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)

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