12 comments | Posted: 9 June 07 in Interviews, by Yannick Lyn Fatt
Mark Priestap is a designer at Designwise Studios, a small design consultancy that specializes in accessible, simple and elegant web solutions. You may already be familiar with his work as he designed two websites (Soma Communities and Zion Church PCA) which are currently featured here at Godbit. I recently had a chance to interview him and learn a little bit more about this talented designer.
How did you get started in web design? Did you study design or computer science in school or learn as you went along?
Man, this is a long story spanning the past 9 years. I graduated from The Ohio State University in ’98 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Drawing and Painting) with practically no experience at all working on a computer. My idea of computer interaction was sending an email. My goal was to become a medical illustrator and attend University of Michigan graduate’s program, but before I did they told me to go get some computer experience at a small company in my home town (Toledo, OH). After a few months interning there, I discovered that I rather enjoyed it, and then got a second internship working for an e-commerce department of another company where they made me the web designer. Mind you, I had no experience on the web or in design, but I did have a drawing and painting degree. Wonderfully, the job worked out very well and led to my first full-time job working for a small software business designing interfaces for PC golf games (AboutGolf.com). So one by one, the pieces began to fall together. After the PC game company, I went to work for a large healthcare organization designing interfaces for their internal web applications and internal portal and remained there for about 5 years. During that time, I began to freelance at night to make some extra cash and before too long I wasn’t sleeping much and had enough work to keep busy for several months, so I jumped ship and became a freelancer full-time in Feb ’06.
In the end, I’m glad I got the degree that I did – it actually opened some doors early on that would not have been open to me had I walked in with some kind of computer science degree. The Lord was very gracious to me in that regard.
You’ve designed some wonderful websites, some of which have been featured here on Godbit and others are still in the works. Could you share a bit of the process you go through when coming up with and working on designs?
Thank you for the kind words… :) I’ve had to learn the hard way over the past year about how to run an effective design project and am still learning. There is so much detail I’d love to squeeze in here, but in a nutshell here’s how it breaks down:
- Ask Questions. Ask a boat load of questions about the business or organization before you create anything tangible. Clients like to talk about themselves and it helps greatly in assessing exactly what their needs are and how a website might help meet their organizational goals. Maybe they don’t even NEED a website (gasp). This is where you start thinking about what would make their investment worth while – how will it pay for itself and provide lasting dividends? If it’s a church or ministry, how will it help support and feed the body? Several months after the project is over, you can look back at this data and start assessing whether or not it was a success. If it was, you have a nice case study to promote your work with.
- Site map. I have found of late that site maps are quite critical for everyone on the project to have a visual idea of the scope and organization of the site. It can remove a lot of unneeded stress from feeling uncertain about how much work is “out there” that needs to get done. It is also a nice preventative measure against scope creep and severe headaches. (Instead of taking an aspirin, create a site map.)
- Wireframing. Once the site map is in place, wireframing can start. Wireframe the critical parts of the site to organize the flow of information. I would not start wireframes before the site map is done because the wireframes flow out of the site maps by design. DO allow the site maps and wireframes to morph though.. that’s the beauty of them – easy manipulation.
- Visual comps (look and feel). Once we have an idea from a couple of wireframes how the site is going to be organized (roughly), I begin to design the visual comps. (Look and feel CAN occur somewhat simultaneously with wire framing, but it’s usually best if comps don’t begin until at least a couple of the wireframes are done. Obviously if you’re a one-man show you can only do one at a time, but I’ve contracted out wireframes and started the visual comps while the last of the wires were still being completed.) That’s one little tip to save time if you’re in a time crunch. For inspiration, I use the tried and true method of saving snippets of other work from around the web and saving it into a collage to draw ideas from when designing. In the end though, the design should flow from the needs of the organization, not from my pet visual effects. :)
- Revisions. The client usually needs a few rounds of revisions and I normally have a limit of 2 or 3 if the budget is a set price. The smaller the budget, the fewer the revisions. If I’m really nervous about scope creep, I prefer hourly.
Grid-based design is something I’ve been hearing and reading a lot about lately. Do you use it and what are your thoughts on this approach to design?
Simply put, the grid layout is the cornerstone of every layout that I’ve done over the past few years (since learning about it). Do I think it’s absolutely essential? Probably not, but it sure is a nice tool to have in the ol’ toolbox, particularly on the web where your viewable space is limited and organization is usually essential for communicating quickly. A close second to learning to use the grid is learning proper type treatments. I’m still learning, but those two things have greatly enhanced the designs I produce. I am deeply indebted to bloggers like Mark Boulton and others who have raised the bar for web designers around the world in the area of typography.
About a year ago you worked with Ryan Heneise and Kenny Parnell on a Rails Day Project called Slice of Sites in which you had to develop a Ruby on Rails application in 24 hours. What was it like working with such a short time frame and what was the experience like working with Ruby on Rails and subversion? Had you used either before that project?
Yeah that was a fun project – tough on my body but fun to do something so crazy. It’s amazing what can happen when you focus on cranking something out that fast – I don’t recommend settling on branding and layout in less than 8 hours typically, but that’s precisely what had to be done. Ryan and Kenny are immensely talented and it was a pleasure to work with them.
To be honest with you, I didn’t have much interaction with Subversion or the RoR part of the project. After designing the layout in Photoshop, I built out a couple of templates and in XHTML/CSS and handed them off to Ryan and Kenny to merge into the app. There wasn’t enough time to establish a solid workflow from my perspective. I didn’t mind though – I was still done by 4pm and was able to sleep. :D
That was an interesting study in now a short deadline can be your friend in some cases as it forces you to streamline your thinking and workflow.
You’ve worked as both a freelancer and for a company, what would you say are some of the pros and cons you’ve experienced with both?
I’m glad you asked me this … something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The quality of the work really depends on the company you’re working for – if the company is doing great work and you’re working with top-notch pros, then it would be very satisfying to work there.
Working for a company:
Pros: Collaborate with other professionals, easier to focus (don’t have to worry about company finances, payroll, billable hours, etc.), final product can be more polished (depending on the team), no business expenses, employee benefits (usually)
Cons: Can’t take as much credit for your work (especially if it’s all internal), Less freedom to take vacation, harder to drop what you’re doing (that could be a pro, however)
Working for yourself:
Pros: You choose your clients, freedom to promote your own work, set your own hours (though you’ll work 60-70 hrs per week), work on lots of exciting projects, learn lot of things really fast (waaay better than university training)
Cons: Tough on families, expensive healthcare*, overhead, no sick days, lots more pressure
Note: I’m referring to my experience in the US… I’m not aware of what the health care situation is like in other countries.
The Ekklesia360 CMS is one of the leading church CMS’s on the market today. You’ve been working with it on some of the sites you’ve done, could you tell us how you’ve found working with that CMS?
I like Ekklesia360 because they give designers the flexibility to design the site however they want to make it look – it’s not stuck on any particular layout, and they are committed to standards compliance. On a personal note, they are great people to work with and are solid Christian brothers who are committed to spreading the gospel.
I was initially interested in Ekklesia360 because my own church needed (and still does) a CMS for their site (I haven’t gotten around to getting that done yet) and the features of Ekklesia were exactly what we needed, a perfect fit both in terms of functionality and usability for inexperienced web admins AND had the flexibility I wanted as a designer who is particular about web standards. I’m excited to see where their product goes after the redesign sometime this year.
You’ve done quite a few church websites, what would you say are key elements every church website should have?
For design and functionality, I’d say basic elements should include intuitive navigation, events calendar and church news.
From an information perspective, I’d be sure to include the gospel, leadership, beliefs, and contact info. My home church LOVES their people directory, but it needs to be secure and frequently updated.
With regard to technology, I think that an intuitive CMS is a must. The scale of the CMS depends on the church’s needs, but the important thing is that the people in the church office can understand how to use it and that it possesses the functionality the church needs. If the CMS has all the functionality but is too difficult to understand, then it is useless and will be set aside quickly by the staff.
I’m a little curious, what sort of equipment and software do you use on a daily basis?
For hardware I’m using a MacBook Pro with an enormous prehistoric Dell monitor from the 90’s that I do most of my design on. For software I’m using Coda and SkEdit, MAMP, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Web Developer Toolbar, Skype, Basecamp, Blinksale, Mint, Google Calendar, Google Spreadsheets, Pocket, Pages, On the Job and iChat. I’m really digging Coda right now, though there are some issues they are ironing out currently. Even with those issues, it’s cut down my dev time considerably just using the “one-click publishing” feature and has relegated Dreamweaver to the list of software that I used to use.
I also drink lots of Diet Mountain Dew.
There are quite a number of web designer/developer, as well as Christian related podcasts appearing each day. What are some of your favourites to listen to?
- Boagworld.com – Smart business advice, hilarity, cutting edge web design news, web standards advice, etc.
- Web 2.0 Show – Keep up with who’s creating what
- Tweak! – Excellent advice on running a small web design shop
- Hivelogic – A who’s who show. Hear the best of web design talk about their craft.
- The Whitehorse Inn – Four outstanding teachers/pastors discussing trends in Christian thought and practice with feet firmly rooted in the Reformation
- The Narrow Mind – Highly thought-provoking and extremely funny. In-depth theological discussion ranging from atheism to millennialism.
- Kaleo Church – Pastor David Fairchild’s weekly exposition of scripture is outstanding.
- C.H. Spurgeon – Apparently they had recording devices in 1850. (haha) Listen to Spurgeon’s sermons read by professional readers. I was shocked at how good preaching used to be.
What are some other articles/tips/tools/services/tricks you’ve found on the web that have become valuable in designing and building your websites?
This not an exhaustive list and is quite random, but is a short list of stuff I’ve either used a lot lately or just wanted to give some link love to because of inherent awesomeness.
- Mark Boulton’s Five Simple Tips to Better Typography
- Mark Boulton’s Five simple steps to designing grid systems
- Automatic Pullquotes with JS and CSS
- lightbox2 (of course)
- 53 CSS Techniques…
- Ajax loading icon creator
- Knockout Type
- Campaign Monitor
- Eric Meyer’s reset styles
- outline: 0;
- zoom: 1;
- Tip 1: When you’re building out a page in XHTML/CSS, use your comp as a background image so it’s easier to match the CSS layout exactly to the comp.
- Tip 2: Outsource when you can but hold on to the work that defines your business.
- Tip 3: Determine whether or not your business can use multiple designers or if it’s a one-man show. That will have a great bearing on how much income you’ll bring in long-term.
- Tip 4: Last but not least, make lots of really good friends whom you can ask for advice. The Godbit community is great for making friends.
Would you mind sharing your testimony and how you came to faith in Christ?
Love to! Praise God for boring testimonies and faithful parents… My parents brought me up in the fear and admonition of the Lord (our paddle had scripture on it. lol) – to tell you the truth I don’t remember ever NOT believing, though I do remember praying a sinner’s prayer of sorts when I was 4 or 5. It wasn’t until my college years that I really started looking seriously at the content of what the Bible really was teaching – after several years of struggling and depression over eternal security, wondering if I believed enough, I was suddenly hit over the head by Romans 5-9 and Ephesians 2 and discovered some peace in my standing with God as his child, that nothing could remove me from him and that faith was entirely a work of God (Ephesians 2:8,9). This weight was enormous and was suddenly lifted. I suspect there are a lot of folks like me out there struggling with the same burden.
Through the years God has proven his faithfulness and the truthfulness of the gospel, that Jesus Christ truly became a man, lived a sinless life, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died for our sins and was buried, that he rose from the dead (witnessed by hundreds of people), that he will one day come again in the flesh to judge the living and the dead, and that I must repent and obey Him. Praise the Lord – whosoever believes on Him will be saved from the wrath of God. Praise the Lord for his mercy!
Anything else you would like to add, perhaps some words of encouragement for other web designers and developers?
There’s tons of work out there – if you’re thinking of making the leap into the freelancing world, now is actually a very good time to do it. Make sure you have most of your ducks in a row first though, particularly if you have a family. Think about what might happen if you have a new baby. ;)
Just a few tips for new freelancers:
- Don’t write a quote unless the client has proven that they’re serious. It can suck up all your time if you’re not careful. If people are just going to flip to the back page of your 10 page proposal and check the price tag, you’ve just wasted a bunch of time. Usually a quick email with a ballpark figure will tell both parties whether or not you can do business. If so, a formal proposal can then be then typed up. This has saved me many hours – critical when you run a small business.
- FreeConferenceCall.com is great for conference calls when Skype isn’t an option.
- A word about billing: Standard billing for most projects is 1/2 up front and 1/2 upon delivery. If you’re a designer and are partnering with another company to handle the development, see if you can assure payment for your services when your part is finished, rather than waiting for the development phase to be done.
- Buy a tractor mower if you have a lawn (and a snow blower if you live in the North like me).
- Keep your fridge stocked with Mountain Dew
In other news…
My site and branding were recently redesigned and was a collaborative effort with my friend and Christian brother Shane Thacker who has taught me a great deal about design and handling a business over the past year. Shane’s work is simply outstanding. He and I will be starting a new blog soon titled Helvetica Confessions where we will discuss design, christianity, theology and provide tutorials, interviews, productivity ideas, etc. We’ve decided to build the car as we drive it (design as we go), so you might see a stray pixel here or there.
Thanks so much to Yannick and all the folks at Godbit for allowing me to prattle on about myself. Ya’ll are fantastic and it’s truly an honor to be interviewed by you.
Thank you also Mark. It was a pleasure. Blessings on you.
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