Building a website is no easy task. When I sat down to create a site to show off my writing, it took hours of digging around online to find a template that looked similar enough to what I wanted, and hours more to personalize it. Half the time, I wanted to alter some piece of the site’s design but no amount of frantic searching helped me build the site I had imagined.
An app called Universe aims to change all that. It helps you build an endlessly customizable site in just a few minutes, all from your phone. Since the app launched in March 2017, more than 150,000 sites have been created on its platform. And after finishing the prestigious accelerator Y Combinator earlier this year, Universe is beginning to roll out a “pro” subscription service, where subscribers can use their own domain names, get analytics for their sites, and remove the startup’s bottom-of-the-page branding for less than $15 per month (the startup is still testing prices).
Why would you want to build a website from your phone in the first place? It seems almost counterintuitive because most of us think that building a piece of the internet is necessarily complex. Universe’s founder Joe Cohen believes that since we’ve reached a point where the majority of web browsing occurs on a smartphone, the next step is for web design to take place on the phone itself.
You could argue that tons of online content is already generated on phones–just look at how much people post on social media. Despite the incredible amount of creativity that goes into creating social media content, Cohen thinks platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter ultimately limit creativity because users are confined to a format defined by corporate behemoths–the image, the post, the 280 words. Imagine if that creativity was given free reign on actual websites, like a visual version of the early aughts’ largely textual blogosphere. “What if we made really powerful tools within the same [mobile-first] paradigm that gave people way more control than they can get on Instagram and Snapchat?” Cohen says. “With Universe, you’re making a website, this is your presence, it’s your home on the internet. It’s not a grid curated by Instagram–it’s your design.”
Cohen designed Universe to be a simple, app-based website builder that complements, or even supersedes, social media. It’s the single place where you really can decide exactly how everything looks, and where you can aggregate all the platforms where you live online into one single URL–which conveniently fits in your Instagram bio. And hidden within this seemingly simple app is a vision for an entirely new paradigm in web design.
It’s all about the grid
To get a sense of how Universe works, I tried it out myself with the aim to create a simple portfolio site. I was shocked at how simple it was. After a few basic questions, the app gave me about 20 different pre-made templates I could choose from, all of which were way more fun and filled with personality than most boring portfolio sites. I selected one, and then I had the chance to customize it. It’s Universe’s editor that makes the app more than your average website builder. By superimposing a grid on top of my new website’s layout, each block became entirely customizable–I could turn any block I wanted into a photo, video, text, link, map, sound clip, GIF, a plain block of color, or even run a piece of code within it.
Cohen thinks of Universe’s grid system as similar to a Lego set. You buy a set that builds a particular object, but the genius of Lego is that you have the freedom to create whatever you want with it once you’ve learned how the pieces interlock together. Of course, the grid has been foundational within design for decades. “[The grid] is really the underpinnings of any design field,” says Cohen, who has an informal, mostly self-taught design background. “Any time you’re making order or sense out of open space, you need to impose a grid to make it make sense, to make it easy to use. They reduce the decision space and they keep order and they allow you as a designer to be creative in a way that the whole thing is still coherent. That’s the beauty of grid.”
Universe didn’t start out with this gridded interface, though. Originally, Cohen was inspired by Hypercard–the first graphical creation platform with a blank canvas, similar to Sketch or Illustrator. Hypercard was released in 1987 with the very first Mac OS, and though it developed a cult following, the system failed to catch on more broadly. One of Cohen’s early attempts at an interface for Universe had a similarly open layout, allowing for infinite customization. “People didn’t know what to do with it,” Cohen says. “Everything looked terrible.”
Next he tried a UI similar to that of Squarespace, WordPress, Wix, and most of the big desktop-first website builders out there, with heavily prescriptive templates. That had its own problem: You couldn’t build anything truly interesting with it. After all, you can spot a Squarespace site a mile away. So instead of giving users a template or leaving them to fend for themselves on an intimidating blank canvas, Cohen used the grid as a way of making web design accessible and open-ended at the same time. “It drastically lowers the bar. That’s the beauty of the tool,” Cohen says. “Our design philosophy is low steps, high ceilings–as simple as possible to get something great, and then no limit to where you can go from there.”
The result is a huge amount of diversity in the types of Universe sites people have built so far. A browse through an online gallery of popular sites reveals the personal sites for writers, artists, musicians, choreographers, pastry chefs, a philosophy club, and even a magazine–all of which look completely different.
I spoke with a Norway-based model who uses Universe as a portfolio, a New York-based writer and poet who thinks of his site as his digital business card, and a Tennessee-based teardrop trailer builder who wants to provide potential customers with a place to look at pictures of his creations–and all of them praised Universe for how easy it is to use and how each person was able to build exactly the website they needed. The poet and writer Joel Daniels says he found the app around 2:30 a.m. one night and had his website up and running by 3 a.m. Richard Hieshman, the trailer builder, said he’d tried a host of other desktop-based website services but all of them had been too complicated for him. Sarah Gindel, the model, says she had another custom-built website but its complexity meant she never updated it with her current photos and videos. Now, she uses her Universe site to post blog updates when she’s on a shoot.
And perhaps most crucially for Universe, all three of these users said they’d pay for a subscription–if they weren’t already doing so.
More like Jane Jacobs than Robert Moses
Cohen’s vision for Universe goes beyond web design. He sees Universe–and his grid interface in particular–as a way to replace code for many users. “Code is simply an interface for building things on the internet, and we can actually build a better interface for building things on the internet for a lot of people,” he says. “Most people don’t have access, don’t want to code, don’t have the ability to code, but they’re very much interested in building the internet. The internet is increasingly the world that we live in.”
If the internet wasn’t just built by programmers and designers, what would it look like?
Cohen uses an urban planning metaphor to explain his vision. The internet is already like a city in some ways–it’s a place where people come to interact with each other and sell goods. But right now, Cohen thinks the city of the internet is a centrally planned one a la Robert Moses, dominated by big corporate platforms like Facebook. He hopes that Universe can help bring about an internet that’s more organic. “Jane Jacobs represents the internet I want to build and be a part of, where it’s ultimately created by individuals, not by an omnipresent and omnipotent corporation,” he says.
Of course, Universe itself is a for-profit company. But Cohen thinks of it more as a tool than as a platform–the grid might act as the structure of your site, but it’s you who truly created it. And with its business model based on subscriptions rather than advertisements, Universe doesn’t have any incentive to collect user data–just to build the best product possible.
Right now, that means app updates almost weekly, filled with features that users are asking for, like better editing tools and more flexibility. Universe’s next big push will likely be toward commerce, enabling many of the small business owners who have sites with the startup to sell via their pages. Cohen has a host of things he wants to work on–endowing the site generator with AI that can tailor sites specifically to every person, creating more exploratory tools, and building some kind of feed so users can follow other Universe sites and see their updates, a la Tumblr.
With only about 150,000 users, Universe is still a tiny player in a very competitive world, so it’s unclear if the company will be able to scale its tool and reach a broader audience–the entire team is composed of three people, and it’s just starting to expand. But Cohen is hopeful that his interface will help more people participate in building the internet.
“We can take these powerful ideas about democratization, using user interface to give people superpowers,” he says. “We can distribute that instantly to anyone around the globe and they could learn how to make something that they never thought they could.”