Interview by Helen Walker
HW: What is it you like most about being a web designer?
RW: I was trained in traditional graphic design, which a print-focused discipline. While there’s still plenty of opportunity for creativity and invention in print, its conventions are well established through centuries of practice. The web, on the other hand, still has a lot to learn about itself. If you think of the two media as people, print is a wise old man who is set in his ways, whereas the web is still a child, unformed and full of potential.
What I like most about web design is taking the lessons I’ve learned from that old man and teaching them to the child. It’s not mere transferral, as the two media are different animals which often require different modes of thinking. But figuring out where they converge and diverge is a very exciting challenge for me, because, in these early days of the web, our work can help shape the way people will communicate in the future.
HW: You’re a web designer, an artist, and a writer. Where do you draw the line between these three activities?
RW: I’m careful about drawing lines between my activities and interests because they are interdependent. That can be tricky, especially when it comes to distinguishing my professional life from my personal life, but my creative process really depends on stimuli gathered from pretty much everything I do and see. For example, responding to your questions has reminded me that I’m able to internally clarify my thoughts and attitudes toward design (and most other things) by writing about them. For that reason, I try to keep a holistic perspective on my activities, since all of those pieces work together to form the whole puzzle.
HW: Tell us about your beard cult. When did you first grow it? How does it affect your work and life?
RW: The oversized, full beard I’m wearing now has only been a fixture for a couple of years, but I’ve rarely been clean shaven since that first adventurous follicle colonized my chin so long ago. I’ve done the goatee, the double goatee, the mutton chops, the handlebar mustache, the chin curtain (pictured here), and many other variations before deciding that it was easiest to just stop shaving entirely.
It’s funny how polarizing something as trivial as a beard can be. When I’m out and about, people will either ask with admiration how long I’ve been growing it or cross to the other side of the street to avoid being asked for spare change. Children are alternately delighted and horrified. People love it or hate it, but nobody ignores it.
Thanks to web conferences, Flickr, and the fact that updates to my site appear about as frequently as Haley’s Comet, I may bear the dubious distinction of being better known in my field for my facial hair than for my work. I’m living the dream!
HW: You really stand out in the web design industry due to your sense of humor and ‘neurotically meticulous attention to detail.’ How does your web designing process usually flow?
RW: It varies from project to project, but the basic process is fairly consistent. It always begins with research. Depending on the nature of the project and how familiar I already am with the client and its goals, this could take as little as a day or as much as two weeks. Part of that research involves really getting my head around the site’s information architecture, which I may have helped develop.
Once I feel like I have a good handle on the client’s brand (which I may have also helped develop) and the site’s structure and objectives, I’ll start sketching on paper. Thumbnail sketches are quick and rough representations of page layout that might not even make sense to anyone but me, but they allow me to get a lot of ideas out in a short amount of time. Forcing myself to keep generating more sketches even after I’m sure I’ve discovered the right solution is a great way to avoid getting too attached to an idea accelerating through the finish line can yield great rewards.
When I’m finally satisfied with where my thumbnails have taken me (there could be anywhere between ten and a hundred), I’ll dissect the chosen design and do some math to figure out a rational grid structure for it. That grid will form the foundation of a Photoshop or Illustrator file where I’ll block in all of the page’s elements – logo, navigation, copy, photography, etc. – in grayscale. Refine, refine, refine: hierarchy, balance, whitespace, typography. Color is usually the final detail to be dealt with.
Once the design is finished, I’ll ride my bike to my night job as a kung fu homicide detective.
HW: You experimented with adapting typographic traditions of print media to the web while building www.robweychert.com. Are there any other similar experiments coming up? What are you currently working on?
RW: I recently contributed a chapter dealing with web typography to a book called Web Standards Creativity, and that momentum has propelled me into a larger, more in-depth book project on the same subject. It’s still in the early stages, but I think that when it’s done, it’s going to be a very valuable resource, mostly because I’m not the only one working on it.
There’s a lot of cool stuff going on at Happy Cog that I can’t tell you about, but on the freelance side of things, I’m doing branding and design for a really great little book that will one day be the secret weapon of every honest businessperson in the world. After hours, I’m designing and screen-printing an edition of posters for an art show that’s raising money to fight multiple sclerosis.
HW: How did you make your way to Happy Cog Studios?
RW: Jason Santa Maria (or Stan, as I prefer to call him) and I have been close friends and collaborators for a long time. A few years ago, when Stan’s site really began to get some attention in the design blogosphere, Jeffrey Zeldman took notice, and brought him into the Happy Cog fold to work on some projects. Stan and I are part of close-knit creative community in Philadelphia, and when one of us gets involved in something, one or more of the rest of us is usually not far behind. As Happy Cog’s need for designers grew, Stan recommended me, and the rest, as they say, is (extremely esoteric) history.
HW: Are there any web design tricks you could share?
RW: This isn’t especially web design-centric, but when you’re typing in Mac OS X, you can skip or select entire words or lines of text (forwards or backwards) by using various combinations of the option, shift, and cursor keys. I only discovered this a couple of years ago. Keeping your hands on the keys saves you a lot of time when you’re copy-editing or coding. Of course, some programs override that functionality by necessity, like Photoshop and Illustrator. Others, like BBEdit, can be restored to the default by changing your Preferences.
HW: Why do think CSS design is becoming so popular among web designers when tables are just as easy?
The benefits of coding this way are numerous. For one thing, using CSS for layout instead of tables is much more efficient. A single CSS file can control the look of an entire site, whereas using tables for layout requires an excess of repetitive, superfluous code. This not only increases a site’s collective file size exponentially, it makes it a lot more work to maintain. Even more important than making things easier for yourself, though, is making things easier for your site’s users, and web standards have that angle covered as well. For instance, when it’s not cluttered by unnecessary presentational code like font tags and misused tables, properly semantic HTML is much more easily understood by search engines, mobile devices, and assistive technologies used by disabled people.
I strongly encourage anyone interested in learning more about web standards to read Jeffrey Zeldman’s fantastic and thoroughly accessible book Designing with Web Standards. This sounds corny, but it’s true: that book changed my life.
HW: Is the statement that using web templates allows for separation that is far more broad, flexible and reliable than the one CSS offers a myth? Have you ever worked with web templates? What do you think about using templates in web design?
RW: If, by ‘web templates’, you mean the kind that content management systems use to automate the publication process, it’s true that they allow you to make changes across an entire site fairly easily (which is why I use them). But the end result is still the same: HTML. And using semantic HTML in conjunction with CSS is advisable for many more reasons than merely making production more convenient, just a few of which I mentioned above.
HW: Do you believe CSS is the future of the Web? Why/why not?
RW: Whether or not CSS itself is the future of the web, the philosophy that generated it is pure, simple, and makes perfect sense. Who knows; the job currently being done by CSS may one day be accomplished by a completely different language, syntax, or system of ropes and pulleys. But if the fundamental idea behind web standards is allowed to flourish (and more people are adopting it every day), I’m not imaginative enough to say what could justly replace it.
HW: What do you think about women in web design? Have you ever worked with a female designer?
RW: This is a hot topic these days, with good reason. Though female web professionals’ numbers are significant, the limelight is fiercely male-dominated. I’m really not sure why that is. I can only hope I don’t contribute to it. I’ve worked with plenty of great female designers, but their gender has never given me much reason to distinguish their work from male designers. As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t really male or female designers; there are just designers.
HW: You’re leading a session on design inspiration at this year Webmaster Jam Session in Dallas. And where do you get your inspiration?
RW: Well, the stock answer is that it’s unpredictable and it can come from anywhere. And that’s true. To give you a specific example, though, things in daily life often remind me of the value of designing within constraints, like realizing how much of a nightmare it would be to drive on a ten-lane highway without lined lanes. The one place inspiration seems least likely to strike me is in the chair in front of my computer. Getting out and observing the world, talking to people, and learning as much as possible are the best ways I’ve found to keep my mind fertile ground for inspiration to take root when it’s ready.
HW: What web design books/magazines/blogs are you reading?
RW: I subscribe to dozens of blogs; some I never miss include A List Apart, Design Observer, and friends’ sites like Bearskinrug and Inkfinger. The design books I read typically focus on history and theory. I’m currently reading Book Design by Andrew Haslam.
HW: Is there a rule of thumb you’re following in designing for the screen? What is it?
RW: Guide your users; don’t smother them.
HW: On the final note, could you write a haiku for Design Interviews?
Design Interviews asks many pointed questions but none about goats