Behind the Design: Universe
June 5, 2023
As a kid, Universe founder Joseph Cohen loved nearly everything about the internet: how it brought people together, created avenues for his twin passions of creativity and commerce, and democratized the flow of information. “I grew up in New York,” Cohen says, “but I like to say that I really grew up on the internet.”
Today, Cohen’s passion is still the internet — but he’s no longer just living in it. He’s striving to improve it. “Our goal is making this technology available to everybody,” he says.
Launched in 2017, the powerful, versatile, and almost unbelievably simple Universe makes creating a website as easy as building with blocks. The app operates on a grid system. To create a site, add blocks to the grid, and to edit a site, move those blocks around. No knowledge of coding, design, or publishing is necessary — Universe even handles the process of acquiring and publishing to specific domain names. The app doesn’t just remove barriers, it bulldozes them. And today, Universe currently powers storefronts, artist portfolios, musician pages, community group hubs, personal web presences, and everything in between.
In the past year, Universe empowered more people than ever with a series of accessibility upgrades directly inspired by people’s feedback. In one example, a high-school student in California who is blind reached out to ask for better VoiceOver support — and the Universe team quickly came up with an elegant idea.
“We learned that the grid system we designed is perfectly fitted to screen readers,” he says. “VoiceOver works by reading from the top left of the page, so when you have a grid-based coordinate system, it will walk right through what’s on the screen. It’ll say, ‘OK, in position one and two, you have an image of flowers,’ and so forth.”
The team refined the feature by working closely with a number of people who are blind or have low vision — many of whom have Universe-created sites online right now. And they kept going, adding Dynamic Type to scale text as well as accessibility upgrades to the app’s general navigation, settings, audience metrics, and more.
The team's latest project aims to make it even easier for anyone to get started with web design. Cohen and team are working on an AI feature that will instantly generate or refine a custom website based on natural language descriptions. Tell Universe, “Make a pink site with sparkles for my custom nail business in Chicago,” and the results will appear in seconds.
Our goal is making this technology available to everybody.
Joseph Cohen, Universe founder
“It’ll be a dialogue; it’s not a one-way street,” says Cohen. “You can still edit your site manually, or you can ask it to change the theme or background color.” (The AI designer is named GUS, both because it stands for “generative Universe sites” and because Universe employs a very skilled designer named Gus. “We have to call him Human Gus now,” laughs Cohen.)
Cohen plans to build the AI feature “in public,” releasing regular video updates about the team’s progress as part of a way to garner people’s feedback on the fly. It’s another example of his drive to make the app — and the internet — more open to everyone. “I still live in New York, and the best part of New York is that it’s incredibly diverse,” he says. “It’s gritty and organic and very human. I think the internet can look like that — but you need great tools to enable it.”
Behind the Design is a series that explores design practices and philosophies from each of the winners of the Apple Design Awards. In each story, we go behind the screens with the developers and designers of these award-winning apps and games to discover how they brought their remarkable creations to life.