Netdiver magazine

/ What's new in design
digital culture

Web stars speak

/ Interview with Joe Gillespie

Joe Gillespie is a gaming, graphic and techno frontier pioneer + prolific online contributor.

Joe began his career as an ad agency art director in London, UK but saw the potential of personal computers right from their introduction.

During the last twenty-one years, he has programmed games, graphics and music utility programs and has been exploring the creative possibilities of just about every new multimedia technology as it became available.

For the last six years, he has published his monthly e-zine, Web Page Design for Designers focussed on graphic design and the communicative aspects of Web design.

Joe also runs providing pixel fonts for Web, New Media and interface designers.

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/ How were you first introduced to the internet?

I bought my first 1200/75 modem in 1982 and went online with the popular message boards of that time - but that was all local to the UK. When I eventually got a Mac, I signed-up for AppleLink, then Apple's eWorld and met the World.

In the early '90s, I tried to invent the World Wide Web only to find that somebody else had beaten me to it.

In 1994, I fell into Web design while working on a multimedia project for the Daily Telegraph newspaper and about the same time was involved in the design of the original MSN for Microsoft UK which, at that stage, was a parallel universe to the Net.

/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?

Yes, utter frustration - and it still is to a large extent. I guess I was spoiled by AppleLink and eWorld and it seemed a big step backwards.

As a designer/typographer who has always worked in terms of "gnat's whiskers" (an indefinite and undefined subdivision of a typographic point that gets smaller with experience) the idea of pouring type into a layout to make it's *own arbitrary shape is hard to come to terms with.

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

Absolutely nothing! I've been involved with interactive multimedia since the late '80s - CD-ROMs, laserdiscs, touch screen PDAs, video-in-windows, big screen projectors etc. The Internet is just another vehicle for delivering interactive content and the dividing line between multimedia and the World Wide Web is very blurred for me. But yes, I was there at the beginning and have the T-shirt and button-badge to prove it!

/ Looking at your track record, you have a *multiple path* education. Why?

First and foremost, I am a graphic designer but I come from a musical family. My first big choice was in the '60 and I was playing in a band while studying at Art College. The band got one of those 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunities to go on a big tour of Europe and I had a difficult decision to make. Thankfully, I made the right one and stayed at college because three months later the band returned from the tour stony broke and I got accepted for a place at the Royal College of Art in London - which wasn't bad for a small town Irish boy!

Still interested in music, I couldn't afford to buy the very expensive Moog synthesizers of the period (1970s), so I designed and built my own. Electronics was always a fascination but I developed a healthy regard for mains voltages at an early age and didn't get into tubes much. Transistors, on the other hand, were cheap and harmless - mostly.

Then I got into robotics. They didn't play tunes, but ran around the house frightening my babies - well, not really, they were quite cuddly. Synthesizers and robots lead naturally to computers and the first ones in the UK were build-yourself kits so I built my first computer. Writing software for these gadgets, which boasted 1k of memory at first, meant learning Z80 assembly language. They had a BASIC interpreter built-in but you couldn't do anything interesting with ten lines of BASIC.

Although there were other people around at the time writing text-based adventure games and ASCII versions of Space Invaders, my graphic design training allowed me to create illustrated adventure games and over the course of three years, I produced some sixteen titles, a couple of which became very big sellers.

Then came my second big career choice - graphic design or computer games. I was doing very well in graphics having worked as an art director in several leading design and ad agencies. I stuck with graphics but got more and more involved with computers.

The combination of graphics and computer programming lead me naturally to interactive multimedia and the Web, so the multiple paths were always converging and eventually met.

/ What was your initial profession?

My first job out of college was as an art director with the agency that was to become Saatchi and Saatchi. I then moved into corporate identity and packaging design with Raymond Loewy's London office and then to J Walter Thompson doing new product development.

/ You are a creative head. When did your love for visual art start?

I was born at an early age and went to a little school in a small town in Ireland where they taught me the two 'R's - the third one, 'rithmetic, eludes me still. The only thing I was really good at was the fourth 'R', which is Rt. So, it was art from the start!

/ Describe how your love for the web started and present profession.

Evolution and natural selection - a bit Darwinian really.

/ What makes for a good web site?

Compelling content delivered painlessly.

/ How did you first get involved in content publishing?

When I left the world of advertising and started my own multimedia design company, there was little or no competition and endless opportunities. I sat down and wrote a program called "The Interactive Guide to Desktop Video". This was before CD-ROMs so it was delivered on a multiplicity of diskettes. Basically, it was a "reference book" about using (Mac) computers for videographics and production, which I was very much involved with in the early '90s.

The second major event was when my main client of the time, Apple, asked me to design a showcase title for their new 'Newton MessagePad' hand-held device. It was an interactive version of the "Time-Out Guide to London" - a massive piece of work involving not just information but applied artificial intelligence. The success of this title opened many doors for me even though the Newton itself didn't survive.

/ How did you first get involved with web standards/usability issues?

The basis of any design job is that of 'functionality first' - what you do has to work. If it just looks pretty, then you are a stylist. If it works but looks horrible, you are probably an engineer. It takes both!

Graphic design is about getting the function and the aesthetics right. Much of my initial frustration with the Web was down to the lack of compatibility between computer platforms and browsers and I'm glad to see that it's gradually getting less of a problem thanks to there being standards to work towards. There's still some way to go.

/ How do web standards/usability relate to a designer's day-to-day activities?

I have a line of my WPDFD site, "Walkie-talkies are a great means of communication - provided that there is one at each end!"

It takes two to communicate (at least) and they have to be on the same wavelength. When you are slightly off-channel, you get noise and static and the message becomes unclear. Go further off-station and it becomes total garbage.

The Web is all about communicating and it is the designer's job to make sure the signal is going out loud and clear, and on the correct channel.

/ What makes a good team?

Following a good leader.

/ Your words have this unique signature. How does one achieve this?

I guess my writing style comes from my advertising copy writing days and having to deliver a message in a distinctive and memorable way.

At first, I was an art director and worked with a copy writer but that traditional demarcation gradually faded and it all came down to who thought-up the ideas first. Many of my advertising ideas were words, not images, and being able to knit words into a woolly jumper came as second nature. In Ireland, we call it "The gift of the gab" and the point about it, is that it keeps people listening.

/ Describe what is *inspiration*.

'Inspiration' is when a little glowing light bulb appears just above your head. 'True inspiration' though, is when you put your hand up, grab that light, screw it into your desk lamp, pull out the plug and get free illumination without having to pay for the electricity.

/ Describe what is a top-notch client?

In a word, Japanese! Two of my major clients in the past few years have been Canon and Sony. The Japanese have a fundamental philosophy that in business, *both* parties must be winners in the deal. That means that you have to have mutual respect. I've been very lucky to have always been able to work *with* my clients and not *for* or *against* them.

/ How do you protect clients from their own bad taste?

By not allowing personal taste to be a factor in the equation. By that, I don't mean 'tasteless', the most vital thing is communication. That communication can be upfront, or it can be subliminal. I usually explain it in terms of 'body language' and that what you are saying is influenced by the *way that you say it. Again, this element of mutual respect that I like to embrace, means that I hardly ever have problems in this area.

/ You have been invited to many web related events. Can you tell us why?

From time to time I get invited to attend/talk at Web events in <insert any venue 6000 miles from London here> and I never go for purely practical reasons.

Why am I invited? I guess somebody must have done a search for 'Web page design' on Google, it certainly isn't because they have heard me speak somewhere else!

/ Is branding an important issue online?

Very. Very. Very. I've spent my life conceiving and building brands. Branding is about personality. See, I'm back to 'body language' again.

/ What was the catalytic thought that gave birth to WPDFD?

It wasn't so much a catalytic thought as the prospect of twiddling my thumbs for a month. My multimedia work usually involves long projects lasting three to six months, or more, and in the middle of one such job, I was told that certain vital photographs, video and audio clips would be delayed for a month. I couldn't proceed with the work without them, and I couldn't take-on another project at such short notice.

I decided to write something that would help graphic designers make the tricky transition from print graphics to screen-based graphics as I had done, and put it up on the Web.

For the first month, the traffic just trickled-in, then, all of a sudden one morning, my hit counter (yeh, we all had hit counter to begin with) jumped by three thousand, and the next day, and the next. Netscape had put a link to WPDFD on their 'What's New' page and things just snowballed from there.

/ Describe what the internet means to you.

It a kind of saline drip that goes into my arm. I'm not sure exactly what it does or what it means, but I don't want anybody to take it away.

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed online.

If you are talking about financial success, the principles of marketing are the same online as they are in the street.

Identity. This is about establishing and maintaining a brand. One that is strong and has those vital differences that set it apart from all others. Many of the failures we have seen have been because of the 'me-too' factor. iThis and eThat dotcom is not the way to go. They are wishy-washy and confusing and names like that are rarely sustainable as unique brands.

Visibility. This is down to two things - quality and the quantity.

The outward and visible manifestation of the identity is provided by the logo and general look and feel of the site. I think that too little effort is given to this aspect of most sites because the technology (and technologists) gets in the way. They still seem to be content just to get the damn thing up and running - and even that is a struggle.

The quantity part comes from mass exposure to the visual identity. That means, at the minute, advertising in traditional media. But if you've got the 'identity' part wrong in the first place, you could well be throwing money into a bottomless pit.

Responsiveness to customers' needs. This is the one aspect of Web-based commerce that has yet to catch up. A lot of work has gone into providing goods and services online and gathering revenues but there is little pre-sale or after-sale support.

I buy a hard disk online. It turns up my doorstep the next day. Great. I plug it in and find it's dead on arrival. It takes a month to get a replacement. Sorry, but that's a company that never gets another order from me. Unfortunately, it now precludes most of the companies that I can buy from online and I've gone back to using the telephone.

/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.

I think it's getting very difficult for newbies. When I first learned HTML and all that stuff, there wasn't much to learn and it was easy. Now, there is a helluva lot to learn at the outset, and it's getting more complicated all the time.

It doesn't help that the main Web page editing program are still very <font> centric. Instead of bringing CSS upfront where it belongs, they still hide it all a few layers down. If you have used a word processor or DTP program previously, you expect to be able to access the most important commands from the main menus - font, size, leading etc. If you try to do this in Dreamweaver or GoLive, you get <font> tags.

If I were to give advice to someone starting out in Web design, it would be:

“Don't expect instant gratification. You don't know how much you don't know!”

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

I would have to say 'fatherhood' - but that is two. Career-wise, it must be the success of my MINI 7 font and seeing it used all over the Web. When I originally designed it, it was just an answer to a particular problem I had at that time but it would seem to be the answer to a lot of other people's problems too. Seeing my name in the same list as all my type-designer heroes on makes me feel equally proud and embarrassed.

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

Aha, this is your trick question, isn't it? This folly has been the downfall of too many dotcoms already!

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

Frankly, I'm surprised that people are surprised that so much has gone wrong. I've worked in advertising and I know hype when I see it. The problem comes when you start believing your own hype, especially when common sense tells you the very opposite.

/ In your view, explain what is convergence?

Convergence is what you get when matter approaches the gravitational pull of a singularity. It collapses in on itself and disappears.

Actually, I prefer divergence because that's where creativity comes from. The trouble with using obvious solutions is that everyone else comes up with the same ones. That might be okay for sometimes but 'divergent thinking' produces the ones that leave jaws agape just because they are different? Of course, there are those people who will think you are mad. There's a very fine line between 'Round the Corner' and 'Round the Bend' - but that's a small price to pay.

/ Is the www an international network?

I hate to tell you this, but yes it is. Back in 1997, when Lynda Weinman's Web Design List was in full swing, I ran a holiday pantomime. The idea was for web designers to write and produce a set of linked pages on the theme of a traditional pantomime except, each one in the chain only knew the last line of the preceding 'act' and had to continue from there.

About forty designers took park from all around the World - USA, Australia, Singapore, India, Germany, Sweden, UK and more - and the curtain was raised at 12 noon GMT on one particular day. It was amazing that it all joined up and worked. It was a site where every page was in a different country, right around the World.

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

At the moment, the Internet and WWW are fundamentally based upon text and that is dictated by the available bandwidth.

The roots and branches are creeping out and getting thicker and stronger by the day and, as bandwidth increases, text will be augmented and replaced by richer media.

We are just beginning to see the finer roots pervading into household appliances and cars and the dependence on physical, hardwired connections lessening.

I think that, ultimately, every being on the planet and every device will be interconnected - much like 'The Force' in Star Wars and the Borg's 'Hive'. The planet Earth will become an organism with one mind and reach out to touch others across the Universe - The UWW.

But that's quite a jump from Mozilla 1.0!