Tonight We're Gonna Design Like it's 1999
April 6, 2007 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Where is Kai Krause? If you were a web designer back in the day, you probably used Kai’s Power Tools (my how web design has grown). A user interface visionary, Kai bailed at the peak (just in time) and retired to Byteburg, a 1000 year old castle in Bonn, where he peacefully lives and works today.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot (46 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Sigh, Kai's Power Goo... that came as a freebie with a Kodak digital camera I got in like '96 or so, but doesn't work on recent version of Windows. (I've seen the same thing in Java applets, but always with that crummy "line" based engineer-y UI... and never anything with that great but weird "mouse a circle to expand an area" gesture.)
posted by kirkjerk at 9:35 AM on April 6, 2007

Wow, a name I haven't though of in ages. I remember my boss and I would see ads for his software in Macworld and say to each other, "It looks cool, but who the hell wants a user interface you have to transcend a way-high coolness factor to figure out?" I guess learning KPT is really more about playing just to see what kind of tasty effects you can come up with through serendipity until the interface makes sense, but having used less arty, more git-'er-done UIs like gIMP's and Dreamweaver's has spoiled me with UI forthrightness or some such.
posted by pax digita at 9:47 AM on April 6, 2007

1999? 1997 more like...
posted by Artw at 10:02 AM on April 6, 2007

Kai doesn’t spend much time talking about his new innovations – in fact, the tone of the entire discussion is about his desire to escape from it all for peace and solitude in rural Germany.

Great, he discovered pot.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:06 AM on April 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

No matter what has been done with his tools, or how design fashion has moved on and spurned him since the days of KPT, Kai Krause will always, ALWAYS have a place in my heart. Even back in the day, my friends and I would look at the new Kai tools and say "That's awfully spiffy. I wonder if I'll ever have a practical use for it." And we were college kids, which back then was precisely the demographic that brualized that tool beyond all repair on a million awful geocities pages. But even if you could see the abuse potential in what he'd created, there was no denying that the graphics world was better for having him in it, if for no other reason than because he was showing us how much potential there was to do more than drop shadows and color correction if we'd only take the time to PLAY with the tools rather than just work with them. Somewhere within every graphic designer, effects artist and developer who ever did something unique and original is a little Kai Krause reminding them to play with the world and find it's hidden synergies.
posted by shmegegge at 10:07 AM on April 6, 2007 [6 favorites]

also this cracked me up:

In case you are tempted to translate the actual pages here via Babelfish.... well.... don't
Getting a human to translate them from German to Mongolian to Sanskrit into Hieroglyphics and then to English may stand a better chance: it is simply too chock full of Germanicisms, local idioms, idiotic word play, palindromes and nuns of all sorts.

It's all about some meandering thoughts with a few brilliant insights hidden well, consider it a purposeful act of shrouding.

posted by shmegegge at 10:08 AM on April 6, 2007

Good old Kai Krause. I still have some of my old Bryce landscapes kicking around; I put on an album of Tangerine Dream covers and look at them and they transport me to a different planet.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:14 AM on April 6, 2007

*rolls back the corner of this thread.
posted by thanotopsis at 10:18 AM on April 6, 2007 [4 favorites]

They may have been good tools, but all I recall from their use was stuff that would've looked sweet painted on the side of my uncle's van in the 1970s.
posted by frogan at 10:18 AM on April 6, 2007

palindromes and nuns of all sorts.

It's full of nuns??? Is that how they roll in Germany?
posted by spicynuts at 10:20 AM on April 6, 2007

posted by hal9k at 10:21 AM on April 6, 2007

So I had the power tools, and overall they were pretty but...

Frankly, that "visionary" link's Cons should read like an anti-patterns list for UI design. I guess there are here, as everywhere, some diametrically opposed schools of design.

I'ce come to believe "if they notice your UI, you've failed," Kai appears to believe "they must notice you to succeed."
posted by abulafa at 10:42 AM on April 6, 2007

You'll need this if you're going retro: ~
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:43 AM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing this on the back of Wired circa 1996

I remember the first time I used KPT, I thought it was a lot of fun but after a while realized the effects would only come in handy if I was doing an album cover for Yes. The interface was always fun learning to use, it was always squishy like it was built from Play-Doh, of course that's the anti-thesis of UI design

His tools were cute and useless, but much like Lens Flare or Difference Clouds you'd look like a douchebag if you actually created 'art' for public consumption. Unless of course you are the art director for Trapper Keeper.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 10:46 AM on April 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

I was just thinking of Kai's Power Tools the other day, and how some of his tools implemented human guided genetic algorithms to play with knobs that the average graphics designer would've been clueless on. The dress of his interfaces always were over the top (though in university I thought they were cool) but he had some great ideas for simplifying tools.

I was also wondering what became of him as well, did he die? Is he out there someplace weirdening interfaces for something other than PhotoShop filters?
posted by substrate at 10:56 AM on April 6, 2007

His tools weren't all useless, most people just weren't capable of avoiding doing useless things with them. The problem existed between the chair and the keyboard. Yeah, flame fractals and what not are by and large not useful unless you're creating posters for stoners but the way he built interfaces for edge detectors, sharpening, blurring etc was interesting. To me they're arrays of numbers and I can figure out how to tweak those numbers or understand what a convolution is but he hid a lot of details behind cool knobs so that an artist could do more than "Sharpen" or "Sharpen more".
posted by substrate at 11:00 AM on April 6, 2007

I bought "Power Show" in 1998 after seeing a demo at a trade show. It's perfectly obvious to me now that I was simply buying a cool interface and convincing myself that the product would be useful. Of course, I never used it for anything other than play.
posted by davebush at 11:10 AM on April 6, 2007

Wow. Thanks for the flashback.

(And one of my sites was featured on Flander's page as a site that didn't such, and I still have the T-Shirt somewhere. Speaking of which, Flanders still owes me $850, he never paid his last invoice on some work I did for him...eight years ago. Er.)

I never used KPT for any commercial project, but enjoyed fiddling with it back in the day.
posted by maxwelton at 11:11 AM on April 6, 2007

The first time I came to MetaFilter I thought it was a forum for Kai's MetaCreations stuff.

posted by hal9k at 11:33 AM on April 6, 2007

I'ce come to believe "if they notice your UI, you've failed," Kai appears to believe "they must notice you to succeed."

That depends. Is your UI geared towards EVERYONE or is it geared to towards a certain specialized subset, say...designers? If designers, then maybe a different UI may be good.

I'd love to see what he would do with an application like Painter.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:44 AM on April 6, 2007

There was one tool that made balls. Ah yes, KPT Spheroid Designer. Was there ever anyone who needed balls?
posted by smackfu at 11:56 AM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Style over substance, the triumph of the superficial, the ultimate snake oil for the graphics industry - Kai represented all these things. I should know - at a time when Kai, John Wilczak and the HSC/Metacreations folks were trying to pull the wool over the industry's eyes with Live Picture, I was the lone voice proclaiming that they were misrepresenting the facts about that product, spinning a mythology that had precious little to do with reality, and were not going to be in the game for the long run. I felt that the entire effort was an elaborate stock scam. I published a couple of stories about Live Picture, one on the Maccentral website in May of 1999, another in a magazine which evades my memory at the moment. I introduced Kai Krause to Eric Wenger, the visionary artist/musician/programmer that created Bryce, and Kai introduced me to Roger Dean in return. Those were the days...

I know more about the inside of this situation than a single MeFi entry will really permit, there are so many stories - like the MacUser Eddy award which Kai left under a table at MacWorld SF - the Derek Van Alstyne award for Bruno Delean (sp), given to him for writing the code for Live Picture out in longhand in his cabin in the Swiss alps, hand delivered to an army of coders. You know, bullshit like that - reminds me of when Kai used to claim that Live Picture did not use pixels, but is based on "pure mathematics". Right. I was on a panel with him when he uttered that nonsense, some tradeshow of the many we both spoke at, and I had to stop him and tell the audience that Live Picture was actually an implementation of quadtree subsampling, which is why an IVUE file would be 33% larger than the source RGB file before conversion (IVUE was the working file format for Live Picture). Kai hung his head in shame, and admitted that I was indeed correct. He never used the "no pixels" claim after that day. This architectural fact also made Live Picture terrible for image retouching tasks.

The interface work done by Kai is essentially from the school of "colored blinking lights", and not anything that anyone would use for serious, pro-level work. Yes, some of the stuff was fun, but it was also hopelessly dated and goofy. I would look at his UI work with John Knoll, and we'd chuckle at the sheer silliness and inefficiency of his use of screen real estate. Some of you might know John from his early work on the software he developed with his brother Tom - Photoshop.

Kai is a smart cookie, though, and cashed out at just the right time. For that I do indeed respect him. But his ground-breaking interface work? Give me a break. The triumph of style over substance, kids, learn this lesson well, as it's the reality of the world. I'll bet dollars to donuts that his "secret work" in his German castle involves a lot of wine, and some truly bad 3D nightmare. And shnitzel - LOTS of shnitzel.
posted by dbiedny at 12:04 PM on April 6, 2007 [17 favorites]

Well, what do you know. A hater.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:12 PM on April 6, 2007

No, a journalist and technologist who was there.
posted by dbiedny at 12:15 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow dbiedny, what a fascinating comment.

Something else that bothers me: All over the internet is the claim that Kai Krause won a Clio award for his work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, either for his contributions to the soundtrack or the film's sound effects. This doesn't make sense to me -- Clios are for advertising, aren't they?

I have read that Kai Krause was heavily involved in synthesizers before computer graphics, and that he sold his kit to Neil Young when he switched over to computer graphics.

A lot of the information posted online about Kai Krause seems to be based on rumors.
posted by Chinese Jet Pilot at 12:17 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think iikku2 was being sarcastic....

But you can call me a hater - KPT was a software version of prog rock, bloated, pretentious and dull. That they made it hard to use was an extra kick to the ribs after they'd pushed you to the floor -
posted by jalexei at 12:20 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I remember seeing a software box for a Kai's product and thinking, how weird.

dbiedny's right, of course, these are awful interfaces from a useability, but on the other hand there is definitely something cool about them.

I think if Kai had gotten into entertainment creation tools, making something on computers akin to Mario Paint, it would have been a better fit.
posted by JHarris at 12:21 PM on April 6, 2007

Chinese Jet Pilot,

Well, check it out:

Do a search for Kai Krause, all years, all categories.


The Internets is all true, yessiree...
posted by dbiedny at 12:23 PM on April 6, 2007

This story touches on a pet peeve of mine, which is that whenever somebody spends a few years without getting any press, they're "hiding" or they are "reclusive".
No, they are "normal". Normal people don't send out press releases and give interviews, but they still raise their families, and earn a living just like anybody else, and that sounds like what he's been doing.
posted by 2sheets at 12:37 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great post and interesting discussion. Occasionally wondered what ever happened to him. No more!
posted by spock at 12:57 PM on April 6, 2007

i'm with dbldny on this one.I remember Kai from way, way back in the late eighties or very early nineties - he had a compuserve forum called Kai's Power tips where he did photoshop advice. He was pretty good as a photoshop agony aunt, by all accounts, but that's really where he should have remained.

In the few dealings i had with Kai the only talent I managed to discern was one for self promotion and networking. He did have an eye for finding clever people to exploit though - Eric Wenger being the classic - he'd find a clever, reclusive nerd quietly doing his own interesting thing and then sell it to the world with his own name on it. As far as I can tell, very few people who went through the experience enjoyed it. I personally had the experience of having what i thought was a friendly chat with Kai one week, and the next week reading my words, about my work, coming out of his mouth in an interview with a Japanese magazine - he was claiming it as his next breakthrough idea.

The legacy of this "user interface visionary" is a return to awkward modal tool interfaces where once we aspired to fluidity. thanks.

A lot of the information posted online about Kai Krause seems to be based on rumors. - yes. A lot of the rumours were started by Kai himself. really.
posted by silence at 1:13 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think you're not allowed to be German if you don't have a pair of those coily wire eyeglasses. I think they will also accept clear plastic frames. I'm sure Kai has those as his spare pair.
posted by redteam at 1:13 PM on April 6, 2007

So, whatever happened to Eric Wenger?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:22 PM on April 6, 2007

What an interesting comment, thank you for sharing dbiedny!

I remember loading up KPT Vector Effects when I was just learning Illustrator (I was 12 then...) and thinking "Wow, this is really crazy stuff!" - the Trapper Keeper/Stoner Poster allusions up above are entirely accurate.

Then I realized the actual output of these whiz-bang interfaces weren't actually vectors at all, and had no editable properties. A one shot effect that completely destroyed the inherent architecture and drive for working with AI/EPS files... brilliant!

It does seem like the best thing he ever did was cash out at the right time...
posted by prostyle at 1:26 PM on April 6, 2007

Eric Wenger has created some of the most innovative stuff in the world of creative applications - MetaSynth and ArtMatic Pro are, IMO, the two most important tools he's developed, and are without peer in their respective categories. His efforts lack serious visibility, as he does not have the self-promotional chops of the Kai.
posted by dbiedny at 1:40 PM on April 6, 2007

Sorry, that ArtMatic link was wrong. Try this one.
posted by dbiedny at 1:41 PM on April 6, 2007

Brandon Blatcher asks So, whatever happened to Eric Wenger?

Hatching the assassination of Jakob Nielsen in a basement with Russell Brown and Jack Davis.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 2:43 PM on April 6, 2007

always hated the KPT interface, I felt like I was playing one of those shitty CDROM games.
posted by perianwyr at 5:17 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great post. I was just wondering about Kai yesterday as I was working on some carved letters in "wood" in Photoshop and was recalling Kai's early free lessons in using Channel Operations "chops"...a technique that is still superior to filters.

Kai's Power Tips can still be found online:
posted by rmmcclay at 8:31 PM on April 6, 2007

Some doofus at MacWorld Boston '97 suggested to me that Apple could be saved if they'd only hire Kai Krauss to redesign the Mac OS GUI. I ignored him, headed over to the Bert Monroy Photoshop demo and had my mind BLOWN. The few useful functions KPT offered were totally obviated by Monroy's Layers and Channels black magic. I managed to compose myself enough to jot down the name of the book he and some of his buddies were releasing a few months hence. Soon, this arcane tome would be mine (via amazon pre-order), while Krauss and his parlor tricks faded into obscurity....
posted by Scoo at 9:55 PM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yep... I used the free Kai program that came with a digital camera. Funky interface, which I found confusing because I was already proficient in PhotoShop. But I forced myself to use it just because. And I could see where it was perfect for someone without PS bias. It took the image step by step through the stages needed to make a good photos: sharpen, remove dust, crop, color correct (or make sepia, BW, etc) and finally framing. Fun! My daughter LOVED it. She was probably 7 or 8, and got it immediately.
posted by The Deej at 7:08 AM on April 7, 2007

Holy shit, you're that dbiedny! Quite a prolific proffesional career you've got there dude.
posted by blasdelf at 7:18 AM on April 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

I remember the first time I used KPT, I thought it was a lot of fun but after a while realized the effects would only come in handy if I was doing an album cover for Yes.

OK! OK! I give!!! It's been 20 minutes since I read that, and I can't stop chuckling!!!!!

So... did you ever get the album cover gig?
posted by The Deej at 7:23 AM on April 7, 2007

Oh, and it was Photo Soap that I used.
posted by The Deej at 7:54 AM on April 7, 2007

Ah, yes. I enjoyed playing with KPT in college, but I never could find a practical use for the output. Kai cashed out at the right time.
posted by Kikkoman at 1:44 PM on April 7, 2007

Did Kai invent Mystery Meat Navigation? I always thought the interface of his products was silly and unintuitive.
posted by grouse at 5:09 AM on April 9, 2007

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