With 65 million unique visitors a month sharing, exploring, and discussing artwork of all sorts–to the tune of 2.5 billion monthly pageviews–14-year-old DeviantArt has long been one of the web’s most vibrant hubs of visual creativity. In October, Comscore ranked it as the 9th largest social network in the U.S. These days, you kind of assume that anything that big has an app of its own.
And yet, DeviantArt has not.
True, its website already did a good job of reformatting itself for diminutive screens: 31% of its users visit from a phone or tablet. A number of third parties have even filled the app gap with unofficial versions. But it’s only now that the company is announcing official iPhone and Android apps, fully bringing its community into the mobile era. (They’ll be available in their respective app stores on Wednesday, December 10.)
The phone apps are launching as part of a major rebranding effort, which DeviantArt hatched in collaboration with Moving Brands, a design firm whose other customers have included Flipboard, Google, HP, and Netflix. The effort includes a distinctive new logo, lofty declarations about the site’s ambitions (“Pop Culture and Fandom gravitate around the social planet that is DeviantArt”), and a signature symbol, which, like some of the best DeviantArt art, is intentionally open to multiple interpretations. (To me, it looks like a determined little man boldly barging forward into the future, but you might think it resembles a does-not-equal sign.)
The new look is polished and contemporary. Certainly far more so than the site’s unprepossessing current aesthetics, which are funky, homemade-seeming, and reminiscent of the online bulletin board which it was when it launched in August 2000–at first as a way to share custom skins for software such as WinAmp.
“The DeviantArt mark didn’t necessarily used to work in a highbrow setting,” explains Angelo Sotira, CEO of the Hollywood-based company which he co-founded when he was 19. The new one does, he says, while “also working where we’re most comfortable–sort of the street level, the social street.”
In the coming months, DeviantArt’s existing website will be revamped to reflect the rebranding and match the feel of the mobile apps–but a little at a time, starting with the new logo, rather than in one jarring great leap forward which might flummox its community. “It’s critical to let it happen in the right rhythm,” Sotira says. “These types of things are very emotional for people.”
As an all-new incarnation of the idea, the smartphone app has more freedom to rethink the experience without discombobulating anyone. And really, it makes a lot of sense for something like DeviantArt–which has 284 million uploads (or “deviations”) to date, with another 100,000 new pieces of art each day–to be available in a form where imagery can fill the screen and it’s possible to swipe your way around with a fingertip.
It feels much more intimate than DeviantArt in its conventional point-and-click form; on a PC, Sotira says, “the screen’s pretty big. You can’t focus on one image at a time–you end up having another image creeping up from the bottom.”
Here’s DeviantArt’s own video demo of the app:
The app lets you peruse images in several different ways. The “Today” tab includes collections curated by DeviantArt staffers on subjects such as “Saying ‘I Do’ in Space,” “The Colors of Harvest,” and “Disney’s The Little Mermaid: 25th Anniversary.”
“What’s Hot” features popular images; “Undiscovered” includes ones which aren’t yet hits. Daily Deviations are hand-picked individual images, and Explore lets you skim through pictures organized by hashtag.
At any point, “More From This Artist” and “More Like This” links let you take off in your own direction. Or you can simply do a search or browse by categories.
There are so many ways to peruse those millions of pieces of art–I haven’t yet covered every last option–that it can be a tad disorienting. In the Android version of the app which I tried, it wasn’t always immediately obvious how to quickly get back to the top-level menu of choices. Then again, as Sotira rightly says, part of the appeal of DeviantArt is its “down-the-rabbit-hole effect.” It wouldn’t be DeviantArt if it wasn’t in part about accidental, serendipitous discovery of art which you didn’t know you were looking for.
However, like DeviantArt in all its forms, the app isn’t just about discovery. Registered members–there are 33 million of them–can also use it to upload their artwork and photographs onto the site, where they can appear in galleries, status updates, and journals.
On the web, DeviantArt is supported by advertising. For now, at least, the app is both free and ad-free. “We’re letting this app go out to market just so people can appreciate it,” Sotira told me. “Then we’ll figure out what the right way is to monetize it.” (The company is already a substantial business: It has 120 employees and received a $10 million investment last year from graphics-software giant Autodesk.)
Also on the to-do list: Designing a version for tablets. (It’s easy to imagine that one being meaningfully different from the phone one, perhaps with a more magazine-esque interface.) “We want to give tablets the appropriate treatment, but we focused on phones,” says Sotira. “When we look at our logs, the mobile web traffic is much greater than tablet traffic.”
Even as DeviantArt modernizes and becomes more mobile, it’s staying true to its own idiosyncratic character. It’s not comparable to YouTube, where much of the content isn’t created (or owned) by the people who upload it. Or Pinterest, where the whole point is to curate stuff you found elsewhere. Or even Flickr, which offers a terabyte of storage, thereby encouraging you to use it as a giant shoebox for photo storage.
More than any of those social networks, DeviantArt is about self-expression and self-improvement. It aims to be a comfortable, constructive community as its members show off their work and refine their technical skills. “If you look at DeviantArt and click on any piece of art and look at the comments, you will see kindness being shared,” Sotira says. “It’s a crucial part of fostering creativity in people.”
Riffing on pop culture has always been a prime activity on the site. As I write, there are 160,526 images of Doctor Who; 101,207 of Wonder Woman; 90,840 of Sherlock Holmes; 55,414 of Katniss Everdeen; 33,898 of Yoda; 23,122 of Snoopy; 15,176 of Gollum; and 2,450 of Papa Smurf. The variety of approaches is mind-bending: The site doesn’t call each piece of art a “deviation” for nothing.
Purely original art also veers towards fantasy themes, but there’s no such thing as a type of art which feels out of place on DeviantArt. It also welcomes straightforward, low-key portraiture, still-life art, landscapes, and abstract imagery. And it has all of them in abundance.
The level of professionalism varies wildly. That’s sort of the idea, and people of all levels of skill find value in participating. “You want brand-new artists to have the encouragement they need to be audacious,” Sotira says. At the same time, “if you’re an advanced artist, you very much want to be pushed to your limits.”
All of which, he says, makes for a sui generis destination. “We like to think there’s no other place like DeviantArt. We’ve sort of earned that point of view.”