Recently I was asked by a university student studying web design if they could interview me as part of a class project.
I agreed, but I was too busy for a phone interview so I ended up responding in length to a set of questions in writing. I believe much of what I wrote would be applicable to all design students interested in web design so I'm posting the interview here.
We tend to avoid job titles but I could use either ‘Owner’ or ‘Art Director’. My titles at the last two agencies I was at were ‘Senior Web Developer’ and ‘Design and Marketing Analyst'.
Fairly unorthodox. I began working in Photoshop and designing webpages when I was about 14 (around 1994) in addition to playing around with programming languages like C and, later, Java.
As an undergraduate at the University of Florida I had a number of art shows showcasing my photography and digital art. I also designed a few sites here and there for myself and friends and had a number of small online ventures that derived ad revenue. I got a BA in Political Science and spent about three years pursuing a doctorate degree in Comparative Politics.
While in graduate school I worked for the Center of European Studies, updating and maintaining their PHP/MySQL site and working with the political science department on a complete redesign (which is still up but a little worse for wear: http://web.polisci.ufl.edu/).
However, I learned most about web design, marketing, and web development after I got a job at a small web company in Jacksonville. I was hired to replace the manager there and there wasn’t really anyone on staff that knew a whole lot more than me. So starting out I would buy tons of books and magazine on various related subject and taught myself.
My own specialization is design and marketing. The other partner at Station Four handles application development and programming, but I am the resident HTML/CSS ninja.
I’ve always been a bit of a computer nerd, keeping up with the latest trends online. At the same time I’ve always been creative and worked across a number of mediums. When I first started in the field I didn’t know much about how marketing and business strategy tied into the discipline of web design. As my experience working directly with clients increased something sort of ‘clicked’; I realized that web design should be a rational, goal-driven process that results in a creative and successful design, which sort of jived with who I am.
Luck. As I described above, my resume starting out wasn’t real impressive. I interview well and was hired as a ‘Senior Web Developer’ at a small and poorly managed company. However, because it was poorly managed I learned as much with that company that I have anywhere since and because it was small I had the opportunity to institute policies and processes and quickly see the affect they had on client satisfaction and the company’s bottom line.
As a business owner there is really no ‘typical workday’. In a given day I’ll do some, if not all of the following: take sales calls, go on sales meetings, write proposals, meet or talk with clients about their project, respond to a million emails, work on site architecture deliverables such as sitemaps and page description diagraphs, work on layouts (wireframing), work on client design work (logos, websites, flash, print materials), produce marketing analyses, manage online ad campaigns, play Mario Kart on the Wii, manage workers and freelancers, and do some bookkeeping.
One thing that is both is that everything changes very quickly. There are always new technologies and techniques that are exciting and cool but require you to constantly keep up. The type of work I do now is significantly different than it was a year ago. Because everything changes so quickly people working as in-house web designers, focusing on a single site that employs a given set of technologies, can find that their skill set is out of date if they ever want to move to an agency.
Also the pace of change hinders mid-sized companies that try to employ a traditional management structure as they find their process and employee’s skill sets become outdated fairly quickly. On the plus side, smaller more agile agencies can do very well and are typically more fun to work at anyway.
As with any design work, being forced to be constantly creative can be draining. I find that I go through all sorts of stages of frustration and self- doubt in the early stages of a design only to eventually have a ‘lightbulb’ go off. Completing a design you’re proud of is a great feeling but I find the process so draining that it’s difficult for me to just start a new project right away. However I’ve always had the experience where I am responsible for a variety of tasks and in most cases can take step away from design work for a few hours or a day between projects.
Unless you’re very interested in either Flash or web development (database programming etc) then keep your skill set general. In the case that you are very interested in Flash or web development then focus on those skills exclusively as there are good jobs out there for people that are great at either that don’t require you to know anything else. Knowing about search engine optimization is great but the number of jobs out there for low-level relatively unknown SEO specialists will be small. Someone who can design and code (html/css) will be able to find a job at more places than someone who can only do one.
Learn about usability and what makes interaction design different than other types of design.
Use web standards and xhtml/css. Tables should only be used for displaying tabular data.
Think about the web design process, with client work you just don’t start up photoshop and start designing. Learn about the tools and documents people have developed to streamline the process.
Follow trends in web design but don’t always follow them. Super web 2.0- ish sites with reflections everywhere sites will look dated in a year but similar techniques can be employed to good effect. This tends to be the case with most fads and trends.
Keep up to date with blogs on web design and comment on them. Know something about marketing and the actual business value of a good design. Clients don’t want a ‘cool’ site, they want more business. Find your community. There are a lot of print designers, web designers, and programmers about, find them. Go to AIGA events and just meet other professionals and students in the field.
Always be open to new things. Do something using a different technology or platform just to figure out how to use it.
Chris Olberding is a mediocre ukulele player who owns more Funko Pop figures than any grown man should. In spite of this, he has run a successful agency for the past 10 years by providing creative vision and strategic guidance to the S4 team. Chris has been recognized as one of Jacksonville Business Journal’s 40 Under 40, and S4 has been named to the Gator 100, a list of the 100 fastest-growing businesses owned or run by a UF alumni, for the last two years.