Jina Bolton on Creating Sexy Stylesheets

Matthew Magain
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Jina Bolton is a designer and artist, working and residing in Silicon Valley. She has written several articles for SitePoint, was a co-author of The Art & Science Of CSS, and is presenting at the Web Directions South conference in Sydney later this month.

Australian readers of SitePoint are eligible for a discount on their ticket price by entering the code WDS-SP. You can read more details in this blog post.

SitePoint: You’ve become a regular on the web conference circuit over the last couple of years, and you’re visiting Australia for the Web Directions South conference later this month. What is it about conferences that keeps you coming back?

It’s a number of things, actually.

It started when I lived in Memphis. I could count the names on one hand how many people in the Memphis area were like me (caring about web standards and really embracing the web industry for what it really is). I went to my first conference in November 2006 (Refresh 2006 Orlando), and was instantly immersed in a crowd of people that I felt were “like me.” It was refreshing (no pun intended), inspiring, and motivating.

While I’m very capable of reading, studying, and learning things on my own, there’s nothing like having a person explain it to you – especially if they do it well. It’s why I like school. Conferences can be similar to that (if you choose the right ones).

After a couple conferences, I started being invited to speak at them. I’m not entirely sure why (I still feel like a noob), but I take those opportunities whenever I can! Not only do I get to learn more, and hang out with people who I respect and who continually inspire me, but I also get to share what I’ve learned with others.

SP: Tell us a little more about this karaoke obsession. Are you one of those people who has an amazing voice, that once you start singing everyone screws up their nose and thinks “Who brought her along?” Or are you just a run-of-the-mill enthusiast who loves being in the spotlight for five minutes, regardless of how much you destroy a song?

I think it’s the latter. I can be absolutely petrified of presenting in front of other people (especially at conferences), but when I’m performing, it’s just different. I used do a lot of singing and acting when I was younger. I’m not as good as I used to be (as I am out of shape, vocally), but I do enjoy pretending to be someone else (which is where the acting and karaoke come in).

When I was in my first couple years of college, there was a bar a couple of blocks away from the student residencies that ran karaoke every Wednesday night. Let’s just say I avoided registering for a Thursday morning class, just so I could go to this every week. And yes, I went every week. I even had a stage name, mostly just for fun, but also so I wouldn’t have to tell dudes my real name when they’d approach me afterwards.

Now, I don’t really get the chance to go to karaoke that much, so when the opportunity does come, I jump on it. Especially if D. Keith Robinson, Jeff Croft, and Dan Rubin are involved!

SP: Your personal site is called Sushi & Robots. Where did the interest in these stem from? How else do you like to occupy your time when you’re not in front of a computer?

I love Asian food in general, but sushi was something I always found to be a very fun, healthy (depending on what you get), and social food; the presentation is artistic and attractive. I actually only got into sushi in college, as my family didn’t ever really eat it. I enjoyed it so much that I even worked at a sushi restaurant when I was in between jobs. (As much as I do love sushi, I found out very quickly that I am not meant for the restaurant business. Sincere apologies to the lady I accidentally spilled an entire tray of drinks on).

I think I’ve always had a fascination with robots. The movies I watched, the stories I read … I even drew a comic that featured a robot when I took a sequential narrative illustration class (similar to graphic novels) in college. However, the recent obsession came out of an accident. R is right next to T on a keyboard, and a few friends of mine found it easy to accidentally type Boltron instead of Bolton. I was joking with a friend that it would be a funny April Fool’s joke to redirect my web site to jinaboltron.com, which would have some ridiculous Flash animation of a robot (that looked like me) demolishing a city. Somehow Boltron stuck. And with a new nickname came a new obsession.

Besides, who doesn’t like robots? Even evil robots are really cool.

SP: Your Sushi & Robots site recently underwent a bit of a facelift. How did you find that process? Are you the hardest client you’ve ever worked for? Oh, and I love the illustration on the front page – whose handiwork is that?

I think I designed about 20 different designs for the new site (not all at once, just over time, when I’d get annoyed with the previous version). Of those designs, 10 were actually built into HTML/CSS templates (again, over time from starting over and over). And 5 of them were actually plugged into a content management system. Now, those numbers aren’t accurate, but they’re pretty close. Ask my friend Stephen Rainey (of Clear Function, who built Reflect, the CMS I’m using now). He’s seen a few of the iterations.

I started in 2006, actually. I didn’t realize that until just now. So it’s taken me about two years to land where I’m at now. And honestly, I’m not fully satisfied. But I just needed to get it live. So, yes, I am the hardest client I’ve ever worked for. I always feel like it could be better.

The illustration is the beautiful work of the talented illustrator, Jim Mahfood. I met him on September 11, 2001 (yes, that sad day), in which he gave a visiting artist lecture at the art college I attended. Unfortunately for him, he was stuck in Memphis for a week, since the airports shut down due to the tragedy that occurred that morning. But fortunately for us, it meant we got to hang out with him. He’s an awesome dude, and I highly recommend him.

SP: Your Web Directions South session is called Creating Sexy Style Sheets. What makes a style sheet sexy?

I think some people misinterpret what I mean when I say sexy style sheets; rather than a sexily-designed web site, what I am referring to is a style sheet that has been designed and developed to be smart, efficient (taking in consideration both present development as well as future development), and maintainable. That is something I find to be an art form in itself. When I do these talks or write these articles, I am also doing it for myself. I don’t think my style sheets are always “sexy” (especially when forgetfulness or a looming deadline is involved), but I want them to be. These are the things I strive for, and so I share them with others, in case they need something to strive for as well.

SP: You’ve made a bit of a name for yourself as a designer who has successfully managed to bridge the world of standards and the world of beautiful, original interface design. Can you tell me how you find your inspiration? Do you use any online tools like Flickr, or listen to music while you’re brainstorming?

I find my inspiration in many places. I am really into modern, minimal design, and I like neutral colors. However, I also like ornamentation and patterns with earthy colors. If I can find the right blend using all of these, I’m happy. I do this in my apartment as well.

I always listen to music when I’m working. I have a very eclectic mix of indie, trip hop/downtempo, underground hip hop, old school jazz, and electronica. I don’t really use Flickr for brainstorming. I have looked at gallery web sites though. My most recent favorite of these is minimalsites.com.

SP: Who do you count as your influences? What blogs are you reading at the moment? Any books that you’ve read recently that made an impression on you?

When it comes to web visual and interaction design, the top two designers I look up to are Dan Cederholm and Ryan Sims. They’re just so good. Some of the blogs I’m reading at the moment are NOTCOT, Apartment Therapy, The Big Noob, The Ampersand, I Love Typography, Monoscope, Rands In Repose, Treehugger, among many others. The most recent book I read most definitely made an impression on me: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski; both the typography and the storytelling really inspired me.

SP: Do you have a rigid process that you follow when fleshing out a design for the first time? Do you still use a pen and paper, and draw thumbnails, or do you jump straight into Photoshop/Illustrator?

Everything depends on the project. If I have the time to really explore, then I will sketch my designs. However, if I’m on a fast-turnaround deadline, then I have to jump right in. I don’t think my process is rigid; my process evolves as I learn more or as the project dictates.

SP: One aspect I’ve struggled with personally when designing sites in the past is to create an interface that is beautiful and original, but still familiar. What are your thoughts on user-interface conventions?

I think conventions are there for a reason. And it’s good to pay attention to them, learn from them, and use them. However, that doesn’t mean it has to totally stop us from innovating, as long as that innovation doesn’t cause an interaction problem.

SP: At Web Directions South last year, Andy Clarke unveiled the CSS Eleven as a team of designers committed to shaping the future of CSS in areas where the W3C had failed. Can you tell us some more about how that’s going, and what is planned?

Has it really been a year? Wow. Well, we’ve been in touch with Fantasai, who will come to us with certain questions, which we answer via email. We’ve also been working on a new site to replace the controversial splash page that has been up for quite some time. However that’s taking a little longer than we expected, because Andy recruited talented people – but people with real jobs that keep them busy. Because of the wait, we actually had a recent shake-up, but we’re still going. Hopefully Andy sees this and responds with his own thoughts …

SP: Final question: you’re going to be stuck on an island for 30 days with two people. Who do you take with you, and why?

30 days isn’t that long! I’d probably take my dad and my brother. My dad seriously needs a vacation and he used to be in the army, so he might be able to teach us some survival stuff – maybe.

And I’d take my brother because, well, why leave him out? That probably wasn’t what you were hoping for, was it?

SP: Ha ha, never mind! Thanks for your time, Jina. I look forward to catching up in Sydney soon.

Thank you, you too!

See Jina present at the Web Directions South conference in Sydney next week, on the topic of Creating Sexy Style Sheets. SitePoint readers are eligible for an additional $55 discount by quoting the code WDS-SP during purchase.

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