Veerle Pieters Interview
Published on July 24, 2006
Digital Web Magazine: Veerle, you’ve said that a designer’s own site must be “absolutely dripping with all of your design talent” and indeed, your blog received rave reviews and first prize in the Expression Engine Shootout’s Personal category. Were you surprised at the reaction, or did you know you’d nailed it? Is it difficult to stop tweaking the design?
Veerle Pieters: I had good hopes, because I had a really good feeling with this design. On the other hand, I didn’t have any idea how others who submitted entries were doing with their designs. The reactions and how well the new design was received by everybody blew my mind. Okay, I knew I would surprise some people because this new design is so different from my previous design—it shows much more of my true capabilities and creativity.
I try to keep the tweaking in the design stage only, before coding. I give the design stage the time it needs. It took me a month to decide I would go ahead with the current design. I didn’t change anything once I started coding. If you have a good feeling about your design, like I had with mine, then you don’t tweak anymore once the site is online—only minor things, like giving the text more contrast and adding a bit of space and padding.
DW: You chose not to include your blog in the main navigation of your business site, and you gave your blog its own identity. Why?
VP: Well, honestly, I have a new design ready for the business web site, but I’m not completely happy with it yet. Maybe it’s typical for a designer that you don’t get satisfied easily with your own work. It will be a different design if you compare it to my blog. I see them as two separate places on the web. Duoh! is the company, and my blog is about myself and sometimes my work, but it also contains personal information and I want to keep that separate. I am thinking of linking both sites better with each other so people will automatically mentally associate Veerle with Duoh! and vice versa, though.
DW: Do you start your process analytically, with sketches on paper or wireframes, or are your main initial concepts likely to come in a flash of inspiration?
VP: Actually both, although I don’t do much sketching when I work on the design for a web site. I sketch a lot for the design of a logo. In percentages, I would say that seventy-five percent comes purely from a flash of inspiration. Even though I see the total design vaguely in my head (placement of things, general style, etc.) the inspiration comes in stages. While I’m working in Photoshop starting with one part of the page, I suddenly see the next step very clearly in my mind. Then, when the next step is all set, I see the finishing.
DW: Was designing for yourself different from your usual experience?
VP: Totally different—designing for yourself means total freedom in colors and graphics, placement, etc. The only restriction is the medium. Even Expression Engine, the blog system I’m using, didn’t restrict me in any way—if the layout can be converted into a web page then you’re okay to integrate it. As for the process, I don’t think it differs much. You have to start with a grid and base your layout on that grid, leaving some room for creativity. In most cases, the outcome differs a bit from the initial grid. Oh, and another big difference is the timeline. You have the luxury of letting the design rest for about a week, or maybe two, to look back and see if you still like it. Clients don’t like that (laughs).
DW: You chose a very dark background for your blog. This calls for some extra care in choosing text, link, and heading colors. What thought went into your choices?
VP: Initially, my text did not have enough contrast, according to the WCAG recommendations. I use the Colour Contrast Analyser at Juicy Studio, which I heard about from Roger Johansson. I did a lot of experimenting to see which combination goes best on the background. I did a lot of experimenting for the choice of color for the background itself, as well. Black was too dark and too hard in contrast, plain dark grey was a bit too boring—not exciting, so I mixed green into it, and so forth. I used the hue and saturation a lot. Choosing the right background color was the most important thing. I was thinking about the fact that photos and illustrations would pop out nicely on this background.
DW: When you design a site for a client, do you do much research or testing?
VP: I do some basic research, but I don’t spend a lot of time on this. Most research goes into the company itself: who are they, what are their activities, who are their clients, etc. I also look at who their competitors are, but in a lot of cases my clients have already done this part, and they share this info with me. User testing isn’t done that often; at least, that’s my experience here in Belgium. So far, only one of my clients has done it.
DW: As a graphic designer, do you generally see information architecture as being part of your job? Do you ever bring someone onto your team specifically to do IA work?
VP: To be honest, I don’t really use this or any other fancy-sounding terms when I talk to the customer. For some of them, it’s already confusing enough, and I always try to keep the process as simple as possible. Also, smaller projects just don’t have the budget to hire an IA specialist, and so I do the IA myself. With bigger projects, my role might be to create the design, and the front-end developer might outline most of the structure and placement. I only correct where I think that certain things don’t fit in the design, based on my experience, my gut feeling, and sometimes some statistics or tracking studies. It is very rare for an IA specialist to be in on a project with me.
DW: Many have said that the web designer who does it all is a thing of the past, and the future will bring increasing specialization—which means, of course, larger teams. What is your experience with this?
Although I usually do the XHTML and CSS, sometimes I’m not asked to. In these cases, communication is very important for the final result. If you aren’t doing the XHTML and CSS yourself and you hand over your design or static templates and stop communicating at that point, chances are that the final result will not be as good—some things will not be as nicely styled, or even worse, will have no style at all. Some details or items that need extra design work will be skipped. It has a lot to do with passion for the job. I also don’t really believe in larger teams—it complicates things, and when you are big and heavy, you don’t maneuver very well.
DW: Do you have any advice for us about charging clients?
VP: I think the price you charge can be divided into two parts: talent and experience. They are both important, but I guess talent is the most important one. The more experience you get over the years, the faster and the more efficient your working process will become. If I look at the time I spend to convert a site into CSS-based web pages now, compared to two years ago, I spend only one-third of that time. There isn’t any magical formula to calculate your hourly rate. My advice would be don’t charge too low, just charge fair and definitely never exaggerate. I also use different rates for jobs that need to be done by yesterday and ones where I need to sacrifice what is left of my weekend, or fast-paying clients versus late-payers.
DW: You are viewed as one of the rock stars of the web standards design world. Do you find that the people who hire you now get design and respect the designer’s role, or do even you still need to justify your choices?
VP: I don’t know if I’m viewed as a rock star; it’s all pretty relative. I get a lot of clients who choose to work with me because of my style. This was already the case before I started my blog, but it has increased the last two years. These clients understand design better than the average client, and they respect my role more, too. If there is a disagreement, they often say, “OK, you’re the expert,” or they will specifically ask, “What do you think?”
This is less the case with projects that go ahead because we won an RFP. This situation is different; their choice to work with us is not purely based on my talent or style. In these cases, we might be chosen because we are the design partner in a project, where a certain developer was chosen first and they needed someone to handle the design. The developer might prefer us to a design agency because we focus on web-based design work. He may be concerned that a designer who doesn’t focus on web design will create something that isn’t feasible and is technically difficult to implement. Sometimes, the result can be that the development part of the job is more important than the design part—you can see that in the end by how they implement our designs. These cases are frustrating because I wonder if I should show the project in our portfolio when I see the errors and things that are looking bad.
DW: You are so honest about your design process. You express misgivings, name the sites that influence your designs, and reveal unsatisfactory iterations during your design process. You are equally honest in your comment sections (“When I was creating the site there were times that I wish I could ban the whole thing to hell but now I’m actually glad it’s done.”). Have you ever regretted your openness?
VP: I like to share my personal thoughts and process because I know that most people are curious about this part. After all, it’s a personal weblog. Honesty is important for me. I get a lot of compliments on my designs and it would be unfair to let people think you don’t make mistakes or to hide those mistakes. As with all things in life, you learn from your mistakes. I don’t think of sharing things that would affect my clients when I talk about my projects, like secret information. Or, if the developer I worked with did a lousy job, I just can’t post about it. I would very much like to do so and say, “See what they’ve done with the design?” But then you cross a certain line, and who knows what happens then? The sad part is that I could post such a thing often.
DW: You chose to write your blog in English and clearly are an international designer. Do you think there is anything uniquely Belgian or European in your approach to design?
VP: I’m not sure. You’ve got me wondering now. Can you tell from looking at my work that I’m from Europe, or even from Belgium? I honestly don’t think so. I think you can tell that my work was designed by a woman, although when I started blogging, everybody thought that the picture in my header was “some girl” or my girlfriend. One of my first international Internet clients (from the U.S., way back in 1997) asked if he could speak to my husband when I picked up the phone, so I knew there could be some confusion with my Dutch name.
What might have influenced me over the years is the work of René Magritte (known for “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” for example). He’s a Belgian artist. I’ve always loved his work, his style, his precision and eye for detail, and especially the illusion and fantasy in his work—really fascinating. I learned about his work in art history classes in school. This was before my degree to become a graphic designer, but he was one of the few modern artists that left an impression on me. I don’t know if in some way it has influenced my work, though—maybe in a way that I have a fascination for details. Details are always so important to me that I sometimes find it difficult just to draw an illustration with less detail just in a few lines to set the mood or general idea.
DW: Your company’s home page leaves no room for doubt; you “don’t serve tag soup.” Why did you choose to highlight that fact, rather than your expertise in visual design?
VP: In Belgium, that sets us apart from a lot of agencies who don’t care about web standards. There are agencies that care, but they are a minority. I just want to send out the message that we care about the code as much as the design itself. We do our work with passion; we are willing to go the extra mile. I realize that most clients won’t even know what I’m talking about. The next design will not have this approach, though. It’s just one of those stages where I thought, “Okay, let’s put this up as a banner.”
DW: What are some telltale signs that a web designer needs more design education?
VP: Those sites mostly lack finesse. You can tell from looking at certain details. For example, not enough breathing room and spacing, or the wrong use of colors. You get the feeling that everything is thrown on the page, or that things look rather unbalanced. You can tell if the person has an eye for design or has talent, or not. Talent can evolve; you can improve a lot by learning things, but the basic talent must be there. You either have it or you don’t. You can improve your talent, but you can’t create it if you don’t have it. If you don’t, well, it’s just pointless. For example, some people in my class were advised to leave the school and look for another direction.
DW: Many formally trained designers are also artists, but you clearly say that you aren’t. Yet, there are hints throughout your sites that you are an artist at heart. Can you give us some insight here?
VP: What is art, exactly? How would you define it? Is design—or graphic design in particular—an art? If so, than I am an artist. I just think of myself as a designer, a graphic designer, rather than an artist. An artist, for me, is more like a painter or a sculptor; someone whose work is less connected to the real world. I guess it depends on how broadly you interpret the words art and artist. Some might think that visionaries are artists.
DW: You say that your work is your hobby, too. How many hours a week do you think you spend on all web- and business-related activities?
VP: A lot—I think around sixty to sixty-five hours. I don’t have much time left for anything else besides that and sleeping, eating, and some shopping.
DW: Which aspects of your work do you find require courage?
VP: It’s weird to say about yourself that you’ve been courageous, but in some situations I need my courage. I can be nervous as hell, so then I need to grab my courage and try to relax telling myself, “I’ll be fine.” I’m talking about my two speaking engagements (@media and SXSW). Talking in front of a lot of people in another language than my own needs courage for me. I’m a rather shy person—at least before I get to know people—who prefers to hide herself instead of being in the spotlight.
DW: OK, now it’s time for the lightning round! Pronunciation of your first name?
VP: The pronunciation of the double e is very Dutch—as well as the r sound which differs totally from the English r or French r. It’s hard to explain since I can’t find any English word that has this sound. The double ee is somewhere between ea as in ear and ai as in air. I guess the easiest way for English speaking persons is to think about Veer and add the la at the end. I don’t really care if people don’t pronounce it correctly, although virl is a bit weird for me. I’ve made a recording so you can hear it yourself.
DW: Significant other?
VP: Geert, of course!
DW: Languages you know?
VP: Dutch (and some Flemish dialect), English, French, and German. But, the last two need some serious brushing up—although my French was not that bad when I was in Paris just a few weeks ago.
DW: Best music to work by?
VP: Lounge, chill house, and also deep house. Some favorites: Crazy Penis’s The Wicked is Music , CDs from Bruno from Ibiza (I interviewed him on my site), and The Timewriter. You can see all the music I play on last.fm as well.
DW: Latest typeface that you love?
VP: Chalet Paris 1980.
DW: A few favorite online artists and illustrators?
DW: Number of unread articles in your news reader?
VP: Hmm. I’m way behind: 345.
DW: Percentage of jobs where you meet clients face-to-face?
VP: I think that must be around twenty-five percent.
DW: Hope to learn next?
VP: DOM scripting (already in process) and microformats.
DW: Project that caused the greatest jump in your readership?
VP: The launch of my new blog and all the attention that came with it.
DW: Recent client work?
DW: Percentage of your brain that is a designer? A geek? A girl playing in Ibiza?
VP: Sixty-five percent designer, twenty percent geek, and fifteen percent girl playing in Ibiza—I wish the last percentage were a bit higher though.
Veerle Pieters is a graphic/web designer based in Deinze, Belgium. Her journal is a popular online source for topics ranging from XHTML/CSS to graphic design tips and personal impressions. Starting in 1992 as a freelance graphic designer under the name of Duoh!, Veerle worked on print oriented projects before moving into designing websites and user interfaces. In 2000 Veerle founded Duoh! n.v. together with Geert Leyseele. Drawing has always been her passion, together with listening to soulful funky jazzy chillhouse tunes and an inexplicable fascination for the Balearic isle Ibiza.
Carolyn Wood of pixelingo is a web designer, copywriter, content strategist, and the Editor in Chief of Digital Web Magazine. Her long list of loves includes the web, design, storytelling, and making lists. If you meet her, ask her to tell you the story about the midwife and the bank robber.