Q & A with Student Sam
on 07 Dec 05
We get a lot of email here at OW HQ1, nothing special, just the garden–variety sort: super deals on pharmaceuticals, link exchange offers from Indian data companies, opportunities to transfer large sums of money to our account from deposed Nigerian dictators — you know, the usual. Sometimes we even receive requests for design services. Every so often, though, we get one of the really rare emails: a chance to pass on our wisdom to the next generation. In this case, a budding local designer sought out the hippest, modern-est web agency he could find to learn what really makes a hip, modern design company tick.
His name is Sam, and he asked OnWired, “So what exactly is involved in running such a wildly successful design firm?”* Well, Sam, we normally play our cards pretty close to the vest — being as we’re all wanted by the authorities in several states and all — but in the end, we decided to let you peek behind the curtain. So here you go.
(*Well, he didn’t really ask that question, exactly. And truth be told, he’s not a budding designer: he’s an English student at North Carolina State University doing some kind of assignment on the internet or something and was in a mad rush to get somebody to answer some questions before finals. We are that somebody!)
What is your name and title?
Nathan Huening, International Philanthropist, Supermodel and Shaolin Kung Fu Master. Oh, wait, that’s the answer to another question. This one is “Director of Web Development.”
How long have you been in this line of work, and what led you into it?
Formally (that is, full-time) only since last March. Informally as a hobby and pastime since, oh, say fall of 1999-ish. The first thing you have to do is pick a field in college totally unrelated — I have a BS in Nutrition and taught college physics; Jon, our lead designer, has a degree in Spanish and taught middle-schoolers.
Ever since my first computer (Commodore 64) I’ve been hooked. It really took off as a high school freshman (by then a Compaq Presario), when back in the pre-web days we would connect one-on-one to other computers and chat on bulletin board systems. A lot of the appeal for me is that it’s an interesting time to be involved: we’re the first generation of people to experience the web and to design and build for it. (Our kids will be amazed.) Wired Magazine marks the birth of the web in August 1995, when Netscape Corp. went public — that means we’re only now a little more than 10 years removed from its inception, but how could we imagine life without it? People who work with the web now have had a hand in shaping it, and that’s exciting.
More than anything else, though, is how much there always is to learn and how the web combines so many different, interesting fields. The creative web professional combines all the traditional aspects of graphic design like balance, typography and contrast. He also needs a firm grasp on conventionally left-brained things like logic, programming, and technology. Mix those together with great writing, humor, and pathos; sprinkle a bit of wit, stir in an immediate and global audience and shake liberally, and you have yourself an occupation that I would keep doing even if nobody paid me.
Do you enjoy your job? What do you find most enjoyable, and least enjoyable, about what you do?
Very much so. As I said, I’d do it even if nobody paid me — in fact, that’s what I did for years, but I ended up learning enough useful things that I found somebody who would. (Sucker!) Most enjoyable is the flexibility — anywhere I can find a wireless signal, I’ve got an office. We work from home, in coffee shops, at the office, outside, on vacation, anywhere and any time we feel like it (though sometimes too much!). As long as we hit our deadlines, it doesn’t much matter when or where.
Least enjoyable — let’s say, difficult clients and grunt work, like hours upon hours of copy-pasting.
What is the work week and work environment like?
The work week for me is officially 5 days long but sometimes 7, though we’re thinking about shortening that to 4. I start my days at around 10 or 11 partly because I want to avoid traffic on the commute but mainly because I stay up late and like to sleep in. The work environment is basically the three of us with laptops in a small, moodlit Cary office with an extra space for Jen, who handles billing, filing, and Tony. We also have office plants. And a pet raccoon.
How do you spent the typical day?
Behind my desk, programming, reading, writing, cursing, designing, consulting, critiquing, dreaming, planning, complaining, drinking coffee and teasing my coworkers. Oh, and we sometimes take advantage of a yogurt container lid that works great as an indoor Frisbee (I’m a Stonyfield Farm man, myself). Threats have been made to introduce an XBox, as well, since we have a digital projector in the closet.
How does one enter into this type of work?
Me personally, I lost a bet.
Others, though, would do well to spend some time browsing the tech section at Barnes & Noble, where they’re sure to find all kinds of terrific introductory texts. In addition, you can find every manner of tip and tutorial online, where people write volumes about good design and coding — there are whole sites devoted to it. I can hardly think of any other occupation where the top experts in the field readily and frequently give away their trade secrets and competitive advantages. “Wondering how I built this award-winning site? Let me walk you through what I did, step by step.” The generosity of the web is astounding. Some folks spend hours and hours answering beginners’ questions on web fora, give up years of work to the open source community.
What considerations go into the typical website design?
Oh, all kinds. In rough order of importance: budget, inspiration, timeframe, audience, and coffee.
Do you write, edit, or massage the content that is to be housed on a website you, and your firm, design?
Which is more important, well-designed content or a well-designed graphic design?
They are clearly both important, but it depends on the context which is more. Many visitors won’t take you seriously if your site is poorly designed graphically or your brand is underdeveloped: when it comes to companies and organizations, graphic design can be a make-or-break proposition. If I’m choosing between two vendors, I’ll choose the one that spent a little more on a professional designer, because it seems to me they care more about my experience as a visitor or user. (This is the same reason I drive a Volkswagen, not a Chevy.) First impressions matter a great deal. In most cases, I’m not visiting a site its engaging content, mainly I just want some information, and when it’s not presented simply and elegantly it’s distracting. Ugly design is a bummer.
On the other hand, the purpose of design is to communicate, not decorate. If your most important goal is to connect with readers, then your primary focus should be to make your content easy to read, understand and access. This does not require you to win any awards or get listed on design excellence galleries. Design is not art and is separate from style: design is problem-solving and communication, so even very plain sites that don’t appear to be interesting graphically might still be well-designed. (My favorite sites, the ones I visit over and over again, are basically nothing but text on a solid background. I go there for the content, because I want to read and enjoy the wit or insight of the author. They don’t need to impress, don’t need anything to get in the way of the content.)
So I would say design is the most important thing, whether that means graphics or content.
How does the considerations of target audiences change depending on the type of the website? How much consideration is given to writing content which will attract search engines?
The target audience dictates many of the design decisions, from color palette to font size. If it’s a mainly 20-something audience, perhaps college students, we’re not concerned as much about larger file sizes or cutting edge technologies because their machines will handle them. If we know the principal audience is middle-aged, we’ll likely make the text larger and easy to read. We’ll also optimize the design for smaller resolution monitors and older machines.
As for the content, you’ve heard about how 1000 monkeys writing for 1000 years on typewriters will eventually create the works of Shakespeare? That’s kind of what we’ve got going on in the office, minus 997 monkeys. But these monkeys know that certain words and phrases are very important and will be sure to include the ones that makes both readers and the Google ‘bot happy.
More and more people are using the internet every day, whether writing blogs or running small businesses. How do these changes influence the web and where do you see it heading?
The web has been about universal participation and egalitarianism from the beginning, so these trends are not surprising. It means that more and more people will make creating for the web a part of their daily lives and that benefits everyone. It means more contributions to the marketplace of ideas though it also means more dancing babies and Comic Sans. But we take the good with the bad.
What sort of software and programming languages are important in you job?
Software: we’re all dyed-in-the-wool Mac users, because we prefer operating systems that aren’t garbage. In house, it’s a lot of Adobe products, notably Photoshop, Fireworks and InDesign. I do all my coding in a little application called Coda; Tony uses a program to read something called “electronic mail,” but that’s not part of my job description so he’d have to tell you more about it.
Considering the growth of the area and the number of start-ups in the area, is the Triangle a good location for this type of work?
Absolutely. The research triangle is home to all kinds of companies, organizations and even colleges, so there’s terrific demand for web services. Raleigh-Durham has the potential to be the next Bay Area or Boston, except without the waterfront views or, um, hip local culture. But it’s got its charms.
On second thought… actually, this is a TERRIBLE place for web start-ups. They’d never survive here. They should really all plan to go elsewhere, far far away, there’s no work here. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
What is the usual consumer of the services you, and you firm, provide?
Companies with around 15-50 employees, so small to large. Some individuals. Also lonely executives desperate for human contact.
Thank you for your time.
That wasn’t a question.
1 That sounds painful, but it’s not. Usually.
About this Author
The author of this blog post never returned to home base after his last mission. He is assumed to have been either captured or killed in action, although it is possible that he turned rogue and is now working for the enemy. As such, we disavow all knowledge of his previous actions and whereabouts.