It’s been over six months since my last posting to this web log. I could offer excuses about being far too busy, and that would be true for some periods of my absence. But to be honest I haven’t blogged because I haven’t been motivated to do so. Oh, I’ve had plenty of ideas for postings, all accompanied by the missive, “I should blog about that some time.” I’ve started numerous draft posts, only to abandon them unfinished when I ran out of steam or got distracted. So I’ve just let this site languish unattended for six months while I got on with other things (and sometimes got on with nothing… laziness is its own reward).
But 2007 is over and I’m mustering the motivation to resurface for the annual recap. This concludes my first full year as a freelance web designer/developer, having left my previous job in November, 2006 (October 27, to be precise). A gutsy move, but after a full year I can say it was the best career decision I’ve ever made.
I entered the freelance arena with a plan: give it a six month trial. I had saved up a solid nest nest egg to act as a financial buffer against lean times, and if I found myself regularly dipping into savings to pay the bills I’d resign myself to failure as a freelancer and go find a real job. But the first six months went well (thanks in no small part to landing a pretty sweet contract right out of the gate) and the nest egg remained uncracked six months later. And so I extended the trial another six months. That second trial ended a month ago and things are still going well, so I aim to live like this for as long as possible; life as an ongoing series of six month trials until the work dries up or I find something better to do.
So what have I been doing all year?
The freelance work has been steady and rewarding, largely due to the continued friendship and support of Aaron Gustafson and Kelly McCarthy, magnanimous proprietors of Easy! Designs, LLC. They keep finding the projects and keep hiring me to work on them. I’ve carved myself a comfy niche as a subcontractor, and have thus far managed to avoid putting on the salesman hat.
It was Aaron who gave my freelance career a kickstart when he recruiting me onto a project at Adaptive Path last November (the site has since gone live so I think it’s safe to blog about it). The two of us tag-teamed on the markup and CSS for MyRide.com, an automotive research/review site run by the folks at Autobytel, Inc. Adaptive Path consulted on the information architecture and visual design, while Aaron and I were hired to take it from wireframes and comps to HTML and CSS. We delivered our static templates to an outside team for final implementation, so bear that in mind when you inspect the code. All things considered, I think we did some fine work and managed to construct a rather complex visual layout with relatively clean, semantically rich and accessible markup. Aaron also contributed some sweet scripty goodness, for which I take zero credit.
Since then, Easy! Designs has been my primary employer with no signs of slowing down. I did one quick project for another company (subcontracting again) but that site is behind a login so there’s no point in naming or linking it. My one other non-Easy! project in 2007 is still ongoing, and I’m pretty psyched about it: I’m working on the markup and CSS for a major redesign of addons.mozilla.org. Because Mozilla is an open-source foundation, the project is non-secret and documented on the public wiki so I’m free to discuss it even before it’s finished — quite a refreshing change from the norm. Hopefully my work will go live very early in 2008. I owe Steve Ganz a tip of the hat and at least a nice dinner for giving me the hookup.
For the most part, I’ve been building other peoples’ designs all year and haven’t designed many sites myself — only two in 2007: for ACME Auto Sales and the Middlesex Hospital Family Medical Residency Program, both for Easy! (I’m not counting the book site). The challenge of implementing someone else’s vision can be frustrating, but also rewarding in its own way. While I’ve always considered myself first and foremost a graphic designer, I do thoroughly enjoy digging into the fine craft of construction and assembly. I like the hands-on tangibility of actually making something. There is beauty in code, even if it’s essentially invisible to the end user. Sure, HTML and CSS are just the tools that make the thing and are not the thing itself, but using these tools to build a website is a craft, no matter what some might think. Anyone can swing a hammer, but a good craftsman knows precisely where and how hard to tap. Simple tools do great things when wielded by a skilled hand, and there’s no shame in taking pride in that.
That said, a year as a web carpenter has strongly reinforced my belief that a good visual designer needs to understand the rules and constraints of HTML and CSS in order to ensure the practical doability of his or her creations. An architect needs to know about glass and steel, a sculptor needs to know about clay and stone, and a web designer needs to know about markup and style. Which isn’t to say you have to be an ace coder to be a web designer, but you’ll be an even better designer if you know how code works. Learn to think like an engineer.
Given the chance, I still prefer to design the sites I build and to build the sites I design, and I hope to do more visual design work in the future. One thing I’m sure is holding me back is this very website; it certainly isn’t a breathtaking example of creativity in its current state. I’ve had a redesign on the back burner for far too long (over two years now) and I just keep extending my personal deadline. [Another reason I haven’t blogged… I feel like time spent writing would be better spent redesigning, and since I haven’t been redesigning I have a hard time legitimizing the writing. Vicious cycle.] I seriously need to get a new site online in 2008. I mean it this time.
And speaking of writing, have I mentioned before that I have a book out? Well, I have a book out. Beginning HTML with CSS and XHTML hit the street at the end of June and seems to be doing alright so far. It sold 1,660 copies in the second quarter of 2007 (its first quarter in publication), plummeting to 974 copies in Q3 for a total of 2,634 copies in the latter half of the year (plus 72 e-book sales). Hardly record-breaking, but that’s actually not too shabby for an intro-level techie book by a couple of first-time nobodies.
There is, alas, one really negative review on Amazon, which wouldn’t bother me if said review were informed, supported, and well-written. But the guy’s criticisms are weak and ludicrous, and he didn’t even notice any of the real flaws in the book, instead commenting only from his own unfounded expectations and misreadings. I don’t think he actually read the book at all, but just scanned a few bits (mostly Appendix A) to make his conclusions. I composed a lengthy, cathartic response to Mr. Scubabear, countering each of his points one by one. I decided not to post it on Amazon, lest I seem too uppity and defensive. But his review really is badly written and warrants a harsh review of its own. Maybe I’ll post it here.
Though I only wrote six of the eleven chapters, writing a book was much harder than I anticipated, and I have no immediate plans to write another one any time soon. But who knows what the future may hold.
2007 was also the Year of Web Conferences. I attended a total of six:
- The first Web Directions North was also my first trip to Canada, and in fact my first trip outside the United States (not counting one day in a Mexican bordertown). Had to get a passport and everything. I had a great time and will be returning to Vancouver in a few weeks for WDN08.
- My third South by Southwest Interactive had the potential to be my last, but I ended up enjoying it so much that I’ll give it another year. I’ll stop going when it stops being fun.
- The first @media conference on American soil was in San Francisco — just a short hop across the bay from my HQ — so of course I had to go.
- I only attended the Ajax Experience in San Francisco because I got a free pass. It wasn’t quite my cup of tea, and I felt completely out of place the whole time.
- Likewise the Rich Web Experience in San Jose; got in free, not my bag, felt out of place. Their tag-line is “the convergence of web development and design” so I expected at least 50% design-related content. In reality it was about 10% design and the rest was way over my head.
- More up my alley was An Event Apart San Francisco, my first Event Apart but hopefully not my last. They’re coming back to SF next summer.
I’ve been to enough of these things now to notice a definite split in audience types that seems to happen around the $1200 mark. The people who attend low-priced conferences are often paying their own way, taking time off work and traveling out of pocket because they’re passionate about the web. As such, they’re more likely to rub elbows and cut loose, and are generally more interesting and more talkative. When a conference ticket costs more than $1500, that steep cover charge filters out the casual attendees so the bulk of the audience is made up of people whose companies are paying their way. When you’re at a conference under corporate sponsorship, you’re a bit more obliged to knuckle down and be serious. It’s not a vacation for these people; they’re still on the clock. They also travel in packs of co-workers and are less likely to fan out and meet new people.
Of course, the people who take their own time and spend their own money to attend a web conference are also the people who have already embraced web standards, already read the books and blogs of the speakers, and are thus already part of the choir. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for web standards evangelism at these things any more, and the people we still need to reach don’t go to these conferences. Conversely, the people who are sent against their will to some far-off gathering, paid for out of their corporations’ training budget, are exactly the people who desperately need to upgrade their skillsets, but such conferences seem more focused on pimping cool new techniques and hawking new technologies rather than reexamining the fundamentals of the medium.
In my experience, the smaller and/or cheaper conferences tend to be more socially enjoyable, with more conversations and networking and general merrymaking. Pricey conferences are more sober (in all the word’s connotations) and thus a bit less fun to be around. This isn’t the rule, just a generalization. But I’ll take a cheap and fun conference over an expensive and serious one any day.
- Best Threequel: The Bourne Ultimatum.
- Worst Threequel: Spider-Man 3.
- Most triumphant comeback: Futurama the Movie: Bender’s Big Score.
- Best bad movie: Planet Terror.
- Worst good movie: Beowulf.
- Best movie I didn’t see: Persepolis.
- Best book (non-fiction): Making Comics, by Scott McCloud.
- Best book (fiction): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (a boringly predictable choice, perhaps, but I didn’t read much fiction this year).
- Best minute: 11 July 12:39 PM