The First Duel: Giving a Little Something Back
Rene and I have been in the graphic and multimedia design field, in some form or another, for more than 10 years. Over the last several, we have regularly been the recipients of emails from students, recent graduates, or individuals considering a new career, who are seeking advice. The topics we are asked about range a variety of topics from contracts to billing to design process, and so on.
I see this as quite an honor and we do our best to answer any questions we receive. About two weeks ago, one such high school student wrote to us. She had just completed a website for her school and was asked to create another for the entire school system. Being new to the realm, she appealed to us for any general advice that we could give regarding getting into the field and best practices.
Her email got me thinking back to what it was like for me when I began to "dabble" in web design, not knowing what to expect or how to begin. I built my first website my freshman year of college, WAY back in 1996. It is not an understatement to tell you that it was awful. Full of scrolling marquees, animated GIFs, and such things that would make even the most tolerant of web designers want to slam their head into the nearest blunt object. Of course, I knew little of HTML tags and nothing of typography, "good" design, or image optimization. Building this first website was fun, just something to pass time during the late hours of night when I was unable to sleep. Little did I know, but my silly old "Geocities" webpage was only the beginning of something I have grown quite passionate about.
Pardon my digression. I would like to share with you a few of the thoughts I sent her and maybe even elaborate a bit more. Before I begin, though, I want to express my hope that what follows will not only briefly answer some of these questions, but also inspire the beginning of a broader dialogue amongst long time professionals and "newbies" alike.
First, I believe it is important to be as well rounded as possible. You do not need to know everything, and certainly not to perfection. However, be an expert in maybe one or two things, but strive to understand as many other aspects of the job as possible. For example, I am of a more "Mathematical mind", so I tend to focus on the programming side of things. That’s not to say that I do not design at all, but I tend to leave that to the more capable hands of Rene, when I can. At the same time, I try to use the understanding I have of design to communicate with the client, my designer (who may or may not understand the "how things work/fit together" perspective), and to help our team in planning how to build the project.
Like any other job, practice makes perfect. Think about it, we have chosen to work in a discipline that is constantly evolving. With each project we increase our experience and see where we might improve on future endeavors. In fact, when I was teaching the most common piece of advice I gave students who were struggling with Dreamweaver (which is not as WYSIWYG as they had hoped) is to sit down and design a few web pages, and build them. Not as an assignment, just to try different looks and see where the common pitfalls were. The easiest way is to find a site that you think you could improve the look of and give it a makeover just for fun. Alternatively, pick a hobby or group that you are a part of and build a website to promote it. Either way, the best instruction comes from doing.
Take pride in your work. It is common to pick apart even your most recent project and see things that may have been done differently or more effectively. I suppose we are all just a little self deprecating like that. There is good in that, though. This means you are not settling for average, or merely acceptable, work. If you want clients coming back for more, you need to push yourself, even when the outcome is not exactly what you may have hoped for.
In the same vain, do not let self deprecation get the best of you. Be proud of every project. It is easy to look back at that first, Geocities site and cringe. The simple fact is, it was a starting point and I learned a great deal from the experience. I try to treat every project that way. I would be lying if I tried to suggest that I do not find knew and better ways of building projects each and every time. So, look back at past work and be objective. See the good and the bad. Take that knowledge with you on to the next task, but at the same time take with you the pride of what you have accomplished.
Preparation and Design:
The next big topic is research and design process. My intention is to give a quick overview of my thoughts on the subject and leave getting into more detail for a later post.
Before ever going to the computer to begin laying out a design, hit the books. Look through magazines. Do not limit yourself to only design magazines, but if you are creating a web site for an architect look at architectural magazines to get a sense of their style. Then browse the internet see what others have done for sites in similar fields. Go to a paint store and look at paint swatches, or an upholstery store to get ideas for color schemes. Use this research to find what you do and do not like regarding color, typography, functionality, usability/user experience, etc. Next, start drawing quick sketches and create a flow chart from page to page to get an understanding of the scope of the site.
If you have taken the time to read this, I hope that it has answered some questions or even inspired a few more. If so, please use the comment area to give your thoughts on the matter. We look forward to hearing from you.