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Interview with Freelance Web Developer Mark Perkins

Links: Mark’s Blog | Work | Twitter


Can you tell us a little bit about how you first got into the web design and development industry?

I did my first sort-of-programming at Uni – I studied Oceanography but we used a piece of software called Matlab that it has it’s own programming language for sorting and visualising large data sets. That gave me a taste for the development side of things I guess. After Uni I started teaching myself how to make websites whilst I was working at a windsurf centre in Egypt – don’t ask me why, I just wanted to do something constructive in the evenings and somehow I stumbled onto making websites! A mobile dialup connection in the middle of nowhere made it more painful than it needed to be – but I didn’t know much else so it seemed ok at the time.

After that I co-founded a small non-profit organisation called the EcoSurf Project and became it’s ‘webmaster’, creating and managing the main site, online store and a few mini sites. We won an award for our work but couldn’t figure out how to make it pay the bills so eventually we had to close it down. As there were more opportunities for web designers/developers than Oceanographers around I started looking for agency work and got into the industry properly then.

Do you consider yourself to be mainly a designer or developer (or a bit of both?)

Mark PerkinsI think I am definitely more of a developer – I love the problem solving aspect of writing code, and (contrary to what a lot of non-developers think) I believe that writing good code requires a good dose of creativity as well.

I currently do a lot of backend development (mostly PHP/MySQL), although JavaScript and frontend development is really my one true love!

I do love the design side of things, but I always feel a bit inadequate without any formal design training, and whilst I think I have a reasonable eye for layouts I’m definitely not a talented designer by any stretch of the imagination. However, I believe some understanding of basic design principles is crucial to good frontend development work and I have tried to educate myself a little on grid layouts, colour theory, typography etc as I have gone along.

Are you currently working full time or freelance? Which do you prefer?

I’m currently freelancing, trading under the name of Medium. I’ve only just taken the plunge full time into freelancing so I’m still finding my feet with it all a little!

What is your normal workflow for creating a website from start to finish?

The first thing I will try and do is to work with the client to get a loose first version of the sitemap together. Even if this changes a bit later on I find it really useful to have at least a rough overview of the structure of the site before starting any design or development work.

Then I will often have a good browse through sites like Ember or some of the CSS galleries to get some general ideas and inspiration. I’ll also tend to use sites like Kuler or ColorSchemer to help me try and put together a nice palette for the site. When I’m done with that I’ll start with sketching out lots of little thumbnails of layout ideas until I find something that I think will be suitable for the site I’m working on. I will probably then sketch out one or two larger versions of the layout until I have crystallised the idea in my head. None of these are meant for client consumption – they are just very quick sketches for my own benefit.

ScreenshotNext step would be putting together a rough wireframe for the client, including the basic building blocks and IA ideas for the site. This might be done using something like Omnigraffle, but more and more I am doing rough HTML wireframes/prototypes early on as I find the client engages much better with them when they can actually interact with the prototype. If the site will need a CMS I frequently hook the wireframe up to the CMS we’ll be using to make things easy to move around and to put in dummy content, and later just update the templates when the design has been done.

Once the wireframe has been signed off, I’ll pick up Photoshop and start putting together the design. Once the key pages of the site have been signed off I will start turning the design into HTML/CSS/JS templates, fleshing out the other pages as I go. I rarely design everypage as a flat visual – mostly I will do two or three pages at most and then put the others together as I go along.

If the site has any complex functionality I will generally be working on this whenever something is with the client for feedback – that way by the time the design is finally signed off I will often have got a fair way through the development side which speeds things up a little.

Once all the templates are done, I’ll hook them up to the CMS (if required) before doing the bulk of my cross browser testing (I primarily develop in Firefox) so I can see how things will work when there is some real content in there and if things are affected by any CMS quirks that there may be. And then it’s off to the client for approval, although I will often have a working dev site up for them to check and feed back on as I go along so there are no nasty surprises at the end!

Where do you find inspiration on the web?

Well, as I mentioned above I find sites like Ember and one or two of the CSS galleries like Design Shack useful for keeping up with current web trends and ideas. Design pattern collections like those at PatternTap and Chris Messina’s Design Patterns Flickr collection are also really useful sources of ideas and best-practice solutions to common problems.

I’m always looking for more off-line inspiration, and certainly looking through print design books and magazines with one eye on how the ideas in them could translate to the web is something I have found useful in the past.

Pattern Tap

Are there any other designers in the industry producing work that you really admire?

There are plenty! I love the work done by Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain at 31threeJason Santa MariaTim Van DammeDouglas Bowman and by agencies such as Happy Cog and Clearleft – to be honest there are to many to mention here but those are a few that spring to mind immediately.

Do you subscribe to any blogs, podcasts or magazines to help stay on top of the web design world?

Yes indeed – I have far too many RSS feeds in my reader to list here! I don’t really read any magazines regularly anymore, but I do listen to a lot of podcasts like BoagworldShot of Jaqyayquery amongst many others (including most of the shows on the Twit Network – but they are more tech than web really).

Do you have a particular web design conference or event that you never miss?

Well I’ve been to dConstruct for the last two years running, and really enjoyed it. I was gutted not to be able to go to the Full Frontal JS conference last year and will definitely be booking into that one for 2010. I’d love to go to more to be honest but if you need to travel to them the costs soon add up – and with two little daughters I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed!

What hobbies do you have and do they help you ‘switch off’ from the internet?

I do a fair bit of medium to long distance running, a bit of windsurfing and I also love doing a bit of cooking when I get the chance – although out of all of them running is really the best way to clear out my head after a long day in front of the computer. And of course playing with my kids is a great way to get back a bit of perspective on the world.

Finally, do you have any tips for people starting in the industry?

Don’t cut corners. Write code by hand, take the time to learn not just how things work but also why, and make sure you pay attention to all the little details as it’s these that separate good developers (and websites!) from the really great ones.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Mark!

Links: Mark’s BlogWorkTwitter

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