Netdiver magazine

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digital culture

Web stars speak

/ Interview with Christopher Schmitt

Christopher Schmitt is an award-winning designer, Web builder, and an idea generator.

In 1997 he graduated with a Fine Arts degree with emphasis on Graphic Design from Florida State University, where he was asked to design the first incarnation of the department's Web. While an undergraduate he interned for both David Siegel and Lynda Weinman in the mid-90s, wrote for local newspapers about web sites and design, and won the prestigious High Five award.

After college, he worked for Siegel's Studio Verso managing and producing the Web design magazine, (view Todd Purgason / JuxtInterative archived section). The job required him to review websites, interview movers and shakers in the industry, manage writing and design submissions as well as help manage the online brand.

During his overture, the mailing list community devoted to advanced web design and development, Babble, was born. After the site went down and out, he picked it up with the blessing of David Siegel. It's been babbling since late 1997.

He has written for Web Techniques, A List Apart, Digital Web and contributed four chapters to XML, HTML, XHTML Magic. His latest book, Designing CSS Web Pages, about contemporary new media design through Cascading Style Sheets, Dynamic HTML, PNG & SVG.

He created the Web Design Pad, a mouse pad sporting the first ever look of the Web-safe colors in a true color wheel arrangement that was widely sold throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Currently resides in Orlando where he is heading up his new Web design publishing and consulting firm, Inc., while continuing to write about Web design and Web culture. You can read more about his professional work and experience at

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/ How were you first introduced to the internet?

Through Tallahassee Free-Net (TFN). It was Florida's first online community and I was one of the first people to sign up for an account. I had experienced a little bit through BBS and CompuServe before that time. But TFN offered more services for free.

TFN is also where I learned hard lessons about the effects of flame wars, online communication and how the Internet technologies can connect people from all walks of life. If you want to know about online communities, I strongly suggest reading Powazek's probably-too-soon-to-called-a-classic Design for Community.

/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?

My first impression of the internet was with gopher. Very rudimentary stuff. My initial impression called up the memory of the old Hitchhiker's Guide to Galaxy text-command game for the Apple my brothers used to play. I wasn't too much into that game since I hadn't read the books yet. Since it was not a visually engaging game, I was bored with it when I tried to play it on my own. I can't recall, but I don't think we ever solved that game. It didn't matter because I quickly became addicted to Ultima IV soon afterwards.

/ Describe how your love for the web started.

Before I knew about the Web I was trying to find ways to publish material on a computer that would could be carried from PC to PC that wouldn't require special software or knowledge of Visual Basic. This was the time before Adobe came out with the Portable Document Format.

Then a few months after researching and bemoaning the fact that I would have to learn Visual Basic, I discovered the Mosaic browser and a few Web pages. After that everything changed for me.

/ You are an *internet pioneer* what exactly does it mean?

It means I've been around a long time.

/ You are an *idea generator*, what exactly does it mean?

I solve problems and help clients think of new ways to market and promote their services and products; help them look at new ways and in different directions than what they've been seeing day in and day out.. It's a mixture of research, information architect, and consultancy.

/ How did you end up interning with David Siegel and Lynda Weinman?

With David Siegel, it was my personal Web site that acted like a portfolio to get me the internship. I believe it was a collage I had made on the front of the site that he really liked.

As for Lynda Weinman, I believe it was just enthusiasm. I've enjoyed her work ever since her first edition of Designing Web Graphics and I thought Deconstructing Web Graphics was an awesome book for its time.

/ Then, what was your first job?

Actually, my first job was as a video store clerk. The parts in Kevin Smith's Clerks hit very close to home for me. To this day, I can't bring myself to get video membership at a Blockbuster because of my experiences with that job. I'd rather buy the "previously used" DVDs rather than deal with video store clerks, late fees, or video store management mentality. But I digress...

My first "real" Web development job was as a Web designer for credit unions. I can tell you right now: there's only so many ways to do a piggy bank before you absolutely get bored to tears. And then after that point, you soon reach another point where you want to bang your hand against your cubicle wall.

But the atmosphere was one of energy and excitement - that we were threading new ground and making up the rules as we went along. That's when the companies like Microsoft were really starting to make a shift towards the Internet. Everything was new: mistakes were just as important as successes.

/ You are a designer... and a geek head. How did you first get involved code?

At the very beginning.

I was fortunate that I was learning graphic design, while learning about the Web. So, my skills in those areas matured concurrently. I was able to bring knowledge from both the visual and the code perspective which make Web pages possible.

/ Has this become the most prominent part of your daily activities?

Definitely. In my day-to-day job I might not know how to program, but I can write the documentation required for backend technologies. At the same time, with my design background I can help designers create the right visual results.

/ How does writing code relate to being a designer?

To be a better designer means you will have to know your tools and the environment you work in. If you are a print designer, you need to know what happens after you send a project off to the printer. The same goes from Web designers.

And programmers are designers, too. The way graphic designers solve visual problems - layout, type, color and so on - a programmer goes about solving their own problems in a similar fashion. They draw upon a set of tools/functions, database queries, arrays and so on - in order to solve their problems. Both disciplines require the individual to be creative.

/ What is your motivation behind writing for different web related magazines?

There's a certain freedom for me in writing for different publications. In one publication I can deliver an article about color theory and know it will hit a chord with that audience of that publication. While a different article can talk about measuring the success of a Web site and be suited for a different publication's audience.

So there isn't a motivation to write for Web-related magazines as there is a need to write what I've learned and ultimately reaching the intended audience.

/ Explain how you came about creating the Web Design Pad.

If you look at the Web-safe color palette you can tell it wasn't designed by, well, designers. The values could pass as mathematical delight and can be respected for just that. But when you want a certain shade of blue that's Web-safe, well, it could take a few minutes to find it.

And that's what happened to me: I had a chart of the Web-safe palette on my desk while I was working one day. I couldn't find the blue after a few minutes...and I thought, "I just wasted five minutes looking for one color!"

That's when I thought back to the color wheel from my design school days. So, after that I went on to work on putting together Web-safe colors in the first and true color wheel on a mouse pad!

The smallest printing I could run was 500. So I had 500 mouse pads in my office all because I wanted one. Thankfully, so did a lot of other people. All in all, I believe there were four printings of various numbers.

/ Define what is the *web culture*.

It's about how society has been affected by the Web. From making home pages to e-commerce - our culture is different today - in that we have come to expect a certain level of interaction with the Internet.

One example would be how the Matt Drudge "beat" traditional news organizations with news about the President Clinton. In essence, a person who knew HTML and FTP made American history.

/ In your view, are there pressing matters that need to be addressed?

Fighting spam and stopping Congress's unchecked control on copyright.

/ If you were to evaluate the developmental stage of the internet, what would it be?

We are about to get both feet firmly planted on the ground and take our first steps.

/ So, have you always been interested in content publishing?

As a designer I believe one is always involved in content publishing. To publish is to make something public. And as designers, we don't want our creations hidden from the public. We desire to see our babies be looked at and fawned over.

/ Describe how you landed your first writing gig?

The first job where I got paid to write was working as a news assistant for my hometown newspaper: I wrote obituaries.

There's nothing glorified in writing about people's lives you didn't know. It's a thankless job and heaven help, if a mistake gets printed. It's not like people can reschedule funeral services and the phone calls from bereaved family members aren't easy to take.

/ How did Designing CSS Web Pages book idea come about?

I wanted to write a book that helped designers grasp an understanding of Cascading Style Sheets. Most of the books on the market talked about the technical aspects of CSS, which is fine. But there weren't any books that helps discuss how CSS can be used to design Web pages.

/ Which audience is targeted?

Designers. I believe it is the first book that teaches the technology of designing Web pages for designers.

/ What will readers appreciate most from reading this book?

Possibly that book shows how to design better for the Web by way of learning about CSS. Some highlights I believe readers will like are the sections about two and three column layouts, how to design the printing of Web pages, fifty examples of making headings and eight progressive CSS-enabled layouts.

/ Describe the ideal scenario for a company to be successful online.

A company that understands the technology they are working on - not just the employees, but also the leaders and decision makers in the company.

It's amazing the ideas that the workers have that aren't able to get approved by decision makers, due to their lack of knowledge of the very industry they work in.

/ What do you look for when hiring?

A truly great employee is one who is good at their chosen profession and has respect and knowledge for the other disciplines in our industry as well.

For example, I'm always looking for programmers who appreciate and take a value in a polished interface. And I would want a designer to understand the value in a truly great programmer who builds things in a smart way.

/ What makes a good team?

Good chemistry and mutual respect for the other team members as individuals, but also for the knowledge they bring to the table. That often leads to what's really needed: communication.

/ What makes for a good web site?

A good number of factors that change depending on the Web site you are building. It really comes down to planning and setting the right goals for your project.

/ Describe what is a top-notch client.

One that doesn't need the educational ramp.

I had one client that talked in Internet-related buzzwords. It was a very unique experience since I was used to talking buzzwords with my peers. So, to work with a client who knew the buzzwords (and what they meant) was refreshing and rewarding.

We were able to go from scratch to completed project in a third of the time than projected! I think that's because they knew where we were coming from immediately and trusted us because of it.

/ How do you educate your clients?

Usually when I write a proposal. I provide background information on the subjects they specify in their RFP. We also educate during the progress of the project in client meetings or one-on-one during updates.

Education is a continual process in our industry. Individuals and companies that "get it" are pushing the boundaries and I say to most of my clients that they are paying us not only for what we will do for them but to keep track of what's the latest, that actually can work for them.

/ Have you been invited to web related events. Can you tell us why?

Yes. I've spoken at conferences and even took part in the very nerve-wrecking Cool Site in the Day* contest. When I speak at conferences, I've talked mostly about Cascading Style Sheets and how they can help designers build better sites.

As to why, I think they like my sense of humor and the topics I present.

* editor's note: actually Chris and I were in opposing teams.

/ Is branding an important issue online?

Very. Some people get caught up with branding as just the visual element - but a company is more than a logo or a stock photograph.

Issues companies have to deal with in terms of branding online are:

One: International issues - not just translating the text, but making sure the Web site isn't offending a country's culture.

Two: The development of how a visitor interacts with the Web site - from items like sending an email to complain or a simple question to customer support: what's the turnaround time for that email as well as the tone of that message going to be?

Three: Insuring the quality of the product - how will the product or service be used and will it exceed the customers' expectations, after they looked into buying the company's product or service.

There are others. It depends on how involved a company wants to get involved in setting the right brand. But whether they set it or not, they are sending a message. Whether it's the message that works for them - that's altogether a different question.

/ How did you land up founding Heatvision? is a company that helps clients take the proverbial right step at the start of their new media projects.

Prior to Heatvision, I would spend most of my days designing and producing Web sites that had been planned out before I got the documentation on it. I still love to design and make Web sites, but I've also learned a lot about what works (or not) on the Web. Now, I'm putting that to good use for my clients.

/ Describe what you do presently.

Primarily, I'm an educator. I write articles and books about Web design and development. I consult with companies and entrepreneurs. I present various Web topics at conferences. I also teach a couple of courses online at

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed online.

Tenacity, marketing, honesty.

/ Describe what is *inspiration*.

Inspiration is when nothing happens physically except for synapses in the brain firing in the right sequence at the right time to give you something that you didn't have one moment earlier: the right idea fuelling the right emotions.

/ What is the single achievement that makes you most proud?

Wow. I'm not sure. I was happy when the Web Design Pad came together and then when people I didn't know, started buying them! That was a good feeling.

Then when I lead a team into the Cool Site in a Day. I was around my peers and having a good time within this prestigious event. Well, as prestigious as you can get for Web designers and developers.

I think the last thing I'm very proud of, is my book. For one it's my first book, but, it's also one that I felt the need to have it written for anyone who wants to design for the Web.

Hopefully I still have a few more interesting projects to work on. I'm very passionate about making the Web a better place and I love what I do.

/ If there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you launch?

Wow. I'm not sure. You are asking a person with a lot of ideas.

If I had the money to burn, I would buy a vacant K-Mart building and the land around it. And then I would put in a twenty to twenty-four person design firm tackling problems for our clients AND also designing our own products for mass consumption.

The "Kmart Design Shop" would be - in a way - a tribute to Andy Warhol and his influence on the art world, but most importantly, I believe it would be a blast: instead of going to an office, you would pull up into a huge parking lot. You then walk into and work in the center of huge building where you try grab a hold of ideas big enough to fill the space.

/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.

Successful design is when every element is not taking away from the intended message, but adding to it.

/ What is your opinion of the present situation in the dotcom industry?

In 2002, it was very depressing. I thought there was a chance for an economic turnaround in the middle of it all, but then the corporate scandals really sabotaged that idea of a turn around in that year.

Now with 2003, most businesses have fresh budgets and can start making smart moves for their businesses. I pray we don't have a major setback - but you never know.

All we can do is work and hope it all works out right. Right now, if I had to describe my feelings towards the present situation, I would say I'm optimistic.

/ Tell us what the future (net) looks like.

Internet technologies will integrate in all the normal activities of our lives. But it won't be the tech gadgets that will often get to the market first necessarily. The devices we will use are ones that are designed for human use and make our lives better.

For example in Washington, the House of Representatives put out a plea to companies to resolve a lawsuit peacefully so they could keep their Blackberrys.

Blackberrys are a useful tool for our busy politicians to email each other.

Rudy Giuliani uses one. And I don't think I'm taking a giant risk in saying that our politicians are probably not the most computer literate individuals. They use this kind of handheld not because of what it can do, but how easy it is to use in order to be more productive in their work.