An interview with Daniel Howells
Daniel Howells is a London-based web designer and developer, well-known for his many excellent side projects. Perhaps his most famous, Site Inspire, highlights the best interactive design work on the web, while the beautiful Fiftytwo is a network for professional designers and creatives, like LinkedIn wearing thick rimmed glasses rather than a suit. Other projects include the design inspiration blog Creative Journal and the interview blog Design/Array. His personal blog is always a fascinating read, as was the outcome of our chat with him.
How did you first get into working in the Internet?
I set up a website in 2001 with two friends at Manchester University called What Happened Last Night. We would take pictures in student club nights, upload them overnight and tell people to check them out the next day – it was a very basic site, but we were getting a few million hits a month. No one really understood what the Internet was back then, but we wanted to do something with it. We didn’t know anyone who could design or make websites, so I was like, well, I can probably do that, so I taught myself Dreamweaver. It was really shocking but it did the job! What Happened Last Night isn't actually online anymore.
Did your psychology degree help you as a designer?
Not a lot. Psychology is relevant to user experience design but the areas I focused on were biopsychology and schizophrenia, and my dissertation was on the psychology of SMS. I actually hated my course, but I only had six hours a week of lectures, which allowed for plenty of time for side projects. I guess University is a good idea if you just want to have free time on your hands. Because that’s when the important stuff can be done, right?
Would you go to University if you were making that decision now?
It’s hard, because you get a lot of pressure from schools and your parents, but I don’t think I would go. If I was 18 now and knew about Hyper Island then I would probably want to go there - it isn’t the right course for everyone though because it principally covers digital advertising and branding, and seems to gear people up to work in massive digital agencies. For someone wanting to get into web design or development then I would say absolutely don’t go, unless you want to go deep into computer programming. I think the big question for students now is, how else could you spend £9,000?
What happened after you left University?
I didn’t go into web design because it simply wasn’t an industry back then - there were no web design agencies, just one-man bands but they weren’t really hiring. I went into advertising - I became an account guy on the grad scheme at JWT. I learned a lot there working on some challenging accounts, but left after two years before I realised that making TV and print ads didn’t interest me. I went to Accenture and stayed there for two and a half years, which was really, really tough but it was very useful. I worked with some fantastic people doing enterprise tech and learned loads of things that I still use today, like data modelling. I wasn’t doing any development work but it was a good insight into how companies are run badly! I then went to Merrill Lynch after that, doing the same thing. Throughout this whole process I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do, it was all exploring.
“I guess University is a good idea if you just want to have free time on your hands. Because that’s when the important stuff can be done, right?”
And why did you quit?
Merrill Lynch used to get random people to come in and talk. One day the founder of Coffee Republic, Sahar Hashemi, came in and she was really amazing. She told us how much she had hated her previous job working at a big law firm, and how she’d believed that coffee could be a big thing here – as it already was in the States (this was before Starbucks came to the UK). She’d earned a decent amount, enough to quit her job and start up, and said to us, ‘All you need to do is jump, and the net will appear.’ That stuck with me and I was like, I’ve got to get the hell out of here.
I remember being sat in my chair at work thinking, I hate this shit. I was really, really unhappy in what I was doing. I had to stop it, and the only way to do it was by just jumping out of the window, metaphorically speaking. I had started making some stuff for YCN in my spare time when I was at JWT. I would finish work and run over to their make-shift office. I enjoyed doing that work in my spare time more than I did my actual job. So I suggested to them that I join them on a freelance contract basis.
Where did the idea for Site Inspire come from?
I started Site Inspire in March 2009 and used it as a bookmarking tool to store my favourite sites. It was never meant to be anything beyond my personal collection of stuff, a personal blog really. But then people started to pick it up and blog about it. SwissMiss blogged about it and that got loads of traffic, that was the tipping point where people really started to use it. It was a good way of getting into the industry and meeting people, awesome designers, good developers – I was getting lots of good lines of enquiry and work proposals. I decided to set up properly as a freelancer in October 2009 and I’ve been doing this ever since then.
What advice would you give someone starting out in web design or development?
It’s very good to have a calling card project. That’s what Site Inspire has been brilliant for, even though it’s very simple and it isn’t very technically challenging. I could say ‘Oh, I’m the guy who does this, I put some of your sites on there’, and clients would say ‘awesome, thank you very much for that, come in and have a coffee.’ It’s like having a nice little hook, something that’s out there. Al Monk is very good at that. He’s done So & So, Flatsies, Let’s Meet and Work. It can be something super simple or something really complicated, depending on where you want to pitch yourself. Just do something that demonstrates an interest in your industry and other people will respect that.
“I think the big question for students now is, how else could you spend £9,000?”
If you hired an apprentice, what would you look for?
I wouldn’t even glance at education, where they went to school or anything. I would look at the side projects. I remember Ben Pieratt at Svpply used to have something like “you must shit side projects” on the job specs. They just wanted to see people who were interested in their medium, people who were so interested that they’d just gone ahead and made things. It would worry me if I was looking at an apprentice and they didn’t have any side projects. I’d think, are they really that serious about it?
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
What I should have done was stick to the whole web thing. But I got scared that it wasn’t an established career. I remember there was this one guy who contacted me who had seen What Happened Last Night and liked what we were doing. He had a small agency and asked if I'd be interested in doing some work for him. I said no because it just didn’t seem like a proper job. So I guess my answer is, if anything doesn’t seem like a proper job or doesn’t seem like the right thing to do, then it probably is. If it seems odd, pursue it. There should be an element of risk, because if you have a gut feeling that it’s unusual, kind of risky, kind of cool, you should obviously take it, right? That’s what I didn’t do, and while I don’t have any regrets, it would have been nice to have have gotten into the scene at the ground level, rather than catching up.