to be heads down for the afternoon. Evenings are either cooking at home, catching up on Twin Peaks with people at work or headphones on and working on side projects into the late night.

At the moment though, I’m working from home studio to reset. I start the day with an hour of going through old sketchbooks and notes from the last year, archiving the good ideas as I go, then I spend the rest of the day working on one of my side projects.

What’s your setup?

Where do you go to get inspired?

That’s a tough thing to nail down.

Recently, I’ve been going through a phase of buying a lot of short comics, especially the £1-2 ones, there's something so nice about a medium that has such a low barrier to entry which means people really play with the form.

I’ve also stopped listening to things while I walk, there’s so much good content around and that it’s easy to forget when you just plug into a podcast. I like to give my mind time to wander which helps me find new ideas.

Also, coming out of a long-ish production has also allowed me to fall in love with my phone again. I’ve downloaded every app under the sun and had so much fun seeing the UI/UX trends in apps and games. It has me really excited about the opportunity for cross-pollination.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I recently played a game called Spaceplan, it's just a clicker game at heart, but it left an impression on me. Not necessarily for its visual or UX design but for the storytelling. For me, it illustrates how interaction can aid a story. In the game, your only interaction is clicking a button as you’re given a story to read chunk by chunk. As you go, you’re able to upgrade your button to click faster and eventually click on its own, but that’s it. It’s not new to make a game like this, but usually, they are made as either a money farm or a commentary on what games have become. Spaceplan on the other hand, treats the mechanic with total respect and I appreciate that.

I feel like there are a lot of games around that have been developed around taking advantage of base instincts and because people make a lot of money with them, people have negative feelings about them. But a game that appeals to our base instincts is a wonderful thing and when people can add a creative voice to them, it’s just sublime.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

That's a hard one. Monument Valley 2 has been the most amazing thing to happen to me, but proud seems the wrong word because it was such a team effort. The people I worked with over the past year and a half have become my best friends and are also the most talented people I’ve worked with, so privileged seems the more apt word.

Something I am really proud of is a little game I made a couple of years ago called Trick Shot. It’s not perfect by any means, but I learned a lot about how I work and how I feel about games while making it. I made it as a side project over a 10 month period on the underground tube, commuting to work, or in the evenings. I’m a huge fan of side projects, for me, this is when I learn, and then re-learn. I've realised that making things is sometimes as simple as just getting on with it.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Finding well-rounded people to hire. This has been a real learning curve for me, I wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be to find people who were talented, open minded, diverse and team players. The team at ustwo Games is amazing now, but finding everyone has been incredibly hard.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Remember that the principles you learn are the same for every kind of design. It frustrates me how many people specialise and then loses their critical eye for areas of design outside their wheelhouse. Principles like rhythm, contrast, value and tone are really the same thing whether you’re looking at colour, composition, timing, form, or anything else. Don’t restrict yourself to one point of view, especially when what design is, and can be, has become so fluid.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I try to keep my website at jonathantopf.com up to date. Soon I’ll have some new things to share so check out my twitter too for all the latest.

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