The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

Two Sides of the Same Coin: An Interview with Sam Brown

sam.jpg

Sam Brown is a freelance Web Designer and Developer from Edinburgh, Scotland who specializes in usability and web standards, is a geek, and loves all things technology. Besides his own blog, Sam runs some very cool sites such as Posh CSS and We Love TXP.

I've been reading Sam's blog for a couple of years now and have come to appreciate his work during that time. After my discussion with another famous web developer early last year, I had wanted to interview Sam because of his unique skill set. He seems to be one of those rare people with a great talent for both design and development and I wanted to dig a little deeper. So last October I approached Sam and the interview began.

Well, here we are in March and a lot has changed. During this time, Fusion was launched and Sam and his aptly named blog have been an integral part of our network. I got to know him a little better over the past six months and now know what many others already did—he's one swell dude.

So without further ado, here is the culmination of our five month conversation.

The Interview

Designing vs developing—I talked about this in the past in an interview with Dan Benjamin. He and I touched on how there are not a lot of people who are really good at both aspects of the web industry. Shaun Inman was referenced as an example of someone who has good skills in both.

First, do you agree with the sentiment that most people in this business are good at one or the other, but not usually both?

I believe there are always going to be people that are good at both. It would not be uncommon for someone to be an avid developer but have a passion for design, especially related to our industry where both are so very tightly integrated. It's not often you get people _great_ at both though.

Designers need to know some development skills, such as how certain design elements will translate into HTML & CSS, as well as the obvious things such as font choice which can be a cross skill-set nightmare. Likewise, developers need to be able to bring the designers vision to life without insulting the designer or disturbing the artwork.

People like Shaun Inman are a rare breed, being an exceptional designer and a sensational developer. Everybody knows the success and accolades that Mint has generated and I believe the nay-sayers will be even more impressed with what he has in the pipeline.

Creating your own independent software or products from start to finish thrusts you into the realms of both design and development. Past little web projects that I have created have been completely designed and developed by myself solely as tools that I needed or wanted that were not readily available. I am a firm believer in software that has a sole purpose and does that one thing really well. It's not often you get software that is great at lots of different aspects, just like it's not often you get an equally great designer and developer rolled into one package.

I definitely agree with you on the point that a piece of software that does one thing and does it well is good design. And on that note, I'm glad you mentioned your own projects.

My initial desire to conduct an interview with you was due in large part to the fact that you have some really interesting and varied projects that indicate you have strong skills in both design and development. I know this can be a hard thing to respond to, but self-deprecation aside and with all honesty, where would you consider your skill level to be?

I am for the most part a self-taught designer and developer. I've been interested in both for the longest time since my school days, and after getting half way through my University degree in Multimedia Design I got fed up with 'learning', talking and writing lengthy essays about it that I wanted to get out there and actually do it.

Front end design and coding has always been my main interest, what the visitors see and what is beneath that pretty dress but in recent years I have come to a place where I want to build things of my own. Teaching myself how to code was solely for my own benefit at first and was no doubt born out of my solo freelance attitude that I've only ever known. I have always been my own boss, so getting a project off the ground to completion has always been done by a team of one. Of late I've been working on small projects with fellow freelancers and find this has allowed me to focus on only one part of a project, and that has unanimously been the front-end side.

Back end, proper development is still really new to me. I know how to go about getting the result I want, but it may not always be the proper or best way to do it, and I am definitely no coder extraordinaire. I prefer to leave that to those that specialise in it.

It's interesting that you took this path—it seems to be a common theme in recent years. Do you think that formal education has seriously fallen behind when it comes to the world of web design? Do you consider it to be a waste of a person's time?

Formal education is definitely not a waste of time. I learnt a lot from what I studied, especially the theory, but I do think they have fallen behind the times. The problem is that it's easy enough for someone to teach you Photoshop, Flash and Dreamweaver in a classroom but being able to put those tools to good use on the modern day web is very different.

I think a good student of web design will learn more outside of the classroom, making sure they are abreast of all of the latest techniques and technologies available to them. Our industry is a new and fast paced one which doesn't cater to old school teaching methods. A 'teacher' of web design may know how to use the applications and implement things but if they are not doing it themselves on a daily basis in the real world their students aren't going to be able to keep on top of our ever changing industry.

Yeah, it's definitely an industry that seems to change week to week. What you say here echoes the words of Aaron Walter in a recent A List Apart article regarding this subject:

Our young medium is still ironing out a few kinks—perhaps the biggest of which is the way budding web professionals are being educated. Schools that teach web design struggle to keep pace with our industry, and those just starting their curricula often set off in the wrong direction because the breadth and depth of our medium can be daunting.

So armed with your experience, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring young designers/developers looking to get started in this field?

Get involved—the majority of your time might be spent learning in a classroom but you will have to spend an equal amount of time within the community. Subscribe to influential designers and developers that you aspire to, comment and participate in discussions on sites or in forums.

I would highly recommend starting out with some light freelance work while still learning, there is no better type of learning than actually doing it. Working on small jobs with clients willing to trust you in creating something for them will arm you with a wealth of knowledge that no classroom can easily teach.

Work with friends and colleagues on personal projects. It might be a small blog about a topic you all like, or an app you think you could build in your spare time. Working on actual projects outside of the classroom will inevitably benefit you down the road with real world experience.

On the subject of personal projects, when can we expect Remindness to be available for use?

Hah, the dreaded question.

It's a interesting situation to be honest, especially seeing as I built the very first version of Remindness in a single day. It has come a long way since then, through many design iterations and complete re-codes but it still essentially does exactly the same thing as version 1.

Most of my side projects/apps are built because I have a need for them and there currently isn't a good enough solution out there to cater for that need. Remindness is the same, and I use it on a daily basis.

Sadly though I've been super busy with client work over the past few months, writing articles for magazines and now preparing to speak at a couple of conferences later this year … time really is in short supply. I believe Remindness will see the light of day in the not too distant future but I really would not want to pin myself to a specific date.

Well, it was a somewhat unfair question as well. Thanks for replyering with such aplomb!

As someone who has as interest in web design and has followed the personal blogs of various web designers for several years, I find there seems to be a great sense of community among the folks employed in this industry. And the design community in the UK appears to even more tightly knit.

Do you feel this is true?

I agree, I think there are different levels of community now though. Twitter has been a great influencer in creating tightly knit groups of people and has been especially good for people like myself who work from home and sadly do not have that face-to-face communication with colleagues.

The UK web community I feel is really quite strong, granted distance isn't as big an issue as you have over the pond. But in general we make a pretty good effort to turn up to conferences & events and make ourselves known. Certainly down in England; Bath, Brighton, Oxford and London in general all have a good bunch of people that are mighty popular, influential and contribute to the community at large.

Up here in Scotland we are making a deserved effort to meet up once a month with fellow like minded internet folks to partake in the great past time of beer swigging and friendly banter related to our industry. I think it is the small informal events such as these that help strengthen the backbone to our online communities and certainly with events such as the FOWA road trip and other planned mini-conferences being help up and down the country, these can only continue to benefit the community at large.

While we're on the topic, what is everyday life like in Edinburgh, Scotland?

Being a freelancer and working from home I have a pretty set routine that helps me stay focused as if I was working in an office in town. I have had many a discussion with people in similar situations, some keep their shoes on whilst in the home-office and only take them off once their day is over and it's time to relax. I've even heard stories of people walking around the block one way before work and walking the opposite direction after work, but my routine isn't quite that strict!

My day is quite similar to that of anyone else to be honest, although time is a constraint I happily live without. I wake when I wake, I shower, dress and have breakfast, occasionally visiting the gym in the morning when it's nice and quiet (sitting in a chair at a desk all day is simply no good for you, exercise frequently!). Foraying into my office after breakfast, my morning is dedicated to checking emails, reading RSS feeds, managing the multitude of sites I run and generally keeping abreast of industry related news and discussions. Late morning I will spend several hours working on client work before lunch, after which will see me back in the office keeping my clients happy for a few more hours. My day usually finishes around 4 or 5pm after spending some quality time working on the vast array of personal projects I like keeping myself busy with!

4 day work weeks are a great idea but in reality we all know that this isn't always possible. I don't work a 4 day work week but I also do not spend 7, 8, 9, 10 or more hours per day slaving away on projects. I split my time between client and personal projects and I try not to take on more than 2 client projects at a time and always leave space between projects just in case they overrun. Weekends are for relaxing and socialising and I try my best to keep them as free as possible from work.

That sounds like a very comfortable routine. I'm sure a lot of folks would be envious of your situation.

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of downsides to working comfortably at home. Phone calls, visitors, and the big TV with Xbox in the lounge name a few, but if you are serious about what you do it's something you have to overcome. I've been tempted to look further into shared office space of late as working from home on your own is not ideal when you could do with a friend or colleague to bounce ideas off.

Spending an afternoon in a coffee shop is a welcome break from the home office every now and again, but a couple of days a week in a creative environment would be the perfect situation for me.

As a writer who focuses a good bit personal productivity, I have to ask this—what is your take on this sub-culture? What do you think about GTD and content of that sort?

I try and leave my thoughts on GTD and its sub-culture to the experts, like yourself. I admire what you write and the effort you go to to divulge the worthwhile info and applications from the useless.

To be frank though, I think the majority of people need to stop harping on about GTD, which apps they are trying out today and why they feel the need to tell us all about them. Then, and only then might they actually get some ----ing things done! All one needs are pen and paper.

Ha, fair enough. And a lot of people share your opinions on this matter.

Let me approach it this way then ... you somewhat replyed this a couple questions back, but what do you do as an independent freelancer to ensure you are an efficient and effective worker?

The key is organisation, have set goals and deadlines and make sure these are adhered to by both parties. Explicitly state what the repercussions are in your contract—if a client is late getting content to you the deadline is no longer going to be easily achieved. Being open, honest and up front with clients during the whole process will give your clients confidence that you do know what you are doing.

I also always try and have one communication medium with only one individual, if there are multiple people in their team you need to set them a team leader if you will that will be your only point of contact. Fielding multiple emails from multiple sources on multiple topics is a nightmare! Basecamp and the like are great applications for keeping all of your project data in one place, messages, todos, deadlines and comments.

Keep track of everything, hours you have spent on a project (log each and every one), expenses you have incurred, meetings, phone calls especially, jot the time, date and a summary of these and follow up with clients afterwards via email and make sure nothing that was said was misunderstood. A papertrail is something you will only notice is missing when you need it most!

Being an efficient and effective freelancer will take time, everyone makes mistakes and while this is the harshest way to learn them, it is the best way. Be vigilant and work hard and you will reap the benefits.

Great reply—I would love to one day have a work life more like your own! Thank you for being a good sport and answering these questions. As always, it was good fun.

No problem at all, it was a blast. Thanks Chris.


If you enjoyed this interview, here are a few others:

&