Designer In The Spotlight: Emily Lewis

Designer In The Spotlight: Emily Lewis

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Designer In The Spotlight

Designer In The Spotlight (DITS) is a weekly feature that I run every Sunday (or more) to help particular individuals in the design community get their name ‘out there’ and to educate the community as a whole. It is a series of questions that asks the designer about themselves and their job as a designer. If you would like to be featured in an upcoming DITS post fill out the form here.

1. Please tell us more about yourself, your background, education and what you do as a designer.

I’m a web designer. But I’m not one of those “web designers” who does stunning graphics and interfaces.

I consider those folks to be more of the visual/graphic designer ilk (and I wish I had an ounce of the skill those folks have with graphics and what is, essentially, art).

I design solutions. I design highly-usable and accessible web sites. I specialize in semantic and valid XHTML and CSS, as well as organic SEO (in large part due to the semantic XHTML).

The web designs I create focus on the user: good navigation, easy-to-find information, accessible to most (if not all) users regardless of their browser.

My education with regard to the web is mostly self-taught. I have a background in editing/writing and marketing, which certainly helps with the broader goal of “communication” via a web site.

But what I know about markup, presentation, behavior, accessibility and content is overwhelmingly self taught.

I did earn a certification in web design, but the program was a joke: no mention of standards or accessibility, very little focus on hand-coding, lots of wasted time and energy. However, the “piece of paper” seems to make a favorable impression on employers.

2. How long have you been designing and what made you become an artist / designer?

I have been working as a web professional since 1999 … almost 10 years (gasp!).

It started when I was working as Marketing Coordinator and my boss asked me to take a look at our company’s web site from a content perspective. As I used it, I realized how much it needed improvement, so I started teaching myself HTML in order to make the site more usable. The rest is history.

I didn’t really know I wanted to be a web designer. But I had always had an interest in print design and layout. I was editor-in-chief of both my high school and college yearbooks, and I loved presenting information in a visually pleasing and effective manner.

That led to work in marketing where I designed ads, newsletters and promotional campaigns.

At its core, though, I believe design is about communication and solving a problem. The web was just another medium I attempted to apply that belief.

And now I love it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

3. Where do you work and what is your daily routine?

I work from my home office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My employer is in Lanham, Maryland, so I’m a full-time telecommuter. And it is great.

Though I may not be the strongest in terms of visual creativity, my job is still creative. And I’m most creative and productive when it is on my own terms and schedule, which I can achieve by working at home.

I start weekdays (M-F) at 7am and usually work until 3pm. Sometimes it goes later if I’m in a particularly challenging project and “in the zone.” I also work on weekends on occasion, but this is at my own discretion.

During the course of a given day, though, I start my morning by catching up on email, Twitter and my Google Reader feeds. I spend about an hour/day reading my feeds and saving them to Delicious for future reference and sharing.

Then I dive into whatever project is on my plate. When I get “stuck” on something, I switch to something else or walk away from it. That break in flow is usually just what I need to move forward on any particular problem.

4. How did you market yourself in the beginning of your design career and how has that differed to how you market yourself now?

I never “marketed” myself in the beginning. To be honest, I barely “market” myself now.

At first, I would do logos and business cards for friends and family. Later, web sites for friends and family. That was all more word-of-mouth than anything … and my friends and family wanted to get a “good deal” on some design work.

Today, I mostly get freelance projects via word-of-mouth as well and leave it at that. I’m employed full-time, so I don’t really “need” the extra work.

However, today, I am actively trying to boost my exposure in the web design field. I’m in the middle of developing a new blog. I’ve been posting content since the beginning because I believe content dictates design.

But, as I post content, I’m still developing functionality (using ExpressionEngine and PHP), and I haven’t even begun to consider the visual design. It is very minimal, and it only renders “acceptably” in Firefox. The visual design will be the last step for this blog.

Also, in hopes of boosting my visibility as a web designer, I’ve become active on Twitter. And it has really worked. Not only have I made great local connections with other “web geeks,” but I’m (slowly but surely) getting some of the “gurus” in the field responding to me and, in some cases, following me.

Additionally, I’ve begun accepting speaking engagements in my local community. I truly believe in web standards, usability and accessibility, and I want to share my knowledge with others to help the industry get even better in those areas.

5. What are your tools of the trade? This could include hardware, software and traditional tools.

I have three computers: a MacBook (my favourite), a Dell laptop and a Dell PC. I need at least one PC and one Mac (or a Mac with Parallels and Windows) to do my job as a web designer effectively. It is a must to test on all browsers.

I have as many browsers as is possible with my current setup: Firefox (PC/Mac), Safari (PC/Mac), Camino, Opera (PC/Mac), IE6, IE7 … even the now defunct Netscape (PC/Mac). I hope to soon get some Linux browsers running on my Mac via Parallels.

My current coding program is Textmate, but I’ve used Dreamweaver in “code” mode for years.

I use Transmit for SFTP, but, again, used Dreamweaver’s FTP for many years.

I’m learning ExpressionEngine (CMS) right now. All my employer’s international sites are being developed using EE, and I’m using it for my own blog. This has encouraged me to pick up some PHP.

For graphics, mostly Fireworks, but Photoshop is always there if I need it, as is Illustrator.

For communication, GTalk (IM) and email is essential, and for project/task management 37signals’ Basecamp.

6. How do you manage the business side of design such as accounting, invoicing and bookkeeping?

Not really applicable, but on the few occasions that I do freelance work, I use a personal Basecamp   account for tracking tasks and time. I then extract information from this account to generate a Microsoft Excel based invoice.

7. Where do you get your inspiration and how do you keep up to date with what is happening in the industry?

As mentioned, I stay very up-to-date on my Google Reader feeds.

I subscribe to all the “guru’s” blogs (Jason Santa Maria, Jeffrey Zeldman, Eric Meyer, Molly Holzschlag, Dan Cederholm, Roger Johansson, Jeremy Keith, Dan Rubin, Jeff Croft, D. Keith Robinson … and many, many others).

And then I save relevant blogs/posts/articles to Delicious using a pretty extensive tagging system. I’m constantly referencing my Delicious account for tips, tricks and inspiration.

I also subscribe to the CSS/design gallery sites for visual inspiration … again, saving sites in Delicious that I find particularly interesting.

And then I try to attend at least one web conference a year. I always get inspired simply by being around other like-minded individuals.

I must also give credit to my boss: he encourages me to do research and try new things out. Without his support, I don’t think I would be where I am today as a designer.

He understands the way I work and when I get “blocked.” And he also pushes me to learn new technologies. He, alone, is a major inspiration for my work.

8. Can you please guide us through a typical project from start to finish.

1 ) “Virtually” meet with my boss to discuss the scope and requirements of the project. Both of us read and believe in 37signals’ “Getting Real” so we usually keep this to 30 minutes or less.

2 ) We create a new project in Basecamp, and add to-dos, milestones and messages (as needed) to track activity and progress.

3 ) If a visual design/mockup has already been created by a third-party, I go straight to step 4.

If I’m responsible for the visual design, I mock up 2-3 different designs/layouts in Fireworks. I share these with my boss and we collaboratively tweak until we have two solid designs we both feel are acceptable in terms of usability.

These are presented to the client (in many cases the marketing department of my employer) to approve. Once approved, I proceed to step 4.

4 ) I get started on markup, using the mockup and provided content as a guide to determine semantics and structure.

I focus on the most compact and clean XHTML possible (for better SEO and faster page loads). I make sure all the markup validates and it is accessible.

5 ) I start on basic CSS for layout and global typography. I also use a “reset.css.” I design CSS first in Firefox on my Mac.

6 ) I slice up the mock up as needed and start creating the more specific CSS to accommodate the mockup. I also create CSS for print views.

7 ) I validate all the CSS and again validate the markup, since there are usually instances of minor changes to markup as I develop CSS.

8 ) I test my CSS design on the rest of my browsers, including PC versions and IE. I then tweak the CSS as necessary to get consistent rendering across all the browsers.

9 ) I turn off images in all browsers and test to ensure the design is still functional without images. I also increase and decrease font sizes in all browsers to ensure the design scales.

10 ) If the design requires any behavior (JavaScript), I work directly with my boss, since this is not my strongest area of knowledge.

We primarily use the jQuery library, and my boss does most of the hands on work. I supply needed CSS and help test functionality with JS on and off (we both believe in unobtrusive behavior solutions).

11 ) Design next gets integrated, if necessary, with any backend (EE, PHP, ASP). This is either handled by my boss or my developer/programmer co-worker.

I provide testing once programming is in place, and then ensure markup still validates after any development has been done.

12 ) Project is handed over to the client for testing and review.

9. What are your top 3 websites / books and why?

A List Apart – A broad range of article topics that focus on standards and usability from some of the leaders in the industry. And a gorgeous site to boot.

Jason Santa Maria’s blog – He is one of the best designers out there … an amazing visual/graphic designer, and he has a great gift for information design and communication.

Jeremy Keith’s blog – Other than graphic design, my weakest area is behavior (JavaScript). Jeremy is one of the foremost developers in this area AND he focuses on standards and usability. His book DOM Scripting is amazing. Also, he always blogs about the various conferences he attends with great detail and examples; almost like being there yourself.

10. What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out?

Read, read, read what is out there, even if you don’t understand it all. Eventually, it will start to “click.”

And then, practice, practice, practice. Make your own site/portfolio/blog and implement the “cool” things you read about, even if it take hours to get it to work. You’ll never forget something you had to pull your hair out to get working.

Jacob: Thank you Emily for taking the time to fill out this interview! If you want to be featured as the next Designer In The Spotlight, fill out this form.

12 thoughts on “Designer In The Spotlight: Emily Lewis”

  1. Hola Jacob, realmente considero de gran ayuda estas entrevistas a profesionales con experiencia. Es importante transmitir el conocimiento aprendido a otros. Esto favorece la evolución de todos.

  2. Huh, one more time 🙂

    Very detailed interview and thanks for the tips! 🙂

    Interesting to hear, You specialize in pretty wide range from design, till css, javascript – my respect! 🙂

  3. Fantastic interview! Emily is one of the most amazing designers I’ve had the privilege of knowing. She has the sensibilities of both a programmer and designer which is an amazingly rare find in web developers. It’s great to see her exposure here as well as get a little peek into her thought and design process.

    I’ve learned a lot from her and her boss (and long time friend of mine), Ian, and it’s helped me guide my own projects. Both in what I write myself and in dealing with designers who don’t know as much as these two about the “right” way to do things.

  4. It’s great to hear from those that do the accessibility work that is sometimes overlooked. And it helps for me, as an aspiring web developer/designer, to know that my work with accessibility and css is as valuable as those that do digital art.

    Great article.

  5. You are a designer, Emily, who harkens back to the greats: Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Massimo Vignelli. They were concerned with usability, not how “pretty” their work was. If anything, your work is not distracting! Heh, read this ode to the Nutrition Label by Massimo Vignelli; I just keep coming back to it and recommending it to others because it reminds me what we really do, which isn’t, like you said, digital art.

    Your boss sounds so awesome! (*grumble* wish mine were like that)

  6. It’s always great to read about what life is like for a fellow designer, the part about the need for constant practicing rings especially true, as well as the part about using what you know to design your own site, I am always surprised by the number of designers who have a nice portfolio but a hideous (or non-existent) site (nice site by the way Emily!).

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