Paul is an independent graphic designer and front-end web developer who lives in beautiful Brighton, England. Previously at the Guardian, Clearleft and Ning, he advocates collaborative practice, systems thinking and embracing the inherent nature of the web.
When not writing for publications like net Magazine, A List Apart and 24 ways, he can be found working on side projects (he is currently digitising George Bradshaw’s railway guide) or blathering on Twitter.
12 December 2005. Excited yet somewhat anxious, I boarded United Airlines flight 955 from London Heathrow to San Francisco. I was working at a small agency at the time, designing websites for estate agents and other local businesses. Freelancing during evenings and weekends, I had recently started working for a small start-up called Ning, based in California. A few rounds of design later, I was offered a job and now booked on this flight so I could get a taste of the company.
I’d never visited America before. Besides wanting to know how this English-speaking country differed from my own, I was curious about the burgeoning technology scene in Silicon Valley, one slowly emerging from the wreckage of the dot com crash.
While Ning may have been small, it was the focus of much attention: one of its co-founders was Marc Andreessen, co-author of Mosaic and co-founder of Netscape. He and fellow co-founder and CEO Gina Bianchini were building a platform to help individuals create social networks around different interests. This was very much a nascent concept: MySpace had recently overtaken Friendster as the network of choice, while membership of Facebook was limited to college students. Twitter would be several months away from launching.
I was picked up at the airport by Gina and two product managers, Athena and Kyle. Even though it was the middle of December, the weather was bright and warm, as was this welcome party. As we drove from SFO to Palo Alto, I asked questions about the different things I saw whizzing past my window, no matter how inconsequential.
Palo Alto was a small, quiet town unbefitting a global centre of innovation. There were few features of note, except perhaps a British-themed pub, the Rose and Crown. Colleagues would be quick to recommend it, yet beyond a few photos of the Beatles hanging in the toilet and Guinness on tap, its theme was insubstantial.
Ning was based in an unassuming three-storey building, on a floor above a cosmetic dental practice. A dozen or so employees sat in a long room, with a few meeting rooms and small offices on one side. Every spare wall featured a whiteboard, and most were covered with scribbled network diagrams. It wasn’t glamorous, but this space was filled with positivity and potential, an atmosphere I found alien yet intriguing.
I ended my week of discovery accepting the role of lead designer, not difficult given the six-figure salary attached to it. The offer was well timed too: the agency I was working for would close down just a few months later. For the first time in my life, anything seemed possible. What a thrill!
Accepting this job required moving to the US, pending a visa application that would take nine months to complete. Thankfully, I was able to spend the first three months back in Palo Alto, getting to know my colleagues and the country that would soon become home. That this relocation was temporary, and the platform still in the early stages of development, meant the pressure was off: I could relax and embrace these new surroundings.
Those three months passed by quickly. Returning to the UK, I found myself removed from the people I had got to know so well. Conference calls reinforced this distance: a poor quality line meant every meeting felt like I was submerging my head in a fish tank, into which my only contributions could be a gurgled “hello” and “goodbye”. Thankfully, most of my interaction with the company took place via phone conversations with Gina, during which I heard her perspective on company developments — but by no means all of them.
Visa finally in hand, I arrived back in California that September, only this time I was greeted by an over-worked and demoralised team. I soon found out that the company has committed itself to an ill-judged and now severely delayed project that involved white labelling the platform for Playboy. Morale would improve as new projects were initiated (and this one was canned), but the honeymoon was over.
There was some good news. While I was away, the design team had doubled, with the arrival of David, an interaction designer. Theoretically my subordinate, David displayed a wealth of experience and depth of knowledge that only highlighted the shortage in mine. Whereas I would create pixel-perfect comps that reflected that week’s particular product strategy, he recognised the need to take a step back, understand broader goals and build consensus. He was also particularly good at spotting the straw man arguments to which I had become accustomed.
Collaborating with David was a fantastic and valuable experience. I quickly realised that being a capable and effective designer required developing skills beyond the reach of Fireworks. So why was I in a role for which I was so ill-equipped? During chats with Marc at the neighbouring diner, beyond getting his perspective on technology, politics and company strategy (conversations I now wish I’d recorded) he’d encourage me to seek a managerial role. At the time, I shrugged off his advice, not least because I had no desire to manage people. In retrospect, I suspect naivety and malleability were seen as a useful attributes for those below him.
I gradually became tired of the company’s controlling nature, of which these chats formed a small part. I was encouraged to stay in Palo Alto, rather than move to San Francisco. Once I did, it was suggested I use a mobile dongle so I could work on the train (work was never confined to office hours). My blog was scrutinised, the content of posts questioned, my desire to document lessons in this way curtailed or censored.
As my interest in social networking waned so did my faith in Ning. The content of all-hands meetings became unconvincing; the company was floundering as competitors grew stronger, yet its valuation would still increase. Disillusionment, frustration or disagreement were rewarded with pay rises and more equity, the prevailing wisdom such that any problem could be solved by throwing money at it. This contributed to an underlying sense that what I was seeing and hearing was largely cosmetic, my inner cynic only capable of believing so much. At the same time, I began to feel torn between two countries: this one full of potential and intrigue; the other maybe less glamorous, but ultimately where I longed to return, home.
By the end of 2007, the fateful conclusion to this adventure grew nearer. Attending An Event Apart that October, my eyes were opened to other possibilities and new creative endeavours. During the first break on the second day, I phoned my direct manager and handed in my notice. I say notice; having indicated my wish to leave, I was quickly shown the door.
I had spent almost two years at this company, one imbued with my personality: in-jokes (“blame Paul”), recycling initiatives (potato-based forks!) and distinctive design (I dutifully resisted the worst aspects of the web 2.0 look). Now I was shut out, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity squandered.
While it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of my time at Ning, to do so would be unfair. I made a number of friends, many of whom I still see and speak to today. I gained new perspectives that influenced my politics and informed my interests. It also gave my career a tremendous boost (during the course of my employment with Ning, I was introduced to Clearleft, a company I would later spend five years working for).
That I feel compelled to mark the anniversary of that initial flight, however, suggests that while the bitterness following my departure has long since passed, questions it instigated remain unanswered.
During a conversation with a friend and former colleague a few years later, he suggested my experience wasn’t typical, and that I should try working for another company in the valley. I felt unable to do so then and still do so today. Had my experience at Ning informed this judgement, or had I subconsciously reinforced it after the fact? After all, there’s no shortage of criticism being levelled towards the valley, whose selfish and inconsiderate motivations grow ever more loathsome and asinine — I’ve been hating on Silicon Valley before it was cool!
Thinking back to the job offer I received ten years ago, I doubt I could muster the same excitement were I to face a similar proposition today. I’m thankful I don’t need to measure the success of my career by how close I am to working for a technology start-up; been there, done that, got the Ning-branded T-shirt, cap and mug. Yet it’s also telling that I should consider this a measure in the first place.
Perhaps that’s why I get animated when people ask me about moving to the Bay Area, or working for a start-up. I have to check myself before giving any advice, saying something like “experience may have clouded my judgement on this”. Visits to San Francisco remain tinged with thoughts of what might have been, and reignite an internal debate as to whether I would have wanted it anyway.
Ning means ‘peace’ in Chinese. It seems I’ve yet to find mine.
Taking the Plunge (and Coming Up for Air)
Freelancing can sometimes feel like a roller coaster of emotions, and this post finds me at one of its lowest points. Eight months in, now seems like a good time to consider the ride taken so far, and consolidate some of the lessons learnt.
Since taking the plunge — which increasingly seems like an apt description — in March, I’ve enjoyed a varied range of work and experiences, just as I had hoped. It didn’t take long to land my first project. Working alongside my former colleagues at Clearleft, I pointed a co-operative retailer in the right direction as their online team set about a responsive redesign. Around the same time, I prepared a new talk, which I went on to present at a number of different events around Europe. I then spent much of the summer hunched over my laptop in various coffee shops as I wrote the corresponding article for A List Apart.
I welcomed this opportunity to think more deeply about the work I do, and enjoyed spending time travelling around Europe. Yet since the conclusion of that first project in July, besides a few week-long engagements, I’ve yet to find a project I can really get my teeth into. This fallow period has seen plenty of misdirection and introspection, and I’ve come to realise that freelancing is no place for arrogance, naivety or pride.
Foolish mistakes and valuable lessons
While I was working on that first project, I made no attempt to secure any follow-up work. To be fair, I wasn’t sure when it would end — at one point it looked like I may be contracted on it all year — but I could have used this period working in London to attend events and build my network there. When the project did finish, I decided to take a month off to concentrate on my own projects, and again, did so without looking for new clients. Projects don’t just fall into your lap because you have a respectable résumé and a few thousand followers on Twitter, and no amount of retweets can make up for such a colossal lack of business sense.
Of the enquiries I did receive, only a few piqued my interest. Only now have I recognised the need to be explicit about the type of projects I wish to work on. Refusing to work with certain organisations is perfectly principled, but I should be communicating loudly and clearly about where I do wish to invest my time and energy. That said, I could also be more open-minded; all projects offer learning opportunities, and some may even lead to greater rewards.
Following up on the first interesting lead, I thought writing a proposal would be enough to land the job, but I never heard back. Nor did I chase up, because a second lead followed. After a few weeks of back-and-forth, it was decided the project would be better handled by an agency rather than an individual. After third and fourth leads came to nothing also, I finally realised that chasing one lead at a time is not an effective strategy; nothing is guaranteed until a contract has been signed.
Birth of a salesman
It seems working for yourself leaves little room for maintaining any dignity. Selling myself is not something that comes naturally, nor does asking for help. The thought of tweeting about my availability, or asking friends and peers for referrals fills me with absolute dread. Doing so feels like an admission of failure, but in fact the opposite is true; I suspect having not done so is precisely why finding work has been difficult.
The good news is, having recognised these character traits, I can now start to adjust them. If finding work means gaining confidence and humility, clarifying my ambitions and being more positive and outgoing, not only will I become a successful freelancer, but a more capable person too.
A Blank Sheet of Paper
Early one morning, members of my graphic design degree group assembled in a student common area, ready to present our latest work to the course leader. I think the brief asked us to envisage an item we could send to potential employers to pitch our collective talent, but I could be wrong. One by one, we explained the thinking behind our final outcome, before receiving critique from the group. Responses to the brief were varied as always; some ideas lacked clarity or were over-complex, while a few demonstrated a clear vision.
Then it was David's turn. David was a capable designer who compensated for any weakness with ample self-confidence. To put it unkindly, he was full of it. Still, what happened next exceeded all expectations. He stood up and audaciously held aloft a pristine sheet of A4 paper, before confidently explaining how this perfectly encapsulated his concept. A blank sheet of paper with the sweetest smell of bullshit.
Guessing that his spiel was conceived over breakfast, I looked forward to hearing the stinging rebutal that would surely follow. It didn't come. The conviction of his bluster and bravado alone meant he was able to leave the room with his typical smugness fully intact. As we might say in Britain, he blagged it.
This incident happened fifteen years ago. Annoyingly, that I still remember his concept, only serves to prove its effectiveness. There's probably a lesson here, but I'm not sure I want to learn it.
Two Years Hence
With a natural limit for how long I can spend around a group of people, I tend to operate a policy of minimal viable social interaction. This probably makes me an introvert, but I think of it more as my resting state. In the right circumstances, I can actually be quite outgoing, especially when in familiar environments among people I know. Put me on a stage, and I can really thrive.
However, I’m hesitant about signing up for public engagements, perhaps for fear of embarrassment or a bruised ego but also, frankly, anything for an easy life. Yet pushing beyond my comfort zone helps me grow as a person. And besides, the adrenaline that follows can give me the confidence I so often lack.
There’s an old Hindu saying: ‘In the first thirty years of your life, you make your habits; for the last thirty, your habits make you.’ If I’m not careful, my tendency towards introversion could mean I let opportunities pass me by.
For the last few years I’ve employed a little life hack: signing up my future self to things I would ordinarily avoid. In 2010, I applied to be a Games Maker at London 2012. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but one that would mean interacting with the public. It being some time away, I applied knowing I could defer those fears. Two years later, and there I was in the Olympic Park, high-fiving members of the public with my big pink foam finger and leading chants over a megaphone: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”
I repeated the same trick in 2012 when I applied to be a volunteer at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. I had a clearer idea of what was involved, but again was unsure about dealing with the public. Soon enough, I was directing people towards Hampden Park stadium, dressed in an unflattering poncho, singing in the rain and cheekily stealing people’s chips.
Clearly this little hack is working. So, what do I sign up for next?
Better Than it was Before
I moved in to my house at the end of 2013 and, for much of last year, lived in it as the previous owner had left it.
Dirty marks highlighted where pictures previously hung, paint peeled off walls where it was poorly applied, electrical sockets clung on to their oversized holes.
A long break over Christmas provided an opportunity to finally redecorate. This only served to force closer inspection; paint splashes on woodwork, windows featuring layers of paint that ought to be stripped back, uneven joins between walls and ceilings. Redecorating fixed some of these issues but also introduced further blemishes — more areas to enrage an occupant too often concerned with perfection.
Throughout this entire exercise, I would think “well, at least it’s better than it was before”, a means of bargaining with myself in an attempt to finish the task before the holiday was over.
Returning home after my first day back at work, I entered my newly decorated flat and was overcome with joy, all those little blemishes had faded away. Each room was no longer a to-do list, my house was now a home.
This got me thinking of the parallels between redecorating a house and redesigning a website. Whenever a project fails to turn out as expected, commiserating with colleagues often leads to someone uttering the immortal words: “well, at least it’s better than it was before”.
Too often I think about how I can make the world a better place: socially equal, ecologically minded. This only serves to frustrate when I realise changing the world requires large amounts of money, time, resources and influence.
I can only achieve so much on my own, but I can inspire, influence and lead by example. Leaving things in a better condition than I found them, seems like a good place to start.
For the last year I’ve been working at the Guardian under the leadership of a creative director.
I’ve never worked with a creative director before – at least not in the traditional sense – and have found this to be a fascinating yet also frustrating experience; for the first time in my career I’ve not the been the arbiter of good taste.
This situation might have been different if our creative instincts were aligned, but that has rarely been the case. When reviewing a design, sometimes I would be asked to position an element uncomfortably close to the edge of a container, or use heavier or larger type. And yet weeks later, when faced with a design that was the accumulation of decisions I hadn’t agreed with, I’d find myself content with the result, my eye no longer drawn to what I previously found unsightly.
I’ve sometimes felt the same when looking at other people’s work. On seeing the first screenshots of iOS7, I recoiled at its flatness, the plainness of its typography, and those icons! But today I use my iPhone without taking much notice of this revised aesthetic. Was I too quick to judge, or have I simply grown used to those changes?
Of course, what constitutes good design is entirely subjective. Who is to say my judgements are better than those of another designer? Regardless of the decisions made internally, users of the product will no doubt have their own thoughts, too.
I’ve come to believe that good design is ultimately about a consistency of execution, but great design requires something else: bravery. A willingness to make decisions that push beyond the boundaries of contemporary taste. Thinking of breakthrough products – the original iMac with it’s bulbous Bondi-blue case, the Ford Sierra’s aerodynamic styling, the minimalistic interface of Windows Phone 7 – each was the result of decisions taken against the grain. Thinking back to those design reviews, perhaps I was witness to acts of similar importance, a participant in the continual refinement of prevailing fashion.
My year at the Guardian has taught me many things, but foremost is having the confidence to make braver choices. This year, should I find myself awkwardly positioning elements within a composition, I will try living with that decision for a few days rather than a few seconds.