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Jeff Faulkner

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In: Interviews

By Craig Saila

Published on July 9, 2003

Digital Web: At WebVisions 2003, you’ll be discussing a “Fountainheading.” I take it the term comes from Ayn Rand. What do Ms. Rand and Web design have in common?

Jeff Faulkner: Well, that’s too heavy a question for me. Rand was facing off with two centuries of thought. I’m just a Web designer from Portland. I do believe confidence is a major component of design—and confidence/audacity is arguably a basic principle, or at least manifestation, of Objectivism. But my presentation is more about a process that leads to that confidence and, in turn, innovative purposeful work rather than any sort of constitutional sense of right or wrong that follows you into every context.

Howard Rourke, her protagonist in the Fountainhead, never really struggled with process. The book was mostly about his relationship to the world. I think some have interpreted that to mean his ideas hit him in toto, all at once, immaculate conception—that sort of thing. I don’t think that was Rand’s intention. Of course you would never know that because she didn’t spend much time on his own process for developing great work. It was more about his relationship to the outside world and that is not the whole picture. Thus Rourke is a polemic, an iconoclast, defined by what he isn’t.

However, Rourke was loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright, who was all about process and opening himself up to the potentials and inherent nature of what was around him. He submerged himself, in a way. From this process of gaining an understanding and evolving a solution, he proceeded with great confidence. But he didn’t walk in the door with a solution.

Embracing a constitution, a set of rules, reflects a very real human desire for permanence. But once you embrace that, you can’t really evolve. You can’t adapt to your surroundings. And adaptation is evolution. Design or otherwise.

The term “Fountainheading” is my own device that helps me remember the kind of posture to take—treading that contradictory line between projecting confidence and designing for a protean world.

Ultimately, clients want you to have the singular answer. They don’t want that endless world of possibilities. They want answers, permanence, and, to some extent, they want Howard Rourke.

My discussion at WebVisions will be centered around this rather nebulous topic, but hopefully made less so by some examples from my own experience.

Digital Web: How can design on the Web be pushed to the next level?

JF: I’ve always believed that a user can handle more than most of us give them credit for. There’s a rather addictive, fear-based mindset that pulls adamantly the other way, but they were wrong when the internet started and they are wrong now. For the most part, that fear isn’t coming from the interactive professionals, it’s coming from the client.

Still, scapegoating the client won’t get you anything. I believe it’s the client’s job to be cautious, to question and challenge you. It’s your job, using whatever means, to trump their fears with reasoning, with examples, and with a confidence that will ultimately lead them to conceive of something outside their own experience.

This is another aspect of the process I will be speaking to.

Digital Web: What are a few of the sites that you think are using the medium to its best potential, design-wise?

JF: www.schmidtfoto.de is lovely. I came to it as an art director looking for a photographer, not as a design review or anything. It’s one of those sites where all factors are composed as one—tech, graphic design, functionality, etc. I love it, especially the way you can create your own lightbox and send it to a friend. The navigation is a little obtuse, I guess. Of course, creating a beautiful, compelling photographer’s site using Flash is fairly easy compared to other design challenges out there. Still, I like it.

www.bethorton.mu—I wrote a piece for Communication Arts recently on Beth Orton’s site, which I also found very compelling.

www.thebanmappingproject.com—this is one of the great interactive achievements, ever.

Digital Web: What are the biggest hindrances to the evolution of design online?

JF: I think the lack of money out there right now has killed some of the gusto in clients, and designers as well.

Money, or even the promise of money, fueled the innovation and creative thinking that we saw boom over the last few years. I think that is an American phenomenon actually.

I was a judge for Flash Forward San Francisco and New York this year and while the work was very good, it seemed to lack the thrust it once had. I was also a judge for Flash in the Can, a Canadian festival. For me the work there had a leg up on Flash Forward, to be honest.

I also was involved with Shift magazine out of Japan a little bit and spent some time with a lot of Japanese design. Of course, Japanese design is always great but it felt more inspired than what we see coming out of the States and that wasn’t always the case.

One positive note though: I think technical types are taking the creative lead in some way which is very cool. I had the chance to work with some great programmers this year—Sam Wan, Beau Ambur, and some big brains at Macromedia. These people are fuel injected and it’s great to be around that energy. Likewise, check out the gotoandplay.net mailing list here in Portland and you’ll find the same level of intensity and brain power—it’s infectious.

Digital Web: Once a design-rich project has begun, how can designers ensure all the pieces come together as expected?

Stay with it, never hand it off, and be involved in production as much as possible. Chances are your design is not air tight. By being involved in production, it’s a way to extend your time with your prototype, nipping and tucking as you go. It’s essential!

Also learn to design for chaos—embrace change. Learn to create structures that bend and adapt to reality. This is our prime areas of focus at deepPlay now. How do we own the experience and create singularity but maintain and even celebrate flexibility? That’s the challenge.

Digital Web: To today’s (or tomorrow’s) Web designers, what three pieces of advice would you offer?

JF:

  1. Know what good is. Realize it’s not your technique that makes you valuable, it’s the quality and vitality of your choices. Most anyone can learn technique I believe, especially when it’s all digital. But your own sensibilities and how you can execute and apply them to a non-self directed scenario is key.
  2. Don’t let your clients define your site architecture. Big mistake! Information design is probably the most important aspect of your work, and without a well-crafted, user friendly info design, nothing you do will really help that much. Work with a writer, conceive it together. Your client may know their client better than you, but they don’t necessarily know how to communicate to that client. That’s why they hired you.
  3. Do good work fast. It’s the only way to survive. “Good” is not so hard to achieve, “fast and good” is very hard.

Digital Web: Is there anything you’d like to add?

JF: I’m a cowboy, self-taught all the way. I justify the way I think and what I profess to know based upon what has helped me survive and maintain in this quirky, ill-defined field of endeavor. Clients come to me to get really strong visual ideas, image sites with big design and technology gestures. The Web is many things. What I am talking about represents what it took to achieve the work I have been apart of, which is just a piece of the whole. I would love to take on Amazon’s UI, or apply a Tuftesque solution to a giant datagrid, but I doubt those calls will ever come.

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Craig Saila has been working the Web since 1996, and is now a Web producer for Bell Globemedia’s financial sites, including Globeinvestor. He’s worked in the past with the Ontario Science Centre’s Digital Media Publications group, and as an associate producer at one of Canada’s biggest news sites, CANOE. Throughout his work, he’s divided his time between client-side development and online journalism—dual interests which are apparent at his site, saila.com.

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