Cover photo: Domagoj Kunić
Mario Lončarić was born in 1985 in Zagreb, where he lives and works as a programmer and UX consultant. He helps clients with the development of their user interfaces, the organization of their content and the improvement of their product and service sales. He’s been “doing internet” professionally since 2002, and has since then worked on web pages, applications and e-commerce solutions for big domestic and foreign clients. For the web.burza agency, he worked on projects for Podravka, RTL and Optima, in the Brlog agency he worked as the development manager on projects for Adris, Tele2, Nissan, the Croatian Post and the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service. He honed his skills as a consultant in the Creative Nights agency, in HT and the Swiss SGS. With Brlog, he won several awards for best use of technology. As one of the pioneers in the field, he is mentioned in the book Design and New Media – the Croatian Context (1995-2010) by Ivica Mitrović. After many years of working for various agencies, he is helming his own programming and consultancy studio since 2017. His works were exhibited at the 1112, 1314 and 1516 Croatian Design Exhibitions.
You graduated from the Zagreb Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Naval Architecture. You began working as a programmer while you were still a student there. How did you end up getting into the field, what attracted you to programming? Did you initially have a different idea o what you would end up doing after you graduate?
Actually, I began programming even earlier than that, when I was still in high school. The computer I owned then had a TV card that was part of a small camera, and I had the idea to create a web page that would feature videos made with the camera. Needless to say, I wasn’t successful, but it sparked my interest in web design and I explored how this would be possible. Another boy in my class definitely influenced my further development; he too was into web design so we exchanged disks with new versions every day. It became a kind of a competition that forced both of us to become better. At the time, some older boys from the neighborhood opened a space for band rehearsals, and since we had a band as well, we created a web page for them, and in return they let us have our rehearsals there as well. This led us to getting more paid web design jobs. I got my first real job when I was still a student at University, in the web.burza agency. This was a pretty big deal for me because this agency had an iconic status in the field. The team that worked there led the mi3dot online community devoted to design and programming, gathering all sorts of creative types from the entire region. It was via mi3dot that I met Darijo Dević, Tin Kadoić and Marko Dugonjić, who later became good friends of mine and with whom I established great business collaborations. The community also included Tomislav Car from Infinum, Nela Dunato, who recently published a book, and Ivan Brezak Brkan from Netokracija. I actually wanted to do design, but there were so many better designers than me who were part of this forum, and I was pretty good at this technical aspect, that I decided to combine the two from the very beginning, working on the intersection of design and technology. This turned out to be a good decision as it brought me numerous great collaborations with top designers, something I am extremely grateful for.
When discussing education in the field, you have said yourself that universities are relatively sluggish and that it is unrealistic to expect them to be in line with the dynamic development of technology and programming when preparing the curricula. Programming languages develop so quickly that it is impossible to know them all. What do you feel is crucial for the education of a programmer, are there any other learning formats and what forms or institutions do you see as most suitable for additional development in the field?
Sound foundations and, after that, the continuous updating of knowledge and following of new technologies. There are various platforms, communities, groups, and meetups that are available today, all completely free of charge or at a very low cost taking into account the knowledge you gain. Most expensive conferences publish complete videos of their lectures after only a couple of months or weeks after being held. The problem of the universities’ sluggishness is somewhat offset by private educational institutions, which have recently started to offer programs such as game development, digital marketing, and data science, as well as by private companies that offer specialization programs for their employees since they cannot wait for specialized graduates to finish their university programs. These include, for instance, the Infinum Academy and the summer Bootcamp in the company Five.
Considering that today most technical knowledge and skills can be acquired via free online courses and that there are very simple platforms for the creation of personal and business web pages, what do you think the role of programmers is today and how will this role change in the near future? Is this, perhaps, related to the expectations we, as consumers, have of the web?
This also has to do with design and its (semi)finished solutions. There are several extremely good services that allow you to quickly create your own web age. For someone just starting a business and lacking the budget for customized solutions, it is perfectly fine to begin with one of the ready-made solutions, and then improve the idea with time after testing it. Once the business gets going, it is easy to begin developing your own solutions based on the collected feedback. In this sense, the role of the programmer has not disappeared; it only experienced a phase shift. Also, someone has to develop such services. As far as the expectations are concerned, it is important that they are realistic; people should not expect miracles from such platforms. There is a new approach to web development that I like, called intrinsic web design. Browsers have made such great developments in the last year or so as far as the possibility for the development of the layout is concerned that I expect a new wave of the individualization of web design. It will literally be easier to create one’s own custom grid layout than to use Bootstrap for instance. This will also mean the end of always seeing the “same” web design. The YouTube channel Layout Land by Jen Simmons is an amazing resource for this.
Considering the development of artificial intelligence, the robotization of numerous work processes, and the introduction of virtual reality into everyday life, how do you view the increasing responsibility of programmers in the development of these tools, services and systems?
This responsibility should be increasing, but I’m afraid it is not. Facebook’s motto Move fast and break things gained great popularity because it somehow gives us the license to “break things” and tells us this is OK because we need to go faster, further and higher, since we can always go back and fix things. In the end we are left with a bunch of broken things because no one goes back to fix them. It’s fine when all you break is someone’s cat photos or a funny status, but when you’re the biggest social network in the world and allow the spreading of fake news and the manipulation of users by allowing interference in elections, then we are no longer talking about things, but about human lives. Twitter has had issues with not punishing hate speech for a very long time. Uber keeps track of your location for 5 minutes after you leave the car. It is only a matter of time when all of the cameras on intersections will obtain face recognition software. Did you allow Facebook to automatically tag you in photographs? In a couple of years, China will introduce a program as part of which every physical and legal person will be given a point rating. Persons with a lower rating will, for instance, have lower internet speed, will not be allowed to travel by plane and will have restricted access to restaurants, will probably receive poorer health services, etc. All of this was programmed by someone, who did not wonder – why? This doesn’t seem OK, is this even necessary? These examples are extreme, but they all begin harmlessly enough. For instance, a couple of years ago, a female pediatrician joined a gym and was given a key card to open the locker room. The system would not let her open the locker room, though, and after they explored the issue, they realized that someone programmed the system to use titles as a factor for allowing access to the locker rooms. The title of medical doctor was programmed to only allow access to the men’s locker room. I’ve taken this example from the book Technically Wrong by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. The book covers sexist applications, biased algorithms and other threats from the toxic world of technology. I recommend it.
You’ve worked for the Brlog agency, one of the first agencies for web and digital products, at a time when familiarity with design and typography was an incredibly valuable resource for developers. What do you consider a well developed web page, and what is the role of digital product designers today?
Any page that fulfils its purpose or business goals, in a way that satisfies the needs of those accessing it, without obstructing them or compromising their privacy and using dark patterns. I would point out readability as perhaps the most important element of design, followed by some more classic aspects such as the loading speed, aesthetics, usefulness, clarity of information, etc. For the last couple of years now, good design must work on an increasing number of devices of different sizes. The most recent version of the Apple watch has an integrated browser, which means that even the most basic of pages or apps should take the users of this screen into consideration as well. This is most certainly demanding since it requires following technology constantly. An additional challenge is the use of suitable interaction guidelines depending on the manufacturer of the device’s software. These also change every couple of years.
Some of your works, in addition to being exhibited at the Croatian Design Exhibition, have received awards. Apart from Tin Kadoić (Brlog) you have also collaborated with Marko Dugonjić on the Typetester project. At the time, there was no way of testing web typographies on different platforms, nor were typographies adjusted for the web. What do you think about this project today?
It is interesting how many ways were used to try to resolve the challenge of typography on the web. It was Tin who, for one of his web portfolios while he was still working as a freelancer, thought of using Flash technology to show text in a certain font. At the same time, the same method appeared worldwide under the name SIFR, so we were very proud to have developed the same thing. The Typetester first appeared as a response to the question: “Why does the web page not look like it does in Photoshop?”. Text display systems within Photoshop and a browser were, simply put, different and the solution was to design the typography directly within the browser. About ten years later, we created a new version of the Typetester, but the context was entirely different because web fonts were widely used, many providers of the service appeared and pages were no longer designed in Photoshop. Speaking of service providers —what Typetester offered to designers more than 10 years ago is today offered by every typefoundry as part of their web page. In this sense, I was particularly pleased with my collaboration with Dario Dević and Hrvoje Živćić on the web page for the first Croatian typefoundry Typonine, by Nikola Đurek, which also allowed the direct testing of fonts.
Can you discuss the projects you are currently working on? Considering the frequency of this exhibition, could you take a look at the past two years and point out some of your collaborations with designers that were significant to you?
The period covered by the exhibition coincides with the first two years of my own studio. I noticed very quickly that the knowledge and experience I gained in working with big clients can be applied to an entire range of great projects in culture and art. This is how I began collaborating with Ana Labudović on the web page for Pogon, the Zagreb center for independent culture, and Kontejner, the bureau for contemporary artistic practices. The teams from Pogon and Kontejner are incredible and have an amazing archive of the projects they’ve done so far, which was begging to be organized and systematized, but was too complex to be resolved with existing ready-made solutions. The best moments are when a client sends you a message saying “wow, this is really better/faster than X” or when the statistical data or sales show an apparent improvement. Of the other projects, I would point out the web shop for Pero environmental cleaning products. The visual identity as well as the packaging design, done by Draga Komparak, translates beautifully to the web page. With a few interventions, we’ve created a page that has everything required for fast and simple shopping. Srđan Laterza and I worked on the service design for the Hubbig startup, which won the Smart Mobility award as part of the Startup Factory Zagreb last year. I am currently working on the UX and performance consulting for a company from San Francisco. Precisely, I am redesigning and optimizing their key pages that bring in new clients. We know, based on the example of Amazon, that decreasing the loading speed by only 100 milliseconds leads to revenue losses of 1%, which amounts to 1.6 billion USD annually. I am also working on raising awareness of the importance of accessibility and usability in the end product