Simon Collison Interview

Simon Collison Interview

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In: Interviews

By Carolyn Wood

Published on December 4, 2006

Digital Web: Your book, Beginning CSS Web Development, was published a few months ago. It strikes me as being a bit more personal than the usual textbook, and not strictly for beginners. What were your goals for the book?

Simon Collison: On reflection, it does appear to be a personal account of one man’s battle to wrestle CSS into submission, but that wasn’t the intention. It was probably the only way I could do it. The book seeks to not only cover all the important groundwork and multitudinous approaches, but also highlight some of the more confusing aspects of CSS. In numerous places, the text gathers everyone around, makes them hold hands, and asks all to declare that they are designers, and they, too, have a problem. It’s an honest book, and it is the book I wish I’d had when I began to work with CSS. I think you yourself described it as like “looking over my shoulder as I work,” and I’m happy with that, even if, when reading it, you might smell the cigarette smoke, cold tea, and the faint whiff of perspiration on my brow.

It had to be lighthearted, too, because, for me, most tech books are about as engaging as a Phil Collins album. This is why you get lots of reminders to make some tea or do something real, for a while, between chapters.

The reviews so far have exceeded my wildest expectations, so I’m happy that it is fulfilling its role.

DW: Can you describe your design process to us?

SC: For me, it is a very organic process. I think I benefit from my lack of design training and a grounding in visual art in this regard, because I basically just go for it. I know I can make something good, and so long as I understand the point of the site and have enough clarity from the client, and do enough research and sketches, I’m pretty much over the worst of the build before I stop to think. For me, a mock-up is a hindrance if it is too well developed, as I like to build organically, making decisions about visual design as I go along.

Typically, I’ll have Photoshop, Transmit, TextEdit, and Safari open at the same time, frantically swapping sketchy background images in and out, slowly building up a loose design around a pre-defined grid. In fact, the grid is probably the only thing that stays constant, and the semblance of order underpinning a design is extremely important to me. Towards the end, I’ll do a typographic pass, where I think only about text, specifically fine-tuning line-height, emphasis, and trying out numerous fonts across seven or eight browsers with varying settings (such as ClearType on and off on PCs).

If I’m in charge of mock-ups, I’ll provide the client with two or three sub-par blocky mock-ups—little more than wireframes—to get sign-off for some basic ideas, as this leaves me plenty of freedom. The risk is that the client is underwhelmed early on, but this leaves oodles of space to wow them with the final product. If left to their own devices, they’ll demand all sorts of whirligigs and whistles. I have been known to completely ignore a client’s demands and do it my way anyway, as invariably they won’t even notice. I do try and get them to simplify their vision of what the website will be, and try to get them to launch with less, but initiate a plan for progression. I should add that on many occasions the client can really inspire me, and make me think differently about what I do, and I do enjoy listening to alternative points of view.

DW: You were once a fine artist—a painter. What is your educational background and what sort of work did you do?

SC: I went to art school in the early 90’s and did a three year degree learning how to get away with staying in bed all day and drinking all night, which was useful. In my final year, the tutors said I’d never get a solo exhibition in the real world, so I went back to my hovel and wrote letters to every gallery in the country, and secured several major exhibitions in my first twelve months. The bulk of my work was large, abstract canvasses, but I also made installations, prints, books, and weird sculptures—all based around walking through landscape, thinking about geology and earth history, with a very personal twang. I even lived out in Iceland and had a studio in the middle of a five-thousand-year-old lava field. Feedback was good, and I had reviews in some of the national newspapers, but there was no money in it. I eventually bought a computer and set up an arts organization to promote young artists, which led to two city-wide festivals—and I even got to book Belle and Sebastian for a launch gig. This was all very exciting, but still no money. Anyway, the arts org website took off and I found myself spending more and more time tweaking HTML.

DW: How is the process different for you when you design a site and when you start a painting?

SC: It is a cleaner process, that’s for sure. Throughout the nineties I would walk around looking like a palette—my clothes caked in oil paint, stinking of turpentine.

Designing and developing websites is similar in that painting would also keep me up through the night and get under my skin. If a design is developing at great speed, and I’m excited by it, I can’t see the point of going to bed—or spending two hours cooking—I just have to keep going until my eyes bleed. Painting is all about knowing when to stop, and that is just one of the skills I’ve hopefully retained in my web designs.

I’m not a fan of the agency production line, where one person creates mock-ups, another creates content, someone else does the CSS, etc. To me, that is very limiting for the individuals concerned, and can result in formulaic output.

There is something about the ordering of information and the importance of meaning in websites that interests me now. The bottom line is that art in the traditional sense appeals to very few people, and it doesn’t really serve any purpose in my experience. Making art feels like pissing into the sea. Design, on the other hand, solves problems or enhances experience, and web design just feels more gratifying, more useful, and less elitist. More like pissing into a teacup than into the sea.

DW: When you started at Agenzia, where you worked until recently, you knew very little, didn’t you? What should employers really be looking for in potential employees?

SC: I will always be indebted to Agenzia—always. They knew that I was not a trained designer, and knew that I had only been playing with HTML, but they were very smart. They identified my desire to move on from art and my new-found interest in serious design, but most importantly they saw that I was a quick and enthusiastic learner. That first year was incredibly hard work, but by the end of it I’d built a website for what was—at the time—the UK’s hottest rock-and-roll band. With CSS, I might add.

DW: Do you usually do just about everything when creating a website?

SC: I do end up doing just about everything, especially in my new role—as we are only just building a team. I’d much rather be messing with Photoshop or Fireworks than stuck in a PHP/MySQL interface, but needs must. A typical day for me involves content management system scoping (and hacking if necessary), front-end compositioning and Photoshop work, and any spare moment is spent in Basecamp or on the phone. If I’m lucky, I’ll be out in the field somewhere, but mostly I’m spread very thin.

The thing is, there is a great sense of pride in knowing that you sourced the client, ran the design workshop, built the back-end, designed the front-end, ran the training and testing, and launched the thing. Nothing justifies a serious night on the beer more than that kind of launch.

DW: You ran a magazine for artists called You Are Here (YAH). You haven’t been writing about art lately, but you do write about music, such as your Music Monthlies on your blog.

SC: I have no desire to write about visual art any more. I get my inspiration from film, books, posters, and wider culture. Ultimately, music is the thing. Good music can whisk me out of a stupor and seriously inspire me visually. I always liked the idea of art to listen to, and music to look at. During a particularly awful pub conversation, I was once asked if I’d rather lose my eyesight or my hearing. “Neither,” was of course my first answer, but forced, I said my eyesight. Considering what I do for a living, that reply is not necessarily obvious, but without music (and conversation) I’d be at a loss to see the point of anything. Life has to have a soundtrack.

DW: You used to do reviews for Stylegala. What are your thoughts on the criticism and comments at CSS galleries and showcases?

SC: Trolls who comment on showcase sites can really cut you deep with their feedback. I’m all for constructive criticism as the reviewer, but most often the comments were extremely unfair towards the designers, and I didn’t like that at all. It reached a stage where I couldn’t even review a site by a Brit for fear of getting flamed with accusations of a secret gentleman’s club. Sure, the strength of our community is in the sharing and the fact that we are all learning and exploring together, but the jealous, bored, and vindictive members of online communities really turn me off the whole thing.

DW: You are a proud member of the Brit Pack. Can you reveal anything about their inner workings?

SC: We just happen to know each other very well, so we would meet up quite a lot. We don’t do anything special, and we are not cooking up any schemes, but we do converse on our mailing list every day—mostly Ian Lloyd asking questions that he really should Google.

DW: You have been scanning your journal/sketchbooks and putting them online for awhile now, or as I believe you put it, “putting my entire life online.” Why?

SC: It is a fear of my house burning down, to be honest. I like to keep secrets, and there are hundreds of things that will never be scanned in, but certain things, such as my sketchbooks are irreplaceable to me. I treasure my memories and my thoughts from particular stages of my life, so to lose all of those would be disastrous. Thing is, I started with the sketchbooks, and now I’m too busy to carry on scanning. So long as I’m careful with matches I’ll be alright.

DW: Andy Clarke said recently that what always impressed him about sites designed by you is that you don’t limit yourself to the normal CSS layout conventions. What are some sites you’ve created that you think stepped outside of the normal boxes?

SC: He’s a nice man, isn’t he? I have a photo of him coming out of a sex shop in Nottingham, you know? Anyway, I admire Andy’s approach greatly. He, too, has an art background, so we do share many ideas and methodologies. For me, web standards are absolutely vital as a foundation, but there is also common sense, and I’m not afraid to put that first. Things like grids are really important, but I’m not going to let a column width stop me from positioning an element two thirds outside of it.

As for sites that follow these principles, I guess Poptones is the main one. My good friend and former colleague Jamie Craven designed that, though—I merely built it. I loved the fact that it split opinion, with people either loving or hating it. Many complained that it looked like a broken layout, which is what we were aiming for, so we appreciated that.

DW: You love illustration and illustrators, don’t you?

SC: It may stem from my friendship with illustrator extraordinaire Jon Burgerman, or maybe from my love of drawing; I’m not sure. I just think that some professional illustrators are incredibly inspiring, and I’m jealous of their freedom to simply create—without standards—and their ability to develop truly idiosyncratic imagery. There is also a sense that what they create is outside of reality—it is true escapism. It must be liberating to spend each and every day playing with pens. I remember pens. And paper…

DW: Which web design projects have been the most satisfying for you?

SC: Probably sites for record labels and bands—that is just such a thrill. The work I did with Agenzia for The Libertines, Poptones, and Dirty Pretty Things was hard, but friends and family actually understood what I was doing! I also get a real kick out of very visual projects such as Project Façade (now looking a little out of date) and the Jon Burgerman site. I also just launched a new site for illustrator Andrew Rae, who worked on BBC’s Monkey Dust animated series, and I loved doing that.

DW: You wrote the Expression Engine chapter of the book Blog Design Solutions. What is it about Expression Engine that makes it superior, in your opinion, to other blog solutions?

SC: BritPack: This is the bit where you all switch off. Come back in two minutes.

Sorry, but I have been evangelizing about EE for over two years, and it’s like selling freezers to Eskimos. A few of the Britpack are gradually getting it, and Mark Boulton and Veerle have really helped raise EE’s profile.

In a nutshell, it is the most extensible, feature-packed content management system on the market, and I’d be lost without it. I have tried the others, but they all had myriad problems that seemed totally at odds with what I wanted to do. EE, on the other hand, feels like an extension of my brain, and I can make it do whatever I want it to do. To newcomers, EE can seem a little strange, but a thorough read of the manual can clear things up, and the first job is to get to grips with how the user-defined template naming affects URLs. Most developers get that eureka moment after a few weeks of solid use, when they begin to realize just how extensible EE really is.

I think that the worst thing with EE is that it is still marketed as a blogging tool, when, in reality, it is so much more than that. The thing I love is that the EE team consults developers regularly, and with every build they seem to sprinkle more goodies in for serious developers.

DW: Can you tell us about your new partnership?

SC: In October 2006, I joined a very exciting company called Erskine, as a partner. Erskine itself is a regeneration practice, with a dynamic, exciting team of wizards working to improve local communities through all sorts of strategies. I have joined specifically to set up Erskine Design—a wonderful, brand new web design agency that stands on its own two feet, but has the benefit of the larger corporation behind it, so I have access to all sorts of resources that a typical agency wouldn’t have. It’s certainly a dream to be running my own agency, and I’m enjoying setting out all the guidelines and defining the principles of the agency. I also get to handpick the freelancers I want to work with, and I’m slowly building a trusted team to help with all the incoming projects.

I can’t talk about any forthcoming projects yet, although I can tease by saying that we’re currently rebuilding a very popular design and culture website that has been online since 2001, plus some other fat projects.

It’s also a chance to focus on ethical projects, as they extend the core principles of Erskine at large. I’m alluding to a responsibility for our environment and community—living an ethical lifestyle and being part of a shared desire to make things better, locally and globally.

DW: Of all the words you could have used to describe your new design firm, you chose responsible. Why?

SC: It’s a reaction to all of the agencies who still charge ridiculous amounts of money for outdated web design—I’m obviously talking about table-based layout and non-adoption of standards here. As a web standards advocate, I get so very annoyed that well-meaning site commissioners are getting ripped-off week in week out by cowboy agencies. However, I also believe that the terms web standards and accessibility are used too often as dangled carrots, when, in reality, the final output falls way short of what was promised. In the UK, we have a trading standards TV program called Watchdog, and I’m really hoping that there will be a web-design special soon. I’d love to see camera crews chasing certain individuals around Nottingham.

It’s time for the Lightning Round!

DW: App you use for creating markup?

SC: TextMate (I love the customizable bundles) or Safari for creating and editing templates in EE’s control panel, in combination with Saft plugin to open them in TextMate.

DW: What you want to learn next, if only you had the time?

SC: JavaScript, Ruby on Rails, and Django.

DW: Latest typefaces that you love?

SC: I recently got a load of fonts based on TV series from the eighties and am looking for an opportunity to use the Thundercats face.

DW: Favorite song sung by animals?

SC: If not anything by Super Furry Animals, then it has to be the kittens covering Elbow covering Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women outside a pub in Bolton. Glockenspiels will be big in 2007.

DW: With all your talk about tea and biscuits, we wonder: Is your home décor young hip artist/designer or little old British lady?

SC: Bit of both. My home office is very Ikea and has vibrant vertical painted stripes on two walls, whereas my lounge is darker, full of books, records, toys, plants…and cats.

DW: How long ago did you write, “’ll update this section shortly,” at the end of your About page?

SC: Early 2004. Shocking. Will update that now, Miss.

DW: Number of unread articles in your news reader?

SC: All of Andy Budd’s. Ha ha! No, not really. All of Andy Clarke’s.

DW: Article that made you famous?

SC: Ticked-off Visited Links. That was very cool in 2004. For five minutes.

DW: Where you do your best creative thinking?

SC: In the company of creative people, around a table with them, and lots of tea. Or the toilet. Or the pub.

DW: Best music to work by?

SC: New Order’s Technique, or maybe some obscure Sigur Ros stuff. I like Icelandic music as it is foreign, so the lyrics don’t trouble me when I’m thinking.

DW: Three illustrators whose work we should see?

SC: Andrew Rae, Jon Burgerman, and Richard May, assuming you already know about Kevin Cornell.

DW: Any up-and-coming designers you want us to know about?

SC: Yes, let’s dispense with the old guard, and promote a few designers who people might not know. I’ll go for Nick Toye, Gareth Rushgrove, and Steve P. Sharpe. Those three turn out consistently good work, and are nice British chaps, to boot. Brit Pack 2.0?

DW: Is this your lifework?

SC: No. When I’ve had enough, I shall train to be a forest ranger, as I desperately want my own jeep.

Related Topics: Client Management, Web Design, Web Standards

Simon Collison, author of Beginning CSS Web Development and other books, and active member of the Brit Pack, recently started Erskine Design— a full service web design and development agency, based in Nottingham. When prised away from the laptop, he can most likely be found in the pub or at a gig, waffling incessantly about good music, football, or biscuits.

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.