Category Archives: Work

HybridConf, 2014

I’m just back from attending HybridConf, a 2-day web design/development conference in Stockholm. It was my first time in the city, and I found it strangely underwhelming. I don’t know whether spending so much time in Amsterdam has spoiled me when it comes to stunning architecture, but Stockholm just felt like it could be any of a dozen anonymous British cities, albeit with a lot more umlauts and street corner beggars.

The conference itself, in its second year and transplanted from Bath by organisers Laura Sanders and Zach Inglis, was excellent. The relatively small attendee count gave it an intimate feel, and the venue – the historic Rigoletto cinema – made this probably the most comfortable conference I’ve ever attended. Perhaps half of the audience were Swedish, with the rest travelling from all around Europe. There were even a few Americans present, and they in particular must have felt at home, as almost three-quarters of the speakers were from the US.

I and co-worker Erin Weigel managed to catch just about every talk; I particularly enjoyed Dan Rubin‘s opening talk about team communication (and it closely matched how we run our teams at, and Scott Hanselman managed to be both funny and informative despite having to fit in a second unplanned appearance on stage to stand in for the missing Sara Chipps. But the highlights of the two days were both delivered by people building actual real things. Tom Soderstrom, CTA of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, gave us an insight into the sort of work going on there, and how they apply startup culture and thinking within one of the world’s most expensive projects.

Then on Friday, GitHub’s Andrew Nesbitt tempted the live demo gods by wiring together an Arduino-powered, joystick-controlled ball live on stage. I was only slightly disappointed that he didn’t attempt to feed his rabbit live over the internet.

We were of course there as sponsors in our ongoing quest to hire the entire world, and it’s good to hear during the many conversations I had with other attendees that A/B testing and experimentation is becoming a lot more of a mainstream aspect of modern web design and development. We’ve become something of a fixture at web conferences now, and people are much more aware of what we’re doing and how we work. We had sponsored Experience Design Stockholm‘s event the previous evening, where Erin had delivered a great talk on experimentation that was also well-received; I think it’s strange that more large companies aren’t using this route to directly mingle with our industry’s top talent and promote themselves as maybe being that potential next job.

dConstruct 2013

Don't worry we're from the internet

Summer is over, the rain has returned, and the kids have gone back to school … which means it must be time for another dConstruct conference, in the UK’s alternately sunny and rain-drenched south coast hipster mecca: Brighton.

dConstruct’s relevance to the web seems to become more oblique with each passing year. This year’s theme, “Communicating with machines,” promised a day of “exploration and entertainment.” My employer was sponsoring the conference for the first time, but those of us attending for the purposes of recruitment were also lucky enough to be able to watch many of the sessions. Here are some of my highlights.

Of Cyborgs, Toast & Gay Vulcans

Amber Case, also occasionally known as: “Hey, look, someone’s actually wearing Google Glass!”, started the day with a look back at the work that she has done with her startup Geoloqi in the field of ambiently location-aware applications. She and her team have done much in the real-world equivalent of Minority Report’s imagined individual-aware notifications, although hers were mostly confined to pushing interesting wiki information at users rather than advertising. Her look at the history of wearable computing was interesting, though, taking in the work done by Steve Mann and the MIT Borg Squad and the designers who, many years later, would go on to ship Google Glass.

Simone Rebaudengo’s talk was a fascinating exploration that asked what our digitally connected devices might actually want from their owners. His socially-aware toaster experiment — wherein networked toasters bugged their owners to make more toast both through online activity and actual knob-jiggling physical prompts — was brilliantly conceived, and even if the result has little obvious practical application, it prompts interesting thought about how more socially beneficial activities can be encouraged through a subtle combination of positive and negative reinforcement.

Musician Sarah Angliss discussed uncanny sound by way of the Uncanny Valley. Her talk took in music over the last several hundred years, digital versus analogue performance, and ended with a haunting theremin-and-talking-dolls-head performance of her music.

Maciej Ceglowski, the man behind Pinboard, delivered a deliciously funny insight into the world of fan- and slash-fiction. From his admitted initial mockery of the largely female community and their homo-erotic copyright-busting short stories, he explained how he came to appreciate their boundless enthusiasm and love for their community, and his examples of the lengths to which they would go to improve and maintain the tools they love provides an optimistic counterpoint to the usual mindless trollery of many online communities such as YouTube commenters.

Speaking of YouTube comment trolls, the day was closed out by comedian Adam Buxton taking a rambling look at things he did with his laptop. His question was allegedly: “Is my laptop ruining my life,” but from that starting point Buxton managed to encompass kittens with breasts, Garage Band, motivational quote websites, and of course his now-familiar descent into the strange world of YouTube commenting. With the audience in hysterics, he concluded that perhaps his laptop was not ruining his life after all… and with that, we all shut our laptops and went to the bar.

A word from our sponsors

dConstruct’s unique approach to ‘web’ conferences draws a much more diverse crowd than you might normally encounter, and the affordable price contributes to that diversity. Despite that, we still managed to talk to many designers and developers about the roles we’re looking to fill at our Amsterdam head office, and I’m happy to hear that our presence at these kinds of conferences is starting to become familiar and welcomed by delegates. We’re not a recruitment agency, as one confused delegate seemed to think; we are the designers you could be working alongside, and it’s great to have the opportunity to get out and share our enthusiasm with potential future colleagues. If you didn’t get the chance to come and chat to us during the conference, we’re always happy to talk — seek us out on Twitter or visit for all the details.

Resolutions, 2013 edition

January 2012 seems impossibly far away now. Moving house will do that to you — a previous life feels distant and remote, despite the year flying by in a rush of travel, holidays and new projects.

The two biggest changes in my life are causally related. In June I handed back the keys to our life in Amsterdam and returned to a decidedly quieter life in our little Fenland village. Exchanging a bike ride through the Dutch parks for a packed commuter train (or an even more packed easyJet flight) has altered the rhythm of my days, as has moving from an open-plan office of 150 to an office of six. I have much greater freedom to focus now, whether that be on reading during my commute, or headphone-insulated work in my private corner of the office.

The other change is also work related. I’ve moved, albeit temporarily (allegedly) to work on improving usability and the tools we provide to our extranet users. After three years of working on the frontend website for, having to think about an entirely different set of users and their very specific needs and issues has been great fun, and — as the only designer on the team — I’m enjoying the freedom to make use of more modern techniques and tools than was possible on the frontend.

 Resolutions, 2012: Let’s see what you could have done…

Exactly a year ago, I published my three New Year’s resolutions. It seems apposite to revisit them and assess my success or lack thereof.

Firstly, I planned to find a GTD solution that worked. I ended up using Nirvana for most of the year, but when they moved out of beta and started charging I renewed my search. I’m temporarily using Remember The Milk at the moment, but finding it very clunky. So much so, that I’m taking steps to fix the problem once and for all. More on that later.

Secondly, I wanted to create more stuff. Unfortunately this has been an unmitigated failure; I continued to take hardly any photos (Instagram doesn’t count), left several web app ideas barely started, and failed to do much more than start a couple of new blogs. Again, more on that later.

Lastly, I promised to stay fit. That, at least, I can apparently do; I ran two half-marathons in 2012, and intend to keep going in 2013. So, more on that later. Or, well, now.

Resolutions, 2013 edition

  1. More, but varied, fitness. Regular running is all well and good, but the scenery round here can get pretty repetitive. This year I’m going to try a change in tempo — cycling, weights and swimming are all relatively cheap and easy to take up for some variety in calorie burning.
  2. Finish what I started. Over the last year I started building a GTD app (with Django), then a lifestream app (with Kohana), and finally the GTD app again (this time with Laravel). This year I intend to actually get something into a releasable state.
  3. Read more, write more. I haven’t been reading as much as I could, and I could certainly stand to up the variety of my reading material. Equally, despite thirty posts on this blog and starting two new blogs in the latter half of the year (book/film reviews on This Reviewer’s Life and daily writing exercises on Ten Minutes of Prose), I’d like to maintain a regular output — including sharing more technical stuff. I’m still receiving emails asking for help with a tutorial I wrote in 2005, so at the very least that needs updating. And the technical blog at work could also do with some design input as well.

So, in summary, not a lot has changed. I’m feeling pretty ambivalent about 2013; there’s nothing big on the horizon, and things are fine. Here’s hoping they stay that way.

Future of Web Design 2012

Later today I’l be jetting off yet again, bound for London and the Future of Web Design conference, taking place over the next two days.

Stuart Frisby and I will be there as part of the recruitment bandwagon, handing out goodies and trying very hard to tempt the cream of the UK’s web design scene to up sticks and relocate to beautiful Amsterdam.

Hopefully we’ll be able to catch some of the talks while we’re there as well. I’m looking forward to hearing Brendan Dawes for the first time; Vitaly “Smashing Magazine” Friedman, Steve Fisher and Laura Kalbag will be the first non-Marcottes I’ve seen talk about Responsive; and the closing talks by Martin Beeby and Mark Boulton both promise to be inspiring.

If you’re attending, make sure to come and say hi – and if you overhear anyone complaining about their job, be sure to point them in our direction!

Do web designers need a portfolio to apply for a new job?

I was recently asked whether an online portfolio is a must-have for web designers and front-end developers applying for work. I thought it was an interesting question, and deserving of further examination.

One of my responsibilities at is hiring new design talent, and inevitably part of that involves reviewing applicant CVs. The job description for our currently open Web Designer position states, among various other requirements, that applicants must provide a portfolio of work. But with so many experienced designers working in-house for corporations that may be unwilling to allow their internal workings to be exposed in public, is it fair to expect every applicant to be able to display their previous work?

As a hiring manager, I am looking for a designer or developer with relevant experience, and the right mixture and level of skills for the job; that means HTML and CSS at what I judge to be a decent quality, and (for designers) evidence of a basic grasp of the fundamentals of good web design. Of course, once they pass the initial CV review stage then other factors come into play: personality, communication style, and how they react to questions relating to the unique environment in which we work. But in the beginning, that 1-3 page summary of their professional life is all I have to go on. And that means that a good portfolio can really influence any decision.

Naturally this situation unfairly benefits those coming from an agency background, churning out designs and templates for hundreds of clients in an environment where publicising your previous work is actively encouraged. You can see this kind of designer represented every day on design galleries and “50 of the best designer portfolios” list sites; if your own site has a 60pt welcome message stating the obvious (“I design websites”) you’re probably one of them too.

And those applicants are easy to assess. I can flick through their portfolio and quickly form a picture of their design chops; are they comfortable working in different styles, do they have a decent grasp of layout, typography, colour theory, UX? For non-designers, I can View Source and rate their code quality; bonus points for using modern techniques, black marks if I see an MM_swapImage() function in there.

So what are in-house designers/developers to do? They might have 10+ years of solid experience – but if it’s all working on the same website, which in any case they’re not allowed to publicise, how do they prove they have the right skills for the job?

Some might say this is where personal projects separate the men (and women) from the boys (and girls). It’s certainly true that a well-written technical blog and some interesting GitHub projects can help to build a picture of a front-end developer’s area(s) of expertise, but it’s rare to find someone from the more graphical design end of the spectrum with much more than a simple Twitter account. Speculative work is a possibility, of course – but lorem ipsum filled homepages, no matter how beautiful, don’t give potential employers any idea of your ability to interpret business requirements or balance real-life client priorities.

In the end, I think much of the opportunity for these in-housers is tied up in their CV. A well-written summary of their skills and how they have been applied, their major achievements and projects, and evidence of increasing levels of responsibility or upward movement in their role should be enough to at least secure a first interview. Setting technical challenges or spec design tasks as part of the interview process would be another option, although personally I’m not in favour of that approach; I tend to feel that it doesn’t accurately reflect the work environment the applicant will need to work within, and also places an undue demand on their (unpaid) time.

So, is it an unfair situation or not? If you’re hiring designers, or you’re an in-house designer struggling to apply for jobs that require a portfolio of work, I’d love to know what you think.