Monday, 21 May 2012

An Accidental Career in Web Design... Gary Carruthers of Underwaterpistol shares his story...

How I got started

I had never planned a career in design or technology, but I’m grateful for the happy accident that led me down that path.

In a previous life, I was a struggling musician performing at poorly attended gigs, recording substandard demos and trying to land a record deal by passing my tapes (for our younger readers: to anyone who claimed to be “in the music industry”.

In 1999, my friend and fellow band member, Alan, suggested that we should build a website for the band, remarking that the World Wide Web had levelled the playing field and would allow us to do it all ourselves, just like Punk Rock in 1976! Armed with a borrowed computer, some rudimentary HTML and a small selection of animated GIFs, we set about taking on EMI, Sony et al.

After the initial excitement and enthusiasm, the results were disappointing... We ended up with a bizarre, ugly and unusable website which would never see the light of day. More positively, I had discovered something that had really fired my imagination and creativity, just like music had always done—something I had never imagined possible. I was hooked!

Learning the ropes

On deciding that I wanted to pursue web design as a possible career, I threw myself into learning HTML and the applications typically used at the time. The learning curve was steep but it was great to feel like I was getting my brain working hard again after years of going through the motions in unchallenging jobs which I’d needed to finance my music.

Like so many freelancers, I began setting about building my portfolio by offering to do work for friends and friends of friends. My partner, soon to become my wife, worked in photographic representation, so I quickly tapped into a large source of work doing portfolio websites for photographers and their agents.

I quickly settled on a simple, unfussy style, due to my clients’ requirement that the photography must be the focus of what the user was looking at, not the design. I’ve tried to apply this principle to everything we now do as an agency.

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen neatly sums it up:

“People are on the Web not to enjoy your Web design, but to get something done.”

Making the transition from freelancer to agency

Once I’d been up and running for a while, my wife began getting involved in the business, helping me source new clients, set up meetings, do the bookkeeping and strategising (oh my, we’ve done a lot of that—also known as ‘talking incessantly about work’).

To help cope with our increased workload, I engaged several freelancers, all of them excellent. That’s when things really started gaining a bit of momentum. It also was when the pressure increased and my role started to develop into something I had to feel my way into. Adjusting to those changes have been challenging but ultimately rewarding.

Moving from home office to premises and making a few personnel changes took things forward again and now Underwaterpistol is a small but thriving digital agency. We enjoy our work, have good clients and are forging close relationships with other agencies and professionals in our field.

Tips for others starting a career in digital design

Those wanting to pursue a career in web design have so many great resources available to them in the form of blogs, books, podcasts, online tutorials. Here are some of my top tips:

  1. Don’t be a Jack of all trades: try to find out where your strengths lie then focus on honing your skills, which leads onto my next point...
  2. Partner up with other talented people who will compliment your skill set: a great designer and a great developer makes a great team, an average designer-developer will produce average work.
  3. You can’t polish a turd*: if your client’s content is poor, you are on a hiding to nothing. The end result will be a website that doesn’t fulfill their business aims and you will be unlikely to want to use it in your portfolio. It’s your job to help the client raise the quality with a delicate combination of tough love, editing and engaging a good copywriter.
    *People will sometimes say you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter - don’t listen to them. Glitter soon rubs off.
  4. Be resilient: you will get plenty of knocks along the way but you can’t take it personally. Just keep your head down, be professional, learn your craft and trust your judgement.
  5. Talk to those already doing it: I love talking to designers, developers, anyone involved in the same industry. I learn so much from finding out how different people approach similar challenges as me. Sharing information with like-minded people will help you avoid certain pitfalls.


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