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Ten questions for Jason Santa Maria

8-May-05

Jason Santa Maria

Jason Santa Maria is a self-employed graphic designer from sunny Philadelphia, PA. He is best known for his personal site where discussion of design, film, and sock monkeys can often be observed. His work has garnered him awards and pleasantries ranging from firm handshakes to forceful handshakes with a little hitting. Ever the consummate designer, Jason is known to take drunken arguments to fisticuffs over such frivolities as kerning and white space.

[1] Russ: You revamped your blog in early 2004 - converting it to XHTML/CSS. Was it hard to achieve?

Jason: It most certainly was. I had become very proficient using tables for layout and minimal CSS for text. Making the jump to all CSS caused a lot of sleepless nights and a tremendous strain on my coffee maker. I began to act irrationally, yelling at the computer screen: "What the hell is your problem IE?! Why must you hate me?" I'm tenacious as hell, I hit the books, and learned a lot from the resources available online. My site is far from perfect, but it marked a big milestone for me in the way I create websites.

[2] Russ: You've mentioned that Jeffrey Zeldman's "Designing With Web Standards" helped during this period. Was this book the main reason you moved towards web standards or were there other influences?

Jason: Zeldman's book was like a giant orange pep-talk. I thought I knew why web standards were good to use, but the case had never been made so plainly and so persuasively to me. It worked so well that I not only used them, but I began professing the advantages to friends of mine. The book seriously gave me the drive and motivation to apply standards to all my work. I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to design, and I love the challenge of trying to figure something out. So, when I saw beautiful sites like Todd Dominey's What Do I Know? and Greg Storey's Airbag I was further compelled to make an attractive site for myself.

One of the biggest reasons web standards appealed to me is because I am a very organized and systematic person by nature. I can really get into code and zone out, obsessing over refining and optimizing it more and more. Being able to contain all that information, organized and itemized in one place is like popping mental bubble wrap.

[3] Russ: In early 2004 you won the "Site of the month" at the Web Standards Awards. For someone who sees themselves as a designer rather than a "CSS guru", was this a big confidence boost?

Jason: I really pulled the wool over their eyes! It was a big surprise, I figured my site, and especially the code, would go live and just be picked apart by people. Luckily, the community online is a very welcoming and warm; people love to share ideas and techniques openly for the benefit of others. There is a growing push for better design online now, and people are really starting to take notice of what good design can do for a site to set it apart. Standards and CSS are tools in my belt. They make my job easier and they make my work better. Being able to combine the two can help make good sites into great sites.

[4] Russ: Late last year you talked about the frustration of constantly having to learn new skills just to keep up. Do you think this is an ongoing problem for anyone in our industry?

Jason: Of course it is. How are you supposed to get ahead when there is practically something new to consider every time you turn around? Well, you don't. There are only so many hours in the day. You learn as much as you can and, most importantly, as much as you can retain without drifting too far from your core specialties. Meaning, I love design. It is my specialty and my craft. I can learn how to program Java if I want, but what's the real purpose? To pad out my resumé? I would rather cut away the fat by trying to be as good as I can at a few things than just adequate in many things. It's different for everyone though, some people can chew gum and walk at the same time, and some can't. The trick is finding the balance that works for you and avoiding waking up one day to the realization that you are spread too thin to be useful in any arena.

I think it's important to be able to recognize your shortcomings, and find ways to either use them to your advantage, or circumvent them. As much as I would love to be a good illustrator, I am shoddy at best, so I surround myself with illustrators. Same goes for high-end programming. I thrive in a diverse environment of people from different backgrounds. When people hire me, I try to find ways to fill in the gaps by incorporating others who have those specialties I lack. Many times I enjoy the sort of ensemble cast, and I drag everyone I know with me. I'm a package deal!

[5] Russ: A while ago you went back to using a sketchbook as part of the design process - "Time away from the screen with just a pencil and paper gets my ideas flowing". Have you noticed improvements since using this method?

Jason: Yes, yes, yes. I believe everyone should keep a sketchbook or journal. Thoughts and ideas are fleeting. How many times have you had a brilliant thought that's gotten away from you by the time you get back to your computer? I still contend that sketchbooks are one of the quickest ways to realize your ideas, keep track of random thoughts to be picked up again later, and hone your visual thinking skills. I would love to see a study of designers/creative individuals plotted into two groups where one group is asked to create something on the spot and the other group is asked to flesh out their thoughts as sketches for an hour before moving on to "create" their idea. You can blaze through idea after idea and see instantly how good or bad your thoughts are, without having to invest more time in making a polished design only to learn it is wrong for the project.

Plus, you can train yourself to think more creatively; to find those ideas and concepts that really engage people and break away from the obvious ideas you usually think of first. It can keep your mind sharp and serve as a repository for all your ideas, used and unused, however poor or great. You can then revisit these ideas over the years. Sometimes a concept that was awful for one project can serve as the springboard for a brilliant idea for another. I've lost count of how many times ideas didn't pan out on one project, only to turn around and give life to a new project.

[6] Russ: "Grey Box Methodology" outlines your design process from sketching, to grey box outlines in illustrator. The article also mentions the importance of underlying structure. Why is this an important ingredient in your designs?

Jason: My mind never seems to slow down when I work (or even after I have gotten up from my desk). In order for me to control my urges to do everything at once, which usually results in a big muddled design, I have found it is best for me to break my design process into smaller chunks. I equate the problem to a builder trying to put up a roof on a building while the rest of the crew is still laying the foundation in the ground. I am all about a wide open creative processes, but this is the way I have found works best for me. It took a lot of frustrating trial and error to get to this point, and I am still refining the way I work. I like to keep tabs on what works well in my methods and why. By doing this I am able to improve the process of getting ideas out of my head and into a more tangible form.

As for the grey box idea, it allows me to concentrate on the problem at hand at the most crucial stage in a project. I get lost in font and color selection when I move to the computer, so I get rid of the details and try to ensure the structure makes sense first. I try to think of the computer as a tool to refine my ideas, and polish them, rather than the catalyst behind them. In the same way a logo should be able to work as a simple one color mark, layouts need to be able to flow adequately without being tarted up. After these initial challenges feel resolved, I move into developing the rest of the site. Most times clients never even see my roughs or grey box comps, they are a method for me (in the same way sketches are) to solve a lot of small problems early on, before they become big problems.

[7] Russ: In your article Aged Aesthetic you ask "are you making something look old because it supports a concept, or are you doing it because it looks cool?". Have you even fallen into this trap yourself - going for cool instead of a strong overall concept?

Jason: Everyone seems to fall into this trap at one time or another, including me. It could be that the client pulls a fast one and you are forced to make their site ugly as hell because their daughter likes bunnies hopping around on the page. There are times when it's out of your control. The best thing that we can do is try to steer projects in a coherent and competent direction. As designers it is implied that our actions are driven by a motive or plan other than our own personal preference. When I design, I try to find a decent balance for the concept and the client's needs, whether they realize it or not. If I wanted to be a pair of hands, I would wash dishes all day. I am hired because I have skills to help convey information and ideas, and I owe it to myself, my job, and the client who hires me, to speak up for the work I do and why I think it's successful or not. Loads of people can make stuff look pretty, but I am not a decorator. I try to make everything I put on a page contribute to the overall design. If an element is just there because you like arrows or some unreadable pixel font, maybe you should ask yourself if it's really right for the client's (or the project's) needs.

[8] Russ: Recent web design trends have included the "page drop shadow" trend and the "Wicked Worn look" trend. What new design trends do you think we'll see over the next 12 months?

Jason: Who knows? I'm not a big trend watcher, and I can't really stand forecasting of trends. But trends proliferate for a reason, because people like what they are familiar with, or the status certain ideas generate. A good idea is a good idea. I don't care if someone says that a font or a color are "out" this year. That makes me want to use them even more, because it will force me to find something new to do with them. Which isn't to say I want to use page drop shadows out of spite. It's important to stand out in what you create. Blogs for instance, embrace multi-column layouts because they are content heavy sites. This isn't a trend, it's more of an institution. There are reasons why centuries' worth of book and newspaper design has left little change on the face of the publishing industry and its corresponding formats. They found something that works best to convey the message of their medium. Regardless of the similar format of content-driven sites, you can still find a great variety of styles. What's most critical isn't whether or not someone is buying into a trend, it's whether or not the design decision reinforces a concept and makes sense for that given project.

[9] Russ: You were recently added to the stables of the mighty Happy Cog. How did you manage to land a job working with Jeffrey Zeldman and his team?

Jason: At first, it was actually because of my Grey Box Method article. He read that I worked in Illustrator and at that particular time he needed someone to fill in on a project that was being comped in Illustrator. After that, I picked up a few more jobs from Happy Cog and it just took off from there. Zeldman asked me to officially be part of the team, and I said, "Hell yes." I had just left my last job, so a working relationship like that just made perfect sense.

[10] Russ: You have an award winning blog, you are an acclaimed author, a sought-after designer and speaker. You also have your own alter ego. What's next?

Jason: Hopefully some great design work as well as a few secret projects in the pipeline. There are some exciting things coming up in the next few months that I really can't mention, but you will know it when they happen. Also, some sleep, a wedding, and maybe some illegitimate children.

Russ: Thank you for the interview!
Jason: Thanks, it's been a pleasure.

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