Van Damme, that’s good design

Gowalla is a location-based social networking game. Site redesign by Tim Van Damme.

Web designer Tim Van Damme, founder of Made by Elephant and blogger at Max Voltar, has skyrocketed from relative oblivion to comparative fame in little over a year. Before you succumb to jealousy, consider the man’s work. Consider, for example, his spanking new redesign of Gowalla, Austin-headquartered AlamoFire’s nifty, location-based social networking game for iPhone, Android, and even newer Blackberry devices (kind of).

Launched as a public beta in March 2009, Gowalla “uses a large catalog of virtual goods to encourage its users to go places and meet people.”

Seven years ago I was a cigarette smoker. Today I’m a compulsive Gowalla user. I check in at the corner deli, at the library, and at the movies. I check in when I get to my studio in the morning and first thing when I get home at night. (Well, maybe eighth thing when I get home—I have an active five-year-old and a sick dog to take care of first.)

I love Gowalla and now I love its website just as much as I love the application, thanks to the stylish skinning of young Master Van Damme.

Note that I haven’t mentioned content strategy, labels, user flow, error handling, and all the other things that go into most good redesigns. I haven’t mentioned those things because this redesign is mainly a skin job. Alamofire designed a great brand and crafted a fine piece of user experience (not to mention a host of kick-ass icons) well before involving Tim Van Damme. So the challenge here was to take a strongly branded, well-thought-out, existing site with a fanatical user base and an already super-strong visual identity, and to make it that much better.

He met the challenge, and then some. I wish I possessed before and after screen shots to show how and why the redesign trumps its predecessor without scrapping what users like me loved about the old look and feel. Aside from the one big change (a light green background that feels like a translucent overlay over the previous background), it’s all about the details here, and the details are primarily tiny enhancements to the user experience—from subtle glows that make the interface feel more responsive (more alive), to WordPress- and Mail-style numeric indicators that cue users when there’s new content behind a tab.

This is good design, the test of which, for me, is always that I wish I’d done it.