Creative Coder Justin Gitlin of Mode Set

About Justin Gitlin

Justin is a director and developer at Mode Set and DJ CacheFlowe.  I met him while he was teaching a creative code at BDW.


What projects are you currently working on?

Right now I’m working on a small Kinect game for a company in Pennsylvania and an iPad ad that’s animated and parallaxy.

What are some of your favorite projects from the past?

My favorite projects include the more interactive, animated and video gamey projects.  My first job in the industry was for CleverMedia, which is a local online game development company.  I’m not totally sure what they’re doing now, but they have a collection of video games they built over the past fifteen years or so.  I built eight games by myself while working there, and it set the stage for the type of work I really enjoy doing now.

Related to that, the last big project I worked on was Roll It, which was a Google Chrome Experiment, commissioned by the Google Creative Lab and designed by Legwork Studio.  It was really fun to build and it was one of the more involved games I’ve been able to create.

Full case study of Roll It by Justin

At Factory Labs, I helped make games for a bunch of Adam Sandler movies like Chuck and Larry, Benchwarmers, Grandma’s Boy and a few others.  Also while at Factory, Audi teamed up with Iron Man for a big marketing campaign, so I built a fun game for the launch of the movie.

Last year I built an open-source Kinect game that launched downtown on the side of the performing arts center for Create Denver 2012.  It was called KacheOut.

I really like building games… but web sites are cool too!

What are you initial thoughts on the importance of creative spaces?

That’s a tough one.  I don’t require much.  I can get a lot done sitting at a coffee shop – the noise really helps me focus on what I’m doing and strangely blocks everything else out.  I also don’t want to be one of those people browsing Facebook at a coffee shop. In general, I’m much more about having the amenities that I need like snacks, food, comfort and a nice chair.  I definitely surround myself with art or things that are inspiring, but I think for the core of what I do, which is almost exclusively development and music, I just need to tune everything else out.


What are your most important items?

Laptop, caffeine and power cord.  A bicycle to get to client meetings, the coffee shop and home.  A Wacom tablet for home since it’s easier on my wrists.  And more caffeine.



What was the process of thinking and creating Roll It?

Google made a small prototype that was a tennis game; it didn’t have anything to do with what Roll It ended up being, but they really wanted to explore the connection between your phone and computer.  Google went to Legwork and asked them to concept a bunch of ideas, so Legwork pitched a few completely different games and they decided on the Roll It idea.  Legwork’s developers were super busy at the time, so they asked me and Mode Set to build it.  It was a tight collaboration from there.  Along the way, there was a lot of back and forth about stylistically what it would look like.  Decisions had to be made about the design of the board, environment and menu screens just as much as the gameplay itself.  For example, is it three players with one controller or three players with three controllers?  What does that flow look like?  What are the colors between each player?  We really thought through every detail.  Google was very adamant about certain features like the 3 special ball modes – this was a big issue for them.  Originally we were working on a timeline where we couldn’t fit in certain desired features, but the deadline got pushed back and we had more time to get everything in there.

There was a lot of prototyping along the way.  What if it does this when you throw the ball into the air?  You really have to prototype it all out – especially in a game situation.  For games, an idea can work well in theory, but you might realize that it doesn’t feel right when you build it out.  Games are so much about the feel that you inevitably have a lot of back and forth on how comfortable everyone is with the final result.  As the developer, you might think that feels great and that you’re done, but then someone else tries it and can’t figure it out.  That’s a big difference between building a game versus a website.  A website you generally know how to navigate through, and have confidence when you click a button that it will take you somewhere else.  In a game, you’re in a completely new environment, with different hardware, the whole thing is new and people don’t necessarily know what to do with it.  That’s part of the challenge –  I enjoy finding what feels right for everybody.

I know there must have been a combination of bigger and smaller “prototypes,” but how many different types of prototypes did you end up making?

We prototyped different ideas for the menus, throwing the ball, using the physics library and special ball modes that were implemented.  Each special ball had its own unique challenge.  It was very iterative in thinking, “Does this feel good?” or “Is this at least in the right direction?”  We went from there until it felt right.  Even still, we would get to a point where a lot of the team liked it but we had one stakeholder who didn’t, so we had to change directions again.  That was the tough part; figuring out how to get to that happy place.


How did you find yourself in the creative code field?

I definitely prefer to work in the creative coding field and I’m happy to call myself a creative coder, but generally if someone asks me what I do I say that I build games and websites, since it’s easier for the general population to understand.  In the industry too, it’s sort of a buzz word.  Anyone at Mode Set could do what I do – it’s just that I’ve done enough of it to be the go-to guy here.  For me, I luckily got an internship with CleverMedia back in 1999, so my first professional coding experience was creating video games.  I’m super thankful for that in a lot of ways because I’m not sure I would’ve been as interested in following development as a career path. That job made me see the fun in programming and gave me the skills to build anything.  Most of the work for a programmer right now is probably in web development.  I think the most in-demand developer right now is a really great full stack programmer, but  demand for the creative end of coding is increasing. People are expecting their interfaces to look and feel great, move smoothly and have animated elements.  There’s creative coding at play even in making a pie chart; how it moves, opens or displays.  Little widgets like that are important for any standard web experience.  It’s a subjective feeling about the end result.  I’m not a designer, but I can tell you if it looks good; I can’t tell you how to make it look good, but hopefully with code, I can also make it feel good.  It’s such an important part of making a design live and breathe.


A few examples of Justin’s work :

Is there a difference in creative code and interaction design?

It’s a spectrum.  The best people in the data visualization field are going to be both a designer and programmer, and they will be able to fully concept a design and make it interactive.  It’s really your combination of skills, interests and strengths that are going to let you shine in a particular niche.  But in reality it’s good to specialize in something – most designers don’t code, and vice versa. That’s what’s so great about working on a team – being able to fill in each other’s gaps and learn from each other.


What are your recommendations for people interested in creative code and just getting started?

Experiment.  I would suggest learning Processing; it’s probably the easiest way to get started since there’s almost zero set-up time.  For someone who is just getting into programming, you have to learn a lot of concepts that are super abstract if you never learned them before, but if the output is visual, it helps connect the dots easier between the code and the output.  That’s what really helped me get excited about development.


Is there a specific type of space where you feel the most inspired?

Maybe not while I’m working, but I think it’s really important to get out, take a break, travel and have non-computer experiences so you can gain some perspective for when you come back and have your face in front of a screen.  You need a diversity of human experiences.  A big part of the reason I’m in Colorado is to be near the mountains, which are inspiring.  I’ve also traveled overseas several times and those places give you such a different perspective on everything.  I think it only helps your ability to learn and accept new ideas.  It’s such an important part of being developer and problem-solver.


Anything else or words of wisdom?

Find what you love in development and spend time your own time experimenting and tinkering.  You have to love it.  if you don’t like programming, it’ll be a real bummer to have it as a career.  Find what you do like about it; a lot of people like a challenge or puzzle to solve, but it’s important to find what genre of problems excite you the most.

I think it’s very much about your combination of skills that help you find your place in a development career.  Since I have some design background and am a musician, I understand multimedia.  These skills had made me valuable in niche parts of the development process.  There are certain things that might not seem related to being a developer but they could land you in a position that no one else can fill.  Embrace your multitude of skills and figure out where you can fit in within the development world.



One thought on “Creative Coder Justin Gitlin of Mode Set

  1. Pingback: Ello : je n’ai pas pu m’en empêcher |

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