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Interview with Web Developer Rob Hawkes

www.rawkes.com | www.twitter.com/robhawkes

Rawkes.com

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

My interest in web design started at a fairly early age. I was about 12 years old when I got the urge to create an area online where I could share tips for a hobby of mine. At the time I had no idea what web design was but it still didn’t take me long to set up a Geocities account and have a few basic pages online for the whole world to see. From this moment on I was fascinated by the ability to put something on the internet and my OCD-like interest in how things work took over. By the age of 13 I had bought my first book on HTML and could write a website by hand without any reference. Even though HTML is a miniscule part of my current skill-set I still see that first website and book as a defining factor in where I am today.

Over the following years I played with HTML and Photoshop day in day out and by the time I was 15 I had dabbled in PHP and got my first freelance job. This was the moment I decided that being paid for doing your hobby was pretty awesome. From then on I continued learning in my own time, from books and the internet, and slowly built up my skills. It was only when I was 19 that I actually went into the industry as a full-time web designer. Needless to say that job didn’t go entirely to plan as I’m now at university, but since then I dabbled in freelance for a year and most recently I spent 4 weeks at Redweb, the #1 digital agency in the South West according to the New Media Awards.

Do you consider yourself to be mainly a designer or developer?

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If you asked me this question a few years ago I would have definitely said a designer. Back then I was into product design and always put form over function. I was an aesthetics guy. Shortly after that brief moment of insanity I discovered that development was more my scene. The main attribute of development that drew me in was the whole problem solving and instant gratification of programming. Whether it was a simple bit of jQuery or a massive PHP backend, the act of coding always pushed the right buttons.

Today I focus primarily on web programming (PHP, JavaScript, ActionScript, HAML/SASS), although recently my skills have been slowly bleeding into the desktop and mobile platforms (5 points for guessing which platform). Don’t get me wrong though, I still design, I just don’t get the same satisfaction from it as I do with code. If anything I find design slightly boring now, something that has to be done rather than being motivated by the simple act of doing it.

Another aspect of development that I love is the fact it’s a constantly changing world; there are always new programming languages and techniques around the corner. Development, to me, seems a much more volatile and interesting beast. With design things tend to go round in circles with trends and the like; which I find incredibly dull at times.

Is there a particular CMS your prefer to use?

Habit would bring me to say WordPress, but for a true CMS requirement I’d have to say ExpressionEngine. I’ve only recently delved into EE for the new Rawkes but what I’ve seen so far with the built-in functionality has blown me away, particularly with the whole ‘weblog’ stuff. I can’t see myself moving from EE for a site that requires anything more than a blog, especially considering that there is a major upgrade to EE just round the corner that brings CodeIgniter to the table. I do have to say that if I was to need a simple blog set up I would reach for WordPress, no questions asked. It does its job well, enough said really.

Your new website redesign seems to be coming along nicely. Will this new site see a change in direction for rawkes.com?

Completely. The new Rawkes is going to see a shift of focus from freelancing to blogging and experimentation. When the old site was created I was freelancing at the time and needed a platform to advertise my services so I could bring in the money. Since then I’ve become a student (again) and my priorities have shifted so much that I simply don’t have the time to freelance anymore. With this in mind it made sense for me to give Rawkes a big change of scene and let it focus on my blogging and experimentation. Hopefully this new platform will give me some space to try out new technologies and learn new things as I blog about them. Ideally I’d see Rawkes adding a hub full of open-source projects I’ll be working on over the coming years, but we’ll see how that one pans out.

rawkes-new-design

As for the design, that has changed a lot as well. The old site took me over 3 months to produce at near full-time devotion to it. I put a lot of effort in and would like to say that it was the best I could achieve back then. The same can be said of the new Rawkes; I’ve kept the same theme but brought it into line with where I am today with my new skills and knowledge, hopefully for the better. You’ll find that it doesn’t support IE6 anymore and utilises technologies like HTML 5, CSS 3, <canvas> and a bunch of other stuff. I decided to make it my playground really, a place where I can really go all out with these new spangly buzzwords.

Could you tell us about the time you spent with Redweb this summer. What kind of things did you learn from your time with them?

RedwebThe month I spent at Redweb was amazing, there is such a great atmosphere there. I was placed in the Innovation Department, an area of the company that basically keeps 1 step ahead, looking at future technologies and how they can be used today. During my time there I got to learn about things like augmented reality although my main focus was really on <canvas> and HTML 5.

Being given the freedom to explore HTML 5 and <canvas> was a great experience and instantly expanded my skill-set. Even though I had touched those technologies in the past, I would probably have never given myself the time to properly get to grips with them, particularly with the JavaScript side to things.

How do you see the <canvas> element being utilised in the future?

Working with <canvas> has really opened my eyes to the possibilities of JavaScript with new browsers like Safari 4, Firefox 3.5 and Google Chrome. Having a fully featured drawing platform built right into the browser is going to change a lot of things in the future. In particular I’m most interested in seeing how <canvas> stacks up as a replacement for Flash. Obviously there are limitations that only Flash can address but there are plenty of opportunities where <canvas> would be more than satisfactory; with data visualisation for example.

The most important thing I discovered during my work is that <canvas> can’t do everything on it’s own, you need to look at it as a starting point. What’s great is that because it’s controlled via JavaScript it can be extended with ease. You could add a basic animation engine with not much more than a timeout function and some imagination. This is what will make <canvas> worth keeping an eye on, not what it does out of the box.

Where do you find inspiration on the web?

Inspiration is a tough one to pin down, I just seem to come across it without any particular method. I used to traverse all the regular CSS galleries but I found over time that it all got a bit samey and kept pulling me back into current trends. If anything I get most of my inspiration from people talking on Twitter about new websites and software, it’s certainly a lot easier when other people are doing the legwork for you!

When I do find inspiring work I don’t hang around, it’s bookmarked into delicious and saved onto my Mac via LittleSnapper in no time. I like to know that when the time comes I’ll have a little repository of inspiring stuff waiting for me to sift through.

Rob Hawkes Portfolio Rob Hawkes Portfolio

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

I admire a lot of people in the industry for a variety of different reasons. Most of the people I like are great speakers and are just generally inspiring to watch and listen to. One person in particular that fits into this category is Daniel Burka, I saw him at dConstruct one year and was left inspired by his approach to design.

As for general admiration, these people certainly fit into the category:

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

I used to have an RSS subscription list as long as my arm but I found it just became too much of a distraction. Now I use Fever and keep my subscriptions to a healthy minimum (still lots though), I find using a web based feed reader stops me wasting so much time on them.

Smashing Magazine always seems to find its way into my life, although I’m starting to go off it now it’s turning into a big list blog. A List Apart is one publication that I will always have time for, its in-depth articles on interesting topics are fascinating. As for magazines, .net is definitely my weapon of choice. It sometimes is a little boring but it’s a good read regardless.

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

To be honest I don’t have many hobbies that don’t involve the internet and computing, it’s my life! I suppose I could class photography as offline, I do like going out and about taking photos of interesting things. Apart from that I keep myself busy with uni work which is actually a pretty good method of switching off from the internet, especially when writing essays. It’s all pointless anyway as I have an iPhone which keeps me connected to the internet 24/7. Good times!

Rocket

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

I’ll keep this one brief as I could talk about it forever but here are my 3 main tips for starting out:

  • Perseverance – accept that you’ll make mistakes
  • Focus – aim for something while learning new things
  • Motivation – you need to have drive to get anywhere

To put it bluntly I wouldn’t bother trying to get into the web industry if you don’t have any of those qualities, it wouldn’t be fair on you. The web, and media as a whole, is a tough industry to crack and you’ll need motivation to push yourself through the slow times. On the bright side it’s an amazing industry to be part of and the rewards for the hard work make it well worth while.

Thanks so much for the interview Rob. Good luck with your degree!

www.rawkes.comwww.twitter.com/robhawkes

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  1. Great interview with Rob. He’s someone on the web that I definitely look up to because even though he’s not a major player (yet), he has a fantastic website and an amazing talent.

    It’s because of him that I’m taking the time to go through an overhaul of my site and have paid a copywriter to write all of my content for me!

  2. After meeting rob at a conference, and talking to him on twitter I must say that this guy is one to follow yourself. Talented, polite and someone who after only spending a few drinks with you will release the passion oozing out.

    I’m not sure when, but pretty soon we’re due an explosion from this guy and its evident already that its going to be immense.

  3. Another really good interview, I listen to xplicit web so to hear more from Rob is great. I think that the little snapper is a great idea and something I am definitely going to start using instead of lots of urls stored on a word document. Thanks for that tip, working for a web design company, this is something that I feel a lot could benefit from so thank you!

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