An interview with Visual Idiot
It's extremely rare in the age of social networking to come across a character online who is such a mystery. You can Google all day and you won't find an image of him, or his real name. His huge bulk of quality work (and his wry Twitter humour) manages to speak for itself and his following has grown rapidly in the last year, with traffic to his creations reaching seven figures. All this from a guy who we're not even sure has reached his twenties yet.
What do you do?
To put it simply: I'm a web designer / web developer / guy who just builds websites, and whatever needs to be done to go along with that website. As well as building them for a whole bunch of clients, agencies, and startups, I build for myself - and that's what I'm most well-known for, I think. Although I've built lots and lots of really stupid websites, I sometimes build useful ones too. I'm also a big fan of open-source work, so you'll probably find me hanging around on GitHub. Oh, and I tell stupid jokes on Twitter as well. Is that it? I think that's it.
What was your earliest formative experience of the Internet?
Growing up in the middle of nowhere I didn't really get much Internet connection, so I was quite late to the game. The earliest I can remember was playing Runescape – an open-world online game where you do quests and stuff — with a friend, and wondering how we could be chatting to each other through the Internet without having to be connected to the same phone line. So I searched around for an answer, discovered this tool called Microsoft Frontpage, and it all went downhill from there.
Who taught you how to design / code?
I did. The Internet did. Practice did. Most of my “learning” - if you can call it that - was (and still is) trial and error. For me, it's a path of working out what needs to be done, finding the tools and basic idea of what I need to do to get there, and then just doing it. The only thing stopping anyone from doing what they want is the fear they're not going to be able to do it.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up in the morning feeling like P Diddy, at about 10 to 6 - nice and early so I can take my dog, Molly, out for a walk. Then, since I work in London but live a few hours away, it's a big ol' train journey in. When I can, I like to make use of the time to work on all of my personal projects and catch up on the news from last night. It's a two-and-a-half-hour journey, so I get quite a lot done.
When I'm in the office, I'm doing the standard day-job stuff: a mix of designing things, be it icons, a new interface, redoing emails, blog post images; or coding things, which just means turning/tuning my designs into HTML and CSS. That's one of the benefits of working in the web industry; every day is different.
After work it's the same train journey back, and more time for my personal projects. And then, depending on how lazy I'm feeling, I'll pop down the gym, play my guitar (I have a few Ibanezes, but my favourite is my custom electro-acoustic Talman, for those who like that kinda thing) or just call it a day.
What applications or resources do you rely on most?
As much as I like to complain about it, I couldn't live or work without Photoshop. Espresso, Sequel Pro, Github for Mac, Twitter and Mail.app are all indispensable as well. If you're working with images on the web, I'd also recommend getting ImageOptim. It's free and works wonders.
Every so often, when I'm working on or adjusting typefaces, I like to use Glyphs.app. It's expensive, but worth it. For font management, I'd just recommend Font Book. You don't need much more than that.
As for apps that don't exist (especially web ones): I like to try and solve the problem myself. For example, forum software tends to suck in the sense that it's stuck in the '90s: it's hard to theme, hard to use, and it doesn't match up to any other social networks of today, so I built Roar. For my blog, I wanted to use art-directed content (with custom HTML/CSS/JS/etc.), so I built Anchor. It's like my Dad always told me; if you need something done right, do it yourself.
Who are your industry icons?
This is a hard one - partly because I'm terrible with names, and partly because the list is too long to count. I really admire people who consistently ship good work (Drew Wilson, Chris Coyier, and the Riot HQ guys, to name a few), and people who go out of their way to make it easier for everyone else. You know, basically anyone who's released a product. It's hard in our industry because nearly everyone is there to do good, which is what I admire.
The world of business is easier because there seems to be a lot fewer of those types: Richard Branson, James Dyson, Richard Reed — people who focus their businesses and work around people. And it wouldn't be an inspirational people list if I didn't mention Apple somewhere, so I'll add Steve Jobs to the list.
“That's one of the benefits of working in the web industry: every day is different.”
You didn't go to University. How did you know that you wanted to be a designer?
It's probably because of my high school art teacher. When it came to the "Subject Day" as it was called, where you got to talk to the teachers and faculty and they tried to convince you to take their subject, the only teacher who offered something different was this old guy called Mr. Reese (and no, they weren't his Pieces), the art teacher. He was an amazing painter, and his room was filled with these photorealistic drawings and paintings of what I think was his garden. He never seemed to like me though, probably because the only thing I could draw - and did draw in his class - were stickmen. To this day, I can still remember what he said to me:
“Don’t do anything to do with art or design, you'll be terrible at it. You need to be able to draw to design.”
I didn't end up taking art, but I think that was the moment I decided I'd be a designer, if only to prove him wrong.
As for university, I was never really a fan of school; self-teaching and learning always worked better for me. I could learn what I wanted at my own pace, and there were no distractions or phallic doodlings on my desk. I did go to a community college for a few weeks, but as with school it wasn't for me. The trouble with universities, in my opinion, is that although they give you a great sense of freedom and you learn a lot, you have to pay for the privilege and you end up with student debt, whereas just going headfirst into a job gives the same benefits - along with a paycheque. Nothing better than the feeling of being paid to learn.
I've never needed to get a degree or any qualifications; of all of the job interviews I've had, only two have asked for university qualifications, and both of those places were large corporations. That's one of the wonders of the web; since the industry itself is so young, there's no real qualification relevant enough to warrant its requirement in the "real world" and the industry. You can just teach yourself everything and be just as good as the next guy.
What was your first design job?
After the very last day of high school, I went home and dug out the addresses of about 20 local web agencies, and hand-wrote each of them a letter explaining my situation and asking if they were looking for a web designer. I only got one reply back, saying they weren't, but alerting me to a freelancer, Alex Stanhope, who was trying to start his own agency. We met up and I started my very first job as a web designer three days after finishing school. It was a great experience and I'm honoured to have been given the chance to do it; since there were just two of us working together, I got to learn a lot from him.
You're from Brighton. What was that like when you started out?
I'm actually from South Wales - Pontypridd to be exact, the same place as Tom Jones - which is a tiny little village in the Welsh valleys. Where I lived, we didn't have any mobile signal or Internet, so I didn't really get to experience any of that until the whole family moved down to near Brighton when I was a kid.
Anyway, I digress; Brighton is a great place for the web. Since it's full of hippies and indie businesses, you get a lot of little agencies and individuals, and there's a buzzing meetup community there. Every week, a bunch of web designers will all get together down the local pub and chat about the cool things that have been/are going to happen. It's great to go along to those kinds of things.
“The only thing I think you really need in an apprentice is a vague idea of what they want to do and the determination to do it.”
What's the story behind your Twitter handle, @idiot?
In order to explain this, I need to go back to the whole Visual Idiot thing. I first bought the domain with the idea of using it to name and shame really bad-looking sites, such as all the CSS galleries at the time. For some reason or another, I decided to put my portfolio on it instead - I think my subconscious might have been suggesting something - and from then on, I just used the name.
As for the Twitter handle, it had recently been suspended, so I fired an email off to Twitter with a poem (or a limerick, whatever). It was simple enough, my username got changed over properly but there was a delay of a few weeks. I think I was out at a fancy restaurant when they changed it over. I remember getting a whole load of notifications on my phone telling me that all of the links to my usernames were wrong all over the Internet (I used to use @visualidiot), and that someone had gone and taken my old username. Luckily, they gave it to me, but the whole incident is the reason I made lkd.to.
If you hired an apprentice, what would you look for?
Balls (not literally — the sense of courage and grit). The only thing I think you really need in an apprentice is a vague idea of what they want to do and the determination to do it. As for everything else, that's secondary; not going to a university myself, I couldn't care less if you have a degree, and gaining that knowledge is the whole point of an apprenticeship, right? I don't think I'd be a particularly good mentor, though; I, like many others, have still got a lot to learn.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?
I like to think I'd be one of those forensic scientists off of CSI, but I really don't know. I was always pretty good at science and chemistry, so I might have gone down that avenue - or maybe not. It's just one of those things. I'm glad I'm where I'm at currently, so hopefully I won't have to find out.
What's the best design advice you've ever received?
That has to have come from my Mum. Every so often, I'd show her bits of my work and ask for feedback, and every time she'd tell me it's too bland, too grey. It needs to have some colour attached to it to really get the point across and inflect emotion on the person looking at it. So I guess the advice is: never use grey - unless you have to.
What would you tell someone that wants to be a designer?
Shut up, get a copy of Photoshop, and go make something. Then we'll talk.
What legacy do you hope to leave?
Hopefully a good one. Since people are remembered for what they did and not who they are, I'd like to be able to build a product that genuinely helps a lot of people. Or, you know, be the next Gangnam Style guy. It's all good.