This is the celebrated journal of Mr. Simon Collison A.K.A Colly

Frequently Asked Questions

A desperate attempt to reduce email and other chaos

I'm genuinely a nice chap, and I've spent years trying to help people via email, in person, and other routes. I honestly want everyone in the world to be happy. However, my inbox is mental and I just can't handle it any more. Therefore, below I've tried to address some of the most popular questions I get asked in the hope that this will ease my woe.

I apologise if any answers seem a bit terse. That isn't my intention, and it's just my sense of humour. I honestly hope this helps in some small way.

Q: How did you get hold of your Twitter username?

Background: when I joined Twitter in January 2007, my preferred @colly username was taken. It changed owners at some point, but laid dormant for years. I wanted it.

Anyway, it was a battle. I spent a year via their help centre trying to get them to do something and they wouldn't. In the end I tweeted about it and asked everyone to retweet it as I was sick of people using @colly with reference to me but that not actually being me. My tweet got retweeted loads and made the Twitter homepage which might have embarrassed them a bit.

Now, the next bit is a bit awkward, as it was probably special treatment. A few friends at Twitter (who I probably should have asked earlier) had a word and suddenly they agreed to do it. However, rather than change it, they released the name and wouldn't say when they would do it, so I had to keep refreshing @colly to wait until it was free then grab it before anyone else.

Basically, it is not their policy to do it at all, yet sometimes they clearly do, and for people less, erm... well known than me. So, the lines are blurred. I don't really understand why its the way it is.

Read Twitter's inactive account policy here, or try the help centre.

Incidentally, having this username is rarely dull.


Q: Will you tweet about my site, app, or other thing?

I'm always interested in new things, but please understand that I get a lot of emails asking me to look at something, analyse it, give feedback, or (gasp) blatantly asking me to tweet about whatever it is. By all means email me, but if I don't like whatever it is I'll delete it and probably do nothing about it. This is purely due to being busy, and my desperation to claim some spare time. That said, I do like invites to beta demos!


Q: How can I be a better designer?

This one-line email always requires an essay by return. So, to offset that agony, here's a basic overview of the kind of response I eventually send.

Be prepared to work hard. If it will overlap with another job you don’t like, be prepared to do several hours per night reading, learning, experimenting. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, discover your values, and try to approach your work like a craftsmen. Do your work and do it well.

On a practical level, find problems and design responses. Not answers, not solutions, just responses. There’s rarely a single right way, so just explore problems and see what happens. Try to be loose and unshackled to start with, then home in on details and work tightly as you near completion. Learn to throw things out, simplify, be economical, present only what is necessary. After that, adding delight and personality in future projects comes naturally.

Desire to learn, and don’t see it as too much information to cope with, too many opinions, too many things changing all the time. Embrace the ebb and flow, the shifting landscape; that’s what makes the web so unique, so special. Understand the medium, appreciate where the web can borrow from other disciplines, and where it stands apart and defines its own rules.

Don’t feel bound by your tools. Try to think about design outside of apps. Tools are enablers, but what we do isn’t about those tools or languages. Also, don’t be a slave to web showcases and galleries. Find inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, not just from other websites.

Above all, care. I mean, really care about what you do. Being a designer isn’t a job; it’s a motivation, a need to make things better. If that doesn’t sound right for you, then don’t be a designer.

That's my view anyway.

Also, read Cennydd's wonderful Letter to a Junior Designer. Then read it again.


Q: How can I get more recognition for what I do?

Is recognition what you really want? Is that what it's all about? OK, so assuming you are a craftsperson, know your tools, do great work, and desire recognition to promote your great ideas and encourage dialogue, then here's my suggestions. Also, hooray for you for wanting to push things forward and make a difference.

So, seeking recognition is something I never did. I was fortunate in that around 2004 I was employed to design and build some major sites and encouraged to blog about that work. I also launched my own blog at the right time, and "invented" a few CSS techniques, a few months before the web became saturated with excellently designed blogs with excellent content. I've been lucky to be asked to write and speak as a result of my work since then, and consider it a privilege. But just to reiterate, I never sought any kind of recognition.

If you do something good, write about it. Tweet about it. Tell people. If you write anything at all, at least learn to write eloquently; avoid mistakes with grammar and knowledge. Be opinionated only when you feel comfortable, and check your facts.

If you want to speak at conferences, you need to have a particular point of view and angle that will mark you out as interesting to organisers, and you have to be well researched. One tip is to attend lots of events (big and small) to see others in action, work out what you can do, what your style will be, and then practice. Many start by speaking at small local grass-roots event where the risk is smaller. This is essential to find out if you really should be speaking in public. If there are no small events near you (unlikely) start one.

If you feel like your design heroes are ignoring you, rest assured they are not. Every successful designer I know is a humble, thankful, generous person, but all short of spare time, and all overwhelemed by requests for all sorts of things. It may feel like well-known designers just keep linking to each other, but that's because those stand out in your brain. Most link to anything they really love or find inspiring or important regardless of the author.

It can be helpful to engage in debate through blog comments, Twitter conversations and so on, assuming you'll be nice about it and not a troll. It's pretty easy to grab five minutes with speakers at events, but many lack the confidence to even say "hello". Just do it.

Ultimately, don't get downhearted. Remember that the web is a huge industry with a very low entry limit. Every day thousands become web designers or developers or whatever, and the place is saturated. That said, for many, it's purely about doing good work, making small differences, and enjoying what you do. Despite all the advice in the world, one thing remains true: those who work hard and try to push themselves will succeed. Cream rises to the top, and so do valuable designers and great ideas.

Also, maybe read Andy Budd's harsh but true The X-factorisation of the web.


Q: How can I get employed by a big agency?

Firstly, is that really what you want? Chances are it is, and that's perhaps a good thing for you. Working as part of a team under regular deadlines and pressure is a key experience. It helps get a grip on all aspects of the business, helps you understand more about what you really want to do and what other roles consist of, and should be a catalyst for learning.

In 2001 I was employed because I'd spent a long time making a popular art site, and it got noticed. My interview was quite informal so let's not look at that. Once I started my own agency and began employing, I did look for certain things. Here are some examples:

I liked people who understood the role as advertised. Don't try to fit a role that doesn't suit you. I liked people who also showed more strings to their bow. I was never interested in boring people who fit the role perfectly if they didn't also show colour and interest elsewhere. The best employees bring something new and refreshing, shock you with ideas, encourage others, and bring the business to life. Finally, I liked folks who were honest about what they couldn't do, and about what they were desperate to learn.

If no role was advertised, I still welcomed unsolicited applications or emails where the candidate used my name, did not blatantly copy/paste bits from other emails into others (such a let down is that), showed a keen understanding of their own skills and what they wanted to learn, and had researched enough about the agency to know they might be a good fit. Persistence in such cases is fine and shows you're serious, so long as it doesn't get annoying. Understand when you get a reply saying it isn't the right time, or that you're on file, because you usually are. When employing, I'd always go back through all unsolicited emails and notify the best ones of the new position.

Above all, stand out. It's obvious, but it works. The best candidates take you by surprise, and tip a bucket of amazing over you. Take a look at the top ten applications for the apprentice post at Mark Boulton Design, and also the amazing effort that went into the successful application.

I also recorded a one-hour audio book about being employed, running an agency, and being a freelancer for Treehouse, which you can download if you sign up.


Q: Can you explain x, y, and z about your process?

If you've been paying attention, and if you look around the web you'll find that I've been documenting lots of stuff relating to my process over the years.

Then again, my process is flexible, and it evolves and changes in line with the work I do and how I go about it. I'm also my own man, so I try not to follow too many rules these days.

I can't write big emails explaining specific things at the moment as I don't have enough time. For now, perhaps you can find an answer using one of these...

I hope that helps a little.


Q: What tools do you use?

I’m trying to get away from the idea of apps defining what I do and how I think, so I’d say I cannot do without my bag, which I think of as a mobile office. I’ve meticulously honed what I need to carry and everything has a pocket. Obviously it’s got my MacBookAir and iPhone in it, but alongside those I have a cheap Muji notebook I can scribble in, plus a pen, pencil, and a Sharpie. Aside from chargers, headphones, and travel stuff, that’s all I need, and all I want.

If you want a list of the apps I use then it’s fair to say I have Photoshop, Chrome, Textmate, Transmit, MAMP, Github, Evernote, Rdio, iCal, Skype, IRC, Mail app, and Safari open most of the time.


Q: Should I try to learn JavaScript, PHP, or Klingon?

Don't ask me about Klingon. I don't watch Star Trek because it is mostly nonsense.

So, should you learn to be a master JavaScript wizard? If you have the time, then obviously I'd say "yes". If like me you do not desire to be down the pub saying "I am a master of JavaScript", and you prefer to think of yourself as a designer or whatever, then "no". Being brilliant at JavaScript would of course be a huge asset, but I find it very complicated, so I make sure I can understand the kinds of behaviours and interactions it offers, and I design for that understanding. Beyond that, I basically ask a colleague or download something, and have learned to hack for hours at any plugin that doesn't quite do what I want, until it does.

Should you learn PHP? Hmm, I used to sort of be quite OK at PHP, which helped me hack around certain content management systems to make them do what I needed, but I rarely fiddle with it now. It's your call. Should you learn Ruby, Django, Python, Lizard? I don't know, and think you probably know more than me in line with the kind of work or role you want to have. Sorry not to be more helpful there.

Ultimately, being a Jack of all trades is quite handy, but my view is that we all end up specialising in one or two key areas and hopefully become brilliant at those. I think it is vital to understand what others with different specialisms in your team or whatever can do, but I'm not interested in working hard to be mediocre at a number of things that I'll never master.


Q: Can you help with my responsive media query madness?

Alas, I don't have enough time to answer questions about the nuances of my own site, or pick apart your own responsive adaptive media query madness. I recommend you simply take time to dig into my source code and play around, or read a great book, such as Ethan's Responsive Web Design, or Aaron's Adaptive Web Design. You'll get there.


Q: Can I ask you a question about ExpressionEngine?

Preferably not. Yes, my site is built with EE, and yes, between 2003 and 2008 I was all over EE like a rash. These days it is simply one of the tools I use when I have to, but I am no longer an EE genius and I'm no longer pushing the proverbial envelope. Instead, hit the EE forums, or ask an EE professional.


Q: Can I ask you a question about Wordpress?

No, you can't. I have never, ever used it.


Q: Will you fill in a survey form please?

Probably not. I get a lot of these and when you add them all up it's like a month of my year or something to fill them all in. By all means send it, but it might get deleted in a heartbeat. I'm really sorry.


Q: Can I speak at your New Adventures conference?

Please don't email me asking to speak at New Adventures, and don't send any proposals or ideas. We source our speakers very carefully, mostly by reading their blogs and books, seeing them speak at tiny events or big conferences, and then by opening up a conversation with them.

Note also that New Adventures is all about design dialogue, so if you email me about your SEO talk, I'll just laugh at you.


Q: Can you recommend some design and web books please?

Yes. Here is an exhaustive list of books that mean the most to me. All links take you to either Amazon UK, or the relevant publisher. Happy reading.

Design in general

Miscellaneous

Type

Web-specific

Older web primers

Sidebar

I don't know what to do with this yet. What about a joke?

A font walks into a bar, and asks for a drink. The barman replies, "We don't want your type in here."

Boom-tish.

External References

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Engineered in Nottingham, scaffolded by ExpressionEngine, steam-pumped by United & kept alive with tea and hugs.