Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in the web design industry?
I started my career at a small agency back in ’97, as a ‘trainee web designer’. I didn’t even know what web design was then to be honest, but was desperate to get into a design related position. Seems incomparable to today, I remember we had one machine connected to the internet via a 28k modem! This is also where I met David Hughes, when he was working for Psion Dacom, a client of ours at the time. We worked quite closely on a number of projects and always had a good understanding. We went onto become good friends and still work together today on many projects, not just MK Geek Night. I eventually went on to start my own studio, Pixel Creation, in 2003. I’ve never really had ambitions to grow it into a bigger agency, I enjoy being in control and the personal one-to-one experience I can give my clients, who often have become friends.
What inspired you to start MK Geek Night?
I’ve been attending web/design related conferences for a few years now and really enjoy the education, inspiration and social elements. I also started attending the Oxford Geek Night a while back and simply thought, “Milton Keynes (my hometown) needs something like this”. It was initially just going to be a casual meet-up, which soon snowballed into a “mini conference” format. David and I have been really lucky and humbled to have such fantastic people speak, attend and support us so far, we’ve been blown away! David still claims that I never officially asked him to become co-organiser of MKGN, but it may have been over a few beers.
What advice would you give to someone looking to arrange a conference or talk for the first time?
Firstly, make sure there is a requirement, or you have something different to offer. There’s a lot of conferences and meet-ups around these days, but they’re mostly centred around the bigger cities, especially London. You must be prepared to ask and hassle companies for sponsorship, but make sure it’s clear what you can offer in return. Make sure you have the time, it can eat up an awful lot. Try and source a good venue, taking into consideration things like location, transport and vibe – there’s a lot of soulless hotels and function rooms out there! This was one of our biggest challenges and took quite some time to find the right place.
You appear to be very passionate about responsive design. Can you explain a little bit what it is, and why you think it is so important?
Ethan Marcotte’s Responsive Web Design article on A List Apart was a game changer for me. To give a VERY brief overview: Users no longer just use desktop browsers to view websites and browse the web. They now already use a variety of different devices such as; Smartphones, TVs, tablets etc. A responsive website can automatically tailor the page layout to best suit the users viewing device. Thus giving them the best and most seamless experience. Clients in general will also often ask for a “mobile”, or “iPad enabled site”. This is already becoming unwieldily and impossible as we’re seeing new devices and resolutions appearing constantly. It makes so much more sense to design and produce more contextually-aware, flexible experiences.
Is responsive design a realistic ambition for every website?
For Pixel Creation, yes. Sure, there maybe some exceptions where client sites have little traffic from anything other than desktops, but this seems to be fairly rare in my experience. Unfortunately, the biggest restraint I’ve come across more than once is budget. It simply takes a significant amount of time (easily up to 50% in my experience) to design and develop responsive websites properly. I no longer generally offer it as an option, just explain it’s benefits to the client (if they don’t already know) and then just include it as part of my overall costings.
Where would you recommend people go to read more about responsive design?
Certainly Ethan Marcotte’s seminal article about responsive web design: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/responsive-web-design/ and his book on the subject is a great introduction: http://www.abookapart.com/products/responsive-web-design Brad Frost has been publishing some great articles on his blog, like: http://bradfrostweb.com/blog/web/responsive-web-design-missing-the-point/ plus this really useful collection of patterns and modules for responsive designs: http://bradfrost.github.com/this-is-responsive/patterns.html If you’re on Twitter, then I’d really recommend following @RWD (Ethan’s specific responsive account), @brad_frost and @scottjehl.
What do you enjoy most about running your own agency, and what are the biggest challenges?
The freedom is great. Both in the way I can work and the projects I can work on. If I’m too busy and the weather’s okay, I might pop out for a nice ride on the bike (I’ve got a tad into road cycling lately!). I’m also lucky to have a very nice office space, where the music and coffee is good, and I have some great views across the countryside towards Silverstone, all with a 15 metre commute! This is something that I shouldn’t, but often take for granted. Being a very small studio, cashflow is often not my friend, which is probably also related to lack of discipline. I’m not talking about time in the office, but I’m often guilty of spending far too long on projects, way beyond project budgets.
How have you seen the industry develop over the past couple of years in response to the economic slowdown?
For Pixel Creation, it hasn’t changed much. There’s been some busy and quiet periods as always. It does feel though that in the community, there are more people trying to start their own business ventures and not be so reliant on client work.
You also offer email marketing services. What are your top tips for running a successful email campaign?
Most importantly, don’t spam! I personally only work with very clean user data, acquired correctly, which will massively help the open/click rate. If there’s an opportunity to do A/B split testing, then this can really make a difference. Just altering the email subject slightly can make a huge increase or decrease on the open rate.
What are the key tools of your trade you couldn’t live without (and why)?
I love my MacBook Pro, though I’d potentially consider swapping that for another lovely Apple product. For me, they just work, and generally work well. I’m also very excited to see what Jony Ive’s does with the software, now he’s responsible for that too. I hoping he loses Apple’s awful trend with skeumorphism! In the past I would have probably also said Photoshop. I do still use it, but I’m prototyping and designing in the browser much sooner. With elements like responsive design and web typography, a flat image is no longer representative.