May 2011 Member of the Month
Well everyone, another page of the calendar has turned, which means it's time to announce our next Member of the Month!
I'm very happy to announce that the award this month goes to Slackr, who is regularly found around the Design forums and elsewhere giving very helpful and professional advice. He is very much a quiet achiever, never drawing attention to himself, but offering high quality help that never fails to impress.
I must say, I was really keen to get to know him better, and what follows is an interview I conducted with him recently. I hope you enjoy it!
Question: Before I ask the more obvious questions, I'm intrigued by your username (Slackr). A 'slacker' is a lazy person, but I'm sure that doesn't apply to you! So what's behind the choice of that username?
Slackr: Yea I guess I’ve always thought about it like someone who cruises or takes a laid back approach to life—occasionally to their detriment. I’m 37 now and about 2 decades ago when I was a first year at university I picked it up as a nickname. I wasn’t the most studious shall we say and have never been convinced that academic study is the be all and end all of life. I didn’t think that it totally fit but as unique usernames become increasingly difficult to generate I latched on to using slackr. It does have intentional undertones of mocking the trend of flickr, tumblr etc.
Question: From your first post in the forums, you have provided lots of very sound and helpful advice to people, sharing your experience in a range of different fields. What brought you to the SitePoint forums, and what keeps you here?
Slackr: I turned to SitePoint during my last job where I was the only web/design person in-house. I had responsibility to manage three websites, two of which were large and integrated into the heart of the business. They included custom written CMS systems which were more than a little clunky. Being forced to work with the systems’ limitations, and having no one else to answer questions quickly, I found the SitePoint forums alive and responsive. Also they are very friendly for noob questions. There were those who would at least point you in the right direction and not insist that you knew everything already. That appeals to me.
What keeps me here is the fact that I learnt my trade through other people. I have a long history of academic study—both graduate and postgraduate—but it has never been related to Design or IT. I owe my ability to generate income to those who have invested in me, thus I’m happy to pass on anything that I can. I’ve grown up using the web and trying my best to stay abreast of the things that influence user experience. My language skills aren’t the best so I rely on useful bits of software and a multitude of short cuts and programs to keep me on top of things. It is probably less elegant than sitting down and learning a language but I know it isn’t my strong suit—3 years of high school French taught me that.
Question: You describe your current role as a "Graphic Designer and Web Manager". So what does your typical working day involve?
Slackr: Currently I’m self-employed but also contemplating returning to a steady job. When the global recession hit I survived the first round of cuts (but suffered in the second round), as the company I worked for tried to survive. They did, and I have continued to contract back to them ever since. Other work has been harder to come by, and it has pretty lean at the moment.
Typically I’m working on electronic advertising newsletters, creating artwork-based print productions, administering content on the various websites I look after and trying to convince myself that one day I can find some time to “go Pro” with my photography. I’ve come close a number of times but the $$ required for set up isn’t cheap.
Question: Your posts in the forums are always very knowledgeable, well-presented and thorough. They are also very clear. Is this because (as you say in your bio) you did "Early work in Technical Documentation and Help Manuals"?
Slackr: Probably. I spent time documenting a custom piece of software written by programmers to do some heavy work for the engineering office that my dad worked in. The software was amazing for its time and enabled them to do some great work but it wasn’t particularly user friendly and required a rather large manual of bullet-proof step-by-steps for some very old school engineers.
I like helping others to learn. There’s nothing quite like light bulb moments when people “just get it”. It is also a heck of a lot faster in the long run to have well-educated and equipped staff. It might take a couple of hours to demonstrate a technique to a colleague, but once they’ve learnt it well, you don’t need to teach it again. Better than being driven nuts by missed steps or having to fix their work later on down the line.
Like anyone, I appreciate having concise answers when I’m looking to solve a problem. Also having a heads-up on potential problems is nice too.
Question: You seem to have a varied background—from working with documentation and manuals to graphic design and web design. Were you trained in any of these areas, or self taught? What steps do you recommend someone take to get into areas like these nowadays?
Slackr: I’m a weird mixture. I love learning and am big on maximizing potential, not wasting time where I don’t need to. As we all know the revolution of computers giving us 4 day work weeks never eventuated—we spend that extra day wading through emails. As I’ve mentioned, I was lucky to be given space and opportunities to learn on the job under some very skilled ‘old hands’. I asked lots of questions and paid attention to everything they said.
Good resources are out there. There are some incredible knowledge bases out there. We are so lucky in this day and age to have not only texts but video tutorials as well. People learn differently so find what works for you and maximize it. There are so many tutorials out there, I’ve picked up little gems in a myriad of places. For myself I usually recommend Lynda.com and kelbytraining.com as they both are extensive, helpful and affordable even in small bursts.
With software I spend my time learning the basic tools that get things done so I know them well. I’ve always thought that about 80% of the work I do in Photoshop is using about 15% worth of the actual tools. It is a great piece of software because there are multiple techniques to achieve the same thing.
Question: You mention in your bio and elsewhere that you did a lot of graphic design work before adapting your skills for the web. It can be difficult for designers with a print mindset to adapt to the more fluid and changeable medium of the web. How have you found the transition? Do you have any tips for other graphic designers who are moving into web design work?
Slackr: Good designers learn one thing, that regardless of how much you like something the client is the one paying the bills. Don’t get too attached to your masterpiece because the client may not like it and instead use the 5 minute mock-up you did. Working for the web is even more brutal. Much of what I design are one-offs. They serve a purpose for their short life.
Designers are required to move across mediums these days. It’s almost a given that whatever is designed for print will end up on the web somehow. It is easier having a print-based background when working in the web as you already understand the importance of resolution, resizing, sharpening. There’s much less breathing room in print so working for the web feels luxurious. Most of the problems I’ve encountered are web designers trying to transfer their awesome campaign to print and suddenly realizing it isn’t going to work.
They are different mediums though. Web is harder I think because it is so instant and so temporary. You are competing for attention spans that are much shorter. With advertising dominating so much of the web, banner-blindness and accommodation of users is hard to combat. You have to be on your game and bring freshness to every project.
Question: What is your preferred workflow for web design? What tools do you use, and how do you go about designing for the web? (For example, do you work in Photoshop and make slices, or work in code, or a combination of these?)
Slackr: I’ve been around for a while so the tools and techniques have changed over the decade or so I’ve been doing it. My first websites were built from scratch with graphics designed and exported from Photoshop and constructed in an early version of Dreamweaver. We utilized Photoshop templates for a while, adapting them to our own requirements.
Because of our background in print-based design we dabbled in using a Mac program called FreeWay which married familiar software controls with their code generator. We’ve always had Dreamweaver available but often supplemented its use with other tools and plugins. Rapidweaver was a God-send for a few years as it allows the use of code in almost any part of the software.
I’m aware that my Achilles heel is code, so I try to keep it as clean as I can within my ability. Most tools are pretty good these days, there’s always cleaner code than mine but I strive for compatibility and compactness. I find the pace of development in the web world quite astounding. You seem to learn a technique, use it for a few months and there’s something new on the horizon.
Question: As someone who creates websites, what is your outlook on the world of web design and where it's heading? With the rise of HTML5, CSS3—but also the competing interests of web applications, mobile devices and so on—it can be hard to see where all this is going. What are your thoughts?
Slackr: Almost inevitably websites will have to work on mobile devices. Probably it will be wider than that with tablets starting to influence much of popular culture as well. It used to be something that you could ignore but with cheaper plans and data available, it is very much mainstream.
Question: In your bio, you mention an interest in psychotherapy. How far does this interest extend, and what is it based on? Does an understanding of psychotherapy help you deal with clients?
Slackr: Yea I have a Post Grad qualification in Child Psychotherapy. Ultimately I’d rather be doing that sort of work but between Government regulations and a qualification earned in another country (in a specialized area of psychotherapy), it just isn’t happening without sufficient $$ investment. It’s a bit sad but that’s life.
The biggest advantage of the study is in helping to think about how others think, and also in being sensitive to the unspoken things. Mostly in face-to-face meetings with clients but it does help through other avenues. As a designer it helps to get the client away from the ugliest design (why do they always choose that one), and also in explaining the intangibles that often accompany design. It can be abstract at times and the goals can be reasonably far removed from the implementation.
Question: How do you balance pixel pushing with family and recreation? What are your other hobbies or interests? You obviously have a love of Photography.
Slackr: It’s hard. For anyone who likes sitting in front of a screen, having a family and friends often feels like an inconvenience. There’s more time and pixels in my life than I have time to work with. I’m okay with that for now. Kids are only young once and you can’t buy that time back. So I often leave things more undone than done. Provided I can justify my time and keep my skill set alive for this time I’ll bide my time till the kids are a little older. I have four kids, roughly aged 2, 4, 6 and 8.
My love of photography has taken a bit of a back seat lately. I have a massive backlog of images to process.
Question: It's a tradition in these interviews to ask about your favorite music, movies and books. Are there any you'd like to list or recommend? What's been interesting you of late?
Slackr: Music is a hard one because I listen to a lot, but I’m finding increasingly it is becoming labeled ‘alternative’. Lately I’ve been enjoying Future of Forestry, Falling Up and also a band called RED.
Movies are a great past time as one of my best friends works in the industry. I live close to Wellington, New Zealand (home of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Peter Jackson’s studio, WETA workshop and currently the Hobbit is in production). We watch for enjoyment and I help out making props, doing titles, fake books, brochures etc. for his short film projects.
Books don’t get a lot of time at the moment, I am reading more and more online. Sources tend to be varied as I try to spread myself wide to gauge opinion.
Question: It's fun to break rules now and again. Are there any websites, products or causes that you'd like to promote? Any shameless self promotion you'd like to indulge in? Now is your chance! (I've temporarily bound and gagged the other forum moderators!)
Slackr: I don’t like the limelight, doing this interview has been a little daunting. There are so many worthy causes to get involved in these days, just take your pick, actually get involved and your life will be richer for it. I put my skills to work at the local church helping out with the kids program.
Ralph: Once again, Slackr, congratulations on being recognized as SitePoint's Member or the Month, and thanks for participating in this interview! It's been a pleasure to get to know you better.
OK everyone, it's over to you. Please offer your congratulations to Slackr for his award, for his great answers above, and for his contributions to the forum. :)