What led you to become a designer?
My parents are both artists. My Dad's a carpenter by trade, but he also does a lot of painting and drawing. My Mom did poured ceramics for a long time too, so I spent a lot of my childhood weekends at art and craft shows. That was definitely how I got into drawing and art. But I was always interested in computers, too. My first computer was an Apple IIe that our family inherited from my cousin. I played a lot of games on that thing, and started tinkering with BASIC. Eventually we got a PC desktop, I discovered the internet through bulletin boards, and decided then that's what I wanted to do. I thought I had to go study computer science in order to do that, so I took a lot of extra classes in my last couple years of high school to get into a computer science program. When I said I wanted to make websites at orientation, they told me I was in the wrong place and sent me to the design department.
And what school was that at?
University of Central Florida in Orlando. I was always more interested in the computer side of things than the art side of things, but I stuck with graphic design. I still consider myself more of a developer than a designer, but not as good of a developer as most developers (laughing). I like to design too, so I've always been somewhere in between.
It's always good when developers can also know the design side of things.
Yeah, that's always been a point of contention for me. I think that all designers should, to some degree, know how to develop, and all developers should, to some degree, know how to design as well in order to be able to communicate with one another. There's a big riff between designers and developers, and it's good to be somewhere in the middle, even if designing isn't your job description.
When I said I wanted to make websites at orientation, they told me I was in the wrong place and sent me to the design department.
What did you do immediately after school?
The first thing I did out of school was try to find some contract work. I graduated at the end of the spring semester and my wife and I were planning to get married at the end of the summer. Knowing I had the whole summer, I went around town trying to find businesses that wanted a website. I did a couple small projects but spent most of the summer working in a sandwich shop. Right after we got married, we moved to Gainesville, FL where my wife was finishing up her undergraduate degree. It was right after the dot com bust, so nobody was hiring in web design, and it was a college town, so nobody was hiring in general (laughing). But I ended up getting a job at an internet service provider that also did design for their hosting clients.
What advice do you have for designers just starting out?
When you're just getting started, experience and portfolio are everything. Look for as many opportunities as you can to, as Leslie says, do good and make awesomeness. Finding early opportunities as a designer to get your name out there is like squirreling money into a savings account. It'll give you the confidence and reputation equity to take risks and pursue the things you love to do.
The hardest part of being a designer is dealing with criticism…It's easy to paint clients as the villains in these situations but to succeed as a designer, you have to learn how to take that kind of feedback and translate it into something that works for both of you.
What are the components of a strong portfolio?
Real work that uses real, employable skills. I think a lot people focus on showcasing their stuff from school, and some of those projects can be good. It depends on what kind of professor you have, if they're really in tune to what's going on in the industry. A lot of times people out of school have a portfolio full of stuff that looks like school projects, you know, and not like real world projects. That's what I meant when I said build your portfolio, is do stuff out of school as well. Try to find things to make websites for that you're interested in.
How does a portfolio change if you're a developer rather than a designer?
It depends on if you're planning to do design or front-end. Obviously if you're planning on doing anything with design, whether it be front-end development, or just pure design, or even the user experience stuff, people want to see visual things, you know. People want to see examples of what the interfaces you've built look like. With development, the visual stuff is less important. They want to see what kind of developer you are. So your code samples become your portfolio if you're more on the development end of things.
I still consider myself more of a developer than a designer, but not as good of a developer as most developers (laughing). I like to design too, so I've always been somewhere in between.
What is the most difficult aspect of design?
Learning design principles and getting experience can help you become a decent designer, but despite all your training about what makes a successful design, it's still largely subjective. The hardest part of being a designer is dealing with criticism. Not the constructive, well-intentioned criticism you get in design school but the uninformed, ignorant feedback from clients. It's easy to paint clients as the villains in these situations but to succeed as a designer, you have to learn how to take that kind of feedback and translate it into something that works for both of you. Above all, realize that failure is inevitable. If you can't pick yourself up and move on from those failures though, you'll never find success.
What do you value most about design?
I think what I love most about design is that it's both a face and a voice. The company or service you're designing for might be extraordinary, but without design there's no way to really connect with it. Design provides the personality and first impression for people to interact with. Being able to shape that with colors, form, type, and imagery is nothing short of magical.
It seems like you wear a lot of different hats at MailChimp. Can you tell me more about what you do?
You mentioned that your official title is UX designer. How does user experience design influence your skills as a developer?
Before I came to MailChimp, I was working at an agency where we were developing basically just one-off websites for companies. We started off building fairly medium or small size websites, and then ended up building some pretty huge websites, like Blue Cross Blue Shield and some other pretty big business-y kind of websites. But as big as the sites got, it was never an iterative process. It was always the same – find out what the client needs, explore some ideas for identity, start building a website that fits the identiy. The deliverable ends up being a homepage design and a few internal comps that are just Photoshop designs that gets passed off to the front-end development department. We'd build it out, incorporate it into the back-end of the CMS, then the website's done, it's out the door. There wasn't a whole lot of thought about user experience, we didn’t have time to think through all the different possible ways we could build things. It was very fast-paced, get it done, and get it out.
So going from that to working on an application, everything we do is iterative. If we're not adding a brand new feature, we're rebuilding a feature that we introduced less than a year ago. And so you get to go through it, and find your mistakes, and then rebuild them, and do something different. So working on an application is different from working on a client-based website design in that you're constantly going through it, and trying to find better ways of doing things you've already done. So that's where user experience comes into play. We do a lot of user testing, experimental wireframing and playing with ideas on paper before we even get to building out the interfaces.
But I think that that iterative process, that ability to push something out and then realize, “Oh no, that's not the best I can do,” or “There are some mistakes there, let me change them and fix them right now,” is what I love about the web.
Do you think iterative processes are important from a design perspective as well? Do you think the role of the designer is evolving in that way?
Definitely. Even when I was in school, the design program at University of Central Florida was supposed to prepare you for a career in either print or web. And most of the professors were all old print people, so they didn't really understand the web. But I think that that iterative process, that ability to push something out and then realize, “Oh no, that's not the best I can do,” or “There are some mistakes there, let me change them and fix them right now,” is what I love about the web. I'm not good at catching my own mistakes, and I will often see a better way to do something after it's already live. I think that's why I like working on a big application, too. It gives me a lot of opportunity to revisit things I've done, and make them better.
How was the experience of coming from a primarily print-focused program? Did you teach yourself a lot of things about the web on the side?
Definitely. I feel like a lot of the things I took away from school were the basic design principles that every design student learns in school, no matter what aspect of design you're getting into. Whether it be photography, interior design, graphic design or whatever aspect of art that you're interested in. The stuff that you learn in design school, and the experience you get going through drawing, and design, and art history, or whatever elective classes you take, it gives you the eye for design, and the experience you need to make decisions, to critique your own work, to critique other work. I don’t think I would’ve have gotten anywhere else.
But all the rest of the stuff, how I build things on the web, the tips and tricks for getting things to render correctly, the experience of going through and debugging things, that's all stuff that you can learn on the web. I think the fact that the program was so print-focused was more of a product of when it was. The web was still taking off and the people who were in web at that point were all doing it, they were out there in the field, so there wasn't a whole lot of people coming back to teach the web in academia.
What advice to you have for developers who want to learn more about design?
The stuff that you learn in design school, and the experience you get going through drawing, and design, and art history, or whatever elective classes you take, it gives you the eye for design, and the experience you need to make decisions, to critique your own work, to critique other work. I don’t think I would’ve have gotten anywhere else.
Do you work on anything outside of MailChimp? Do you have any personal projects?
I used to do a lot of projects on the side, just basic website design projects outside of work. When I was writing the book it was nights and weekends for nine months. I was working forty hours a week from home, and then I’d take a break for a few minutes, maybe go for a jog, and then sit back down in front of the computer and write. After that experience I tried very hard to not work on any side projects for a long time. But I'm currently working on a couple side projects, which is tough to find time for now that we have a baby.
How do you balance your personal and professional life?
I've always had a hard time balancing personal and professional life. I'm interested in web design outside of work so I'll sit in front of the computer and “waste” time playing around with HTML and CSS, or reading articles, or keeping up with Twitter. It's always been hard for me to separate that. I think that it's a good thing, if you love what you do you're going to pursue it after work. I started a Refresh group in Columbia so I could get to know other people that did what I did after hours, and talk about how they do things. I like going to conferences and things like that too, so yea, sometimes it's hard to find balance. Amy has finally adjusted to that - I think. It's important to have a partner who understands the things that you love to do.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I think most people expect me to say I'm most proud of being an author. I definitely am, but I think my proudest moment was having the redesign of my personal website featured on a bunch of CSS galleries back in 2004. I was about a year out of design school and gallery sites like CSS Vault, Stylegala & CSS Beauty were the place most professional web designers looked for standards-based inspiration. Getting featured in those galleries meant a lot and opened the door to several other great opportunities.
Design provides the personality and first impression for people to interact with. Being able to shape that with colors, form, type, and imagery is nothing short of magical.
What are the lasting impressions you want to leave with your work?
That's a good question. I think the thing that I'm always amazed by is how many people have the opportunity to see your work when it's on the web. It's not limited to the number of copies there are, because there are no copies, it's just out there. What always blows me away is when people have read an article I've written, or seen something I've designed, or I say that I've worked on a website and they're like, “Oh, I've been to that website.” Just the unexpected discovery that somebody else has seen, appreciated, or used something that you've done… That's always the most rewarding thing.