I am fortunate to know some superb web designers around the globe. This interview brings three web designers from the southwest region of the UK together. I’ve put five questions to them and their replies make a good read.
1) When did you start designing, and what principles and skills helped you get to where you are now?
Oliver Francis: I always had an interest in design and got an apprenticeship at a design and animation studio in 1998. I was lucky enough to have two mentors; a senior designer and an animation producer. They both taught me many design principles, mainly around keeping things simple and to trust my instincts when it came to colour and space. Other useful skills I learnt were to make sure that you help the client to establish a clear brief by asking difficult or seemingly stupid questions and to balance creativity and logic to make sure the user is engaged and knows what to do next.
Duncan McKerracher: I started when I was travelling around the globe in my previous job as an athlete. Wherever I went I took my laptop, and it was a good way to occupy my mind between training and racing. I guess I tried to convert what I’d learnt through sport into a new career. Put the hours in, try new things, know your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Oh, and never give up when things don’t work in IE6!!
When I stared I had no experience or portfolio. I just learnt what was needed to do any work I was lucky enough to get. Thankfully I’d done a degree in Electronic Engineering so the coding bit came pretty quick. WordPress was very useful when I began. It was in its infancy but was still a quick way to build a dynamic website.
2) When you first started designing websites, did you ever consider internet marketing would become so fundamental?
Ross Anderson: We had an idea that SEO/Marketing would be one of the key’s to a site’s success. All of the industry facets need to work together, SEO, design and development to create a site that will work well for a client. With the industry changing so fast, especially, SEO it’s key to our clients success and therefore our success that we have a quality SEO company we can rely on.
Oliver Francis: Websites were almost a novelty item when I started and Internet marketing was a phrase yet to be heard! It was however clear to me that the web was going to become an essential part of any businesses marketing activity. Just how important this would become I could not have predicted!
Duncan McKerracher: I started in 2006 so internet marketing was a fairly big subject and I was well aware of it. It wasn’t until I actually sat down with clients who were spending their hard earned cash with me that I saw how fundamental it was. I was spending more time talking about all things SEO than I was coming up with visuals.
It was apparent from the off that the world of internet marking was a big one and that I would need to know how to code a site that would technically fulfill clients needs on top of looking nice.
3) What are your favourite projects you’ve worked on?
Ross Anderson: Our favourite projects tend to be ones that give us freedom to work with a client not for a client. With designing a site, being partially a creative process, it’s important that the client understands the site is not for them but for their users. It’s also great when the client really gets involved with the design and is able to add constructive ideas to the overall process, it enhances the end users view of the site by imparting a company personality through it.
Oliver Francis: We worked on a very interesting campaign for the Environment Agency, which was based around reducing fly tipping in the South West. It involved awarding winning photography and a variety of mediums including billboards, bus backs, video, and merchandising.
More recently we did a website for Bristol Community Housing Foundation that was great to work on. It needed to help the foundations tenants get more support and provide a platform for communication. It integrated features like a report a repair tool, community calendars and an intuitive content management system. The site has had a big impact on the community it serves which is the kind of thing that drives Deckchair forward.
Duncan McKerracher: Working at Kerve I’ve been pretty lucky to be part of some big projects for Jack Daniel’s, Southern Comfort, and Disney. Throughout the year we build all sorts from websites, Facebook apps, to games and API mash-ups. It’s pretty satisfying seeing a plan come together on that kind of scale.
I also work on a bunch of sites for great clients who really see the value of keeping up to date with cool new stuff on the web. Johnny Grey (luxury kitchen designer) is a good example as he’s always full of creative ideas. He’s really into his social media, challenging us to come up with all sorts of concepts.
4) Where do you go for design inspiration?
Ross Anderson: Depends what the design brief entails! Quite often we will check through site showcases or go to sites that are a clients competitor. Clients will often already have visited a number of sites and decided how the look and feel of the site should be. We sometimes get the client to create a mood board or will go through existing marketing material to try and maintain the brand of the company on the site. It really depends on the client. Often if a client is looking for something completely different inspiration can come from anywhere, walking the kids to school, visiting the cinema or having a glass of red wine with friends!
Oliver Francis: Inspiration can come from anywhere, but I do think the best inspiration comes from conversations. Being open about the problems you are trying to solve means that ideas and opinions can come from anyone you speak too. Getting an objective point-of-view can create brilliant ideas.
Duncan McKerracher: I get inspiration from all sorts of media and disciplines, not just looking at other websites. The big brands are always great places to start. I’m a big Nike fan and their most recent microsite is just awesome. It looks great and uses a pretty neat HTML5 jquery combo to do the animations.
For actual web design there are loads of design galleries and blogs. The FWA is amazing but its pretty Flash heavy. As an HTML geek at heart I’d say bestwebgallery is a good place to go as is generally a bit more selective about what it shows. Smashingmag is always good for everything web design and often does design showcases. Through its network you can also access a bunch of other informative blogs.
5) How do you believe the roles of web designer and SEO should be defined?
Ross Anderson: WOW! That’s difficult. Firstly it’s almost a symbiotic relationship. They both need each other, for a landing page to work it needs good design and clever SEO. Interestingly both also need to have cross over in skills, [the] SEO needs to understand html and [the] design[er] needs to understand SEO, bits of anyway. In terms of a definition, web designer builds a site to look good, function well, navigate easily, provide content that engages the user and encourages them to explore the rest of the site or make contact with the site owner. SEO improves a ranking according to a set of keywords, market the site using social media, drive users to specific client goals (signing up to a newsletter, buying a product or simply picking up the telephone) and monitoring the change in traffic to site whilst doing all of the above!
Oliver Francis: Without a marketing strategy very few people are going to see a website. Likewise if someone finds a site but has no idea what to do next there’s a big problem. It’s really important that SEO and design are balanced, so close collaboration between the designer and search engine optimiser is essential.
Duncan McKerracher: That’s a tough question as SEO is an integral part of what we do. We have to advise and then build a solid platform for the client’s SEO plans to take shape. Whether it’s a small static site or a fully blown dynamic site with a bespoke CMS, all the SEO basics need be integrated into the templates. Having a great CMS that allows clients control of meta data, page titles, copy, link titles etc… is ideal, but not always manageable. It’s also our job to inform clients there’s more to SEO than just having a website that’s build properly.
Getting the website out there and creating quality backlinks is a big deal for any company, as are carefully planned adwords campaigns.
About the companies represented above:
Ross Anderson, Mediatube: Mediatube are a small web design company, based in Bristol with a big heart and even bigger ideas. They’re passionate about all aspects of top-quality web design. Which is just as well, because since they started in 2003, they have yet to come across a project that doesn’t pose a unique set of requirements.
So depending on the scope of the clients site, they draw on their independent specialists to work as a dedicated team on their project, led by Carolyn Anderson.
Their core team includes web designers, coders and web developers, including Ross Anderson and Chris Hawes; but they regularly work with partners who specialise in search marketing, SEO, branding and web copywriting. As part of their free consultation, they can identify what web services a client needs and how they can help.
Oliver Francis, Deckchair: Deckchair is a web design and development company based in Bristol. Deckchair’s two directors Ollie Francis and Rebecca Taylor like to make the complex simple.
Their strategic and consultative approach breaks down the barriers between the client and their customers, making communication easier and creating engagement.
Businesses and organisations are complex entities that need to articulate what they do to the world. By understanding what makes a business tick and how it functions, Deckchair gives their clients a solution that meets the requirement, presents the right message and is cohesive with their existing processes.
Deckchair have worked extensively in the public and private sector including software companies, colleges and not-for-profits.
Duncan McKerracher, Kerve: Kerve Creative have been delivering successful digital solutions for well over a decade, working alongside brands such as Jack Daniel’s, Disney, and Southern Comfort.
Kerve Creative prides itself on producing formidable web design, seamless graphic design and branding, and award winning art direction. From interactive apps for Facebook, to large e-commerce sites, to beautiful print collateral Kerve Creative has the expertise and hard won experience to create engaging and considered solutions to their client’s requirements.