His Big Photo Op

Gus Mueller on making a photo editor for all.

Acorn 6 Image Editor

Image editor for humans


Developer Gus Mueller of Flying Meat never intended Acorn, his lightweight but powerful image editor, to be all things to all people.

Sure, it’s one of the fastest ways to crop, resize, and add text to an image. And yes, it offers more than 100 photo effects as well as nondestructive filters. But the appeal of Acorn has always been that it doesn’t overwhelm you. In fact, Mueller’s inspiration for coding the app was largely creative. “I was curious what it would take to write an image editor,” he says.

We spoke to Mueller about Acorn’s humble origins, his culinary aspirations, and meat (flying and otherwise).

When Acorn debuted, there were already firmly entrenched image-editing apps on the market. What made you want to jump in?
Acorn grew out of upgrades to another app of mine, FlySketch, designed for screen capture and sketching. Customers asked for new features, I started adding brushes and layers and multiple windows, and all of a sudden I had a full-blown image editor. But Acorn still serves different needs than professional-level editors. Acorn is powerful, but nimble and approachable. It also has excellent documentation that we’ve worked hard on for years.

What’s one feature you wish Acorn had that it doesn’t?
Tools to deform and skew Bezier paths. It’s not so much that I would use these, but I think they would be really fun to code up. Fully vector brushstrokes come as a close second and probably wouldn’t be too hard to do, but that’s not really a fit for Acorn.

As far as something actually useful, probably a single-window interface, with the tools and inspectors permanently placed in good locations, and with tab support for going between images. It’s been a trend that applications have been moving toward for years.

What do you love about being an indie developer?
Being able to create something from nothing. You use a text editor, a programming language, and your brain. And on top of that, being an independent developer means I get to be my own boss. I get to decide what I work on, and if I feel like taking a day off, I can do that. Being indie means I also have to juggle a lot more responsibilities, but it’s worth it.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?
Feedback from people who really enjoy the application. Whenever someone sends me an email—or even a physical letter or postcard—I always file that away to a special folder. I don’t hear from 99 percent of my customers, but I love when someone writes to tell me how Acorn is making their life easier or even making things possible for them that they couldn’t do before.

Who’s the typical Acorn user?
A lot of teachers and educational institutions like to use Acorn. Many of my customers are also people who have more straightforward image-editing needs who don’t want a massive application but occasionally need some advanced features, like curves or nondestructive filters. Most of the time, I bet people want to quickly open up and resize or crop an image, maybe use a filter or add text to a picture.

I have a pretty vocal group of power users, since Acorn is fully scriptable and has a JavaScript plug-in architecture.

You’ve been an important member of the developer community for years. What’s that been like?
Early on, I had a pretty active website where I would post what I was working on. Code snippets, whatever. And I’ve always tried to help folks who asked for it. But what I’m best known for, at least in the developer community, is my SQLite database wrapper FMDB. It’s used in hundreds and possibly thousands of applications. I wrote it for myself to use in my apps, but it’s now used on millions of devices, which is pretty awesome.

Why did you name your company Flying Meat? And what’s your favorite meat?
I’ve been a rock climber for over 20 years, and Flying Meat is the name of a climb outside Columbia, Missouri. The climb was named after an unfortunate deer that jumped off the top, as witnessed by the first person to climb the route—the deer flew right over his head. (That’s also why the company logo has a jumping deer.) It’s a bit of a tragic story, but it’s such a great climb.

As for meat, I rarely eat it, because both my wife and daughter are vegetarians, but I’ll use a few slices of salami when I make pizza.

Speaking of pizza, you’re known for your pizza-making prowess.
Making pizza dough from scratch is a nice counterbalance to my day job sitting at a computer. It’s a multiday, non-digital craft that can be pretty frustrating or rewarding depending on the outcome.

You’ve said in the past that developing an app is similar to making pizza. How so?
Anyone can make a decent pizza. All it requires is a bit of patience, decent flour, and practice. But then if you try Neapolitan-style pizza, that’s a rabbit hole: You need super-hot ovens and very specific flour. Finding the balance of toppings, and then you discover natural leavens, and—oh boy—it’s really a craft at that point. It can take years to hone your skills.

Dough is just water, salt, and flour. Programs are just ones and zeros and algorithms. But what you do with them, that’s where the magic happens.

    Acorn 6 Image Editor

    Image editor for humans