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Design Details With Dave Evans: From Blobs to Triangles, Smartphones to Cameras
Dave Evans is OSOM’s Chief Design officer. That means he handles everything from the Solana Saga’s physical design down to the runic inscriptions on its box and the folded papers individual items inside are swaddled in. He worked at Essential, Apple, Lytro, Samsung, and even taught at Stanford University in his years as an engineer and designer. In short: Dude knows his stuff.
Like everyone at OSOM, he works from home (“designed in California!”), and I had the chance to sit down with him remotely and ask him a little bit about what he does while his kids swung and skittered about the redwood trees on a walk home from school.
Thanks for taking the time, Dave. Obviously, you’ve been with the company for a while — you were at Essential, and you knew Andy Rubin and Jason Keats from the “old” days. Can you describe your journey here?
Man, so this is recorded? Laughs. I joined Playground Global, the incubator that started Essential, as the head of the design studio. One day Andy walked into my office and said, “Hey, I want to do something crazy.” And I said, “I like to do crazy things.” Then he drew a blob on my whiteboard and said, “I want to make a phone this shape.” I said, “Okay, that is crazy,” and then we just kept going.
That was the same week that Jason interviewed to join this secret thing that hadn't formed yet and turned into Essential. He likes to say he was the first hire, I like to say I was the first person working on it — I beat him by a couple of days, though I wasn’t working for Essential for another six months.
Keats and I have a strong overlap, and we have long understood that we complement each other pretty well. He signs us up for crazy stuff, and I make it real and beautiful. We come at things from different angles. He loves to push the boundaries of what can be done, while I like to make sure we’re in the pocket, and that dynamic is very constructive for a startup. We do innovative stuff and execute it well. That’s the thing we both really care about: The craft.
What brought you to OSOM after Essential wound down?
I consulted a bunch of places and was at Samsung for an ill-advised minute. But Keats kept asking if I’d come and join this thing, get the band back together. Of course, phones are hard, startups are hard, and now Covid was happening. But it was a team of people I already trusted. So I figured if anyone could pull it off while handling itself remotely, this is the team that can do it.
Our focus on privacy really plays to my sense of ethics, too. A lot of big tech companies would rather be successful; they focus on “doing well” instead of “doing good,” whereas I care strongly about what I contribute to. Granted, it could look like just another phone from the outside, but Keats has an incredible knack for uncovering interesting partnerships. So when the opportunity to partner with Solana appeared, I thought, “there it is, the next degree of pushing boundaries.”
We’ve discussed this a few times (it came up in your recent AMA on our Discord), but you have a different background than most designers. At most companies, the designer is this whimsical authority — “I want it to look like this,” and the engineers are like, “oh god, how do we do that.” But you come from an engineering background. You’ve been on both sides. How does that change things?
My background in engineering and manufacturing gives me a real sensitivity to what things will be easier or harder in production. I never ask for the impossible, but I often ask for the “very difficult,” and we choose those battles really carefully. We only push the envelope on things that actually matter for the customer experience — whether that’s materials, fit and finish, or integrating the latest and greatest parts. But you don’t need to push all the time, it’s not always constructive. Where some companies in our vicinity might turn it up to 11 out of some misguided sense of duty, we try to make sure we’re delivering a good value too.
That ability comes from a decade of working in small hardware companies, which gives you an incredible intimacy with the entire development process. I work “from sketches to shrink wrap, concept to customer.” Understanding and participating in the entire creative process allows me to make the appropriate compromises (whether that’s in design or engineering).
The work you’ve done obviously speaks to your skill, knowing when to choose the right things to focus on, and I know premium materials are one thing you really value. Can you tell me more about your process? How do you choose the materials and design — does the customer experience inform the design or does the design inform the customer experience?
Part of the reason OSOM can function in this crazy time of reduced globalization and why we can all work from home, scattered across the world, is that we can stand on our past work — you know, “the shoulders of giants,” but sometimes the giants are us. We have the opportunity to revisit our experience, repeating the good decisions and iterating where we need to.
It’s a dream team, you know the product and the people.
Yeah. We’ve made enough stuff at this point to know what we want to achieve and how to do it well. Things like materials, the shape of a corner, the tactile feedback of buttons — we’re not starting from scratch; we start from a known-good place. And that gives us time to focus on the novel details and challenges that make each project unique. But for the most part, we’re doing the greatest hits.
There are a few things we can’t talk about yet, but so far, what’s your favorite thing you’ve designed on the Solana Saga?
I am unreasonably attached to our triangular camera bump. And it cracks me up! In a sea of round and rectangular camera bumps, we came out with the second most primitive, most stable, strongest, two-dimensional shape behind the circle. It’s so fundamental to engineering! Other companies have phones with three cameras, and they put them in a square? Come on.
My long-standing joke is that — you know how we’re all working from home? I have two young kids, and when we were doing initial sketches, my preschooler was drawing along with me, and he was like, “triangle!” and I’m like, “BOOM, ship it!”
We’ll see if I can sneak this one in, but let’s go the other way: What’s your least favorite design detail in the Saga?
I was actually really stoked for our logo — unobtrusive yet visible up top, right next to the camera bump. We were breaking design norms! I really wanted to ship it, that’s the one that got away.
We tried it with the Solana logo, but it didn’t work, so we put it where it belonged. That’s one of the things you have to do as a designer: You relinquish your own desires to serve the customer and the product.
In that vein, what’s your design “white whale?” Whether it’s a challenge you’d like to overcome or a product you’d like to build — what keeps you up at night (positive or negative)?
That’s a thoughtful question, but I’m going to deflect. One of the things I learned about myself is that my favorite thing to do professionally is to support great teams doing important work. If I had a vision for a product that I wanted to do independently, I’d be an entrepreneur. But I’m not. I’m a problem solver. And the engineer and designer in me is always looking for good problems to solve.
I do, however, have endless sketches for redoing my cocktail bar’s citrus squeezer.
One last one: When you look back at all the stuff you’ve made, the stuff sitting on the shelf at home you’ve saved from old projects, what’s your favorite?
I’m very partial to the Lytro Illum — the second Lytro camera. As a design program, it had two really important qualities for me.
First, it was the first time I got to personally lead the entire design program. It was an immense opportunity for me to take something from start to finish as the lead, and I’m grateful for having done a thing that won some awards and got some recognition.
The second is that it was a fun object to make. I come from a physical design background, and the truth is most phones are meant to be a great vessel for software experiences. The hardware just needs to do a good enough job that you can forget it’s there; you just trust it. Then you can experience what the phone “does,” not how the phone “is.” But a big camera has all these physical controls, tactility, and ergonomics; it’s about building a much more human device with a lot more physical interactions and affordances.
So as a designer of personal devices, in a purely selfish development sense, it was much more fun to design than your typical glowing rectangle — as important as those rectangles are in our daily lives!
They are a lot more important than most people realize! You’ve had the chance to build them, and I’ve spent my career studying them and the impact they have. I really appreciate your insight on the subject and the opportunity to be a part of this journey — getting to help make one and telling people all about it.
I think when more people can use the Saga and see how beautiful it is, the materials and craftsmanship that went into it, they’ll really appreciate the work you’ve done in designing it. Watching the time and attention that you put into even just the paper hank for the charging cable has been really illuminating — no detail is too small for deliberation and care.
I know how busy you are, so thanks for pulling aside the curtain for our readers, Dave.