SIMON FOSTER

.net Magazine Interview

Jan 28 2013

Net mag profile

I was recently asked by those charm­ing chaps over at .net mag­a­zine to have some of my work and a short inter­view fea­tured in one of their pro­file sec­tions, I was of course only too glad to oblige. The arti­cle came out a few issues ago now (issue 237) so I thought it would be nice to repub­lish it here on my blog for those who didn’t get a chance to buy a copy.

Q. You used to be a hair­dresser. How did you get started in web design?

I quit hair­dress­ing in 2006 due to a com­bi­na­tion of ill­ness and the fact that I started to hate the job any­way. I bummed around for a while, DJ-ing around lon­don and sell­ing my old records online to pay the rent, but not really going any­where. Then a close friend of mine passed away in 2007 and although it was very tragic it made me realise that life is short and that I needed to find some direc­tion in my life. I’d been play­ing around design­ing fly­ers for the club nights I was doing and a friend had taken some basic web design courses at the Open Uni­ver­sity and had found a job after­wards straight away so I thought I’d give it a go.

Q. So you’re self-taught?

I am mostly self taught, the OU courses I took gave me a very basic under­stand­ing of HTML and CSS. As soon as I’d fin­ished those courses I did two dif­fer­ent intern­ships with star­tups in Lon­don to learn the ropes a bit more, which taught me what NOT to do as much as any­thing. I think I learnt a great deal more from just throw­ing myself head first into work and pick­ing up things as I went. One thing that struck me imme­di­ately was how will­ing the web design/dev com­mu­nity is to share knowl­edge, tips and code — which is great for any beginners.

Q. Are there sim­i­lar­i­ties between hair­dress­ing and web design?

Yes, which sur­prised me as much as any­one. I think hav­ing already had a rel­a­tively suc­cess­ful career in a dif­fer­ent cre­ative indus­try was really good prepa­ra­tion for becom­ing a web designer. Hair­dress­ing (at it’s high­est level, not the high street blow dry and high­light brigade) is all about an appre­ci­a­tion of form, func­tion, shape, tex­ture, colour and bal­ance. A good hair­dresser under­stands the need to bal­ance aes­thet­ics with func­tion­al­ity and how good tech­nique can make a hair­cut keep it’s shape longer. This is no dif­fer­ent to how a good web designer under­stands how form must fol­low func­tion and that clean, well writ­ten code will make a web­site more robust in the future. It also gave me great peo­ple skills as I used to deal with 8 or more dif­fer­ent clients a day, so I really learnt the value of con­sul­ta­tion, if you con­sult prop­erly before you start a hair­cut or web­site then you’ll elim­i­nate a lot of the poten­tial small prob­lems that can appear later on.

Q. You work mainly for your­self. Are you ever tempted by the bus­tle of a big agency?

Yeah I work mostly by myself, though on some projects I’ll be part of a team, though I always work from home. I don’t think a big agency is right for me just now, I have been asked plenty of times by agen­cies if I want to join them but I always politely decline. I guess I like the free­dom I have being my own boss, I don’t have to con­form to any time sched­ule, I don’t have the ‘hov­er­ing art direc­tor’ prob­lem to deal with and it’s just a really nice stress-free way to live. I’ve come to realise that my qual­ity of life is more impor­tant than my job, work­ing for myself allows me to have the life I want.

Q. What’s your take on pro­to­typ­ing in the browser?

To me, it just feels bet­ter to work in-browser. Pho­to­shop feels out of con­text, espe­cially now with web­sites being respon­sive or adaptive.

But I don’t think there’s nec­es­sar­ily a right or wrong way to do any­thing, it’s all about what suits you as a designer and also the nature of the project you’re work­ing on. Some peo­ple find it bet­ter to comp web­sites up in Pho­to­shop or illus­tra­tor, oth­ers like myself pre­fer to do most of it in the browser, as long as you get there in the end then it doesn’t really mat­ter. I actu­ally learnt how to write HTML and CSS before I learnt how to use Pho­to­shop, so I guess that could be con­tribut­ing factor.

Q. What about respon­sive design? Is it as sig­nif­i­cant as it’s made out to be?

There are those who mis­tak­enly describe RWD as a fad or trend, and yes our indus­try is over­loaded with annoy­ing buzz­words that peo­ple latch on to but, NO, it’s not a fad, it’s just our indus­try evolv­ing to ever chang­ing circumstances.

I think that as more design­ers take mobile into con­sid­er­a­tion then we’ll see fewer gim­micks which I think will be a good thing in the long run. A lot of clients mis­tak­enly think that “gim­micks” will make their web­sites more inter­est­ing, I think it has the oppo­site effect, to me it says “our prod­ucts aren’t that inter­est­ing so here’s a bunch of stuff mov­ing about to dis­tract you from that” It’s up to us as design­ers to edu­cate poten­tial clients into hav­ing more con­fi­dence in the prod­uct or con­tent their web­site is promoting.

Q. So should design­ers think more about sim­plic­ity? Should they train them­selves to cut back at the end of a project, like writers?

That’s a very good anal­ogy, com­par­ing design­ers to writ­ers, I’ve come to realise that my job is more about what I don’t add or what I take away rather than what I do. Because of the lim­ited space avail­able at smaller screen sizes, RWD makes you focus more intently on the site’s con­tent and how easy it is for the user to access it.

Though sim­plic­ity itself is not an aes­thetic, you can still have a visual pleas­ing or illus­tra­tive design as long as there is no super­flu­ous design noise that gets in the way of the sites function.

Q. How do think this today’s respon­sive sites will be remem­bered? Are we in the golden age of web design or the Juras­sic era?

I think we’ve been in a golden age of web design for a cou­ple of years now, regard­less of respon­sive design, espe­cially when you com­pare today’s sites to the bloated, Flash-based, torn-paper-grunge rub­bish that was around a few years ago!

How respon­sive sites will stand the test of time remains to be seen, but I imag­ine it’s like any other form of design or art, that which is well done and time­less will age well and that which merely con­firms to the fads and trends of the day will quickly date.

In the future the amount of peo­ple who con­sume our work on mobiles or tablets will only increase so it’s up to us to make out sites as device inde­pen­dent as pos­si­ble so. The best design is the one you don’t notice, no mat­ter how you view the work.

Q. At what point in a project should a designer be brought on board?

Right at the begin­ning. A lot of clients make the mis­take of think­ing of design­ers as merely dec­o­ra­tors that can just “pretty up” your site once it’s all been wire­framed and pro­to­typed. This triv­i­alises the design­ers role to the merely cos­metic which is wrong, a design­ers knowl­edge, insight, instinct and expe­ri­ence can be invalu­able in shap­ing prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions like nav­i­ga­tion, con­tent hier­ar­chy and IA.

Q. As well as your design work, you run Free Faces an online repos­i­tory of free fonts. Who are your influ­ences in the world of typography?

That’s a really hard one to answer because the world of typog­ra­phy is divided into those who design type­faces and then those who exper­i­ment with them online.

I really like the work Tyler Finck, Ger­ren Lam­son and the Colophon Foundry are doing right now, and also the exper­i­men­tal web font stuff of Trent Wal­ton. Elliot Jay Stocks did a really inter­est­ing set of blog posts enti­tled “Tomor­rows web type today” ear­lier in the year that focused on some future fac­ing open­type fea­tures in web typog­ra­phy which I really enjoyed.

Q. You’ve blogged about other design­ers rip­ping off your work. How do you deal with the problem?

It hap­pens so often now that I don’t even worry about it any longer, it is annoy­ing but I can’t spend all day email­ing the felons and then nam­ing and sham­ing on twit­ter as I’d never get any work done. Hav­ing said that I did recently find one cul­prit who had hotlinked to my site’s stylesheet, so I made a few changes so that her site was cov­ered in pic­tures of cats and text was set in baby pink Comic Sans! It’s impor­tant to have a sense of humour in this job and not take your­self too seri­ously. Though it does amaze me the nerve of some peo­ple, one guy asked if I could make some rec­om­men­da­tions to improve his site after he had ripped off the design and code entirely from me!

Q. You’ve also blogged about par­rots liv­ing wild in Lon­don parks. Is it true? And is Jimi Hen­drix really to blame?

Yep there are hun­dreds of bright green par­rots liv­ing wild in Lon­don. A few months back I was walk­ing through the park oppo­site my flat, I looked up into the tree above me and saw about a hun­dred par­rots star­ing straight down at me against the swirling grey early evening sky, I felt like I was in a Ham­mer Hor­ror movie! I have this rose-tinged roman­tic image in my head of Jimi Hen­drix let­ting loose a giant flock of par­rots into the parks of Lon­don in a acid-fuelled ani­mal love-in, but sadly that’s not the case. The truth is far more mun­dane, they prob­a­bly escaped, and were released, from aviaries, pet shops and pri­vate homes.