The Cindy Li Interview

One of the first thing you get to know about Cindy Li is her tendency to get to the point of things. Be it her work, playtime, her relationships, she cuts to the quick while I’m just starting to get out of the basic framework of a situation.

Add on top of that her unique illustration and design style which has been put to use for clients like AOL, Yahoo! and Ma.gnolia, Cindy is a very sharp Web designer and illustrator.

She donated a moment of her time (actually, she took pity on me and gave me a couple extra) so I could ask her questions about her design background, her American assimilation story, what it was like to win an Emmy, and many other issues. Read on and I believe you will, like me, find Cindy to be one of our industry’s treasures.

Cindy Li

Christopher Schmitt: How would you describe yourself?

Cindy Li: Currently? I’m feeling like a workaholic, photo junkie, human ping pong ball and trying my best to be a person my nieces can look up to as an example of what a woman in the workforce can be.

CS: You were born in Taiwan. How did you find yourself in America?

CL: My Dad’s the youngest of three boys and the older two were already in the USA. My grandparents would never move unless my parents, my sis and I moved. Since I was five, I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. I remember the boxes and having to give away my cherished bike that looked like a motorcycle, it was orange.

CS: What was the motivation for moving to the United States?

CL: My parents thought it would be easier for my sister and I to attend college in the U.S., plus we were both women so it was another consideration because for all of the complaining about the sexes not being even, it is still better here than in other countries.

CS: English wasn’t your first language and getting used to a new culture, I can only imagine, can be daunting. What was your experience?

CL: We first moved to San Diego, that’s where my dad’s oldest brother and wife live. I remember Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood—my favorite show till was 12—and, Captain Kangaroo, and Sesame Street. Those shows were one of the ways I learned English. We moved to Jacksonville, FL—where my dad’s other brother lived—a year later because it was more affordable for us.

The drawback was it wasn’t diverse and growing up which made me really want blue eyes and blonde hair. There was a lot of self hate for years.You’d laugh, but I had a southern accent til the age of 12.

Then I realized I shouldn’t have one so I worked on getting rid of that but you’ll hear me say “y’all” every now and then. Most people think that I was born in the USA and if you just heard me speak I think you would agree that. It was all part of trying to fit in.

CS: I think hearing you give off a “y’all” would be great, but I was born and raised in Florida. Was it hard to get rid of the accent?

CL: I have a karaoke video online where I’m singing off key but I worked in the southern twang so you can laugh at that. It was easier to get rid of than the torture of not fitting in.

CS: Aside from PBS shows, how else did you go about learning English?

CL: From my classmates, of course! I would come home with words I had learned from class that day and teach my parents the correct pronunciations.

Plus growing up there was the Superintendent’s reading program in Duval County. I can’t remember if there was a prize but it made me fall in love with the “Boxcar Children” book series.

CS: How did you know you wanted to be in graphic design?

CL: I wanted to draw the moment my grandfather—mom’s dad—did a caricature of me. He was great at it and I begged my parents to enroll me in a drawing class. I think I was about 7 or 8? Memory’s fading me with each passing year.

Art was only supposed to be a hobby though. Being an immigrant kid my parents were very focused on my sister and I attending college and being an “artist” was never part of the plan.

I started testing myself in the 10th grade by entering poster contests. I would stay up til 4am—with mom yelling at me for staying up late—but I wanted to prove that it was something I could do. I placed in most of the contests or won so I was feeling like this was something I was able to accomplish. I was also enrolled in the two Advanced Placement courses that my high school offered me.

Keep in mind my parents immigrating to the USA and having a kid go to art school wasn’t the big plan they had in mind, or the rest of my family for that matter. I defied them and it took years for them to understand. They were worried I’d starve or not be able to make ends meet.

My entire college experience was working on my projects, interning at a magazine and a part time job. I know UF gets a reputation for being a party school, but I wouldn’t know. I was on a mission to prove to myself that I could do it if I wanted it bad enough.

While most people I knew were going to Daytona Beach for the summer break I was working on my final project. When I turned in the project my professor Brian Slawson told me I was beyond Type A.

My dad was working 6 days a week, 12 hour shifts at his job earning overtime to put me through college. The deal was that I go to school and they’d pay for it. Failure was not an option, and sometimes I forget to slow down.

CS: With all that pressure, it sounds like you grew up fairly quickly and were clearly motivated. Do you find yourself still intensely motivated?

CL: I do. I am not one to sit idle and wait for things to happen. I believe that you have to work for the things you want and things don’t just fall into my lap—well, not all the time.

Things like winning the lottery or the stock option windfall don’t happen for everyone and my best asset is me, that is the only thing I have control over. There is no sense of entitlement here. I have worked the 5am-4pm shifts, the weekends, and late nights. I do what I need to do get where I want to go (even if it isn’t always clear where that is).

I went to SCORE.org for advice—they are a free service of retired lawyers/accountants/business owners—because I prefer to do research on my future and I’m a bit of a worrier. The advisor said I could just marry well and not worry so much. I laughed and responded to him and said that was a crap shoot too.

I am a firm believer in working hard for the american dream, maybe that was instilled in my head too much who knows. I want to be able to look at the person in the mirror and be proud of the person I’ve become then I’m happy that I’ve treated people fairly and created work I’m proud of.

CS: You seem to be doing well with your American Dream so far. What important lessons have you picked up so far or have stuck with you the most?

CL: Take care of yourself. While you may have partnered with friends that you think are watching out for you—that isn’t always the case—so pay attention.

Put away money each paycheck for taxes. Figure out what is deductible if you are freelancing.

Save at least a 6 months for living expenses, put away money for times when there aren’t a ton of projects going on.
Start your 401k early and keep at it. I prioritize what things I want. I’ll spend money on a MacBook Pro but not $400 on some new purse/wallet that my girlfriends are crazy about.

Never carry a balance on a credit card. If you don’t have money for it today, then save for it.

CS: What intrigues you about the graphic design profession?

CL: It mixes in the artist inside me, but pays better. I loved to paint and draw growing up but with being a fine artist your painting your view of the world, with graphic design your describing to the world someone else’s view. I’d like to draw for a children’s book or have a line of cards. The fun thing about graphic design is it also mixes in my love of Macs—cool gadgets. My first Mac was an Apple IIGS with an Imagewriter II.

CS: What cool gadgets do you have know?

CL: Let’s see I’m probably a poster child for Apple. I’ve got the iPhone, AppleTV, Apple G3—it’s a backup server—, Airport Extreme, and of course an iPod. I just picked up the Skull Candy Link backpack—it’s a great design, it has speakers on the arm straps and controllers for your ipod—, a 60″ tv (keep in mind I’m only 62″ tall), Nintendo Wii, HD Tivo, harmony remote to control the tv setup things. My Canon Rebel Xti—and three lenses—, Canon A95 with the waterproof casing and a Garmin Nuvi GPS.

CS: Wow. That sorta reads like a computer nerd’s James Bond wish list. What’s your current work setup now? I hope it’s not the same Apple IIGS.

CL: No, it’s my Macbook Pro 17″.

CS: You went to the University of Florida—over Florida State University, for some weird reason—and picked up a BFA. Why UF? And why a BFA? And just so that people that are reading and might not know, I went to FSU and our two schools have something of a rivalry.

CL: I was actually torn between those two colleges once I turned down Savannah College of Art and Design—had a presidential scholarship—and Maryland Institute College of Art. I had to make a choice as I said earlier between defying my parents and choosing my path. My parents were begging me to go to a university, I picked UF because it had a stronger academic record than FSU. When I went to the FSU campus I spoke to a professor there and showed her my portfolio she said I was a shoo-in for the program, but UF was harder to get into. I figured if I was going to go for my dream then I’d pick a harder program to get into.

CS: Why the BFA?

CL: I figured having a degree was the way to go because of my upbringing, you must have a degree in something. That and I didn’t want to be a doctor! I am way to squeamish. Ask any of my friends who have watched movies that aren’t rated PG.

CS: That’s great that you went for the harder, more challenging path at UF. What kinds of lessons did you learn while you are at college?

CL: I learned who my friends were and who I could count on.

Another lesson I learned was that attending a University that was large enough to have all the different ethnic groups were great, for a while. It cleared up a few things for me. When the kids in Jacksonville were teasing me for being Asian, I dreamed of going back to Taiwan because I thought it was easier. I dreamt of it because I wanted to fit in.

I joined the Asian groups to fill the void but discovered that it wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t enjoy only having “Asian” friends, I liked having a diversity in who I spent time with. Just because you may look like the rest of the group doesn’t mean you only belong there. Plus life is boring if we only stayed within the same social circles.

I watched friends drop out of college because of drugs. I never had a desire to even smoke a cigarette. That Adam Ant song, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke…”, I thought was about me!

I learned that earning is way more valuable than being handed something on a silver plate. I watched one friend’s parents pay for everything and watched that friend squander it all by barely passing classes. I watched another friend work super long hours to pay for college succeed. No one owes you anything and you are lucky if anyone offers you so appreciate any help you get.

CS: Do you feel you would or could go back and get a higher degree?

CL: I thought about an MBA at one point, couldn’t help it because of my parents goals for me but I’ve just been too busy working to take that financial hit and probably attention span.

CS: What did interests did you pursue during your time at UF?

CL: UF had a very diverse campus, there were a lot of Asian clubs. In my freshman year, I joined the Chinese American Student Association which performed dances each spring—fan dance, buddha dance, and, no, I’m not putting it on You Tube.

Eventually became the Secretary of the Asian Student Union in my sophomore year. We did skits to welcome incoming freshman, and put together a conference. Then in my junior year I got a part time job at the sound and lighting crew, Spinal Tech, and an internship my junior/senior year at JAZZIZ magazine.

College was a bit of a blur for the last two years, I was running on about four hours of sleep most nights between the internship, part time job and projects for the degree. In my Senior year I was president of VoxGraphis—UF’s graphic design organization.

CS: What was your first exposure to the internet or Web?

CL: I think the first time I heard about HTML was via my second cousin, Raymond. He told me about it I think when I was in high school.

The first time I played on the “internet” via IRC in the labs at UF. My first email account name was figment—I love Disney a bit too much and I felt like a figment of someone’s twisted sense of imagination.

My first web page was a mock project I did in my junior year for a project for the design program. I may even have it on an Iomega Zip disk somewhere with, wait for it, iframes.

CS: Well, I hope you get it off your Zip disk soon, might be near impossible these days. Can’t recall the last time I needed to use a parallel connector to hook up my old Zip drive. Otherwise past works might get lost. Do you feel that our industry is too fluid?

CL: Even though we can reach a lot of people all over the world with our designs and words, it depends on making sure a server is plugged in somewhere and people have a browser that can render the pages. Yet with a book, it’s just there waiting for enough light and someone to turn the pages.

Our industry is very fluid like a hummingbird. You see it for a split second and then its gone into another direction. You have to pay close attention to see what direction it is going in. Books are great, but things are changing quicker than it is in the educational sector.

CS: Books can’t all be bad. You’ve recently had a chapter published with other Web designers in Professional CSS. What was the goal of the chapter? What did you want the readers to take away after reading it?

CL: That they can take what is existing out there and repurpose it for themselves. There are plenty of hacks out there for whatever and its okay not to be the person to create the latest “sliding door” by Douglas Bowman.

CS: How was the experience of writing for a book?

CL: Painful. I was worried about something living in print forever—or, at least on my parents’ bookshelf—that wouldn’t be up to the level of the other writers in the book. Everyone else spends a lot more time on code and my strength is in design.

CS: I think painful is an apt description. So, when did you join AOL? What was the feeling of working there?

CL: I joined AOL after NetChannel—internet television—startup in Norcross, GA—just outside of Atlanta—got bought out in 1998.

I loved working at AOL, most of the people I’ve worked with are great amazing, talented people. I grew up in the AOL family, sure we had our disagreements but at the end of the day my coworkers just wanted to do their best. I know there’s a lot of rumors and layoffs going on, that part was never easy to digest. You have good days and really bad days, but like anywhere you do the best you can and plan for the worst. Always having a savings plan just in case, that’s for anywhere you work.

CS: What kinds of projects did you work while you were with AOL?

CL: My first project was AOLTV it launched in 2000. It was shut down in the fall of 2001.I worked on the AOL Channels: Health and Fitness, Personal Finance, Shopping, AIM Pages, AIM Lite, AOL.com, Mac Development, and Ficlets.

CS: Do you have any screenshots of these works?

CL: I have some on my designrabbit.com site, but some of those are like high school yearbooks great when it first comes out but looking back at them you cringe.

Cindy Li holding an Emmy Award

CS: In 2005, AOL covered the Live 8 concerts. It was the first time that a multi-city, around-the-planet event had been broadcast live through the internet without any breaks. For that achievement, AOL received an Emmy for the “nontraditional broadband delivery platform” category. While it is definitely a group achievement, how did you feel about receiving the award?

CL: Ari Kushimoto and I were the designers on the AOL.com team at that time so we were taking shifts covering the entire event. The award was a complete surprise, we were just doing our jobs.

CS: Just doing your job is probably the easiest, honest way of getting an Emmy I’ve ever heard.

In 2005 you stated you got into Web standards by visiting the SXSW conference in Austin. What about the conference do you feel turned you on to Web standards?

CL: AOL’s past was to have the walled garden for their content. They were moving away from that and I was getting out of my depression from a breakup. I was looking for a new path because I felt that I wasn’t always going to be at AOL and I had to start figuring out a plan for the next chapter of my career.

It was because of my friend, Elsa Kawai, that I met Jeremy Keith and the rest of the Brits that year. Jeremy was telling me I needed to blog and I showed him my dot-mac account—where I posted pics of my trips/events and comments under each of them—he was also the one that told me about flickr. I blame him for that addiction. There was one night in particular at 4am where Patrick Griffiths—Brit Pack member—yelled out, “Liquid vs Fixed” to Jeremy Keith and D. Keith Robinson. There was a lot of noise and arguing. I met Molly Holzschlag that next day at breakfast. All of the people I met that year were really motivated and it was hard not to be curious about what made them passionate.

CS: Aha! Jeremy’s the one to blame!

CL: Totally!

CS: So, you realize that you need to get serious about Web standards after the conference. What was your educational path? What resources did you use?

CL: Well I started reading htmldog.com, but it was mostly Veerle Pieters, Geert Leyseele and Jason Garber that were my mentors and resources.

Having people around who are willing to play the roll of teacher/code checker when you are starting out was great.

CS: If a woman designer would to come up to you and ask you for your advice on how to succeed in this industry, what wisdom would you impart to her and why?

CL: I would say network when you don’t need to. People can tell when you just want something from them, its nice to talk to someone just to get to know them, not what you can get out of them.

Be a team player, designers are part of an ecosystem just like developers if one part gets stuck—or is stubborn—then a project won’t work.

It’s great to be assertive and to explain your view but you are part of a team.

Check out other designers, design is like fashion. There is always some new trend and you should take a look at what’s going on even if you have your own style.

CS: In 2007, you took part in Web Directions North. What was your role for that conference?

CL: I was the stage manager. Everything from unpacking things, stuffing bags, running microphones, getting the speakers to be there on time, making sure the volunteers were where they were supposed to be and that the speakers were finishing like clock work. It’s more glamourous than I make it sound.

CS: How did you find snowboarding?

CL: You mean how did I find eating snow?

CS: Ha! I think that’s a good stopping point. Thank you for your time.

Christopher Schmitt’s Past Interviews:

Kevin Lawver Voices That Matter Interview at SXSW 2008

Co-author of Adapting to Web Standards, Kevin Lawver, was interviewed by Michael Nolan from Peachpit at South By Southwest 2008 as part of a podcast series.

I noticed the interview didn’t come with a transcript. So I decided to write up the dialogue from the interview, which is posted below the video. Enjoy!

Michael Nolan: Hi, I am Michael Nolan, a senior acquisitions editor for New Riders and we are coming to you from the 2008 South by South West Interactive festival and conference here in Austin, Texas.

And I am speaking with Kevin Lawver who is one of the co-authors of our book, Adapting to Web standards: CSS and AJAX for Big Sites.

Now, Kevin, of course, is very familiar with big sites because he works at AOL, but before we get to that, tell me about the International Day of Awesomeness.

Kevin Lawver: (Laughter.) It is a holiday that I invented that started started as a joke at work and it slowly built. I threw together a website for it and send it to some friends and everybody thought that it is a funny idea, but I actually started taking it seriously. My kid came up with the tag line.

MN: Which is?

KL: “Nobody is perfect, but everyone can be awesome” and—

MN: That’s a great tag line.

KL: It became the start of, the idea is to do something that you wouldn’t normally do.

MN: Then how did you do that, observe the International Day of Awesomeness?

KL: I dyed my hair bright blue which is something I always wanted to do. My friends and in high school and they had bright blue hair and I was always very jealous, but never had the guts to actually do it myself. So, this morning in my hotel I ruin two hotel towels putting it in myself.

MN: I bet they will be unhappy when they come in and pick up those towels.

KL: I will pay for it.

MN: (Laughing.) Looks outstanding. It’s awesome, in a word.

KL: I would hope so.

MN: Yeah, yeah.

KL: Would be a failure if I didn’t.

MN: So, your presentation you say you’ve been coming to SXSW for several years. How long?

KL: This is my fifth.

MN: Your fifth year at South By. And what you have seen change in South By in those five years?

KL: It’s so much bigger now. That we have—They just opened the third floor for panels last year and this year there are 12 panels going on at the same time and you have to give up all hope of meeting everybody. When I was here on 2004 my first one—

MN: Still possible.

KL: Yeah, I met, you know, a good 150 to 200 people and I felt like I had met pretty much every one there and that was open to being met and this time there is just no way.

MN: There is no way. One of my authors compared it to drinking from a fire hose and I thought that was a good metaphor for what SXSW has become, but, still, it’s fabulous. It’s like the best conference in the Spring, at least—

KL: Easily.

MN: —for Web designers and developers. I mean I just always come away with new insights and excitement.

KL: It’s a really good mix. It’s not a super technical conference and it’s not in a cubby hole. You got everybody together. You got designers and developers, entrepreneurs and writers, just lots of creative folks. So, for me the overlap is what is interesting.

MN: Have you attended any good parties?

KL: I don’t do the parties.

MN: You don’t do any parties?

KL: Because I just don’t handle being crushed by people. I am good with nerds because I am one, but, you know, in a bunch you cannot hear anyone talk.

So, we decided there are two types of people in the world. There are Bar People and Dinner Party People. I am much more a Dinner Party Person.

MN: So, we probably have had nice dinners with folks here.

KL: Yeah.

MN: So when we talk about this book, Big Sites, that’s what you are presenting about here at South By this year. Tell us a bit about your presentation.

KL: I did a panel with Thomas Vander Wal, Cindy Li, Jason Garber, and Leslie Jensen-Inman about working for big companies and then making a transition to maybe start-up life or doing your own thing or educational stuff. And we talk a lot about coping mechanisms and—

MN: What are some? What are some?

KL: I only ever worked for AOL. It has been my entire professional life.

MN: Yeah, that’s a big company.

KL: It’s, yeah, huge. Fluctuates a bit, but it’s a very large company.

I think the biggest one is to to know what your strata is and know what your role is and you can kick all kinds of butt within that role and within that strata and make a big difference. But, above that or maybe below it or to the sides of it, you have to decide to let that stuff be. And you don’t have much control. There is all kinds of stuff that happens above you that you can object to and, you know, make sure that your objection is noted. But they are going to go and make their decisions without you and there is nothing you can do. You can either. You have two choices, you either get over it and move on or you leave. And I have done a pretty good job over 13 years of getting over a lot of different stuff—

MN: Moving on, yeah.

KL: And you sorta cannot affect that anymore.

MN: And who on your panel represented the freelancer or the small company?

KL: Both—Jason Garber now works for a start-up. He worked with me at AOL for a while. He works for start-up of 10 people. Thomas Vander Wal works for himself. He is a single-person company. Cindy Li does freelancing and works in a small design firm and Leslie Jensen-Inman is a professor at The University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. We had, they all had broad experience in different size organizations. So, Cindy Li has done the start-up thing and AOL—

MN: So, what are the particular challenges for a Web designer or developer in a large organization?

KL: If you work at, you know, mass market Internet scale building things it’s a totally different exercise. You have to go out of the door being able to handle millions of request a day and you can’t really cut corners.

Like, if you are start-up, you can sort of just throw something out there. Slap it together, throw it out there and see what happens and then worry about the scale when you get there. If you get that network effect of, you know, an AIM, an AOL, a Yahoo or Google, you can’t do that.

You can’t just like say, “okay, eeeeeh, lets push it out and see what happens,” because it will melt without getting even half the traffic that it possibly could.

MN: Yeah, understandable.

KL: So, you have to think a lot more about infrastructure and even, even on the frontend side you have to think a lot more about caching, geo distribution of content, you know, edge caching of assets and that kind of stuff. There aren’t books on it.

And so when we, when Christopher, brought up the idea of doing the book. Well, lets do, you know a real explanation of how this works and how something in a very large company goes from beginning to—

MN: So, it’s about applying Web standards to, for a large Web presence.

What have you heard people talking about? What’s the buzz at South By this year that’s new. Is there anything new that’s caught your eye?

KL: There is a lot more talk about OpenID this year. There seem to be a lot more business panels. There is one this afternoon on bootstrapping, which we have never had a panel on bootstrapping your own start-up before.

Honestly, I’ve been so busy doing my panel and a product that I built was up for a Web award last night, so I was little stressed out.

MN: Did it win?

KL: We won in the CSS Category. It’s a site called Ficlets. Speaking of a scale, it was the complete opposite. AOL let us go off as an experiment last year.

MN: Oh, so it’s an AOL site and you won a Web Award.

KL: Yeah, for the CSS category.

MN: That should be a nice thing to go back to Virginia with and tell them.

KL: Yes, it’s a little statue.

MN: Great. That’s wonderful. It’s really nice taking with you, Kevin.

KL: Yeah, thank you.

MN: And thank you for coming by.

KL: Yeah, no problem, it was fun.

Adapting to Web Standards Contest and Interview

It’s been sometime since the Adapting to Web Standards book contest, but I wanted to give you an update now that the holidays are way past over.

In short, the winners were picked and notified of their winnings. To help things along, I picked three random numbers and matched them to the comments to the contest blog posting. I sent out books to the winners Wayne and Michael, except for Vincent–still waiting on him to reply to my email. (That’s a hint, Vincent!)

In other news co-author Kevin Lawver was interviewed by Frank Gruber. Kevin does a great job in talking about the book, the development of AOL.com, and the role of Web standards in an organization. It’s a great little interview, I encourage you to check it out.

If you’re going to SXSW Interactive this year, be sure to drop by the PeachPit/New Riders booth. Also, I hear one or two co-authors maybe doing a book signing, too.

The Kimberly Blessing Interview

If you haven’t heard the name Kimberly Blessing, which is indeed a failing, you might have heard of some of her work.

Around the turn of the millennium, Kimberly started as an Interactive Developer for AOL. While there she was instrumental in the standards-based training of the developers as the Acting Director/Senior Manager of Studio Development.

She currently works for PayPal as the manager of their Web Development Platform Team.

Lending her expertise in managing Web standards within a team environment she learned from AOL and PayPal, Kimberly authored the “The Circle of Standards” chapter to the book, Adapting to Web Standards.

She’s also a co-leader of the Web Standards Project, an organization which played a key role in getting Microsoft and Netscape to adapt standards like CSS in their browsers. Recently AOL, which bought the Netscape Browser, announced on December 28th that support for the browser is coming to an end.

I’m pleased she is able to spend some time to talk about Web standards, of course, but also being an introvert, HTML emails, and Duran Duran.

Kimberly Blessing

CS: How would you describe yourself?

KB: Personally, I’m the eternal student I love to learn and to read. I’m a geek at heart, so I’m constantly tinkering, coding, and playing with new technologies. I love music. I love color. I love to be silly. I love to eat candy. And I’m an excellent napper.

Professionally, I call myself a reticent standards evangelist. Why reticent? I’m extremely introverted but I care so much about standards that I’m willing to battle my natural tendencies to help change the Web.

CS: I’m actually somewhat surprised. I’m an introvert as well and I’ve known you for a while and I haven’t really thought of you an introvert. It seems you’ve made some steps to overcome the natural tendency to withdrawal from social settings? It’s been an ongoing battle for me.

KB: If you put me next to an extrovert, you’ll see a big difference! I definitely prefer to interact in small groups or with people one-on- one, which I think works extremely well when it comes to coaching and mentoring designers and developers who are just learning about standards.

And while I’m an introvert, I’m not a recluse! Yes, I tend to stick with the social situations I’m most comfortable with, which usually involves people or environments I already know. My problem is that I greatly dislike idle time, which is what new social situations often feel like—you know, when you’re the wallflower and everyone else seems to be best friends? So I have to prepare myself for that idle time, by figuring out what I can talk to people about, by not bringing my smartphone along, etc. It sounds incredibly nerdy, I know, but that’s me. And I’m OK with that.

CS: If I may ask, how do you handle popular Web geek events like SXSW Interactive? There is almost something going from the moment the conference starts until the last closing party. As an introvert, I get burned out fairly quickly and need to recharge with solitude. Which I find also mentally taxing since you get to see people–your peers, colleagues, friends and soon- to-be-friends– for some people this one time of the year. I should be out there interacting with people, but I know my limits.

KB: That’s exactly it—knowing your limits. I don’t even try to do everything that’s on the SXSW agenda. Conferences that I regularly attend, like SXSW, are for me relatively equal parts of meeting new people and catching up with friends. Catching up with friends is kind of like downtime, since that’s generally one-on-one or small-group stuff. At other times I make myself go meet new people… and then I generally retire to my room for some quiet time. I sometimes push myself a bit beyond my limits, but not too far—that always causes burnout.

CS: What’s your academic background?

KB: I earned my bachelor’s degree in computer science at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts school near Philadelphia. Bryn Mawr’s computer science program is increasingly being recognized for its groundbreaking techniques in teaching computer science, including use of personal robots in the classroom, and incorporating research in the undergraduate experience. I did my senior research in autonomous robotic agents, while I was also working for the College as their first Webmaster.

I received my master’s degree in computer science from The George Washington University in Washington, DC while I was working full-time at AOL.

CS: What was your first exposure to the Internet/Web?

KB: Well, it wasn’t the Internet or the Web, but in 1984 my elementary school set up a network of TRS-80 computers. We had the ability to message other computers on the network, and we used software to track attendance and library book checkouts. About two years later I used Q-Link—Quantum Link—for the Commodore 64. I guess that I never really experienced a time when computers couldn’t be networked and used for one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-one communication!

In high school I regularly used FTP and Gopher to do research for the school paper. Then around 1992, I started using Prodigy and CompuServe. During my first semester in college, I started using the Web, and in 1994 I created my first Web site.

CS: How did you first get involved with Web design?

KB: Every time I say this, people laugh but it’s true! I first got involved because of Duran Duran. I’m a huge fan, and I have a huge collection of their music. In the early 1990s, there was a fan mailing list called Tiger-List and a number of people were working on a comprehensive discography. I started a ‘zine to publish the work, and as soon as I got my hands on a Web hosting account, I put the information online. Of course, there was little “design” online at the time, but I watched what other sites did, learned by reading their source code, and tried things out for myself. Still, when I go back to look at that site circa 1997, I’m impressed by elements of the design. The official Duran Duran site currently doesn’t look all that different!

CS: The first Web site I did was for a music group, too, namely U2. It seems that people resonate well when building sites about topics they love or are passionate about. Do you still work on a Duran Duran site or other sites around a similar passion?

KB: I stopped working on the Duran Duran Web site in 2000, but I’ve been thinking about restarting it as a wiki… but we’ll see.

Since 1995 I’ve worked on a Web site for Chris Connelly, the former industrial music god turned indie singer-songwriter. I even helped him published a book, Confessions of the Highest Bidder, Poems and Songwords 1982-1996. We’ve built up such a community around the Web site that now there’s little for me to do on a day-to-day basis, because the fans drive the content.

Besides music, I’m passionate about attracting and retaining women in computing and technology. For the past three years, I built and maintained the Web site for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. This year’s conference not only featured an impressive list of presenters from industry, academia, and government, but also featured many social media tools, including Twitter, Flickr, and a wiki for note-taking! Now that I’ve handed off maintenance of this site, I’m planning something new, of course. Sorry though, I can’t give you more detail yet!

CS: Let me get your thoughts on this topic. We’ve both built fan sites and probably have used them in our research for our respective interests. There’s this Wikipedia effect on fan sites or anything of some remote popularity: it completely removes the need for basic fan sites. I can search Wikipedia for information on summaries of obscure television shows that have gone off the air faster than I could at someone’s usually poorly designed fan site. Even official sites have a problem dealing with this problem.

While I love their music, U2’s official Web site can’t compete with Wikipedia and the internet. If I ever have a question about the band or want to find the latest news, I go to other resources rather than paying a forty dollar subscription fee to see the official video on their site or get a stale press release. If someone is going to build a fan site, I believe the site needs to be modeled like Whedonesque where there’s an embracing of fellow fans and the community. It’s almost as if Wikipedia has replaced what Web 1.0 was all about. Web sites need to jump start to Web 2.0 mean anything these days.

KB: This is a really interesting question for me, right now. I got away from the hardcore Duran Duran fan crowd (and Web sites) when I was in grad school and I’m now having to catch up with many of them. I’ve noticed that no one site—not the band’s official site, not their community fan club site, and not even Wikipedia—has all of the information that I’d expect to be in one place. But Google clearly makes finding resources amongst those sites very easy!

So I think that fan sites may still have a place, if they’re providing information that’s unique or if it’s presented in a way that’s easier to find and crawl than an official site.

I think that people will always want to create their own basic fan sites, just to express their fandom. But the more advanced fan sites can put a lot of pressure on an act to step up their investment in their Web presence!

CS: How was working for AOL? What were your positions and their respective responsibilities throughout your tenure there?

KB: I started at AOL in 1999 as a Web Developer and was promoted to Senior Web Developer in less than a year. I was the technical lead for the eCommerce division during a time of rapid growth it was very exciting! I also took on the technical lead role for the AOL@School project.

When you first start working on Web sites that easily get upwards of a million hits a day, it’s a little intimidating, but it gets you to think very differently about your work. Organization and planning become key factors in how smoothly site changes or a redesign gets launched. You have to think about the smallest segment of your audience, as well as the majority. You never want the division Senior Vice-President, who’s still using some ancient machine and browser and is awake at 3 AM monitoring the site launch, to call and complain.

While I was leading these development teams, I came to realize that regardless of how good our tools were, we needed coding standards in order to keep everyone on the same page with how we approached our work. I started writing coding standards for individual projects, but then I also took on writing standards for the entire Web development organization. This effort led me to push for the creation of a team wholly dedicated to standards.

In 2002, I teamed up with the head of the design standards and the nascent QA team, and we worked as the Product Integrity group. I managed both the design and technical standards, provided training, performed code reviews, and worked closely with high-profile projects to ensure they met our standards for design, code, optimization and browser- support.

Around this time I also became aware of the Web Standards movement. I’d been working with CSS since about 1998 not in any professional capacity but more as something to tinker with in my spare time. I realized that, given our systems at AOL, and our browser requirements, we wouldn’t be adopting semantic markup and strict separation of presentation and content very quickly but the seed was planted.

In 2003 I was given the opportunity to serve as AOL’s representative to the W3C CSS Working Group. By this time, the eCommerce code, which I always stayed close to, was largely Web standards compliant. Joining the working group gave me the fuel I needed to push for better Web standards compliance and the redesign of the AOL.com home page in 2004, which was 99.9% compliant, closed the deal. The coverage we got for making the switch was just a blip, but it had quite an impact. Kevin Lawver and I were proposing an internal Web Standards group around this time, and I think we partially got the OK because we were able to demonstrate that we’d get positive coverage for other conversions.

In April of 2004, I took over the Web Development organization. I launched a major training initiative for the developers, bringing in people like Molly Holzschlag and Eric Meyer, and we rolled out a new publishing platform that was completely Web standards-based. The CSS grid system we built for that tool was just remarkable in its browser support and in its flexibility. Only recently have other systems started to match what we did back then.

I left AOL in February 2005 to do consulting work. I joined PayPal in November 2006.

CS: How is your position now at Paypal different or similar than at AOL?

KB: My role at PayPal is most similar to the work that I did as part of the Product Integrity group at AOL though I have dedicated staff working for me now! Because the design and development organizations are very separate at PayPal, I’m not managing the design standards which is great in terms of allowing the team to focus, but tough in terms of getting people with the right mix of skills on cross-functional tasks. We’re still working on that, though, through training.

One challenge that is very similar, between AOL and PayPal, is getting people to recognize the importance of our transmission medium the Web. AOL was a walled garden for a long time, and getting senior management to understand the benefits and challenges in breaking out of those walls. At PayPal, I find that senior management thinks of the application first as a financial system, then as Web site. I’m working to help people understand that we first have to think of PayPal as a Web application to put the user experience and the front end on equal, if not greater footing, than the back end.

CS: I’m assuming PayPal, like AOL, didn’t embrace Web standards immediately. We all weren’t validating HTMl 4 documents in the mid 90s. What made them realize the need for Web standards?

KB: At AOL, it was very easy to demonstrate the ROI of standards, especially when it came to saving time and money on redesigns. Nearly every channel on AOL underwent a yearly redesign, and in a table-based world, redesigns took at least 6 months—so you finished launching a new design and almost immediately went into planning for the next year! With CSS-based layouts and stricter internal content standards, that time table shrunk dramatically. The clincher was the ability to tie Web standards into a new content management and publishing system that was built in 2003: when that went live, a large chunk of AOL content was then standards-compliant, and what wasn’t was easily migrated over.

I wasn’t around at PayPal when the Web standards conversation got started, but I do know that standards-adoption was largely a one- man mission that started in 2005 when Steve Ganz joined PayPal. Again, I think the ROI of standards speaks to the company’s leadership, but the focus on the financial side of the business makes the standards-conversion effort less important. The responsibility to realize a standards-compliant site is fully on the shoulders of the Web developers themselves. Nearly all of them understand the benefits of Web standards—thanks to Steve’s evangelism efforts. Now it’s just a matter of growing skill sets and empowering people to affect that change!

CS: So, your primary mission for PayPal as a group is to train other departments?

KB: My team is pretty equally split between developing our internal standards—working with the user experience and design org to create interaction and visual design standards, as well as common, reusable code solutions—building and improving internal processes and tools in support of developers, and providing training.

CS: It seems to me, maybe because I’m used to usability to be tied to accessible and standards-based design, that for a company like PayPal to be more willing to embrace a more user-centered approach to their Web site. In your opinion, how can one or a group of people in other companies in a similar situation as yours convince upper management or stake holders to change their focus to be more focused on user experience?

KB: I’ve found that when you directly ask any senior management person if they care about the user experience, their answer is always going to be “yes”. The problem is getting them to dedicate money and resources to improving that experience. This is where data—analytics and user research—becomes crucial. In a company that’s large enough, there’s probably someone looking at this data, so it’s a matter of getting a hold of it and interpreting it for management. In a small shop, getting that data might be more difficult to come by—but there’s sufficient information in the public domain that could be compiled to make a case for funding of a project to get site-specific user data.

I say this all of the time, and I’ll repeat it here: getting a stakeholder to buy in to your position on anything largely a matter of understanding what language that person speaks. Do they speak in numbers, statistics? If so, don’t go in to a meeting with stories—prepare charts to convert those stories into numbers. Do they like dollar signs? Convert that story and those numbers into dollars, then. Do the leg work so they don’t have to put extra thought into the subject. You’ll do a much better job of making your case, which greatly increases your chances of getting approval.

CS: You’re co-lead of the Web Standards Project. What’s the purpose of the Web Standards Project for those that might not know?

KB: The Web Standards Project is a grass-roots effort, founded in 1998 by Jeffrey Zeldman, to advocate for Web standards. Initially the group’s focus was on browser manufacturers, to get them to follow the W3C standards.

Since that battle is largely won, we now work on a variety of fronts: we continue to work with browser manufacturers and also authoring tool developers, but we also work with educators to help understand where educational programs today are doing their students wrong by not teaching Web standards—still a large problem, prevalent in most programs that teach Web design and/or development.

We also have teams focused on topics like accessibility, to help bring clarity to the specifications and laws and to help research questions and issues. I don’t think that even our closest followers understand all of the fronts we’re addressing simultaneously! This can be somewhat of a problem, as observers tend to think that we’re dead and irrelevant.

We agree with critics that our mission is a bit outdated and non-specific, but we’re trying to find time to revamp that, amongst all of the other work we’re doing.

CS: So, since the battle for Web standards has been largely won, when’s the victory party? Usually I’m told my invite got lost in the mail.

KB: I think that some battles have been won, but the war isn’t over yet. Some of the W3C working groups are acknowledging that they need to improve specs. The major browser manufacturers still have some work to do. And, sadly, based on the resumes that cross my desk, I’m not seeing the skill-level of the large majority of Web developers improve.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to celebrate: every improved spec, browser fix, site conversion, or designer/developer “a ha!” moment is a reason to celebrate.

But from my vantage point, there’s still much work to be done.

CS: How did you first hear about the Web Standards Project? And when did you first join?

KB: I probably first heard about the Web Standards Project when I read Zeldman’s book, which honestly wasn’t too long before I was invited
to join in March 2004.

CS: There are several groups called Task Forces like the DOM Scripting Task Force, Dreamweaver Task Force and so on. So, the Web Standards Project has been, not fractured so much, but more focused on several fronts? It seems like a sensible approach to make evolutionary changes.

KB: When WaSP was a single, centralized group, you knew that there were people that specialized in specific areas related to standards. But those people weren’t always available to lead initiatives in those areas or able to comment about those areas—after all, everyone had some other full-time job to do. So creating task forces around certain areas of interest, where a WaSP member could head up a group of interested WaSPs and other individuals from the community, certainly helped in terms of distributing the work. It also has helped breathe new life into WaSP: most of the recent new WaSP
members came to us through a task force.

CS: As the co-lead for Web Standards Project, do you see the “problem” now not so much with the browsers implementing standards, but the standards not being finalized in a timely fashion? CSS3, I know, has been under development for quite some time now.

KB: No, I don’t think it’s strictly a problem with the standards not being finalized, but now that the browsers have caught up considerably, it’s the logical place to look for greater progress.

What does everyone expect and need from any set of standards? Perfection. Browser manufacturers and developers alike need error- free, misinterpretation-free definitions and explanations. The only way to get that level of detail is through the dedication of knowledgeable people who have quite a lot of time to focus on the standards. Now I can’t speak for any current W3C working group, but I can say from my experience on the CSS working group that not everyone in the group had the time, given that more than half of us had other jobs to tend to. While we were all knowledgeable, we weren’t all properly equipped to dive in to crafting standards. And with relatively little meeting time, even if everyone had been cranking out working drafts, there wasn’t ever enough time to discuss everything.

In my mind, whether you’re talking about browsers or standards, I see a set of management problems, in varying degrees: a lack of knowledgeable, interested, dedicated resources; inefficient and potentially un-changing processes; and less-than-effective or no leadership. The problem here is that you can’t just solve one of these problems and see drastic change!

CS: And these are the issues you addressed in our latest book, Adapting to Web Standards, right? The introduction and management of Web standards in large companies.

KB: Yes—and it’s in the context of the enterprise Web shop because that’s what I know best. However the methodology I introduce, the Circle of Standards, can also apply to an agency or smaller Web shop or educational institution.

CS: Do you felt like you nailed the topic in the book or is there more to cover?

KB: Oh, there’s always more! I’m constantly learning from my experiences. But the Circle of Standards—the concept and process behind driving standards adoption and managing them for the long term—just gets reinforced over and over.

Even if I had the chance, though, I don’t know how much more I could express in a book, other than providing more examples — it’s kind of like learning most managerial concepts: you can read all of the literature out there, but at some point you have to try the concepts yourself in order to get the real learning experience. Still, it might be interesting at some point to add some case studies related to organizations adopting the process.

CS: Wasn’t it also part of your talk at the recent An Event Apart in San Francisco? How was the reception to your talk there?

KB: Yes, I’ve been presenting the Circle of Standards—and promoting standards evangelism as a career—for a whole year now! The reception has been great. I’ve found that many designers and developers still feel like they’re alone in their pursuit of standards and they’re looking for a way to make a greater impact. Even in organizations where everyone is on-board with standards, I still have people tell me that they’d never spent much time thinking about how to coordinate and communicate about standards. So I hope that everyone’s able to take something away from the process and use that knowledge to change their organization for the better.

CS: Is there a potential for the Web Standards Project to have a task force for the W3C then? Not to be annoying like wasps, but more helpful in troubleshooting specifications and proposals?

KB: I won’t say no, but I’d say that currently we don’t have what we would need to fully support such a task force. Like I said before, dedicated resources are necessary, and WaSP already struggles with that issue. I wouldn’t want to hamper the W3C in any way.

That said, some WaSPs are or have been on some of the W3C working groups, and I’d like to see that trend continue!

CS: What are some of the issues in regard to accessibility that the Web Standards Project is tackling?

KB: The Accessibility Task Force has mainly been focused on two efforts: how some of the microformat design patterns affect accessibility and what the implications are for some of the HTML5 proposals.

CS: As with education and Web Standards Project, how is the Web Standards Project working with educational institutions? I’ve often found that universities, as an example, are usually five years behind the curve. And in our industry, that’s ancient times. I remember the sites I was working on five years ago, but I would build them differently if I had to start working on them now.

KB: We also have the Education Task Force, which works with higher education institutions to help raise awareness of standards. This task force hosts the EduTF-PP mailing list, for educators, administrators, and students to come and discuss their challenges and success stories related to creating change in their institutions. This information, along with data collected in a recent survey, is key to helping the members of the task force prepare materials that interested parties will be able to download and use to present the case for Web standards in the academic environment.

CS: Recently the Email Standards Project was launched. While email itself isn’t associated with the Web and I believe there is a standard for ASCII text-based email, the goal of the project is to drive home support for Web standards support for HTML-rich emails. What are your thoughts on this initiative? Is this a taskforce that should have been a part of the Web Standards Project?

KB: Personally, I dislike HTML e-mail. But since we’re never going to convince marketers that they should stick to plain text, I think that using and supporting HTML and CSS in e-mail is the next logical step and the best solution.

I’m glad to see others starting up their own efforts around the issues they care passionately about. I often field requests for the Web Standards Project to take on new initiatives—which, as I’ve said and will continue to say, we just can’t cover everything. But not everything needs to be under the auspices of WaSP, and not everything should!

So I’m in full support of there being an Email Standards Project. It’s quite an honor to be associated with an organization that others see as having been impactful, and that others want to replicate in order to successfully change their own areas of interest.

CS: What are your thoughts about the future of the Web?

KB: Pass!

Seriously, I’m not a futurist. My hope is that browsers and devices continue on the path toward and eventually converge on true interoperability. I want to see designers and developers hone their craft and produce top-notch sites and applications. Innovators must continue to open new avenues to us, and standards bodies must keep up with evolving the underlying technologies. Ultimately it all comes down to collaboration—and, as we’ve seen thus far in the history of the Web, collaboration online leads to collaboration offline, and vice versa.

Other than that, I love being in an industry that is still so young that one must constantly read and learn to keep up with things—and, in large part, that means staying close to the work that needs to get done. We need to watch one another for burnout, so that we don’t lose any great contributors, and we need to coach and mentor new talent, so that we get them to contribute their talents in our arena.

CS: Finally, I want to say thank you for sharing your time, Kimberly. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. And I want say also, thanks for the work you and your multiple teams—Web standards project and its respective task-forces, AOL, now Paypal—do to help out Web developers build better sites for their users.

KB: Christopher, it’s been a real pleasure on this end as well. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to contribute to Adapting to Web Standards, and for writing so many other great books and articles about design and development!

The Dave Shea Interview

Are you into Web design? Then you might have heard of a little site by Dave Shea called CSS Zen Garden. By changing the look-and-feel, but keeping the same markup, Dave Shea and designers all over the world showcase the power of CSS as a design technology.

In my eyes, it was one of the sites that came out and destroyed any remaining pretense that HTML tables could rationally still be used for designing engaging, quality Web page layouts over a CSS-only approach (even as browser inconsistencies hinder development).

With Dave Shea’s eye for quality design, he cultivated the site for the best examples of CSS-enabled designs for his Zen Garden.

But Dave didn’t stop at nurturing a Web site.

Several years later after the launch of Zen Garden, there was the book about the Zen Garden, of course. There are now happy clients of his own, a set of icons, a second edition of the popular Web Directions North conference, and much more, I’m sure, in the future of Dave Shea.

Today, however, I’m happy that Dave Shea joined me for an interview to discuss what’s on his mind. We talk about design, clients, the upcoming Web Directions North conference and whether or not he considers himself a foodie.

Dave Shea

Christopher Schmitt: What’s your name and what you do?

Dave Shea: My name is Inigo Montaya, and you killed my… Wait, wrong movie.

I’m Dave Shea, and I do a little of this and a little of that. I still consider myself primarly a visual designer, web and UI being my specialties, but with things like Web Directions and the icon sets I’ve done in the past few years the question of what I do day to day is getting a bit murky.

CS: How would you describe yourself?

DS: Hmm, it’s been a while since I’ve done a Meyer-Briggs, but ISFJ feels about right. Otherwise, I’m happiest when either creating or exploring, and most of the stuff I do relates back to those two in some way. Cooking, coding, traveling, designing, and so on.

CS: What are some of the best places you’ve been? Any surprises?

DS: Well, I’m a huge fan of England, but I was a little surprised at how non-foreign it felt to me. I’ve been to plenty of former British colonial cities, so maybe that gave me an idea of what to expect. Still, when taking a train from Paris back to London feels like going home, it makes you wonder.

Otherwise I really liked Australia, Melbourne in particular—maybe even moreso than I liked Sydney. And Reykjavik was a challenging city to visit; the landscape is like another planet, the culture is somewhere halfway between North American and European, and the food was either great or horrible with little in between—really good Indian, bloody awful Mexican. All the small differences added up to unsettle me near the end of my trip in some odd, undefinable way; still, I’d definitely go back.

CS: What do you like about cooking? Would you consider yourself a “foodie“?

DS: The satisfaction of eating something I just created. The act of creation draws me to it, but having something immediately practical and pleasurable like food at the end of process, that’s just icing on the cake.

I’m not sure I’ve quite reached foodie status, but it’s borderline.

CS: Did you have any jobs besides ones related to design?

DS: Haven’t most of us? In past lives I’ve worked in construction, sales, support, and burger-flipping.

CS: What did you you have to do for those jobs?

DS: In order: dig holes and carry heavy things from spot A to spot B. Sell people internet connections, then put on a happy face and tell people why their internet connection isn’t working, and then get it working. Flip burgers.

CS: When did you work those jobs? Was it right after school?

DS: Pretty much. Some during, some after.

CS: What was your first exposure to the Internet/Web?

DS: I was a bit of a late bloomer, I finally signed up for a connection around 1997. Okay, that’s earlier than lots, but given that I was big on the last dying days of the BBS scene in the mid 90’s, I still find it a bit surprising it took me so long. I’d known about the web for years, and actually built my first web page in 1996, but didn’t really get involved until I finally had my own connection the following year.

CS: Did building Web pages prompt you to get your own Internet connection?

DS: I’d say it was mainly for the communications side of things. Keeping in touch with people in other cities via email. Browsing web sites. IRC.

But building web sites probably did have something to do with it. I was doing a lot of single image graphics work at the time. Images rendered in 3D and Photoshop, illustrations, photo manipulation, etc. I was basically just learning the ins and outs of working digitally, so I thought a Web site would be a good place to put all of that.

CS: What was your first Web site for? Was it for yourself?

DS: The very first was probably a class assignment, though I think it was pretty much your standard “look, this is my web page, there’s nothing on it, but here I am anyway” type of page. Later on, the first full site I built was the digital gallery for myself.

CS: What’s your view on design or graphic design? Do you have a mantra?

DS: Seems like there are have been an awful lot of attempts lately to define what design actually is. I feel pretty strongly that it’s changing; almost as long as I’ve been building web sites, I’ve been thinking about things like usability, accessibility, information architecture, interaction, and so on. Fifty years ago graphic design was mostly about assembling imagery and type on a flat piece of paper. I’m over-simplifying of course, but it just feels like there’s more “stuff” you need to get a handle on to be any good at doing this.

I still describe of myself as a graphic designer to laypeople as a way of avoiding lengthy discussions about the subtleties, but I think the terms UI designer, interaction designer, and web designer all equally apply. The latter might still be the best term for it, too bad about the leftover stigma from the late 90’s.

CS: At one point did you realize you wanted to be a designer?

DS: I used to do a bunch of programming. Nothing serious, just screwing around in Basic and later a bit of C. At some point I realized I liked doing the imagery and graphics for the programs I was building a whole lot more than I enjoyed the programming itself. So a flip switched in my brain and I realized design was the way to go.

CS: What kind of training have you had as a designer?

DS: Not as much traditional training as I’d have liked. Fine arts and photography classes, design foundation stuff, a bit of business and strategy. The rest of it I’ve picked up along the way.

CS: What are your design influences?

DS: That changes week to week, project to project. When I redesigned my personal site last year, I’d been flipping through magazines and noticing common design elements I really wanted to work with. I’ve come up with design ideas while out in nature, in a forest or on a beach. I’ve been inspired by design elements on various sites and used the ideas to come up with similar treatments. Sometimes it’s just a matter of seeing a site, studying what I like about it, and mentally filing that principle of design element it for later use. I’ll tell you right now that whoever’s behind all these fantastic Tennessee tourism sites better watch out, I’ve been scrutinizing their beautfiul new one for as many tricks as I can.

Tennessee Tourist Site

CS: What specifically about that site appeals to you? What are the tricks have caught your eye?

DS: I love how they’ve balanced the sheer amount of stuff they’ve had to cram in there with generous margins and removing bounding frames and boxes. It flows really well, with lots of breathing room. The type work is solid. And it’s rich with details – an evocative blue gradient background, drifting snow, white cutout landscape shapes in the footer, etc. etc. etc.

CS: What aspect of Web design appeals to you the most?

DS: The job is different every day. Some days I spend the entire day working on page layouts in Photoshop. Other days I’m designing icons in Illustrator. I flip back and forth between various coding languages in Coda, be it PHP, a custom CMS template language, or even plain old HTML & CSS. I even get the opportunity to design logos and take my work to print from time to time. There’s no such thing as a usual project, they’re all unique. That keeps me interested.

CS: Your work has appeared in numerous publications and you won Best in Show in the SXSW 2004 Interactive conference. In your view, what separates mediocre web design from award winning design?

DS: What happens after you’re “done” the design. You could launch it, but you could also come back and put in more detail work, and spend time obsessing about the things others might take for granted. If you carefully plan your column layout and where elements will be placed on the page, your result will invariably be more polished than a design by someone who slaps a bunch of elements together and moves on to the next project.

It’s a tough balance when you’re working under deadlines, but I find the more time I make to refine a design after “finishing” it, the better the results. I’m working on one at the moment where I’m well into the 4th revision because I wasn’t happy with the previous versions. I think I’ve finally got it, but it’s been stressful. Usually I get better results quicker, but some designs need that extra attention.

CS: That raises an interesting question: How do you know when you are done or “finished” with a design?

DS: I think that’s learned. There’s no way to quantitatively measure it, you just keep working at it until you’re personally satisfied that the design you’ve come up with is the best to match the criteria of the project.

CS: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in doing projects for clients?

DS: That it’s give and take. I’m being paid for my skills and my ideas, but also my guidance. Clients often ask for things they don’t really need or want, things I feel would ultimately work against them. Those are the ones where I sharpen my rhetoric skills and tell them precisely why they’re wrong.

But there’s a balance. I’m not going to win every time, and sometimes my ideas are born out of assumptions that prove to be wrong. I have to remain open to that sort of feedback, and sometimes kill the ideas I’m particularly attached to. It’s hard, but if they don’t ultimately fit in the design or meet the needs of the project, they need to die.

CS: So this, what would you call it, “managing client relationships”, the most important thing? Not letting designer’s own views override the goals of the project or sour the client-designer relationship?

DS: That’s a pretty good way of summarizing it. When I first started out, I was personally attached to everything I did. I was always right because I was the designer, it must be the client who’s wrong. Time passed, and now I realize that a healthy design process involves ample opportunity for stepping back and assessing the project with a detached view; it’s surprising what you’ll discover when you set aside your preferences.

That said, I’m still often the one making the call in the end. Not every project results in work I’d want to showcase, but it’s up to me to make sure it’s at least competent, and that involves arguing it out with the client from time to time.

CS: What would you say is the project has given you the most satisfaction?

DS: Hmm. I have a few to choose from here. I’ve really enjoyed working with Lou Rosenfeld on Rosenfeld Media over the past few years — we’ve tackled a lot of diverse challenges, and I’ve had to stay on my toes to keep up with it all. It seems every new project we work on adds new tricks to my toolbox.

Then there’s the icon family I’ve been working on. It’s been gratifying having high-profile companies buy them, there’s a sense of legitimacy when that happens. But more than that, it’s the sense of accomplishment of having created that many custom pieces of illustration. I said one day hey, I’d like to start doing some illustration again, and a year of off-and-on work later I had 700 icons.

But I guess the one I’d pick if I had to pick any would be, inevitably, the css Zen Garden. Even 5 years later, I’m still amazed at how far its reach has been and how many people have been influenced by it.

CS: Zen Garden has and is in still having a huge impact. When I speak on CSS at workshops or conferences, people still mention that site as having a profoundly inspiring. And like you mention, it’s been years since it’s been around. Do you still get submissions? If so, how often? How do you manage the site?

DS: Yep, I might get anywhere between 10 and 20 new submissions a week. Even after five years. I’ve recently made a few changes to get the queue moving again since it was hard to keep up with.

All designs submitted go into a database. I built a lightweight publishing system on top of that which allows me to adjust submission details if I need to, grab the files, and automatically generate the files for publishing. There’s a bit of manual work involved in grabbing the files and FTPing them up to the server, but that’s not much work.

CS: In early next year, February, it’s another year for Web Directions North, a web conference in Vancouver which you are integral in putting on. Can you tell me about the conference and how it came to be?

DS: This could have also been an answer to the previous question; I’ve been really proud of the work the four of us running Web Directions North have been doing, the feedback after last year was fantastic, and it was a really fun time. I don’t want to say something obviously biased like it was in my top 3 conference experiences of all time, but, well, it was.

So, how it all started. Back in 2004 John Allsopp and Maxine Sherrin helped put together Sydney’s first web design and development conference, and I was invited to come down and be a part of that, which is where I met them for the first time. Derek Featherstone went down in 2005 and 2006, and of course Derek is a fellow Canuck so we had previously connected as well.

When John and Derek started talking about possibly doing an event in Canada, I was looped into the conversation and somehow we came up with the idea of doing it in my hometown. I think I was of the feeling that it would have been fairly simple to run something in Toronto, since most “big” events in Canada will naturally default to the city with the most people. But when we decided to do it in the winter, Vancouver seemed like a better idea with Whistler just around the corner and all…

This year since the label “Web Directions North” allows a bit of transience, we did consider moving it to another city. But Whistler was such a great experience for everyone that came along, it seemed inevitable that we’d do it here again. And so we are.

CS: What goes on in planning and behind the scenes in order to put on this conference?

DS: We started this year back in June. Our entire to-do list ends up looking something like this: Find out where to hold it. Contact a bunch of venues with our needs, find out if they can accomodate us, work through the details about how they’ll meet our needs, and select the best of the bunch. That’s just an entry point really; once you have the venue, you then have to have a whole lot of conversations about room usage, technical setup, catering, guest rooms, etc.

Figure out what topics and speakers you want on stage. We build our program on content; we chose subject matter first then figure out who fits the bill. Then you’ve gotta start contacting them. And picking alternatives. And contacting them. And getting bios and talk information. And work out flight details.

Build supporting materials. Registration, web site, printed stuff like the program and name badges, etc.

Get the word out and sell tickets. This is hard. Really hard. Of everything, I’d say this is the hardest part. There’s a seriously big sales and marketing commitment in running a conference, which is something I didn’t understand before I got into it. If you don’t have a huge advertising budget, you really have to work to fill seats.

Line up sponsors. Arrange evening and extra-curricular activities. Answer incoming inquiries.

There’s a lot more I’m glossing over, but that gives you a good idea of the wide variety of stuff you have to bring together to pull off a conference.

CS: Seems like you are doing a lot: books, icons, conferences, client work and so on. What do you feel most comfortable doing?

DS: I don’t really think about it like that. I know my limitations; I’m a crappy programmer and I’m not a salesman, so those are a couple of things I stay well clear of. Otherwise I just try things out to see if they fit, and if they do, I’ll run with them.

CS: You’ve stated perviously that you’ve switched to Mac as your platform of choice. How was that transition? Was there any problems in how you work in one operating system?

DS: That was quite a while ago, five years maybe. The big things were not much of a problem; most of the apps I run are cross-platform, and the Finder wasn’t hugely different from Explorer, so actually getting work done didn’t involve much of a transition.

It was the little things that got to me though. I’m pretty big on keyboard shortcuts and time savers so learning to use my thumb instead of pinky for everything (Cmd vs. Ctrl on a PC) took a bit of effort. I’ve still never really adjust to the idea of a personal home folder, I create a separate partition for my data and throw everything on that. Though to be fair, I was never using the Windows equivalent of a home folder either.

CS: What’s your setup like? What kind of hardware do you use?

DS: I go back and forth between an iMac and a white MacBook. I’m over the G5, I want Intel everything at this point, so the iMac may not last much longer. It’s tempting to replace both with a single MacBook Pro and external monitor, but my previous Powerbook ended up corroding; my body chemistry and aluminum are not friends, apparently.

CS: I imagine you couldn’t part with Illustrator or Photoshop, but what other tools do you use?

DS: InDesign quite a bit. I do enough printed stuff and PDFs that it’s pretty indispensable.

Otherwise I’m a big Coda fan. Coda for developing, Firefox+Firebug for testing. I use Camino as my primary browser, but I develop in Firefox.

CS: What you would like to see happen in Web design in the next couple of years?

DS: Tech-wise: IE6 dying a quick death. CSS3 getting finished and implemented. All mobile browsers going the Safari route and running capable rendering engines.

Design-wise: cross-browser vector would be nice. Font embedding too, but it has way too many licensing issues to ever take off. As a compromise, it might be nice to have two or three large companies sponsor the creation of widely-available, free web fonts, ala Microsoft of 1995.

CS: There are plenty of free fonts out there–granted some are of varying quality–but would the concern be more about having the fonts be pre-installed on copies of Windows and Apple operating systems?

DS: Without embedding, yes, that would be critical. No way you’ll get end users to install a font. With embedding it’s less relevant an argument, but it would still be nice to have a wider variety built into the platforms.

CS: How do you feel about sIFR being a substitute for font embedding?

DS: I’ve played with it quite a bit, but I don’t think that I’ve ever actually deployed it on a real site. It’s a clever hack, and you can count me as a fan, it just never worked its way into my standard toolbox. I’m also not sure it has lasting power as an alternative; even if we don’t get an official way of doing embedding any time soon, will people still be using sIFR in three years? It’s been a few years since it came out and as a general rule, it’s not being used a lot more than it is being used, right?

Still, it’s nice having alternatives that actually work today.

CS: Indeed! Thanks, Dave. I appreciate you taking the time to talk.

(Photo: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)

Ethan Marcotte Interviewed

Ethan Marcotte specializes in making the code that runs some great designs on the Web. While the designs are impressive, his approach to HTML and CSS is inspiring. For me, the code often outshines the design when Ethan is on a project. It’s one of the main reasons why I asked him to co-author Professional CSS and it’s a reason that savvy Airbag industries snatched him up.

Ethan Marcotte is humble, diligent and works hard to excel in his passions. Quite frankly, we’re lucky that he has chosen to be a Web nerd instead of a literary academic.

Ethan Marcotte header

Christopher Schmitt: What’s your name and what you do?

Ethan Marcotte: My name’s Ethan Marcotte. I work as a UI developer for Airbag Industries, and my blog’s URL, unstoppablerobotninja.com, can beat up your blog’s URL.

CS: How would you describe yourself?

EM: I’m a lover, not a fighter.

CS: The unstoppable robot ninja is a lover, not a fighter?

EM: Everybody could do with a good hug now and again.

CS: You’ve stated, at one point, to owning 98GBs of music. What is the size of your music collection now?

EM: Ninety-eight? Damn…I don’t know as it’s ever gotten quite *that* high. My iTunes library’s currently hovering around 59 gigs, but I suppose the year’s not over yet.

CS: Maybe it’s not 98Bgs, but a metric fuckton. Must have lost a decimal point in the conversion.

EM: If you asked Ryan Sims, he’d tell you that 58 of those gigabytes are They Might Be Giants tracks. I say that Mr. Sims can bite me.

CS: What’s wrong with nerdy alternative rock?

EM: I couldn’t tell you. Your music might be nerdy, but mine is composed solely of Pure Awesome™.

CS:That is still a lot of music. How do you manage that large of a collection? How do you back it up?

EM: I use iTunes for the listenin’ and the organizin’. As for backing things up…yeah. I should probably get on that.

CS: I find it hard to believe that you don’t have a backup process in place for recovering your work. Do you have anything setup for backing up your work?

EM: Well, my non-music files are backed up religiously. At Airbag, we use SVN to back up all of our client work, whether it’s PSDs, static templates, or the source code for a super-awesome application we’re working on. My personal stuff is actually mirrored between my MacBook Pro and my G5 by ChronoSync.

My iTunes library doesn’t fit on my laptop anymore, so it’s exempted from the syncage–hence, it doesn’t really get backed up at all.

Which is, as the kids say, stupid.

CS: What musical artists are you into now?

EM: It sounds pretentious as hell, but I binge on music: I’ll play the hell out of an album when I first get it, then drop it cold and pick up something else. And what I listen to is pretty circumstantial, too. I mean, I’ll put on something melodic when I’m working on comps, but I prefer something a bit more jarring and mechanical when I’m coding.

Anyway. Lately, I’ve been playing quite a bit of Interpol, The Futureheads, Mobius Band, Bloc Party, Magneto, some Art Blakey, and a bit of Tracey Thorn’s new album. And the usual dose of classical music. Oh, and Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom. Always Ruby Vroom.

CS: What’s your academic background? Is it related to having four copies of Milton’s Paradise Lost?

EM: No, I’m just addicted to pointlessly long poems.

So yeah, I was a literature major in college. It was fun, in its way: I learned a hell of a lot, especially during my last year at school, but I was a bit ambivalent about pursuing anything beyond that. I figured I’d give myself a few years off, and see if I missed the books enough to enroll in, say, a PhD program.

I’m coming up on year nine of “a few years off,” so I think I’m probably getting by okay. *grin*

CS: Did you start off in Web design after you left college?

EM: Professionally? Yeah, basically. Right after I graduated, I managed to get a random job working for a dotcom outside of New York City. It was more or less the worst place I’ve ever worked at: long hours, horrible management, and bad projects. Still, the company somehow managed to attract some really incredible, talented people; they’re largely responsible for starting my education in working online.

From there, I got a job working for the Boston arm of a Manhattan-based studio. I worked as a lead front-end developer for a small team, and again had the opportunity to work with a small army of insanely bright, funny, talented individuals. Which I suppose is the best thing about this industry: there’s no shortage of rockstars to learn from.

Not to get all Hallmark on you or anything.

CS: Your own story is a path of someone not following their traditional education,or training if you will, and pursuing a different field. Do you find that learning for our industry is better when it’s done online than a traditional college experience?

EM: When I entered the industry, there wasn’t anything in the way of established curricula for web design. The dotcom era changed that, of course, but at the time my only option was learning online. So I can’t really speak with any authority as to which is better: some of the most talented designers I’ve met came from science backgrounds, and some of the best developers I know are trained artists or musicians.

CS: Were there any other jobs you tackled?

EM: After school? No, nothing really outside the industry–I mean, I’ve had some writing gigs, but so far everything’s been tech-related.

CS: What was your first exposure to the Internet/Web?

EM: Well, that’d probably be a high school BBS some student tech wonks set up when I was a sophomore. Dialing in to a FirstClass server to trash your English teacher on a bulletin board wasn’t exactly most compelling first encounter with the wide wonderful internets, but it did the trick. I was hooked.

CS: How did you first get involved with Web design?

EM: I first admitted this to the world onstage during AEA Boston this year, but it involved madrigals.

That’s right, madrigals: the D&D-playing dork of musical genres. I was part of an a cappella madrigal group in college—shut up—, and when they asked for volunteers to build their website, I guess I didn’t step backward quickly enough. So most of my initiation into the realm of web design involved a *cough* not-so-legitimate copy of Photoshop 3, and copying/pasting some other site’s font-und-table markup until I figured out exactly what all those little angle brackets did.

And yes, the site’s still online; no, you can’t have the URL. Trust me on this one.

CS: When did you develop that Web site? What did you do after that first Web site? How did you learn to Web design afterwards?

EM: I launched that site in 1996. Leave your DOCTYPEs at the door.

After that site went live, I did a couple freelancing gigs. Nothing especially sexy, mind, but I learned a lot. Though honestly, I’d say I got most of my education after school: on the job, and by trolling various web-related sites like Surfstation, k10k, and linkdup.

CS: What’s your least favorite CSS bug?

EM: Does “Internet Explorer 6” count?

I’m not sure I can pick just one, honestly. I’d have to say that IE’s “expanding box” model is pretty damned frustrating to deal with–at least, more so than the average rendering bug.

But in general, I have a lot fewer problems with CSS bugs than I used to. Part of that’s knowing where certain “trouble spots” lie in browsers’ CSS implementations, and using alternate methods I try to recommend that folks read up on something Molly Holzschlag called a “surgical correction strategy“. By using conditional comments in conjunction with separate files that apply browser-specific CSS patches, Airbag’s drastically reduced the amount of time it spends debugging.

CS: How do you feel about Web development now than say five years ago? In some ways it’s easier with the release of Internet Explorer 7 for Windows, but what challenges do you currently face in building Web sites?

EM: Well, I don’t think our largest challenges are technical ones. My workflow hasn’t changed significantly in the past couple years, and I think that most of the issues we were once faced with–browser compatibility, workflow questions, perceived shortcomings in CSS–have been overcome by now. If anything, I think we’re all just waiting to see what’s next: CSS3, HTML5, and keeping tabs on stuff like Silverlight and AIR. Which makes the “now” feel like a bit of a transitional period.

That’s not to say that there aren’t battles to be fought right now: we’ve got plenty of people slinging mud from both sides of the validation issue, discussions over what this whole “web design” thing actually entails, and there are still a fair number of companies that are just now learning how to incorporate standards into their work.

Anyway. It’s not a boring time to be working online, by any stretch of the imagination; it just feels like most of the big technical battles have been fought and, for the most part, won.

CS: What are your thoughts on HTML5 and CSS3 specification?

EM: It feels a little early to pass judgment on HTML5, frankly. The spec authors mention that work on the spec will be ongoing for years, possibly a decade or more. So while certain features currently being discussed make this markup junkie a little wary (Client-side database storage? Really?), I’m excited the HTML spec’s being revisited. Can’t wait to see what the end result is.

As for CSS3, let me at it. Can’t wait. Multiple background images? Want it yesterday. Flexible, multi-column layouts? As the kids say, yesplz.

CS: Have you had taken a look at or worked with Adobe AIR? Over at Heatvision we are building our first application with AIR-and it’s been fairly successful where a typical web application wouldn’t work.

EM: My experience has largely been as a consumer. I’ve read quite a bit of the literature, but the most I’ve actually done with AIR has been toying with applications like Pownce’s client and Snitter. So at this point, AIR‘s just yet another framework I wish I had more time to tinker with.

CS: What do you think of Microsoft’s Silverlight? Any thoughts in its relation to Adobe Flash? You’re not obligated to use the phrase “Flash Killer” in your answer.

EM: Well, my MacBook Pro doesn’t actually meet the installation requirements, so I’m again on the sidelines with this one. If they can really smooth out some of the cross-platform woes they’ve been having, then Silverlight could really get some traction in the next few years. But right now, it’s too early to tell.

CS: I totally agree with you about companies needing to incorporate standards into their workflow. I feel there’s challenge out there for companies to embrace standards based workflow. Have you seen that in working with other companies or in your brief stint so far with Airbag?

EM: Absolutely, and I think it’s one thing we could definitely improve upon. Working in a client- and deadline-driven industry complicates the matter, to a certain extent; when a client’s worried about ad revenue, industry regulators, or the size of their logo, it’s hard to sell them on the business case for having standards-compliant code stay standards-compliant.

It’s just not a discussion we’re used to having, which is part of the reason I wrote that article for ALA last year. Rather than simply leading with benefits like SEO and accessibility, we need to introduce the benefits of–well, standards early on in the sales pitch. Hopefully we’ll develop the language in time, and our clients will start to ask for it by name. It’s not uncommon to see DOCTYPEs asked for by name in RFPs these days, so maybe we’re not far off.

CS: What’s your set up look like when building a site or template?

EM: All my coding’s done in TextMate, which is the program I’ve liked the best among the other OS X coding applications (despite the horrible, horrible single-character undo). I’ve got a directory called “-default” that has a stock directory/file setup I use for all my projects. So when I’m starting work on a new site, I just need to clone that directory and open up the TextMate project file.

I build everything in Firefox first, then test on Safari/Opera. Assuming everything looks good there, I use VMWare Fusion to check how things are looking in Internet Explorer, your dear friend and mine.

CS: For a while you were running the operation of Vertua Studios. How was being your own boss? What lessons did you learn?

EM: I ran Vertua for about two years, and had a blast doing it. But yeah, it was a bit of a learning experience. In working for myself, the biggest hurdles I had to overcome were my time management skills–or lack thereof. Client deadlines and face-to-face meetings can shape your day only so much; the real trick for me was staying focused when the schedule quieted down. I’d get distracted much less easily if I established little milestones in my day: email for a half hour in the morning, four hours of work, then a half hour lunch, and so on. I think the only way to become better at sticking to a routine is to force yourself to become a slave to one for awhile.

CS: Now you work for Airbag Industries. How was the transition?

EM: Airbag and Vertua merged in April of this year, and it’s been just stellar. There hasn’t really been much of a transition to speak of, as more and more of my work had been coming from Airbag during Vertua’s final year. So when Greg offered to formalize things a bit more, it seemed like a great fit.

And so far, it’s been great: the team is excellent, and we’ve been working on some really killer projects (with some more in the works). I saw joining Airbag as a chance to work with some of my favorite people working online today.

I mean, I’m not a trained designer like Rob, Shaun, or Jason, and definitely not a Photoshop savant like Dan, or Ryan. So as someone who enjoys designing the odd website, working with someone like Greg’s been a stupidly great learning experience. Ryan Irelan is that rare breed of back-end developer: he’s got a deep technical knowledge, but is very good at clearly communicating complex concepts to clients or to stupid UI guys from Boston. And Russ Casenhiser, the newest member of the team, brings a business development/project management acumen to the team that is nothing short of badass.

So yeah, I’d say things are good. I heart this job.

CS: Airbag appears to be a virtual company with all or most of its employees in remote locations. Do you still keep up with the routine or routines you developed while working for yourself at Vertua?

I try to, yeah. The only real difference has been that instead of setting the project timelines myself, I’m working with the rest of the team to establish them. Other than that, the routine’s basically the same: keep a strict schedule in place so that Ethan doesn’t run off to chase something shiny.

CS: Thanks for your time! It’s always a pleasure, Ethan.

(Photo: Brian Warren)

The Taylor McKnight Interview

I first met Taylor McKnight at a SXSW conference, which one I don’t recall. Probably 2004. Or maybe 2005. It seems like many years ago, especially in terms of Web years.

Back then Taylor was a Web Developer for the University of Florida’s Web division. The university’s Web site is so successful it hasn’t gone a major redesign in years and is still the template that other universities copy to this day.

Taylor has since left UF, but still lives in Gainesville, working on pushing forward Internet-enabled entertainment endeavors that we all wish the music and movie industries were undertaking on their own.

I’m happy he agreed to be the first one in my new on-going interview series of Web developers helping to move our industry forward.

Taylor McKnight header


Christopher Schmitt: For the record, what’s your name and what you do?

Taylor McKnight and I play on websites for a living.

CS: How would you describe yourself?

TM: 24 year old entrepreneur who likes to create things, travel and listen to music.

CS: What are you currently into right now musically?

TM: Brightblack Morning Light — really chill, Sunday lounging music. The Ghost Is Dancing — Indie pop/rock that can’t go wrong with horns. Mika — Crazy pop that was popular in the UK and recently made it’s way over here. Boy Eats Drum Machine — This guy’s voice is bizarre, but it grows on you.

CS: Where have you traveled?

TM: In the past six months I’ve been to New York City three times, Boston, Austin for SXSW, London, Barcelona, and San Francisco. Most of it was work and or conferences but when you like what you are doing so much, it’s not really work.

CS: With all the traveling, do you have any tips for dealing with traveling?

TM: Packing wise, I got these Packing Cubes that make it easy to find stuff in my suitcase. I try to concentrate on staying hydrated so I feel good when I get there.

CS: Anywhere you like to go that you haven’t been?

TM: I’m thinking about living in Berlin for a month next summer with some friends who already did it a year ago and want to go back. I also want to see Japan.

CS: What was your first exposure to the internet and/or Web?

TM: Prodigy. When I was like 10 at my step mom’s office. I barely remember it but it was slow… and awesome.

CS: In what way was it awesome?

TM: I remember being excited that it was this different level of interactivity. Video games were pre-programmed months ago, magazines were written weeks ago, but things you were reading and playing with—even on dial-up—were as close to instant as you could get.

CS: Do you remember what Web sites you used to visit regularly back in the day?

TM: Well, I didn’t use Prodigy for that long, but in the AOL 9600 baud days, it was pretty much chatrooms trying to talk to cute girls who were probably old men.

CS: Was Podbop your first Web application/mashup? What was the experience like in building it and the reaction from the online community?

TM: Yes, Podbop, was my first webapp. I built it with Daniel Westermann-Clark. I was a bit naive and really thought we were just building it for ourselves and a few friends. It was built in our spare time over a few months—most of which was building up our database with MP3 links. At the urge of the Eventful.com crew, we took it to Mashup Camp and ended up winning best mashup. People really enjoyed how insanely simple it was yet useful.

CS: How is podbop doing?

TM: Podbop is on the back-burner these days as I concentrate on Chime.TV and Hype Machine. It’s not growing, but has a steady user-base.

CS: I’ve recenty moved to Cincinnati and I noticed a lot of local bands here don’t have their MP3s listed with the site. Any tips on how I, as a fan or potential fan of some local bands, could get them hooked up on it? Other than emailing them?

TM: Well, anybody, can add them, so if you know of a band with an MP3 go for it. Otherwise, what has been most effective for me is letting labels know about it since they usually have a bunch of bands under them.

CS: Chime.TV is a departure from music and into video from your recent projects of Podbop and Hype Machine. Describe Chime.TV and how it was accomplished?

TM: Chime.TV is a super video aggregator that is probably the closest thing you will find to TV online with the most content and nothing to install. We combine 10 of the top video sites from around the web into 20+ channels, if you don’t know what you want to watch, and global search, if you do know what you want. It was created by myself and Chirag Mehta and was done over six months in our spare time. It’s easily the most complex project I’ve ever been a part of and I’m very proud of what we’ve done.

CS: Did you win another mashup award for Chime.TV?

TM: Yes, Chime.TV won the Best Mashup Award at Mashup Camp IV this past July in San Francisco. It was my second time winning that award and was very exciting for both of us. Hanging around people and the environment in general at Mashup Camp is really enjoyable.

CS: There is really a lot going on at Chime.TV. Recently, I’ve been searching for Chime.tv videos and having them play sequentially without a lot of hopping around.

TM: Good idea, I made a Flight of the Conchord channel.

CS: That’s fantastic. I didn’t even know you could do that or that one could be registered user of the site. Does Chime.TV support openID?

TM: Chime.TV doesn’t support openID.

CS: Any other features Chime.TV has that people who like YouTube would prefer over simply surfing youtube?

TM: So with your free user account you can create your own channels, bookmark favorites, and send video mail to friends which shows up when they login to Chime.TV. All the videos play non-stopwe even preload the next video) and are resizable. It’s also better than Youtube because we include videos from: blip.tv, Break.com, DailyMotion, Google Videos, GUBA, Kewego, MetaCafe, MySpace, Veoh.com, and YouTube.

CS: With sites like Chime.TV, Podbop.org and Hype Machine, you are leveraging social Internet trails and turning them into useful applications for people to in turn digest. Are you finding a lot of potential profit in this area?

TM: I’ve been too focused on creating fun, useful apps to worry about profit too much. A.k.a, I have usually had a day-job that pays the bills. For Podbop and Hype Machine we make money off advertising, which has done pretty well.

CS: Were able to pay the bills right away with these two sites? How long did it take?

TM: For Podbop, our only cost is one $50 a month server, so we were able to cover that pretty easily. Hype Machine was around 2 years before I came aboard and was already making income when I joined.

CS: Could you describe Hype Machine and why someone would want to use the site?

TM: The Hype Machine follows music blog discussions. Everyday, hundreds of people around the world write about music they love and it all ends up here. You can find out what’s popular among music blogs this week, listen to the latest tracks being posted or even search for a specific band to hear more of them. It’s one of the best ways to explore and discover new music.

CS: What’s a typical work day for you?

TM: Wake up at 8 or 9am, walk down the street with my laptop for a croissant and iced coffee while I check my email. Come back to my home office and work 6-8 hours on various projects like Hype Machine, Chime.TV, my blog, etc. Intersparsed with random errands and lunch. Call it a day usually around 4 or 5pm.

CS: What are typical work-related activities do usually do om a day or week?

TM: Currently I am spending my days working on the Hype Machine redesign. Chatting with Anthony over IM or Skype and implementing various design and code changes. For Chime.TV it’s a bit more marketing oriented. I look for new places to spread the word about our site and come up with new ways to promote it. I’m also currently obsessed with my Tumblelog so I post a lot.

CS: When your workload is heavy, how do you cope?

TM: Make a physical list of what the steps I need to accomplish. Add copious amounts of
music and caffeine. Shut the door.

CS: How often does that happen in a given week or month?

TM: Probably 2-3 times a month.

CS: What software do you use on regular basis?

  • Synergy. I have a Dell and a 15″ Macbook Pro that share a 24″ monitor, keyboard and mouse using
    Synergy. It’s incredible.
  • Subethaedit is what I handcode XHTML and CSS in (it’s the only thing I use)
  • Transmit and CuteFTP are my FTP clients of choice.
  • Adium and Trillian are my all-in-one chat clients

Also, there is Photoshop, Winamp as all my music is on my Dell, IE7, Firefox, and Safari.

CS: What’s your greatest strength?

TM: Creative brainstorming.

CS: Anything special you do in brainstorming?

TM: Nothing original. I surround myself with things that inspire me like posters, artwork, music and browse web design galleries like CSS Beauty and other Web sites like NotCot.org.

CS: What’s your greatest weakness?

TM: Distracted too easily.

CS: Lots of people have that problem, but they haven’t been part of three Web properties like Chime.TV, Podbop, and Hype Machine. What keeps you focused to carry these projects out?

TM: They interest me personally. I love videos, go to concerts and like discovering music, so improving these sites benefit my life and that’s motivation.

CS: In your opinion, what parts of the Web need to be improved or fixed in order for the Web of today to evolve into the Web of the future?

TM: Overall, I’d say more aggregators like Chime.TV and Hype Machine to help filter out all the noise that inevitably comes with everything becoming cheaper/easier/common like making your own music or videos or blog, etc. Maybe even super aggregators for the aggregators.

Music on the Web needs to find a legal way to better cope/compete with things like bittorrent and album leaks. Things like pre-release album orders when music leaks and the ability to actually get everything in one place.