Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain

16 comments | Posted: 12 December 08 in Interviews, by Nathan Smith

One of my personal design heroes is Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain of the design studio 31three. He is quite well known for his engaging site redesigns of ExpressionEngine, Campaign Monitor and The City Church. Often copied by lesser imitators, he continually raises the bar on quality. I am honored that he decided to share his vocational path and spiritual testimony with us.


Earlier this year, you shared the story behind the name 31Three. If you would, please share a bit more about the story behind Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain. How did you get your start in design?


When I was in high school, a close friend of mine named Ken Dyment was going to Ontario College of Art and Design for his Industrial Design degree and he would often invite me over to his place to help out when he had large projects. Whenever I was visiting, I would find myself drawn to his brand new Power Computing Apple clone, and even more so, to version 4 of Photoshop.

After high school, I was accepted to the same college as Ken, but when it came time to register, I just couldn’t do it. I had this uneasy feeling in my stomach that I couldn’t shake. Instead, I did a bit of traveling and work for Youth With a Mission. I spent the next six months in Colorado, Croatia and Bulgaria.

When I came home from that amazing experience, I decided to invest a lot of my time with a youth group at a local church and did that for a few years. While I was there, I got a chance to play around with Photoshop a bit more, creating advertising for youth events.

My advertising work somehow caught the eye of another church member who invited me to apply for a position at a local newspaper where he worked. I spent the next week frantically learning Quark and Illustrator, as well as some basic typography skills – Who knew 14 typefaces aren’t necessary in one ad? Thankfully, I ended up landing the position.

For the next three years I built newspaper ads on a daily basis and slowly started to pick up some design fundamentals by watching others around me and reading design magazines. I was able to make my way up the company a bit, not that it was a large one. I also started taking projects on the side.

Eventually, I felt I couldn’t juggle both my day job and my freelance work, and I decided to make a go of doing my own thing with 31Three. Thankfully, it worked out. The first few years were fairly rough going, but the last couple of years have made up for it: better hours, more pay, higher quality jobs.


Someone as talented and sought after as you could easily get a job in any design agency or web development shop. I’m curious as to why you choose to remain independent. Aside from being able to set your own hours, what else do you enjoy about being a freelancer? What are the drawbacks?


I don’t know that I could easily get a job anywhere, but thank you. The main thing I like about working for myself is being able to pick and choose which projects I would like to work on. After having that freedom for several years, I think it would be pretty tough to let it go. I really enjoy the business side of things too. Not so much the book keeping and operational stuff, but the strategy and vision involved in running a business.

Yet, one of the drawbacks I’ve been wrestling with lately, is how to continue to grow as a designer. I find that it’s easy to just keep picking the same types of projects rather than really challenging myself. I often wonder what it would be like to have some peers around, pushing me forward and challenging me to grow. I have that to a degree with my friends via iChat, but something tells me that it’d be more effective in person.


What does a typical day look like for you? How do you balance the administrative side of being self employed with doing the actual design work? Is it difficult running a business and doing the fun stuff, too?


I feel like I’m just starting to hit my stride in this area of the business. For the first few years, scheduling projects was the most frustrating part of running 31Three. I would often bite off more work than I could chew, and then spend my evenings and weekends working to make my deadlines. For the past year however, I’ve tried something a little different, and now book my time as a flat fee per month. I only take one project on at a time, which allows me to focus all of my energies on a single project. This style of scheduling has taken a lot of pressure off of me, as I’m no longer attempting to juggle a lot of projects, and has allowed me to focus on just getting to work and designing. A typical day for me involves a couple hours of email and RSS reading, the rest designing.


I know that you have worked closely with other talented designers such as Cameron Moll, who is fond of saying “Good Designers Copy, Great Designers Steal.” Are there other designers or schools of thought that have significantly influenced your personal style?


Cameron is a great friend and has had a huge influence on my sense of style. He’s mentored me both creatively and in my business. I can’t thank him enough, though I wouldn’t characterize his work as being based on the idea that “Great Designers Steal.” I think that was taken from a point he was making in an article. He’s certainly an original thinker and designer.

Before I met Cameron, there were two other designers from the newspaper that really affected my personal style: Michelle Sharp and Robert Woodhouse. Both are exceptionally clean designers who are really gifted at typography. Whenever I got stuck with a design problem I would ask myself “What would Michelle do in this situation?” Actually, I think the majority of my growth as a designer has come through asking that sort of question about great designers, and studying how they handle challenges.


I recall the dark days when your site was laid out with tables (so was mine). How have you found the transition to CSS? What words of encouragement would you offer to those who are trying to learn good web design techniques, while perhaps being taught something to the contrary in the classroom?


When I first got started in web design, I used a WYSIWIG program called Freeway. At the time, it was modeled after Quark Express. If not for something so easy to grasp, I don’t think I would have got into web design at all.

Back then, it produced some pretty nasty code (much improved now) but I was pretty oblivious because I had no idea what good code was. I even remember debating in forums that a web designer shouldn’t need to know HTML any more than a print designer needs to know Postscript. I thought I sounded pretty smart at the time.

To be honest, my initial motivation to learn about web standards was purely a business decision. I knew that my only chance of making it into a CSS gallery and getting some exposure for 31Three would be to have a site that validated.

One of the major hurdles I had to get over was the fear of having “standards zealots” look at my code and openly tear it apart on a forum or in gallery comments. The whole process of learning was fairly intimidating for me. I still remember the feeling of panic that I had when I found out that my site made it on to Stylegala. The first thing I thought was “They’re going to rip it apart!”

Fortunately, I got off pretty easy. Once I got over my fears, and some of the main concepts of markup started to click, I realized that web standards was more than a good business move. It was a better way to create sites.


You mentioned the name 31Three as being derived from Exodus 31:3. How would you say that your understanding of the Bible has helped to shape your life. Also, how did you come to faith in Christ?


Back in 11th grade art class, I was really into artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt. I was really curious as to why all their work had Biblical themes. I really wanted to have a deeper understanding of their masterpieces, but my limited knowledge of the Bible was standing in the way.

Around the same time, I slowly started hanging around a different group of friends who I knew were Christian. I don’t think I realized how depressed I was in life until I met these people. They seemed to be perpetually happy and encouraging, but not in some annoying or false way. They were just great people to be around.

The combination of wanting to learn more about art history and figuring out what made my new friends tick, lead me to pick up a Bible. As I started to read about Jesus’ life, I remember feeling totally caught off guard. I was expecting someone completely different. Someone who didn’t get angry. Someone who wasn’t so painfully blunt at times.

I remember being a little turned off at first. At the same time, I couldn’t stop reading about him. I was fascinated. Gradually, I started to see other sides of his character as well. His humility. His compassion. His ability to forgive. Over the span of a year, things began to shift gears. Instead of just reading about him, I found myself talking to him, asking him questions, and eventually coming to the place where I decided to trust him completely with my life.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Natalie Jost

    Yay! I’ve been hoping this interview would come about. So great to see this side of one of my favorite designers, thanks, Nathan.

    Jesse, I’m glad I read about your one project at a time strategy. It’s encouraging because I’ve been forced to do it this way now that I can only handle part time work. I imagine I’ll still do it when I go back full time. It’s a great relief not to have to jump back and forth from one thing to the next, and to be able to say to a client, “you are all there is right now, no one else”. Such freedom.

  2. 2 Darren

    Solid interview. Lot’s of talent between these two folks!

    P.S. I too, was first turned off to Jesus’ bluntness, but when we learn more about the bigger picture and how our selfishness stands between us and God, what can Jesus do but hate it? Still today, His honesty is something I strive for…

  3. 3 Jim

    Jesse has been a huge inspiration for me. It was a little over a year ago that I got into web design, and one of the biggest resources for me was 31three. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the work of Jesse.

    Thank you and great interview!

  4. 4 Aaron Martin

    Great questions. Great answers.

    I’ve been a fan of you both for a while. It’s fun seeing the back and forth between the two of you. Jesse, great work on EE and Campaign Monitor. Nathan, great work on 960 and Viewzi and being awesome in general.

  5. 5 Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain

    Thanks for the interview Nathan, and thanks for the kind words guys.

    @Darren – I think once I learned that Jesus was really only blunt to the hypocritical religious leaders… I was ok with his bluntness. When he’s talking to everyday people, his words were completely full of grace.

  6. 6 Geof Harries

    I interviewed Jesse on my website as well and really enjoyed learning more about this amazing designer. It’s cool because he’s so humble and soft-spoken, but Jesse’s status in the industry is near-legendary.

    What I found interesting in this interview was his mention of working on one project at a time for a flat monthly fee. I’ve never considered that method before but it really makes a lot of sense from both a creative and administrative perspective.

    I also really respect how open Jesse is about his faith, something I’ve purposely tried to avoid in case potential customers are turned off by my statement and positions on various topics. But, like you Nathan, Jesse is unafraid to tell the truth. I am now considering doing the same for my business, especially with a re-launch of my company website next year.

  7. 7 Jonathan Devine

    Good interview. I like how I can identify with it in some ways. I remember starting out on a WYSIWYG editor called Namo. I don’t know why it’s called that, but I’ve wondered if in earlier versions, Bingo was its Namo.

    I find your one-project-at-a-time model interesting, but not sure its right for me. The main reason I wouldn’t try it is the lost time between communication with the client, I seem to be most efficient by layering clients and lining up my action items so I can always keep moving… in theory. In practice it remains a struggle.

    Thanks for the words.

  8. 8 Viking KARWUR


    Thanks Nathan for this good article…
    Thanks for Jesse too…

    GOD bless you all

  9. 9 Daniel Marino

    I’d say that Jesse’s designs have been my biggest inspirations. Whenever I’m stuck, I usually go over to his site to see how he solves problems. Thanks for the great interview.

  10. 10 Jack McDade

    This was a great article for me — I’ve been a huge fan of JBC’s since i realized he designed the ExpressionEngine/EllisLabs sites, after which i saw his portfolio and was amazed. I taught myself a lot about design simply by copying his designs (for learning purposes of course!!) and seeing his approach to information architecture. Now seeing that Jesse is a Christian I’m an even bigger fan. I love people who are open about their faith as I strive to do the same in my workplace.

    Keep up the great work with the site, and you as well Jesse. God Bless!


  11. 11 Kai

    Thanks for the interview. Big fan of your stuff! :-)

  12. 12 Leslie

    I’ve had the good fortune to meet Jesse in person and I can confirm that Jesse is a better person than he is a designer and, well, its obvious how good a designer he is.

  13. 13 Zach DeYoung

    Jesse, I am curious as to how far in advance you have clients lined up. Working on a monthly flat rate seems to be a unique way to work. Do you think letting your work speak for itself and getting your name “out there” has been a key to your success or did you spend time looking around for work?

    Keep up the well thought out designs. I appreciate your attention to every pixel.

  14. 14 Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain

    Aw shucks Leslie… thanks :)

    Zach – I spent a lot of time looking around for work until my name got out there a bit more. A large turning point was when Cameron mentioned me in an A List Apart article. After that, traffic to my site really spiked, and job requests started flowing in a lot more consistently.

    As for how long I have projects lined up… it really depends on the length of the current project… but usually falls between 2-4 months.

  15. 15 Jeremy Hoover

    Great article, I’ve never met Jesse, but have been following his work for a while.

    I also really like the idea of the one client at a time approach. Having a full time day job this would really be great for the freelance work I do on the side. I imagine it would take some work to have clients fully organized when the project started. Many times there can be down time for collecting content and reviewing comps.

  16. 16 cssprodigy

    Wow! Great interview. Jesse is an amazing web developer. It’s great to know that you were inspired by the word. I never realized that 31:3 was a verse.


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