Joe Gillespie

Joe Gillespie

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In: Interviews

By Dave Linabury

Published on April 6, 2005

Digital Web: You’ve been on the Web since ’93. That’s nearly 50 cat years. Coming as I do, from the fascinating and scrupulously honest world of advertising, what about the Web kept your interest for so many years?

Joe Gillespie: I too came from the world of advertising (though it doesn’t sound like the same one). Fascinating, yes; scrupulously honest—well, the word “honesty” has many meanings to different people. I worked on cigarettes, and Benson and Hedges in particular, for many years. I could only justify that to myself then by saying that I was only making smokers switch brands. Today, if I were still doing it, I’d be just doing the typography for health warnings.

Web design is like a rollercoaster ride—breathtaking, exhilarating and always with that element of danger. It was a wild ride, and I didn’t always wear a safety belt. But there comes a time when you realise that the next browser crash could be your last.

DW: You must surely remember the early days of the Mosaic browser, when watching a 200k GIF unveil itself like a stripper on codeine was a thing to behold?

JG: I have never used a 200k GIF file, even recently. I have always tried to stick to 50k total page size. It has crept up slightly of late, but I have always been very conservative where bandwidth is concerned. When I used Mosaic, my modem was a 1200/75 Hayes. When there was nothing to compare it with back then, the speed seemed quite reasonable.

DW: Describe your early work for the Evil Empi— Microsoft Corporation:

JG: Almost all my multimedia and Web work in the ’90s was down to a very close-knit set of people and circumstances centering on Apple UK. Clients would move to other companies or have friends in them and one job just lead to another. One of my main contacts at Apple “moved over to the dark side” and asked me to get involved in MSN in 1994, just before Windows ’95 came out. The two things were going to be launched together.

At first, MSN was going to be a competitor to the Web. People were going to have to pay to publish (in a proprietary format) and to surf it. The whole thing hinged around getting publishers (read: big companies) on board to ply their wares. Unfortunately, the tools required to build these pages were difficult to use and, being in alpha or beta states, not very stable. I had been working hand-in-hand with programmers for Apple’s Newton PDA, which also needed low-level programming to get anywhere, so producing content for MSN wasn’t a big deal. I did the graphics and someone else assembled the images, in C++, into a multimedia experience. It worked, and I was very happy with the British Grand Prix ’95 site that was produced to show off the possibilities.

I was asked to give stand-up talks to hundreds of IT specialists (or DP managers as they were often called in those days). They were from companies and corporations and it was my job to explain the rights and wrongs of putting online pages together from a graphic design and marketing point of view. This was long before advertising and design people got involved in online publishing but if you leave a techie in charge of publishing company pages, it will, at best, look like a technical manual but more often than not, a catalogue of tasteless, meaningless, whiz-bang programming effects. I guess that hasn’t part changed much.

Anyway, my experience of working with Microsoft was that they were highly professional people with a mission—it just wasn’t the right one, as history has shown. Compared to the original MSN, the Web was relatively free and easy!

DW: You bagged some great clients, such as Canon and Apple, early on. How did that feel, being the envy of the übergeeks?

JG: I was never in competition with übergeeks. I was someone with a master’s degree in design and a successful career in advertising behind me. I changed lanes. My previous (advertising) clients were of equal caliber. I had worked for Garland Compton (which became Saatchi and Saatchi), Raymond Loewy and was a senior designer at J Walter Thompson. I eventually had my own creative consultancy partnership with major blue-chip clients—mostly in the food industry.

Other people in the multimedia business tended to be technically biased. Everything I did was built on sound marketing principles and creative execution to major ad agency standards. I wrote the briefs and the copy, and had that all approved and signed off before starting on the eye candy bits. I was working with marketing people and speaking their language. I don’t know of anybody else that could do that—certainly not a one-man-band.

DW: What would you consider your greatest claim to fame? The Mini 7 font, or that time you beat Jakob Nielsen at arm wrestling?

JG: Actually, I had an email from Jakob Nielsen a few years back. I was almost afraid to open it because I don’t exactly see eye-to-eye with all his preachings and expected to be taken to task. As with any ad campaign, a Web site is targeted at a particular audience. If you are discussing visual issues and graphic design in particular, some of the accessibility issues that hold for a more general audience are less relevant. He was actually quite complimentary about and wished me success.

“Greatest claim to fame” is a difficult one. Mini 7 has been a runaway success but started off as a solution to a problem—how to get a lot of text onto a HyperCard button. My very first client, when I moved over to multimedia, was VideoLogic. They made video cards and wonderful electronics trickery that put live video into a window on a Mac or PC screen from a laser disk or videotape. I produced all the in-box demos for the products and a graphical user interface to make it easy for users to produce fades, wipes and all the fancy stuff that had never been seen on a computer before. My program wrote all the scripts necessary to do all these things in Apple’s HyperCard, Asymetrix ToolBook, Macromind Director and AuthorWare. VideoLogic’s DVA 4000 was a great product (in the mid ’90s) and would still put a lot of modern live motion stuff to shame.

As far as Google is concerned, Web Page Design for Designers is my greatest claim to fame. Everything before that was local to the UK—my design and art directors awards, my Institute of Practitioners in Advertising medal and various packaging awards. Unless you were at the award ceremonies, you wouldn’t know about them.

My personal “moment of glory” was having a piece of my work hung in an art exhibition in the Louvre in Paris way back in 1970. That was a huge step for me.

DW: The Mini fonts, in particular the early Webicons sets, remind me of the early Macintosh system icons. Did you ever create icons for Apple? More importantly, does Steve Jobs really wear black turtlenecks every day?

JG: Yes, I did lots of icons for Apple in the early days, both for the Mac and for the Newton. I also produced a typeable, anti-aliased version of the Apple Garamond font for them that could be used in Director and Aldus Persuasion (pre-PowerPoint) presentations. Prior to Mac System 7, and the PowerPC architecture, the Mac supported 256-colour bitmap fonts.

I don’t know what Steve Jobs wears on his days off (maybe a suit and tie?) but I haven’t ever seen him in anything else. I have never met him but I was introduced to John Sculley once at an Apple party in London.

DW: You were one of the early adopters of CSS, while warning us of its shoddy support (at the time). In fact, you were a pioneer of many Web movements and trends, including using “kewl” in 1998. Tell us about some other things you pioneered.

JG: Between leaving school and going to art college, I worked for a local architect for three years. At the ripe old age of 17, I invented a system for constructing factory-built houses involving a fiendishly simple section of timber assembled into various modules. It was used for several housing developments. I got a pat on the head and felt very proud.

When I was at the Royal College of Art in the late ’60s, I got my first taste for computer graphics. The college had a hush-hush mainframe system used to explore the possibilities of 3D undersea maps for submarine navigation. As a sideline, it could also produce ASCII art and this caught my imagination. I did an ASCII art rendition of the Mona Lisa and a short animation sequence with a little technical help, and that got me hooked.

In 1981, I got my own first computer—a Sinclair ZX81 with 1k of memory, later expanded to 16k—and started writing games and selling them. I was able to get graphics out of those little machines that other people couldn’t thanks to my previous ASCII art experience. When the Sinclair Spectrum came along, I wrote a graphics program in Z80 assembler. I initially called it PaintBox but got a cease-and-desist notice from Quantel, which was so ridiculous considering that my product cost five pounds and theirs a hundred thousand. So, I added a few more features, changed the name to Paint Plus and produced a companion product called Screen Machine that did run-length compression and animation. Along with some of my games, the graphics program sold extremely well, allowing me to buy an incredibly expensive Apple Macintosh computer—one of the first ones to hit England.

The first graphic design job I did with that Mac in 1984 was the labelling for Frank Cooper’s marmalade. The designs are still around today with very little changed. The only software available at that time was MacPaint and MacWrite and that’s what I used to create the designs. The output from an Apple ImageWriter dot matrix printer was not good enough for final artwork—it had to be redone using traditional methods.

When Mac Pascal came out in 1985, I produced a little program to make color slides called AV Slidemaker. The Mac’s little nine-inch black-and-white screen was very crisp and by photographing it through a set of RGB colour filters, you could make excellent colour slides. My program controlled the exposure times for the three filters. It was the first colour output from a Mac.

At the end of the ’80s, I left the world of advertising, sold my share of the company to my partner and bought two Macs IIs, a video editing suite and all the state-of-the art multimedia hardware and software available at the time. Then I began to explore the possibilities in earnest.

Six months later, I was in the thick of it, working with VideoLogic, Apple and Macromind, and was really pushing the envelope at the time. I had developed a way of doing colored animation with HyperCard—basically a black-and-white program—that involved moving a big 8-bit color image behind a small viewport very quickly. I have recently used the same technique in conjunction with CSS background images to create Film-strip rollovers and animation, and I’ve now used it extensively at HDRI-Studio to animate JPEGs.

Macromind’s forerunner to Director was something called VideoWorks which was like MacPaint with added animation. When they decided to extend it to make it truly interactive with Lingo scripting, it became VideoWorks Interactive but was never publicly released as far as I know. So, I was using Director before it was released and Director became my mainstay for quite a few years to come.

When Apple was ready to launch the Newton, they asked me to help put together a very ambitious showpiece, the Time Out Guide to London, which, amongst other amazing artificial intelligence magic, included a fully interactive and zoomable map of the London Underground—in black and white! I did all the GUI stuff, the icons and graphics. Then we did the complete quarterly Apple product catalogue in Newton format, which lead me in two other directions. One was a Newton-based sales aid for Canon and the other was what became the first Web-based daily newspaper and my first venture into HTML.

DW: What country, if any, is producing the most intriguing or progressive design in your opinion?

JG: My philosophy about design is that design is only as good as the thinking behind it. I’m a conceptualist, not a stylist. I think that styles can be progressive looking, technologies can be progressive but the thinking behind it is fairly timeless. I would much rather see a well-executed, simple idea—a visual pun or mentally provocative image—than all the clichéd Japanese visual pyrotechnics. Surface design doesn’t interest me particularly. I think that any visual statement has to communicate at multiple levels intellectually and emotively and there is no country with a monopoly in that area.

DW: You’ve compared strong Web designers to Shaker cabinet makers. What type of furniture do you think you’ve produced?

JG: Shaker furniture is renown for its craftsmanship and simplicity but even more than that, I admire its for its honesty. Personally, I dislike ornament, overstyling and design for design’s sake because they are fundamentally pretentious and dishonest. On one hand, you couldn’t call Shaker furniture progressive, but isn’t traditional in the wider sense. Having said all that, I don’t own, or intend to buy, any Shaker furniture—it’s pretty rare in England anyway apart from the totally phoney Shaker-style kitchens that went in and out of fashion a couple of years ago. My house has very little furniture in it and I would prefer to have even less if I could get away with it. My kitchen is hi-tech German, white on white on white. Everything else is fairly minimalistic. I guess that sums up my work too—don’t put anything there if it’s not needed.

DW: So now that you’re retired, are you going to sit on your porch with a laptop and tell youngsters about how hard the Web was when you were younger? How you had to code uphill in the snow?

JG: No, my retirement is not what most people would associate with the word. This is another changing of lanes rather than a slowing down. My next venture is related to things I’ve done before and involves a fusion of art and electronics. Electronics is another of my passions and predates my computer work. In the ’60s I was designing guitars and amplifiers. In the ’70s I was building voltage-controlled synthesisers and robots. Now, there are programmable microchips called PICs that cost about $2 each that can be made to do just about anything with a few lines of code—control motors, flash lights, generate sounds. I’m going to be doing multimedia fine art from here on in and there will be no clients, no W3C and no holds barred. I’ll be using canvas and acrylics as a base, but adding some little surprises—like embedded LCD screens and maybe a broadband connection. I can’t say much more than that at the minute other than it’s new territory and that’s where I like to be.

Related Topics: Web Guru, Typography, Web Design

Joe Gillespie is a graphic designer specialising in new media and is based in London, UK. From 1996 to 2005 he published Web Page Design for Designers, a site dedicated to the more creative aspects of Web design. He also designs screen fonts such as the classic MINI 7

Dave Linabury a.k.a. Davezilla has written articles for A List Apart and been a featured speaker at SXSW. He is an information architect for Campbell-Ewald Advertising and really hates cold coffee. His blog,, has garnered him a fair amount of attention in the media, and an equal amount of trouble. Recently his Manly Tips for Bachelor Living was made into a 2005 desk calendar.