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Keir Whitaker

Keir Whitaker is the UK based Shopify Designer Advocate, one half of Viewport Industries, publisher of Digest & co-host of The Back to Front Show podcast.

Published Thoughts

At our recent Insites: Xmas Special I spoke about the three things that signify 2012 for me. They are:

  1. Collaboration — I am a firm believer that the sum of the parts are nearly always greater than the individuals. Finding and choosing good collaborators isn’t easy but it’s very worthwhile. They spur you on, make you raise the bar and bring skills to your projects you don’t have. Here’s to more collaborations in 2013.
  2. Shipping — 2012 was a year of a lot of talk but also a lot of action. There’s no better feeling than getting a project or product out of the door. I hope the trend continues in 2013.
  3. Community — We live in a digital age but increasingly feel isolated. 2012 was full of great events, meet-ups and spur-of-the-moment coffees with like minded people. It’s a great opportunity to share issues, problems and generally add the personal side to our digital industry. 2013 kicks off with a trip to Nottingham for NA Conf, see you there?

If you work for yourself, either as a freelancer or as part of a small business, it’s easy to forget that you “run” a business. It’s easy to spend all your time “in” the business, i.e. doing the work, and not enough time “on” the business, i.e. maintaining client relationships, lining up work or doing the accounts.

It’s not easy but to save your sanity at your end of year try spending a bit of time each week “on” your business. Take it from someone who learnt the hard way! Above all your accountant will love you for it.

Working in the web industry we often read about million dollar investments in the latest and greatest startup.

Startups come in all shapes and sizes. We are accustomed to reading about the latest hot startup securing a huge sum of cash for their latest idea.

If you read one book on startups may I recommend that you part with a few pounds and grab a copy of The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

Whilst not focusing exclusively on the web/tech industries it’s full of inspirational stories of people earning a living running their own, often solo, businesses. None of them are making millions but all are paying their bills, enjoying their work and are in control of their own destinies. It’s my non-fiction book of the year so far.

The videos from the recent WordCamp San Francisco are now available over at WordPress TV. All talks were 15 minutes long which makes them very accessible. Of particular interest to me was Chris Coyier’s session “10 Things to make your site faster”. If you deal with WordPress as part of your work it’s well worth 15 minutes of your time. As a bonus you’ll also learn how to blow up you Apache server!

Having just signed off the biggest print run I have ever commissioned I realised how lucky we are in the web world—unlike other mediums we can constantly tweak, update and improve based upon new standards, ideas and our own learning. Right—back to checking that proof for typos (again).

I have worked for myself, either as a freelancer or as part of a small company, as is now the case, for 6 of the last 9 years. Many of us talk about the great advantages of “being your own boss”. How many times have you been in a conversation with someone who says something like “It’s alright for you, you can do what you want when you want!”

For the most part they are right, it’s great working from your favourite coffee shop or on a train whilst you are travelling in the middle of the day to see a friend. However I have to say it’s not without it’s problems.

One of my aims for 2012 was to try and improve the line between work and home, or work and “not work”. My commute is literally seconds so I have put things in place to help. For example every day I get out of the house to take my children to school. It’s a great start to the day, unless it’s raining, and an opportunity to get some time to think. Additionally I decided to take all public holidays as holidays (something I haven’t always done).

So what’s the point of me telling you all this? Well it struck me the other day that I really don’t know how to take a “day off”—remember those? A day to yourself, not a public holiday or a weekend, a day that you mark off in your calendar just for you. I had hoped to book in one or two a quarter but so far it hasn’t happened. The problem is that I love what I do. Work pays the bills, but the web and design fascinate me. Taking a “day off” would likely turn into me checking emails in a coffee shop, reading a blog post or worse, fixing a bug.

I’ve decided that the next day off will be completely un web related. There’s plenty left to discover in and around the area I now live in. Museums, steam railways, great restaurants, river rides and independent cinemas to name but a few.

The funny thing is when you do make the time and do something different you normally come away with a new perspective, an idea for a design influcenced by a coffee shop menu, the solution to that problem that has been annoying you for days. Deep down we know all this but do little about it, I speak from experience. Let’s try it, after all that email will still be there when you get back!

Plugins are one of the main reasons I enjoy using WordPress. Here are four I end up using in nearly all WordPress related projects. I hope you find them useful.

  1. WP Super Cache - Simply activating this plugin will increase the load times of your site, especially on shared hosting environments.
  2. Maintenance Mode - A great utility plugin that allows you to activate a branded "maintenance" page, ideal for when you are deploying big changes or updating your data.
  3. Advanced Custom Fields - A recent addition to my standard library. This plugin allows you to add groups of meta boxes to your posts, pages and custom post types. Field types include date pickers, text, HTML editor and many more. Spend $25AUD on the "repeater field", you won't regret it.
  4. Custom Post Template - This plugin allows you to selectively choose templates for any individual post. For example, you can assign an entirely different template to posts in a particular category. Your chosen template will replace single.php for the specified post.

I am a proud owner of an iPad 2 and certainly didn't think the iPad3 was enough of an upgrade to merit the spend. That almost changed when Mr. Stocks whipped out his brand spanking new iPad 3 on a recent train journey. The retina display floored me. Web pages looked cleaner, images crisper and type immaculate.

It did however get us thinking about a bizarre irony. The devices we carry around with us are often the ones connected to lower bandwidth networks, like 3G or Edge or occasionally even less - sure they can serve up the most amazing images and type but this comes at a cost, larger downloads for the user. How are we meant to take advantage of these amazing screens but remain responsible in terms of the files we ask our users to download?

Just as we are now finding elegant ways to handle responsive images, for example we used Josh Emerson’s Responsive-Enhance script on the Viewport Industries site, it will be interesting to see how the problem of serving images "responsibly" will be solved, be it in CSS, JavaScript or natively in the browser.

We all strive to release "perfect" sites and applications, but sometimes you just have to "ship"! Get it out there, live with it, gather feedback and then revisit, fix bugs, improve markup and deploy. What other formats offer us this opportunity? If you are procrastinating on whether your site or side project is finished, I say just "ship it"!

Having been knee deep in CSS for a number of years I had become set in my ways. Like many other people I much prefered to hand code and generally avoided "frameworks". Looking back I am hard pushed to work out why, as I say I was set in my ways.

Towards the tail end of 2011 I was chatting with my good friend Greg and he asked if I had tried out Sass. I mentioned I had heard about it but hadn't really tried it in anger. After a quick demo I was a convert.

Whilst I don't use the nesting capabilities that much variables, mixins and selector inheritance make creating CSS quicker and more maintanable. If you write more than a few lines of CSS a day then I encourage you to give it a try.

Couple this with a utility like CodeKit for Mac and you won't even need to open up Terminal and start installing Ruby and Gems. Next on my learning list, spurred on by Mr. Bodien, is Compass.

Surrounding yourself with highly talented people is a sure fire way to improve your own skillset.

I love chatting to and learning from people who excel at what they do - whether it be a designer, coder or the owner of a small business. It's a fact of life that people like talking about themselves and are usually happy to share their experiences with you. By working out how talented and successful people approach things we put our own ways of working into context. It can often reinforce our own ideas, inspire us to do even better or occasionally make us realise that a certain approach isn't as good as we thought.

Even if you work at home all day or design or code is something you do in your spare time there's still ample possibilities to surround yourself with talented people. If you admire someone in the industry drop them a quick email with a very specific question - they might just reply. If you happen to be in their town for a day why not suggest meeting for a quick coffee? Be sure to have a couple of questions lined up to start the conversation when you meet. Alternatively you could get in touch with local agencies and offer to help out for a day or two. Don't forget to include details of your experience and why you are a perfect fit for them.

It's not always easy to achieve but I guarantee that it's well worth the effort. Surrounding yourself with experienced, talented and successful people will undoubtedly inspire you, certainly help you and ultimately give you a broader perspective on your work.