Web/Graphic Designer Group Interview
Recently I had the privilege to do a brief interview by email with 10 excellent designers. I asked each designer the same five questions, and all of their responses are included below. You probably are familiar with most, if not all, of these people, and I’m sure there is plenty that we can all learn from these interviews.
The participants are:
Alen Grakalic of CSS Globe
John Phillips of Freelance Folder
Matt Griffin of Liquid Design Media
Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks
Thord Daniel Hedengren
Michael Martin of Pro Blog Design
Jacob Cass of Just Creative Design
Dejan Cancarevic of StylizedWeb
1. What are your best methods for finding/attracting web design clients?
Alen: The best and most effective method is actually being found. The key is to get yourself exposed, showcase your work and sooner or later the potential clients will come. Perhaps the best long term solution is running a good quality blog, like you do Steven.
Jon: Definitely through blogging and also social networking. I get most of my clients through freelancefolder.com or because of other blogs I designed.
David: Using my blog as a marketing tool is by far my most successful method for attracting new clients. Without it, I’d not rank highly in relevant search engine queries.
Matt: I’ve found that as a freelancer, word-of-mouth marketing the most effective way to attract good clients. Do a good job and you’ll get more business. The second avenue I’ve found very effective is localized search engine pay-per-click advertising. It’s usually pretty inexpensive compared to other advertising and it’s very effective.
Chris: I find the best way to get new clients is through old clients. In the same way you probably know a bunch of other designers, your clients know a bunch of other potential clients. Do a good job on a site and your client will do a better job promoting you than you can.
Connor: My blog definitely provides the most inquires and prospective clients. It usually puts a prospective client more at ease that they can go back and read some of the things I’ve written on the topic. Writing in general, also, where if I write on a different site I could be reaching a different audience than on my own blog.
Besides writing, client referrals provide the best new relationships I find. When you get an email from someone who’s mildly interested, you (as the designer) are at a disadvantage of having to convince them you’re right for the job. With a referral, you have the advantage of the good word. An idea I’ve been toying with for the future is to charge more and offer a 10% of any money I make of referrals from their contacts.
TDH: I’d say word of mouth, but that’s sort of a stretch online. Most new clients find me through blogs (my own as well as others), through designer credits in the footer of work I’ve done, and through microblogging services like Pownce and Twitter. I have yet to advertise my services, although I haven’t ruled it out for any particular reason. It’s always good to find new clients, so I probably will dabble with some quiet advertising in the future. There’s a limit to how many gigs you can have planned, after all.
Michael: I find most of my clients through my blog. Writing a fairly authoritative blog on blog design helps to sell my credibility as a designer. Beyond that, I also get work through referrals (Where a new client finds me based on the word of one of their friends, who was a previous client of mine), but even that all leads back to someone hiring me due to my blog. Blogs are an incredible marketing tool.
Jacob: If you asked me 4 months ago before I started blogging I would have said referrals but due to the new found power of blogging and social media I would have to say that this is the best way I have found new clients. It has boosted by search engine rankings and I have received jobs I wouldn’t have received any other way.
Dejan: Good portfolio, unique style and good references.
2. Where do you go for design inspiration?
Alen: There are numerous css showcase galleries like CSS Remix or CSS Mania that you can use as a source of inspiration. The important thing is to get inspired, not to steal :) My clients usually send a list of sites they like so that pushes me in the right direction.
Jon: I really like CSS galleries like cssmania, csscollection, bestwebgallery and others, but I also like to look at magazines and even album covers. Of course it depends o the project, sometimes nothing beats just going out and look at signs/logos and building architecture.
David: Outside. Working from home can become claustrophobic, and it’s healthy to get into the great outdoors.
Matt: In the past, I’ve gone website galleries and “best of” sites. But recently I’ve been looking more and more to historical design for inspiration. Since web design is new, we can forget that there was several thousand year of design in other mediums that informs our practices. I’ve learned a lot from past designers.
Chris: Looking at good magazine design is a good place to start. Magazines can be like websites in that they need to present a lot of information in a tight space, yet make it as appealing as possible. Plus you get all those ads. Who knows, you might pick up an idea for some cool typography off a liquor ad or photo retouching idea from a jeans ad. The web is, of course, absolutely loaded with amazing inspiration. I’m sure most people have heard of these, but I really enjoy PSDTuts, Smashing Magazine, Ads of the World, and The Dieline.
Connor: For a clients project, I always like to see where they think the site is going and designs that not only inspire them, but designs that they feel capture the thought of what they want. Sometimes they might even have previous mockups, which is always an immense upside. Some clients even know exactly what they want structurally, colour wise or even specifically. I have no problem with guidelines, but I feel I’m at my best when I’m let loose.
TDH: Nowhere particular, actually. I’d like to say “outside”, but that would be a stretch. I look a lot at magazines, billboards, and such, as well as everything online, and I do mean everything. These days I can’t even surf the web without making mental notes of elements and solutions I find appealing. For me, the time for going to one or a few particular design showcases, CSS galleries and such, are way past.
I also use music to inspire me. Depending on the project, I’ll listen to different kinds of music. For instance, the upcoming Notes Blog theme is meant to be very clean and free, focusing on content rather than blingbling stuff, so I’m listening to down to earth music. Bob Dylan at the moment. He’s got something to say (lots actually), and that’s something I envision that users of the Notes Blog theme will have too, so it helps to get me in the right mood.
Michael: I use CSS Mania to see some great looking blogs every day, and I would browse the photography on Flickr a fair bit (The StumbleUpon toolbar is fantastic for it!), but beyond that, I don’t have any real go-to places. I wouldn’t sit and think “time to get inspired!” You get inspired constantly, by almost everything, and keep the creativity flowing that way.
Jacob: Usually online however I do have a couple of inspirational books, my favourite being inspiration from Semi Permanent 2007 (A design conference here in Australia) , I have hundreds of sites I visit. I actually compiled them all for myself over at 101+ Places to get design inspiration.
Dejan: Web galleries and design magazines
3. How do you typically start a new project?
Alen: Blank Photoshop canvas :) Kidding. I used to start with opening a blank Photoshop document and designing a grayscale wireframe. These days I start with a color scheme. I use the logo if provided and build a color scheme that I will use. Then I start designing a header and work my way down.
Jon: Usually by asking the client to give me as much details as possible, I want to know if the client already has a clear idea of what he wants. Then it’s just a matter of asking a couple more questions, and then I can start working on design mock-ups. It’s all about communication, if something isn’t clear or I could use more infos I just ask. It usually goes pretty smooth :)
David: By asking as many client questions as possible. No-one knows their business like them, so I never presume to create an effective design unless the client has a large input in the process.
Matt: I always start by working something up in Photoshop. It’s an easy way to produce a client a mockup that I can easily change before I code all the CSS and HTML.
Chris: Ideally, by learning as much as absolutely possible about the client, their business, and what they want to accomplish with their website. As a designer, you bring a heck of a lot to the table. You probably know better than your client does how to effectively communicate an idea across the web, but your clients knows better than you what they do and who their customers are. So, the design process should be a collaboration of those two strengths, not a you-ask-for-it-I-do-it situation. Again, this is “ideally” what should happen. If you are a freelancer doing a site budgeted for $1,500 you don’t have the time to sink two weeks into research and meetings. In those cases, you should just do the best work you can do for their budget. It’s better to do a good job and eat your shirt a little sometimes, since you never know which jobs will landing you bigger better ones.
Connor: After everything is settled with the client, the first installment is received and I know what they want I jump right into basic, unpolished mockups. Sort of throwing things at a wall to see what sticks. To be honest, it’s the first idea 99% of the time, but it’s good to present different options. I don’t normally do wireframes, but if a client wants to see them, I will. I guess if the design was more complex I would do some drawings and work up as if it were a logo, but I’m basically a simple, straight forward blog designer.
TDH: It depends. If it’s a client gig, I typically try to pry as much information from my contact as possible. What they want to say, sites they like, what kind of elements and functionality they need me to make room for, and such. Then I process all that, and try to see beyond what they’ve said and linked me to, since most clients know what they like, but not really what the want. It’s my job as the designer to show them various ways to go, beyond what they say they want. After all, I’m the one hired to make the design, so I give them access to the knowledge and solutions I think are fitting, from their perspective.
When I’ve got some kind of idea of what I’m after, and this is usually where I start if it’s a project for myself, I’ll get the pen and paper out. Sometimes I mockup in Photoshop right away, but usually I start on paper. I’ve got hundreds of sketches of designs, rejects, and ideas – most of them incomplete, but a part of the process nonetheless. The average design will be mocked up on paper in a few hours time. Then I move on to Photoshop, and more common tools of the trade.
Michael: Always with research. It’s no good diving head first into a project and building something that you would like. You have to know about the site itself, who its readers are, why it is being redesigned etc. If I didn’t do that, I would just be designing for myself, which I don’t think my clients would be too pleased about!
Jacob: I gather all the information I need about the project, write a brief to redefine the problem and then research.
Dejan: With hand sketching.
4. What do you feel are the most important skills for a designer to have/develop?
Jon: Communication skills – it’s not exactly ‘design-related’ but I really think that’s the most important thing to develop, being able to ask the right questions and not overwhelm the client with technical jargon.
David: Communication, patience, persistence, empathy.
Matt: This may sound weird, but I think communication skills are the most important for a web designer. When you’re better at communicating, then you will be better and designing and coding. And if you want to be a better communicator, you need read a lot. Read good stuff, classic stuff, from a diverse set of disciplines, not just the latest web design book to hit the stands.
Chris: By far the most important skill you can have as a designer is good ol’ fashioned design sense. That is, the fundamentals. Line, shape, space, balance, color, texture, a sense of gestalt, attention to detail… You can train someone to learn CSS in a few months, but it takes years of art education and a bit of in-born talent to make a truly good designer. If I was hiring a new designer, I would sooner hire someone with a couple of killer Photoshop mockups than someone with 20 so-so websites in their portfolio. I also feel that communication skill is incredibly important. So much of design work is shooting emails back and forth and talking on the phone, I actually feel it makes you a better designer if you can articulate your ideas well in written form.
Connor: I think it’s that un-learnable creative nature, or “the eye” combined with the confidence that you do indeed have it. Just don’t doubt what you’re doing. If something is looking good to me, I know that it is looking good. After a while the doubt goes away with positive client feedback and your confidence builds.
TDH: I’d like to say skill with this or that technique, but I’m going with communication. If you can’t communicate your vision, or understand what your client wants, then you won’t be able to do a good job. Understanding is everything, because whenever something is misunderstood on the way you’re in trouble, the client isn’t happy, and work is hard. All creative work should feel easy, even if it really isn’t easy.
Michael: Curiosity. When a great designer sees a great design, he wonders why it works. And when a good designer works, he just thinks to himself “What if?,” and goes with it. Curiosity and the will to try new things are definitely the hallmarks of a good designer.
Jacob: Obviously the core principles of design you should know, that being contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. After you master these, you can then begin mastering the software. I also believe having good communication between clients is something that every designer should develop.
Dejan: First of all sense for it and then personal style and uniqueness.
5. Do you have any favorite websites for interacting with others in the design community?
Alen: I have a privilege of owning and running what you might call a community site in my niche. I meet a lot of people there plus it gives me a head start when introducing myself to someone I would like to meet. :) I am not much of a networking person and I don’t have a habit of interacting with others as I should but sites I like and visit are Design Float and Dzone.
Jon: I really like the Behance Network, but I honestly have to say I’m not very active on design related sites or design community sites. I spend quite a lot of time on IM or exchanging emails with other designers though. I like sites like Twitter and Pownce too and I’ve met many designers there.
David: I find the HOW forums to be excellent for receiving design critiques, and the discussion there is top notch.
Matt: 9rules is pretty good. Recently, I’ve been paying more attention to designfloat.com, though. It’s a little more specific to what we do.
Chris: I wish I did! My own blog keeps me pretty busy, but I’ll be interested to see what other people say as their favorite places to “talk shop”.
TDH: I’m sad to say that I don’t. I’m keeping an eye on Devlounge of course, since I’m writing for it, and the same goes for Wisdump, which I’m editing, but that’s about it. I’ve got a small circle of designers and people with a good eye for design here in Sweden that I’m pushing ideas on, and vice versa, which helps a lot, but that’s a closed group not accessible by people outside. Most of my interaction with other designers go through IM with acquaintances, which might or might not be a good thing. After all, you won’t find me sitting on a message board at 3am, which isn’t a hard thing to do at all if it’s the right place, and that certainly is good both for work and personal life!
Michael: Blogs mostly. The quality of the discussions and friendships in the blogosphere tends to be pretty high, which is great! Forums, chatrooms and mailing lists just aren’t on the same level anymore I think.
Jacob: I like communicating through my blog Just Creative Design as I can receive feedback on my own topics from readers than are also interested in what I am writing about. I also use some design forums and interact on other blogs to get feedback. My favourite blog being David Airey’s.
Dejan: Don’t have it sorry. I don’t really participate in communities, just read news I’m interested in
Thanks everyone for your participation and for the great responses.