Courtesy Mockup Cloud.

When trying to understand how cities work – how they develop over time and how their social lives have come into existence – urbanists often look at infrastructure. Looking closely at the roads, railways, sewers, electricity lines and rivers that run through a place can often uncover some essential truths. For example, how can we think about Los Angeles without thinking about the design, construction and ongoing use of its highways? It seems obvious, but only when you actively look. Most of the time, infrastructure is invisible.  

We can think of mockups in graphic design in a similar way. The mockup is a fundamental part of the graphic designer’s toolkit. Producing samples and prototypes for clients is an essential part of the working process, and has been for as long as graphic design has been a thing. They are so ubiquitous they seem to hardly warrant any further thought, which is precisely why we should look closer.

Let’s start simple: what is a mockup? A model, an incomplete version of a product or object that communicates something important—shape, size, form, texture, colour, weight, etc.—about the final product. Who are mockups for? Traditionally (if we can speak of a mockup tradition) a mockup would be produced by a designer for their client; someone with a limited design imagination who needs to hold or see a version of their finished product to understand how it will exist in the world. A book mockup, for example, might have the correct paper weight, page size and binding, but contain no words. It’s only produced to show how the book is going to feel. So far, so straightforward.

Mockups have become a field of graphic design in their own right, with characteristic styles, mainstream norms, trends and even left field newcomers.

In recent years, however, the mockup dynamic has become more complicated. Anyone working in the field will be aware of the expansive ecosystem of mockup design—facilitated by Photoshop, the internet and easily shareable files—which have dramatically altered the audience, and even the primary function of the mockup. Sites such as Mockup World, Mockups Design, Mockup Cloud and dozens of others have created a marketplace in which the template has become a source of income and the intended audience is no longer just the client, but the graphic design community itself. As a result, mockups have become a field of graphic design in their own right, with characteristic styles, mainstream norms, trends and even left field newcomers.

Andrej Sevkovskij, founder of Mockup Cloud, sees himself as something of a pioneer in the mockup world. The Vilnius-based designer uploaded his first mockup – a brochure design – onto GraphicRiver in 2011 and set up Mockup Cloud in 2017. Today Mockup Cloud is Sevkovskij’s full time job and employs a team of four others selling hundreds of editable images in themed packages, available to buy individually or via subscription to around 1500 active subscribers. Packages vary from the tactile – barbershop or craft beer branding—to the techy—the Android smartphone mockup features cascading screens disembodied from the machine. “I want to cover as many services as there are,” explains Sevkovskij via video call. “I take inspiration from Instagram and Behance, but also customers sometimes email asking for some particular mockup. I didn’t want to make a tea mockup, but many people were asking for it, so I made a tea mockup using a pot and a few glasses.”

It can take Sevkovskij up to a month to produce a series, which involves buying props and blank packaging, photoshoots and putting together the editable photoshop files. The process is sped up by outsourcing image clipping to companies such as Clipping Path Asia which, according to Sevkovskij, allows more time to focus on creative work and photo shoots.

This creativity is hard to pin down. “I think that a good mockup should only be a background for the design,” explains Andrzej Gdula, founder of Mockups Design, another hugely popular mockup vendor. The functional nature of the mockup dictates that they be somewhat invisible to allow the “real” design to take center stage. Gdula set up Mockups Design, in part, because the existing mockup market wasn’t anonymous enough. “Many of the mockups were overwhelming my designs. I always tried to design in a minimal and simple way,” he says. “That was also the moment when I realized that making mockups can be as fun as designing, maybe even more, as I was free from complaining customers and could make whatever I want.”

“That was also the moment when I realized that making mockups can be as fun as designing, maybe even more, as I was free from complaining customers and could make whatever I want.”

Despite Gdula’s sense of creative freedom, Mockups Design and Mockup Cloud occupy an aesthetic middle ground within the mockup ecosystem in contrast to more bespoke, stylized brands that have emerged in recent years. Maison Mockup, for example, sells photography-led mockups with urban hipster signifiers such as record sleeves, exposed concrete and brown paper. Mock Reality, on the other hand, produce maximalist scenes with luscious textures and expressive props. Mock Reality was set up by New York-based Studio HMVD, a branding and content studio whose talent for portfolio photography and project presentation led them to start producing and selling mockups as an alternative revenue stream for the studio.

“Mockups are so neutral that they sacrifice personality. We’re trying to the opposite,” says Abigail Kerns, manager of HMVD. Creative director Heather-Mariah Violet Dixon continues: “We come from a place of creating things that feel really real, so it felt weird to put our work into this very highly rendered fake world.” This gets to one of the central paradoxes of the mockup concept: the persistent grasp for an imagined “reality”. “When a design is surrounded by real objects, real textures etc, all these things boost the credibility of the project itself,” says Andrzej Gdula. Even interface design is virtually always framed in the context of a phone or laptop. “It should look real,” confirms Nimisha Singhal, a New York-based designer who has used mockups in a commercial studio context, as well as to display her own work as part of her portfolio. Her project Gender Tarot, for example, only exists in mockup form displayed on her website alongside some digitally inserted plants and shadows. There is a good reason for this. “Who takes the time to get a white infinity background and good lighting and a beautiful camera to photograph stuff?” says Singhal. “That’s all an investment that no one really does. Everyone just mocks things up.” Indeed the digital proliferation of mockups is certainly to be celebrated, if only from the perspective of making high quality project presentation possible for very low prices, sometimes for free. 

In fact it’s so much easier to use pre-made mockups that students and large studios are often using the same templates, despite the fact that the studios likely have the capacity to produce their own. The potential result of this is an ever-narrowing field of design influences making their way into mainstream graphic design discourse. Mockup designers take their inspiration from Instagram and Behance to produce templates which are designed to be used by designers who will use them to make attractive images for clients and followers to see on those same platforms. We know that easily shareable content is crucial contemporary currency; in the world of graphic design, perhaps mockup designers are the mint.

But there’s still more to it. Is Singhal’s Gender Tarot a “real” project? When viewed on Singhal’s website or Instagram, it’s hard to see how it couldn’t be – it’s as real as anything else viewed through the app or elsewhere online. On Behance or Instagram, a mocked-up book design can sit next to a completed, printed and distributed book. According to the values of the platform the difference between them is negligible: they are two new images amongst billions of images. In this context, the mockup has evolved from tool to end-product and, by extension, the primary audience for the mockup has evolved from client to the digital public: followers, algorithms, etc.

This raises a tension. If mockups provide an affordable and accessible way to make projects look great on the internet, why the ongoing attachment to the “real”, the physical and the tactile? It seems that mockups provide a useful lens through which to observe our ongoing collective anxieties about how life unfolds in evermore digital spaces and how value exists between physical and digital spaces (something David Rudnick has termed “the struggle for primacy”). The proliferation of digital mockups clearly indicates the value of the tools at our disposal, but mainstream graphic aesthetics, and the values inherent in them, are still clearly rooted in the physical world.

Considering the paradigm shift that digital life represents, this is understandable. But in the context of cryptocurrencies, NFTs and burgeoning Web3 movements, it’s perhaps time to try and move beyond those anxieties and to stake more of a claim for designing life online. Mockups will not necessarily be where this progression will first become evident but—like the construction of a new subway line—when the infrastructure shifts, larger changes follow.