Jeffrey Zeldman on What He Wants All Designers to Know

Posted by Madeline Reddington /March 4, 2015 / Advisors, Entrepreneurial Advice, FounderTalk, Hot Topics

images-2It’s hard to find a designer who doesn’t at least know of Jeffrey Zeldman. He was a helpful hand to countless people first learning to make websites when the internet was an entirely new phenomenon. He moved on to pioneer standards-based web design, write two books on web design and found A List Apart magazine—an online resource focused on both design and development together.  Zeldman is also the founder of the web design studio Happy Cog and co-hosts The Big Web Show, a podcast on the web and online publishing. This week, we talked to him about designer entrepreneurs and what he’s learned over the last 20+ yrs.

At FounderDating we’re huge supporters of designer entrepreneurs but don’t see the same number as engineering or product or marketing entrepreneurs. Why do you think that is?

Well, I think design has its roots in client services—a designer without a client is an artist.   Tweet this

So it can be hard for designers who are raised and educated to think of themselves as consultants to go beyond that. When I started to design in the 90s, I remember being very excited reading about designer entrepreneurs; people who were making stuff, people who weren’t waiting for the client. It keeps you honest to have clients, but it’s also great to make stuff because you want it and see what happens. A List Apart was my first product, and it’s a content product which means you can’t sell it for anything. I mean you can, but I’ve never seen anyone do it successfully.

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And it’s not just training; I think many designers are shy by nature, kind of introverts, the kind of people who grew up drawing in the classroom while the other kids were raising their hands. It’s hard to be a product person when you just want to sit in your cubicle with headphones on listening to music and working on something instead of hobnobbing and engaging in politics. I think again we’re trained to think of ourselves as client services people not as product people.

Do you think that emphasis on client-based work also makes design seem like a non-core service for companies?

That’s an unfortunate conception that needs to be overcome. It seems like tech companies now have an attitude of design worship–but I wonder if they really do or if it isn’t a lot of lip service. Friends of mine have gone to tech companies because they say “Wow, we worship design!” But when they get there it turns out that no, design is actually quite far down the totem pole.

It seems like the tech world is continuously re-evaluating the place and importance of design. Something that often comes up when we talk about it, and something we’ve discussed on FounderDating is whether all designers should learn to code. What’s your take?

I’ve always thought designers should learn to code. I loved html and design initially because I believed that everyone could learn it and the whole world would be communicating on the internet, (which turned out to be true, it’s just that we had to wait for Twitter and Facebook). I thought everyone would learn how to use HTML and learn how to use an FTP client.

It’s harder to make that claim now because web design has gotten so much more complicated. I mean, I wrote two web design books that were very code heavy, and now I feel like I don’t know how to design websites.

I wrote the book on standards-based web development, and now I feel like I have to ask other people for help on markup.  Tweet this

So when I was saying a modern web designer has to code, it was a simpler time—but I still think it’s true that you need to understand the basics.

But think in terms of interactive design; the more that you can at least simulate what happens when a user interacts with your design, the better. I think people used to think of design as purely graphic. I love great graphic design, I love illustrations, and typography, but a lot of design now is really thinking about experience. If you can’t find some way to make an interactive prototype or test your design in browsers, it’s gonna be much harder for you to be an effective web or digital designer.

So, how much coding should a good web designer be able to do?

You need to know what semantic markup is, you should be able to mark something in HTML, and certainly you should understand basic CSS and be able to write some. And I think the more you can code, the more design tools you have at your disposal. I would hate to be a designer who had to comp everything in Photoshop. If I’m doing apps for one device, I could do everything in photoshop. But if I’m doing stuff that has to move from device to device on the web and on different platforms, it has to be responsive and fluid. The more that I can code, the more I can do that.  So while you may work with front- and back-end people who know more code, you have to be able to go to a conference like An Event Apart and listen to the parts that talk about code, content strategy and UX, not just design. You have to be able to have conversations about these things.

You teach at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) but didn’t go to school for design. Do you think a formal design education is a necessity?


I teach one night a week at SVA’s interactive design program. The students there are very smart and talented. They didn’t need to go there, but they’re looking to make a big change in their career path—maybe they were already designers, maybe they worked some other profession, but they’re making a big career change. And that’s one way to learn. I don’t know that anyone yet knows how to teach what my colleagues and I do. In terms of education generally, I think the teacher is there to help you to think and experience things and figure it out yourself. A primary school teacher doesn’t teach you to read so much as he or she keeps opening books and making you look at them until your mind finds its way to reading. If you want to read music, you have to learn scales, but after that what makes one person Stevie Wonder and everybody else not Stevie Wonder is that person’s experience and talent.

A graphic design education could be really good for giving a modern interaction designer better familiarity with traditional tools like type and how type makes things readable. That’s certainly not a waste of time. But most of the people I know in the business studied something else like philosophy, or English (which usually you means you don’t know what you want to do do and you don’t want to grow up yet). That’s what I did.

I would say an education in web design can be great, or you can also just get a science degree or get a liberal arts degree so you learn how to think critically.

Good point; there are a lot of different ways to learn about design and round yourself out as a thinker. What are the top three things you’d look for in hiring a first designer at a startup?

  1. I’ve never hired anyone who doesn’t blog.  Tweet thisI think it’s huge that a designer has enough confidence in his or her ideas to articulate them, even if no nobody’s reading. It shows initiative that you went ahead and designed something when you didn’t have to, and it shows self-confidence that you faced the challenge of the empty page, both visually and in writing. I think writing helps me know what I think, and being able to articulate what I think helps me sell design—because design does not sell itself, ever.  The greatest design in the world, if you can’t sell it, is useless. So I look for that.
  2. I look for work experience other than design. I floundered a lot before I got into this. I did a lot of terrible jobs—I was a security guard in a condominium, I made sandwiches, I dipped pipes in PVC coating in a factory. All that stuff makes you much less of a “prima donna,” and it makes you whine less if the client doesn’t like something you’ve done, or if you’re frustrated or stuck. I can be stuck on design or writing and think “Ugh, I’m having a tough day,” and then I remember working for minimum wage washing peas and carrots and I think ‘You know what? Good day.’
  3. Can we have a conversation? Can you have a conversation with the other people you’re going to be working with? Do you love what you do? People who love design and love what they do are going to make a difference and are going to put in the extra work. The difference between a good designer and a great designer is just two percent extra effort.

What do you think is the single most important message to convey to designers that want to become entrepreneurs?

You have the power to control your own career and to control who you are.  Tweet this

If you feel like you’re in a dead-end job where people don’t respect you and don’t respect design, you have the ability to change their perception or you have the ability to change jobs. Stop trying to be the next Facebook or have the next billion dollar idea—don’t think about it like that. Think about what isn’t out there that you wish was out there, and scratch your own itch.

If you have an idea for something, you gotta tough it out because there will be years that nobody is paying attention and years that will be lean and you do it anyway. Nothing succeeds right away. Just have faith in yourself. Don’t quit your job until you’re actually making money from your entrepreneurial venture, but do keep at it. I love television as much as anybody, but on your death bed are you really gonna go “Wow, I wish I’d watched five more episodes of Pretty Little Liars?” or will you say “I’m really glad we made that app, that magazine, etcetera.

Make time for yourself. Find other people to collaborate with (not just designers). Believe in yourself.


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