Netdiver magazine

/ What's new in design
digital culture

Web stars speak

/ Interview with Makiko Itoh

Makiko Itoh, principal of PRODOK Engineering and author of JavaScript + CSS + DOM Magic.

Makiko (Maki for short) was born in Tokyo, Japan and grew up all over the place -- various scenic spots in England, the U.S., and Japan.

She went to 13 different schools before reaching 17. After college, she worked for several years in New York, first in the designer lingerie industry, then interior design and finally advertising/print design, where she encountered Illustrator and Photoshop on a Mac IIci and fell in love forever.

In 1995 she moved to Switzerland, promptly got married, and started a business with her husband, Max Wyss. They run PRODOK Engineering, a web and "low paper solutions" development and design company, together.

Maki is also working on a book about *Web design / development stuff* due out later this year.

read one of her latest .pdf related article on Planet PDF:

Practical Smart PDF: When they ask: 'Why PDF?,' Show Them! by Max Wyss and Makiko Itoh

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/ How were you first introduced to the internet?

Well I started out online first on CompuServe. Then I started exploring further, with local BBSes, UUNet, Delphi and so on, and it all progressed from there.

/ Do you remember your first impression of the internet?

I was first fascinated by the online communities, whether on the Internet or on closed systems like CompuServe. When everything was text based, the only reasons for being online were to do research and read things, and to interact with other people. 

Then graphical browsers came into being and people went crazy over that; initially I was quite unimpressed with it - after all, people had been exchanging photos, graphics etc for years already. Web based graphical representation only started to get serious around the time of Netscape 3 I think. 

But first and foremost, I was attracted to the idea of these little villages and towns forming amongst people who most often than not never met each other in person. In a way, I think that's still my main fascination with the Internet.

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

It basically comes from having too many interests, though there has always been a thread running through everything I've done - I like having to think creatively, and having to learn new things all the time.

/ What was your initial profession?

My first fulltime job (I wouldn't call it my profession..) was for a lingerie company. I worked in a division of that company that financed big name designers. Basically, my job was to make sure that the money got paid and the letters of credit got processed. It was very boring, but the compensation was that I'd get amazing gifts from the designer companies whose letters of credit I handled - clothes what would cost hundreds of dollars retail, perfume, chocolates, flowers, etc. They wanted to keep me happy so their goods wouldn't get stuck in Hong Kong or whatever! 

But, I quit that job after a year and went to work for an interior design company. I did things like sketch rooms, do floor plans, and got to go to the D & D building in New York (wholesale interior design building) a lot. That was so much fun. 

I did think about getting formal training to become an interior designer, but then the company I was working for went out of business, and I ended up with a job at an ad agency, doing layouts on a Mac with Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop. That was it for me. I had found my métier, as you say in French.

/ Describe your present professional activities and why you chose it.

If I worked at a large company, I guess the closest title that would fit would be "producer". Currently, we do a lot of consulting work, where we figure out processes rather than doing actual brute coding (though we do plenty of that too!) Like...a recent example is, a company needed a better travel expense reporting method than what they were using (which was paper forms mailed or faxed back and forth!) So, we helped to figure out how they could solve that. And that kind of thing.

I don't think I chose my current profession - it chose me, or us (my partner and I). Initially, when we started the re-started the company as a "new media" company about 6 years ago, all we were thinking is we'd do web sites and design brochures and... 

As it turns out, we found out that both of us were pretty good at getting our heads around processes and then transmitting that information to other people. We still do plenty of design and development but right now it's about 40/60 in favor of consulting/planning. 

/ You write web related articles. Explain why you like to write.

Writing comes very naturally to me, and I do enjoy it a lot. And most of the articles I write are just an extension of what I do in my "day job" anyway.

/ Do people respect you as much or expect you to be technically knowledgeable because you're a woman?

I do get a lot of "wow, I can't believe you understand this stuff being a woman!" type of thing, perhaps more from other women than men. It is very strange in a way because I am not extraordinary, and there are plenty of other very technically savvy women out there. It's just a matter of our training and backgrounds. I think there is somewhat of a stigma attached to women being technically proficient - being geeky is not cool, for girls.

/ Do you think there are more men than women in web development? Why?

There are WAY more men than women. Why...because most of the math/computer science grads are men...girls are not encouraged (at least in the U.S.) to study math/science... there is no Web Developer Barbie. 

It is changing just a little bit though; however, I think I saw some news reports about girls still not being encouraged to study math/sciences. Not that a math degree means you'd be a great web developer, but you know, it's all connected.

/ What makes for a good project?

A good project is one that is challenging but not daunting, calls for creative problem-solving, progresses briskly, and has cooperative, intelligent clients that pay promptly. :)

/ When did your love of programming start?

I took an Intro to Programming course (Pascal) to fulfill part of the math/science distribution requirement at university. I hated math...or rather, once we got to Linear Algebra my brain shut down. So, I took the Intro to Programming class instead and it was fascinating. I had always been interested in computers anyway, but just in using the programs. That course made me want to explore more. 

So, I took more programming classes (Assembler, C, dBase). I even took a weekend/evening class at another school in town (School of Visual Arts) which was offering something called Intro to Computer Graphics. What that meant at that time (I think it was around 1987...) was programming single pixels on a VGA monitor in BASIC and C++! My proudest achievements were a Jack-o-Lantern complete with flashing eyes and mouth that I made in BASIC, and a program I made in C++ that had little circle thingies falling from the top of the screen, then bouncing off the bottom.

I ended up with a degree in art history/French literature (that too many interests thing...) but still, the programming course I took then later came back to help a lot. I didn't go directly into a 'programming job' because all my friends from programming classes were getting these amazingly boring sounding jobs like database programming on AS400s at a Pepsi bottling factory and things like that, and I definitely didn't want that. I wanted to do programming that was visual and immediate.

/ How do you promote your talent and land gigs?

I wrote a rather long article about this for A List Apart where I detailed what we used to do. Right now we get most of our business just by word of mouth. We also find that doing workshops, participating in conferences, being friendly with software vendors, and participating on mailing lists, to be really good ways to promote ourselves in gentle way. It's not like we participate on mailing lists just to market ourselves, and we probably both spend way too much time on them, but we have gotten some good contacts via mailing list contacts. Also, the writing is a form of marketing.

/ What do you look for when hiring?

If you are talking about subcontractors (since we haven't hired our first real employee yet :)) we look for people who are really good at what they do. It's not experience or how many years someone has been doing whatever; if they can actually do the task at hand, they're in!

If they aren't good, we soon find out. It's hard to find good people, though. I think sometimes we are too picky. For example, if I were to hire a graphics person, I'd want them to be very proficient in Photoshop and Illustrator/Freehand, plus have a good eye, know about typography, know about different color spaces besides short, such people are rare and rather expensive. So we keep on hiring subcontractors, who more often than not run their own companies.

/ What makes for a good web site?

Content, a sense of community, and good aesthetic values, in that order. Content doesn't just mean can be great graphics... sound... multimedia experiences... just... good, meaty content that is interesting to its target audience.

A sense of community can be very important if you want people to keep coming back. It can be something as simple as an update newsletter, to a forum, mailing list, chat room, an entire conference suite, whatever can be managed.

Good aesthetic values - to be pleasing to the eye.

/ How do you sharpen your talent?

By always maintaining a sense of curiosity, and never underestimating yourself. And practice, practice, practice. Nothing like repetition to improve your skills...whether it's creating a logo in Illustrator or writing a JavaScript function.

/ How did you first get involved in pdf production?

I knew PDF as a prepress tool since Adobe Acrobat first came out. But we did our first scripted PDF project in 1997-98. We had a client who needed to turn a huge stack of product catalogs into something a bit more portable and manageable. It had to be printable and viewable offline. After discussing a bunch of possibilities, we came on Acrobat with JavaScript. 

We ended up producing a CD ROM catalog that even includes a kind of mini-CAD program to design custom parts, plus a printable/faxable or email-able order form (all in PDF, viewable with the free Reader). We showed it to some people, including people at Adobe, and it absolutely floored them - they didn't know their program could do that.

/ You are a business woman. What was your first venture?

PRODOK was my first fulltime business venture.

/ Give a list of 5 things a woman starting in business should do.

1. I think the most important thing is to really decide whether starting a business is for her. It is _not_ for everyone - especially not this business. Making enough money to support yourself is a serious, serious commitment. You may be able to pick up some money as supplemental income; there's a huge jump from there to actually supporting yourself. There is nothing wrong with working for someone else - there's more security that way, you work less hours, and you sleep better.

2. Find or build a support group. I think that women do need more emotional and psychological support generally speaking. Many women feel more comfortable in a mostly female group, and there are plenty of such groups - online communities like Wise-Women, Digital Women and Women Web Designers or if you prefer human contact, local chapters of organizations such as Digital Eve and Webgrrls.

3. Talk to family about her priorities and make sure they understand and support her. Also, tell your spouse/SO if you have one that yes, he will be doing the dishes frequently.

4. Get a good grip on financial/money management skills. This hasn't been too much of an issue for me because I got bookkeeping skills drilled into me by my mom...Japanese women traditionally have been responsible for household money management. But I know several American women who have had disastrous things happen to them because of a lack of money-management skills.

5. Try to work on self-confidence, if that is an issue (and I think it is for a lot of women...especially when starting out.) Again, support groups can help with this.

/ What should she avoid at all costs?

Giving up at the first sign of trouble. Letting criticism affect you personally.

/ What makes a good team?

When people can bounce ideas off each other without the fear of others not respecting their ideas, that makes for a great team. You can always disagree and thing that individual ideas are not good, but if you have that basic respect for the others' capabilities, then it all works out. Having a devil's advocate to bounce ideas off is a great thing.

/ What makes a good storyboard?

One that is flexible enough to accommodate the unforeseen, but still remain true to its original purpose.

/ Describe what is *inspiration*.

Inspiration is those moments of incredible clarity when most of your brain cells seem to be sparking. It's the fuel that drives you to work on something long into the night - you can't resist, it's too much fun. It's the thing that makes you grow.

/ Describe what is a top-notch client?

One that is critical yet fair, has definite opinions but is smart enough to know when they might not know better, is open to new ideas and methods, and fulfils their part of the obligation - such as delivering data, content, source materials, etc. - in a timely manner. One that has a lot of enthusiasm for the project. 

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

This is not always possible with all clients. It's very important to do your homework of course - see what sites they find appealing (and why!), and ideally to observe how they surf and use the Net. What we can do is to present them with at least a few options, so that they get to pick. (I don't mean fully rendered comps, but just a few variations, which can even mean something as simple as different colored buttons.) You often encounter the client who just has to make/suggest changes, perhaps to feel that they're in charge. If you give them the feeling that they do actually have the final say, you can often gently lead them to a good choice.

We find that most clients do not respond well to bullying, but respond well to gentle suggestion (that also fits our personalities.) Also, the more work you do for them, the more they just leave it up to your judgment. This has been true ever since my ad agency days - the first project or so, the client would want to stick their fingers into everything; the second project on, once the trust was there, they'd just leave it to us.

/ Is branding an important issue online?

Well, a corporate web site is just like any other kind of corporate collateral - it's all part of that company's marketing strategy and identity, or should be. Actually, I am kind of surprised at how few companies seem to have a uniform strategy that encompasses their web presence. For example, we've done a lot of work for a certain worldwide electronics company. 

We have their CI (Corporate Identity) Kit - 5 CDs in a beautiful aluminum box, with templates for every kind of printed material imaginable (which we use for some print-on-demand PDF datasheets). They even have a Powerpoint template set. But, if you go to their web sites, except for their logo every one of them looks and acts totally differently. This is a bit silly and short sighted imo.

/ What was the catalytic thought that gave birth to Prodok Engineering?

Uh..."let's try to run a business together. How about web/graphics design and stuff?" Honestly, that was it. :)

/ Describe what the internet means to you?

It's a means of communication. It's a natural progression, from storytelling, stone and clay tablets, papyrus and paper, printing press, telegraph, telephone, television...internet. Who knows what's coming next?

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed online.

The thing is, I think that "online" is just another form of communication, as I stated earlier. So, success can be measured in many different ways.

Let's say you are running a business - you have to have a good business model whether you are brick and mortar or only online.

Let's say you are trying to show off your art work online, If a lot of people visit and think your work is wonderful and it even leads to paid commissions or awards or... then you've succeeded.

And so on.

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

I don't think that's come yet. :) I have several high points in the past, but that's the past.

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

I guess you are talking about an online project? Well, I think I would create a kind of internet artists space and museum, with a companion brick and mortar museum. 

It would have a school where high quality teachers would be funded by the project to teach kids (for free) how to use the internet to express themselves creatively; qualified artists can get free space to play with and to exhibit their works; an archive of past artwork would be kept; there would be a thriving community for the exchange of ideas, plus a research lab to work on future technology. 

There would also be a solidly researched archive of past online artistic endeavors, because such things disappear so fast.

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

It's about time there was a shakeup. The Internet is not a "goldmine" for making easy money. I have no tolerance for speculators who have no clue. The strong and prudent will survive and thrive.

/ Is the www an international network?

Definitely. I have a cousin in Japan that I've never met in person. He's posted pictures of his house that he took while it was being constructed, on his website. I can peek inside his walls and see his wiring. How cool is that?Of course, it's an international network only in the wealthier countries though, so far.

/ Tell us what the future (net) looks like

In the kind of near future, (in about 3 years, maybe) there will be a total separation of content and presentation. There will be a variety of ways of presenting that base information. Some will be visual, some aural. For this to happen, browsers have to become transparent and reliable. But in any case, most processing will be done on the server side. I think that HTML as we know it will be dead eventually. More robust visual editors should make the transition easier, but designers will no longer be able to think just in terms of "pages" and "canvas" but have to think in three and more dimensions. Still, having a good grasp of the underlying technologies will help designers stretch themselves more and be more creative.

On the flip side, it will become easier to get up a simple web site, as visual editors get better and more user-friendly. New home computers will come with "make your own web site" kits that actually work. I think this is good because it will eliminate the people who think you can "get rich" by "getting into web design", kind of like you get "get rich" by "selling Amway products". Ultimately, good design skills combined with good awareness of the technology, should prevail; however, I am rather worried that design schools don't seem to have a clue as to how to teach their students about good on-screen and multimedia design.

As more countries become active online, the definitely US-centric view of the Net that exists now will be shaken. It will be interesting to see how people and governments handle that issue. On the other hand, English will become even more the Universal Language, which may be unfortunate in some people's view. Unicode will make dealing with multiple languages easier. 

Eventually, the Net will become just another part of our lives like television; every household will have an internet appliance. We'll take it for granted, so we won't be talking about it so much. :) (I wonder if there was so much social commentary when the telephone was invented...)