Interview – Hillman Curtis of HillmanCurtis.com

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Hillman Curtis is well-known among the Flash design community as the writer of the definitive “Flash Web Design” (New Riders, 2000). The recent launch of his new book, MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer has put Hillman back into the spotlight as a leading designer of our time. Recently, he took a few moments to answer some of the key questions that readers of his new book are asking…

SP: Hillman, you were a guitarist for band the Green Things for 10 years. Then you worked in the Interactive realm and established HillmanCurtis.com, your own cross-media design and development business. You give presentations at industry events and make appearances at everything from the Digital Arts Festival in London, to the Apple Store in Soho. And this year, you released your third book, MTIV – Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer. Do you have an obsession with communication, a lust for self-expression, or both?

Well, with the bands it really came with the territory. I much preferred the writing and recording aspects of music. But the live aspect was part of the deal and it actually was not natural for me. I learned to do it over time and came to enjoy it… especially the tight leather pants!

With speaking at design conferences it’s a much more natural thing, though it, too, is very much a learning process. I’ve learned that if I speak about something I feel strongly about at the time, it usually goes well, and preparation is paramount. But I like it because it scares me. The whole process scares me. I don’t really like traveling as much as I do: I’m a nervous flyer and I don’t like to be far from my family. But the process of traveling and waking up in a strange place and meeting new people, though it starts with plenty of anxiety, is one of the richest things I do.

As far as the books go, I’ve always wanted to write a book. Back in college I was a creative writing major/film theory minor, so I sort of thought one day I might write some fiction, but it turned out differently. I really have enjoyed both books, especially MTIV because it’s such a beautiful book (props both to designers The Rooster Group, and all the great artists who allowed me to republish their work). So the answer to your question is: yes. It’s an obsession and lust for communication and self expression.

The New Book


SP: You’re typically referred to as "the man at the forefront of Flash", and shot to "King of Flash" status with the publication of your first book, Flash Web Design, in 2000. Yet your business creates for video, print, and Web – and you latest book focuses more on process and inspiration than on any single technology. Have you felt typecast as “that Flash guy"?

It’s wonderful to be associated with Flash, but yes, my interests and my work are much broader. I do only about 30%-40% Flash work these days. Most of my time is spent developing larger site design, brand work, video and motion graphics (both Flash and Broadcast).

For MTIV I followed the same rule I do for speaking, which is to speak — or in this case, write — about something I feel strongly about. MTIV is all about the creative process. It’s about the power of collaboration and the importance of inclusivity in the design process. It’s about inspiration and keeping that part of your process alive. All things I care deeply about. Which is why I wrote MTIV.

SP: “MTIV” stands for Making the Invisible Visible. What’s that all about? And why is it important?

It’s all about communicating the theme. You don’t do that through marketing slogans or corporate speak, though those elements will probably be involved somewhere in your design.

Rather, you do it by combining color, type, layout, and motion in a way that supports an identified theme. You might not see the way these elements work to communicate theme, but you feel it. So your mind hears the marketing slogan, and either buys into it or dismisses it, but it’s that huge area underneath that has the potential to move you. As a designer I try to justify every element and move in support of the theme.

SP: Who is MTIV written for? Does it suit the freelance designer/developer just as well as the in-house, Web agency creative? What about creatives in other disciplines, and other professionals in the new media industry?

I wanted to write a book that had some of my favorite artists/designers/writers and poets in it, and I also wanted to write a book for the designer I was 8 years ago when I was just starting out, self taught and desperate for guidance. Then, I did not even consider myself to be a designer, and I was certainly not yet aware of the importance and potential of design. So I think MTIV was written for myself maybe at first.

That said it seems to be, judging from the wonderful notes people are sending me, very appropriate for anyone, from designers, to project managers, and onwards.

SP: What was the key message you wanted to communicate to readers through MTIV?

I think the theme that runs through the book is inclusivity; that is that we’re all creative people and while, perhaps, your client’s creativity manifests itself differently than yours, it’s still there and it’s valuable. Also, I wanted to consider the inclusivity of inspiration… the way we as creatives share and borrow and build upon the ideas of those around us, and those who came before us.

SP: The book explains your own agency’s approach to the development of creative solutions: Listen, Unite, Theme, Concept, Eat the Audience, Filter and Justify. How did you devise this ethos – and does it apply universally to every job you undertake, regardless of the nature of the project or the media involved?

It’s a non-linear process. We may use four of the "steps"…we may use all of them. It’s not a check list, but something I try to check in with every once in a while. The process really helps me stay focused.

SP: The "Inspiration" section of the book explores the ways you gain inspiration for design, and from the "Work" list at HillmanCurtis.com, it seems that you have no problems getting inspired. Do you feel that variety in your work is as important as searching out new sources of inspiration in tackling creative challenges?

No. I think searching out inspiration is the most important thing I do as a designer and as a creative. That said, pursuing a variety of work is wonderful. It’s sort of part of being a New Media designer: the media are always changing, offering new opportunities.

SP: In his review of MTIV , Steve MacLaughlin remarks that "While reading MTIV you can’t help but notice how much Hillman Curtis has been influenced by the motion picture industry." Yet, in a previous interview you commented that you hadn’t owned a tv in over a decade. How much have motion pictures impacted on you? What are you favourite sources of inspiration right now?

I don’t own a TV. It’s been about twelve years now. But I own many films (DVDs, which I watch on my laptop). I also purchase DVD collections of music videos and shorts and spend a lot of time online watching teasers, promos, and commercials. I was a film theory minor in school so film has always been important to me. But I get ideas from just about anywhere: magazines, films, online motion graphics, static sites, fine art, poster art… on and on. Right now I’m very interested in music videos.

The New Media Industry

SP: The leap from guitarist to Creative Director at Macromedia is no mean feat. Prior to landing a job at Macromedia you had some freelance new media design experience, and 7 months later you were a Creative Director. Were you surprised at your meteoric rise through the ranks at Macromedia?

I spent a good two years plugging away at various freelance jobs and even had a small company that produced CD-Roms for a year or so. But when I got hired at Macromedia it was for a three week contract position as a project manager. At the time I had no idea how to use email, nor what a server was, and I was so nervous in meetings I would stay silent even when I knew I had something to offer. But I bluffed my way through the first week there and did everything I could to make sure my contract would be renewed.

I was hired after a few months and seven or eight months later I was made Art Director. Macromedia was, at the time, a place that I was right for and that was right for me. It was one of the most valuable job experiences I have had. I learned on my feet from some of the smartest people in the industry. So the transition was exciting.

SP: HillmanCurtis.com is just a few years old. How difficult was it to go out on your own and start the business in what must have been a pretty shaky .com environment? Given your own experiences, what advice would you give to someone who was considering launching their own new media design business?

Actually we’re coming up on five years in the spring. I started the company in 98 when the .com thing was just getting started up. So it was a good time for me to start the company. Still, I remember doing Flash jobs for 300 dollars and running through my savings that first year. As far as advice goes, I don’t consider myself to be the best businessman. I have no business plan per se. I can only offer what I did and still do, which is to work very, very hard, respect my co-workers, and follow my intuition as best as I can.

SP: You once said: "The reason for designing new media is simple: to subtly and quietly change the world." How does this apply to today’s professional new media designer, who’s now attempting to find at least vaguely gratifying work in the lean and mean, ultra-jumpy job market?

I think that that statement is something I like to keep in mind. It’s definitely not always running through my head as I chase a deadline or deal with a frustrating design, but I do believe it. I believe the in the Web as a vehicle for, if not social change, then cross-cultural communication. It’s both a relevant commercial and corporate medium as well as a free, unlicensed and unrestricted medium that can reach anywhere around the world. How it applies to designers banging against an impossibly hard job market is something I’m not sure I can answer.

Flash and Online Advertising

SP: You have previously commented "I do believe in the power of motion graphics. I do believe in it as a way to communicate emotion." Why is motion graphics so powerful? Do you feel that motion graphics has more potential to communicate in the online environment, than in the world of television?

I mentioned the Web reaching around the world and that means that perhaps there’s an opportunity to develop or nurture a way in which to present information that doesn’t rely on the English (or any other) language. And I think motion is a universal language (along with color and layout, etc.) that maybe can be used to present information anywhere. Television is regional and has the bandwidth to incorporate audio/spoken language at all times, so while motion graphics are powerful on television, I think there’s an opportunity on the Web that is pretty amazing when you think about it.

SP: With the end of the .com heyday, we saw the wheels fall off the online advertising bandwagon. Before and during that time, HillmanCurits.com won numerous One Show awards — the traditional advertising establishment’s most coveted prize. What do you think lies ahead for the online advertising industry?

Well… the wheels fell off of all the channels of advertising in general. I’m very hopeful where the Web is concerned. I think it is the most important tool a company has right now to reach an audience.

SP: For many online designers, the creation of effective online ads is about good graphics and a strong message. How do the strategy and processes behind the development of effective online advertising differ from those used to develop ads for traditional media (if at all)?

The best ads still come from advertising people. The challenge is to work with the folks at Olgilvy, or DSW, or FCB, or Goodby, or Burnett and help steer their ideas in a direction that will respect the possibilities and limitations of the Web.

At the core is a quote from Charles Eames where he says "Design is a call to action" …in other words design isn’t about making something look better, it’s about moving someone into action. Whether that is a commercial action, social, what have you. I believe you do that by drawing attention to a theme, and I think it’s the same regardless of the medium.

SP: You once said of online advertising "You’ve got to get your message across in 10 seconds-15 to 20 at most." Many television commercials are of a similar length – and both media use imagery, sound and motion to convey a message. But how do the two differ?

TV is passive for the most part. The Web, by its nature, is interactive. Two very different mediums. Online you’re usually looking for something, searching through links and pages, while with TV you’re usually watching one program for a half hour. So while both use motion, images, and sound, there’s a very different mindset going on on the viewer’s end. A good example of this is that you may not get annoyed at a TV show intro, but you get super annoyed at Flash Intros.

SP: A flash promotion of yours communicated that "The motion is the message". Readers of your first book might expect to see more Flash and motion graphics on your site, on which the homepage is the only place where they’re used. Why the "motion-minimalist" approach?

I love motion. But again, I think my company and the work is broader. I wanted to present a site that is quick, easy to navigate, and shows the diversity of design work. So I opted out of a big Flash site. But I’m currently in the first stages of a re-design, so you never know…

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