Why I’m a Designer Part 2: View Source

This post is part 2 of a series. You can read Part 1Part 1.5 and Part 3 if you’d like.

1999

As I stood in the cramped first-floor hall of the 300 building at the Art Institute of Colorado, my heavy bag of supplies dug painfully into my shoulder. I was with a friend and we were looking for jobs on the board, a task I undertook when I found myself in each of the three buildings we had on campus in Capitol Hill for the first time that week. As soon as we walked up, one posting in particular jumped out at me and I forgot all about the huge bag on my shoulder. It said in stark Franklin Gothic Condensed type:

SPIREMEDIA IS HIRING A RECEPTIONIST

which I’m sure doesn’t sound to you like that big of a deal, but to me it was like that paper was etched in gold. I’d been doing web design hourly for a small shop owned by a man who – in a daze of inspired light and beauty – named his company The Internet Design Firm. During my first week at this job I AltaVista’d (we didn’t Google back then) “Denver web design companies” to see what was happening in town, and to find work that could inspire me in times of need.

Spiremedia was an agency I found during this search whose portfolio suddenly redefined for me what a web site could look like, what the web could be. I had already spent a lot of time on their site, poring over the portfolio looking at the decisions the designers made on each piece, trying to determine what I could learn from them.

“What about this work is applicable to my own? What can I discard? What can I change about what I take, to make it my own, my clients’ own? How did they code that?”

It wasn’t just their client work, either: their own site was an excellent example of the thinking that went into everything they designed. I never dreamed I’d actually end up working there. I was a student who had done a total of 10 months of contract work in the industry, not one of the professionals these people clearly were hiring. I’d click “view source” in my browser, copy out some of their clever HTML code, and learn from their ideas.

And so but here was this flyer stapled to the wall, telling me they were hiring a receptionist. The privilege of my education leapfrogged me past wanting to apply for the job for which they were actually hiring, so my email’s subject line said “I don’t want to be your receptionist” and the body included a link to my portfolio telling them I’d admired their work for a while, and that I wasn’t a very good receptionist but I was wondering if they were hiring designers. I couldn’t have been happier when the reply came that they wanted an interview, but I had no idea what to expect.

Spiremedia's location in 1999. Imagine it without the hulking monstrosity behind it. Photo by Flickr user elmada
Spiremedia’s location in 1999. Imagine it without the hulking monstrosity behind it. Photo by Flickr user elmada
What I found when I showed up was incredibly disorienting: the building was out past Lower Downtown (the newly-named LoDo), on a street no one I knew had heard of. When I pulled my car into the dirt expanse in front of the building, I suddenly recognized it: this was the terrifying part of town where we parked our cars back in high school to go to St. Mark’s Coffee House. The concrete and abandoned 5-floor building at the edge of the dirt lot wasn’t so intimidating during the day, it seemed. What on earth was I going to find inside the warehouse across the street?

I couldn’t have guessed that it was going to be about 5,000 square feet of exactly what I’d been looking for since junior high, but this was not an office that my work experience had prepared me for. There was no sterile drywall bound by drop-ceilings and cheap carpet. There were no medical-grade waiting room chairs or neckties. No one was freaking out about the dogs wandering around and no one appeared to be over 30. Everyone wanted to be there.

A video created by Scott Upton with an original iBook and external video camera

Thick, wooden warehouse columns broke up the space into distinct areas. Existing long before many floors of offices had been built around them, they stood like stoic Redwoods throughout the office, ancient and real. I marveled at how many people must have done how many kinds of work in this building near these columns, and noticed this group of people covered them and the exposed brick in artwork and ethernet cables. The waiting area for clients was made up of a duo of (also wooden) old-timey school chairs which faced pinball and Asteroids machines. The music was loud and the person interviewing me had about 1,000 toys on his desk in the only private office I could see.

I was home again.

The Year 2000

Spirexmas99
Spiremedia Holiday Party, 1999.
Spiremedia often worked in a traditional design agency model: 2-3 designers were assigned to each new project and tasked with designing something totally different from their counterparts. The client would choose a design (or they’d make the worst of all possible decisions and combine two of them), and the designers whose work wasn’t picked would go on to new projects. The selected designer would work with the client to design each page, using whatever tools necessary, and hand it over to development to build. This was and continues to be a super common way to do web design, but the end result is that you’d usually get your designs built not quite right by the developer.

Part of doing web design was (and continues to be) understanding what the medium is capable of. If we designed something crazy or just not-quite-possible, we’d get an approximation of our designs live on the web and this was a thing I’d get sort of sad about. I wanted my pages to look and work how I designed them, dammit.

What Sucked About The Web

I alluded in Part 1 to a tendency of entirely visually-focused graphic designers to make fun of the web in 1999. At the risk of sounding incredibly “get off my lawn” about it, here’s an incomplete list of things we didn’t have as web designers when I started out:

  • Fonts. We could set our page’s text in any font we wanted as long as it was Verdana, Arial, Trebuchet, Georgia or Times as these fonts were available on most platforms. Using one of them ensured your pages looked similar to the highest amount of potential users. Want a different font? Time to make a bunch of header graphics!
  • Fast Internet. Most of us still had 56k modems at home but at work we used expensive lines that still were geologically slow by current standards to build and launch sites that hoped to gain mass adoption. We were building tools that aimed to be useful in a technical universe that hadn’t quite arrived yet.
  • Colors. “Colors are darker on Windows” was a common refrain heard around the office. Clients never saw the colors we saw on our Macs because have you ever tried to color-calibrate your client’s Windows NT-running-computer’s monitor? Of course you haven’t because it’s impossible. We always assumed the colors we chose were mere suggestions for how the end-user’s computer would render them.
  • YouTube. Seriously, think for a second about the web before YouTube or much video of any kind. See also: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Spotify, StackExchange. We did have the real Napster, though.
  • Standards. Jeffrey Zeldman is my hero for starting the Web Standards Project and getting the dialog between browser vendors started. A standard way to write HTML and Javascript for all browsers simply wasn’t present at first.  Zooming out a bit from the idea of technical web standards, we also didn’t have much in the way of usability research or prior art. Each client was an opportunity to try something new so something as basic as a site’s navigation was up for grabs.

What Was Awesome About the Web

Without a clear mode of operation to follow, we got to make things up. We tried to figure out what this new “web interface” idea should really look and feel like, given the limitations of the browser. We couldn’t do the UI heavy lifting you had on the desktop, and the whole idea of pages broke the application metaphor anyway.

We improvised and we changed course quickly because that was and continues to be the benefit of designing for our platform:

  • We weren’t desktop software designers because they had low-level control over their UI and could respond instantly to user input. Flash was the closest we could get but it felt like cheating to use it.
  • We weren’t graphic designers because we had web text to deal with, and navigation, and clicking, and scrolling. People had to use what we designed, not just look at it.
  • We weren’t multimedia designers because we used a document markup language to code our screens and we had to factor in a page load between each click.
  • We weren’t developers because they used ColdFusion and SQL and PHP and other acronyms I didn’t understand.

Linking Leagues and Asking Why

My first two clients were businesses commonly referred to as dot-coms to denote their internet-only status. My official title was Production Artist and my job was loosely defined as helping designers put their work on the web. My first two projects ended up being simply design projects that I used code to produce, which has impacted my entire career to-date.

LeagueLink was a startup aiming to enable recreational sporting leagues to self-organize tournaments and practice schedules. It combined elements of e-commerce (for gathering league dues), messaging (for inter-team communication), and content management (publishing league and team news). The only Javascript this app used was for image-based navigation rollovers. Ajax would be just a cleaning supply for another 5 or 6 years. Click: page load. Click: page load.

Why.com (forever embedded in my brain by its clever logo leveraging a question mark for the dot: Why?com) was assigned to me at the same time. This was a search engine that included a social aspect: other users were able to rank, rate, and recommend search results for given terms. Apple launched a service called iReview not long after, effectively killing the company. Two things stand out during my time working on why.com: it was the first time anyone in our office had heard of Google, which powered our search results (we thought it was a weird choice), and it was this project that provided me with my first business trip.

I didn’t realize it at the time but Scott Upton, my lead on the aforementioned projects, was also the designer whose work I’d most admired in the company’s portfolio from afar. I still haven’t had a creative director quite like him for three reasons:

  1. He was doing the work himself, and his structural decisions cascaded down to the specific screens I was working on. Any style I’d developed in school or on my own was out the window, it was time to explore someone else’s partially-defined design system and extend it.
  2. There were no Photoshop files, as he was building a clickable prototype, a shadow-version of the functional web app being built by the client. The code wasn’t for production but it made the creation of new screens so much faster and more compelling than doing flat Photoshop work. We could use our site as we designed it, and could tell when an idea wasn’t working long before users or the client saw it.
  3. He was patient and always advocated for the user’s best experience. I envied his ability to sketch in front of a client to get buy-in on a better idea than what they were floating back to us. Cleanly-drawn lines and clear ideas won out – most of the time.

For the first 6 months of my professional career, code and design were one and the same. There wasn’t a developer alive who’d touch Flash at that time and having our hands in the code of a site, no matter the language, gave us a control over the end-result that no amount of wire-framing or Photoshop mockups could give us. The client would usually see screenshots of our work, but that work’s production had a web-native methodology baked into it; we knew the screens we designed could be executed in code because we were already doing it.

8 thoughts on “Why I’m a Designer Part 2: View Source

  1. I think we two are more or less the same age and started in this at the same time. I remember those times without web fonts, and how I had to fight with my designer to make him understand that no, we couldn’t use Helvetica as the font for everything. Also, having to repeat three times each little bit of javascript you write, because IE, Netscape, and Opera had completely different versions of the DOM access library. Today, in the javascript scene, is fancy to diss jQuery. But god bless you, John Resig, for saving us from all that shit.

    I still remember the first time I saw the Gmail beta. It was like seeing a unicorn gliding with a golden kite over a triple rainbow. I couldn’t even start to understand how they achieved to do something so wonderful.

    Liked by 2 people

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