A Different Brand of Creativity

| August 4th, 2009 | , , ,

It was only eleven years ago when I graduated from design school at Cal Poly SLO, my diploma a pedigree and my portfolio a resume. Having underwent an extensive training in the traditional principals of graphic design I began interviewing with reputable design firms. A few job offers later, I had strong reservations about jumping into the bottom of a traditional design firm structure and working my way up through the ranks. You see, while I was in college I had also completed minor in computer science and had become fascinated with the Web.

The Web, however, was still coming of age. It was a new medium and many of us were still trying to figure it all out. Our internet connections were still constrained to using PPP over dialup and the Netscape Navigator commanded 86% of the web browser market. There was no semantic web, CSS, or AJAX. There was quite a lot of hackery going on. And it fascinated me far more than designing print collatoral, brochures, signage, and the rest of the printed lot.

Two years after graduating from college, myself and a friend and graduate from the school of business started Pelago with two computers, two desks, and a vague idea of where we were headed. We’re going on ten years since that first day in August of 2000, and we’ve learned quite a few things along the way. Here are some of the more important lessons we’ve taken from the experience of founding and running a web design and development agency.

Traditional graphic design theories don’t always apply

Although many of the basic tenets of traditional graphic design apply to the Web, there are some subtle and not-so-subtle variations in how they apply. For example, the realm of print-based typography is ruled by typeface choices, leading, tracking, kerning, and other finely-tuned modifications. Applied well, they can take a design from plain to elegant. While they also exist on the web in one form or another, they aren’t nearly as reliable and the words “fine-tuned” don’t apply. Trying to control kerning, rag, widows, and orphans will only earn you a lesson in futility. When approaching typography on the Web it is important to understand its limitations, but also its abilities as they exist in the context of semantic HTML and CSS.

The same is true for image optimization, where DPI, LPI, and CMYK don’t exist. They’ve been replaced with dithering, RGB, and image compression algorithms. Understanding the domains inhabited by print and the Web, and where they overlap, is essential to designing and developing for the Web. There is a wealth of history in traditional graphic design. The best web designers and developers are those who embrace this history and apply it moving forward.

A mashup of diverse expertise

In my early days of dabbling with the web the first thing I noticed is that many of my colleagues weren’t interested. I built my first few web sites with the help of other students majoring in history, economics, and business. It wasn’t our field of study that brought us together, it was our common desire for tinkering and exploring a new medium. Together, we taught each other about Javascript mouseovers, hex color pallets, transparent GIFs, and a myriad of other HTML hacks.

It is this cross-disciplinary nature of a web design and development team that makes a successful Web site. Good designers and developers are important, but expect them to come from every nook and cranny of the educational spectrum. The information-laden Web has democratized the learning curve required to build clean and simple Web sites. I’ll never discount an education in design or computer science, and I view them both as essential, however, I have worked with some extremely talented designers and developers who have neither.

Where a traditional design firm would be reluctant to break from its pattern of hiring pedigreed designers, a web design firm will likely not benefit from this approach. The more diversity brought to web site design and development, the better the work will be. The reason is that the web is more than words and images on a screen. Behind the scenes of a web site is a mix of visitor metrics, search engine considerations, target screen resolutions, server administration, image optimization, and usability — to name a few.

Project management in real-time

Whatever term du jour you want to apply to the style of project management you practice, managing web site design and development is much different than managing print projects. The main difference is that the Web is a medium in a constant state of flux. There are no final press checks at 3am. Where a typo or a missing font file may ruin a print job, the same is only a minor hiccup on the Web. In fact, it will help you understand and manage the Web better if you treat it as a living entity. When clients are hesitant to pull the trigger on a launch because the copy isn’t quite there yet or they want to touch up that last photo, assure them that getting 99% of the site online is the preferable option. The minor items can be tweaked post-launch.

Every web site we’ve built has gone through the launch-update-repeat cycle in its infancy and to a lesser degree as it gains traction on the Web. The Web gives the power of publisher to design and development agencies and to the clients they represent. A project manager well-versed in web site design and development, backed by a diverse and talented team, will embrace this fact and produce far more successful web sites.

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The Intervals Blog
A collection of useful tips, tales and opinions based on decades of collective experience designing and developing web sites and web-based applications.

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Intervals is online time, task and project management software built by and for web designers, developers and creatives.
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John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
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Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
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