Web Design Career Advice from Denise Jacobs

Onward Search Career Cast, Episode #26

With this episode of the Onward Search Career Cast, web designers and web developers will learn a lot about navigating their careers and enhancing their professional journeys with career advice from industry expert Denise Jacobs.
Denise, who is a writer, a speaker, a designer, educator and the author of the CSS Detective Guide, provides valuable insight for web designers and developers about everything from portfolio mistakes to finding inspiration. This “5 Questions With…” style interview reveals which industry events Denise recommends the most as well as what trends designers should be paying the most attention to right now in order to stay competitive in their fields.

This is a must listen episode for web designers and developers of all professional backgrounds who want to benefit from Denise’s incredibly useful advice and inspirational guidance.

Episode #26 Transcript

Welcome to Onward Search Career Cast, the podcast that brings you the latest insight and career advice from experts within the Internet marketing and creative space.  Onward Search is a leading nationwide provider of web-based talent and offers a full range of recruitment and staffing solutions. If you’re looking for a career in search engine optimization, interactive design, or emerging technologies, you should apply online at onwardsearch.com or call 800.829.0072 and speak with an experienced recruiter today.

“HillaryHillary O’Keefe: Hey there everyone. Welcome back to an all new episode of the Onward Search Career Cast. I’m your host Hillary O’Keefe, and for today’s episode we are doing things just a little bit differently.

My guest is not actually here with me recording today, but the career advice and insight that she has to offer is nonetheless very valuable. Her name is Denise Jacobs and she is a writer, a speaker, a designer, educator and the author of The CSS Detective Guide.

Now, I originally reached out to Denise when Onward Search was sponsoring Unmatched Style’s CSSOff which if you haven’t heard of it is this fantastic competition for web designers and developers in which Denise was participating as a judge. Denise was so receptive to speak to me about the competition, I asked if she’d like to offer some career advice to the web designers and developers in our audience through our featured Five Questions With interview on the Onward Search Career Center.

Well long story short, by virtue of a very busy schedule, Denise ended up sending me audio files for her Five Questions Interview answers and well, I was so impressed by the energy and the advice that she offered, I wanted to share them as is rather than reduce them down to just text.

So without further ado, here is Denise Jacobs answering five questions about careers and web design and web development.

Question #1 – What is the best advice you’ve ever received about navigating a career in web design especially advice that you passed on to other designers.

“DeniseDenise Jacobs: I think from my own experience some of the best advice that I’ve gleaned and some of the things that I found to be the most effective are three things. The first one is to constantly learn and really know that being in this industry means that you’re constantly having to keep up with things, having to kind of look forward and look where you are and kind of look backwards all at the same time in that there are always new things coming out and it’s just really important to stay abreast of what happens and to never become complacent with your knowledge, the amount of knowledge and the amount of skill, and always be searching and reaching for a certain level of mastery. That’s one piece of advice that I think is really important.

Another very important piece of advice I think is especially… I wouldn’t say just for designers but I think for everybody is to make sure that you find your voice and that you really express your individuality and really express your own kind of signature style in everything that you do and to really work on developing that and honing that and really leveraging that because it’s very easy to do the same thing that everybody else does, you know drop shadows and noise and everything that is really popular and you see everywhere but I think to develop a timeless style, an elegance, a certain something that is really uniquely yours is extremely important.

And finally, the last piece of advice which I think is extremely important as well is to make sure that you connect with other to co-work, to collaborate, to connect with other people and find like creative synergy with others that you can use to leverage what you’re doing and to make what you’re doing better and to help whatever they’re doing to help make that better.  I think that’s one of the things that’s been wonderful about the industry is how open it is and how easy it is to share and to share information and to find information that you want and to connect with the people who are the sources at the information.  It’s really wonderful so it’s really important to leverage that and to capitalize upon it.

“HillaryHillary O’Keefe: Question #2 – What trend (or trends) should web designers embrace now to remain competitive over the coming years?

“DeniseDenise Jacobs: There are several trends that I think are going to be very important but before I say that, I will say that one of the things that we need to do as web designers and Faruk Ates often speaks about this and has spoken about this quite a bit last year is instead of designing for where the web is that we design for where the web will be, so instead of focusing on what has happened and transpired from the last 3 years kind of to the present, that we should be focused on the present and to what’s going to be happening and transpiring in the next 3 to 5 years if we can even begin to kind of think that far ahead.

To that end then, I think some of the things that are important for what’s coming, not so much of what’s happened but what’s coming in terms of trends first of is responsive design and kind of a mobile first approach.

While responsive design is not perfect and we’re still kind of working the kinks out, it’s a really great brain exercise to kind of think about the fact that really the web is becoming so much more ubiquitous than it has been in the past, and the people really are not looking at websites solely on a desktop and that they’re looking at it through a lot of devices and that a lot of people in developing countries are accessing the web via their cell phones and via mobile phones, and so I think it’s a really wonderful thing to start looking out and start shifting your brain to a different perspective of what is coming and what we need to really focus on.

The other thing that I think is important to keep track of right now and to start thinking about is emotional design. Aarron Walter last year spoke a lot about emotional design and learning to love humans as opposed to machines and what not, and I think that kind of knowing about that design basically can affect a person’s relationship with an object and that a person’s affinity to foreign objects and that their kind of emotional relationship within an object determines whether they like it, whether they trust it, whether they want to use it more, whether they’ll recommend it to other people just like experiences do in the same way, and so keeping abreast of emotion design I think it’s something that’s going to be kind of interwoven and in the background of everything kind of from this point forward.

And then finally the last trend that I think is going to be important to remain competitive is to really understand typography and really understand how typography on the web works and how it will continue to work and develop in the future because there used to be a point in time where we were so limited in what we could do in terms of typography and now it’s just really opening up with web fonts and font services and what not, and it’s just so many more options and so much easier to get different fonts into our pages and then all kinds of groovy scripts and groovy things to enable us to do really interesting things with fonts that we couldn’t do before.

So those are the trends that I think that we should really keep our eyes on and embrace to remain competitive.

“HillaryHillary O’Keefe: Question #3 – What are the biggest mistakes and best choices web designers make when they are building their portfolios?

“DeniseDenise Jacobs: One of the things that I really appreciate seeing and I’ve seen several really great articles on do’s and don’ts for portfolios I think there’s one on Web Designer’s Wall. I think there’s one on Nick La’s web design blog and I think there’s probably several really great ones on Smashing Magazine, but one of the things that were recommended against and also that I always also kind of find annoying myself is when you go to people’s websites and they have this little, teeny tiny thumbnails that’s just this little tiny slice of the whole website design and so you can’t really tell what the design is. You can’t really get a feel or an indicator of what the design looks like until you click on the thumbnail and you know in a lot of ways it’s kind of a usability problem because the person doesn’t really know, you don’t really know what you’re clicking on and you don’t really know what you’re going to get.

And so one thing I would really recommend is to avoid small thumbnails for your portfolio and to have larger images, larger squares or larger horizontal slices, or even if you can do almost a full screenshot to have that because that will really give people a sense and a feel of the design, of your website designs.

The other thing that I find is interesting is that a lot of times people will just have galleries of the sites but you don’t really know what they did on the sites. So I always really like it when you go to a person’s portfolio site and you go and you click on the link. You click on the image of the site and what it takes you to is a description page that has a really nice big image of the website, of the design and the interface and everything and then they also kind of tell you what they did. They tell you what the problem was, you know kind of like a case study.  They tell you what the problem was. They tell you what their solution was and they tell you what their role was in the project whether they did the actual interface design, whether they did UI elements, whether they did the HTML and CSS or if they did the UX or if they did the content strategy, or whatever, I like seeing when you can tell what people did so you can tell what part of the project they had and if you’re looking for people, it’s really important because you want to know what they’re capable of doing and how you can fit them into a project.  So it’s a really important thing I think to have that kind of information on there.

And then the last thing that I think is kind of a big mistake, you don’t necessarily see it per se on portfolios. Sometimes you can kind of intuit it but the other thing that I think is a problem is that a lot of times people will take on projects that they don’t really like and then they have pieces in their portfolio that they’re not really proud of or don’t really give a really strong indicator of what they do and what they’re capable of doing.

So another thing I would recommend is you know to choose wisely, to choose your clients and to choose your projects wisely so that at the end of the project, you do have a nice portfolio piece.  You do have a nice story that you can tell and that will help you move forward and attract more of the clients and more of the works that you wanted to do in the future.

“HillaryHillary O’Keefe: Question #4 – What events and conferences do you recommend the most to web designers and developers both here in the US and abroad?

“DeniseDenise Jacobs: Well, I have to say that I’m going to talk about actually two things.  I’ll talk about my own experiences, the conferences that I’ve been to that I really appreciated and then also the conferences that I haven’t been to but that I heard really, really great things about and that come highly recommended to me and so I’m excited about it attending myself and speaking at hopefully as well too.

So the first conference that I think a lot of people talk about in the industry and there’s a lot of chatter about and everything is South by Southwest Interactive. I first went to South by Southwest Interactive in 2006 and basically going to that conference has literally changed my life.

It’s a wonderful conference. There’s a lot of information and the only downside about South by Southwest that I can say at this point is that it has grown so much that it has gotten to a size that is a bit unwieldy.  At least for me it has gotten to a size where it’s kind of beyond a comfortable size, but going to it is a wonderful experience.  You meet great people.  You see very good presentations and you make connections that literally are life and career changing potentially and very serendipitously as well.

So I highly recommend South by Southwest.  If you can go to it it’s worth the experience. The other conferences that I’ve gone to that I’ve really like, this year I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to speak at several conferences that were kind of smaller conferences, more intimate but then really delivered well on the content and the speakers and the audience and everything and were just really great experiences for me at least.

Now the first one was Interlink Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.  I love speaking at it.  The audience was great.  The speaker lineup was wonderful and the organizer, Shawn Johnston, really just… he just really did a lot of effort to make it a really wonderful conference.  So for our first time conference, he just did a fantastic job and so I highly recommend Interlink Conference in Canada.

Converge Southeast in Columbia, South Carolina was phenomenal.  It was a great lineup.  He had great workshops.  It was a wonderful time.  It was a very good vibe and it was just a really, really nice event and really well put on and really well done so I highly recommend Converge Southeast.

One of the first conferences that I ever went to actually that got me into this whole foray of experience in the industry is WebVisions in Portland and I’m sure it’s grown beyond the way it was in 2005, when I first went there, but I’m sure it’s still really, really great event.

Future London, I attended and spoke at last year in 2010 and I loved the conference.  I loved the space.  Carsonified just did a really good job of putting the conference on and setting up the lineup and everything and having two tracks, and the space is phenomenal with high ceilings and wood floors and exposed brick and all kinds of stuff, and so it’s…even just for the space alone, the conference is worth it but then he gets a great line at the speakers every time as well.

And then finally, I also just came back from speaking at Paris Web just a couple of weeks ago.  Paris Web was a wonderful conference.  They really did try to accommodate everybody.  It’s mostly a French language, French-speakers conference and French-speakers come from all over kind of the francophone world to attend the conference but they also really accommodated English speakers, not French speakers.  They also accommodated people who were hearing challenged so they had sign language interpreters on stage, live interpreting the speakers presentations and they also for the non-French in other words English presentations, they also had live translations so there was a screen up where somebody was live translating the English contents into French and it was just a really, really well done conference and they treated the speakers really well and the audience was great, very inquisitive, very interactive.
This was not an audience of people who were going to sit there and just take in information and not ask any questions and so that was really, really wonderful.

In terms of conferences that I haven’t been to but that I’ve heard really good things about and that I would like to attend and speak at, the first one is Deconstruct in London.  I’ve heard wonderful things about Deconstruct. People just say it’s amazing, really great line of the speakers, really thought provoking topics and so I’m looking forward to attending one of those in the future.

I’ve also heard really wonderful things about the Frontiers Conference in Amsterdam and again great line of the speakers, usually have workshops and that you know people come from all over Europe to attend that conference and to learn more about the web craft. Webstock in New Zealand, I’ve also heard wonderful things about Webstock and so looking forward to attending that sometime in the future.

Web Directions, North, South and East. North is in the United States. South is in Australia. Usually in the East is in Japan. All of these conferences I’ve heard wonderful things about and that they just have a lot of really great information. And then finally New Adventures in Web Design, a new conference started by Simon Collison that’s going to be happening in Nottingham, UK in January and I feel fortunate enough to have been invited to speak at it and again another very thought provoking kind of cutting, leading edge thinking about the craft and the practice of web design and so heard wonderful things about last year and so I’m really looking forward to the one coming up with this year.


“HillaryHillary O’Keefe: Question #5 – What is the most unexpected source of inspiration you’ve ever encountered?

“DeniseDenise Jacobs: I have to say actually the most unexpected source of inspiration I’ve ever encountered happened after I finished my book, the CSS Detective Guide. I experienced kind of this epiphany about creativity and design, and my own capacities and my own capability of doing it and so really what I recommend is big goals or accomplishments and achievements and how that can inspire you.

So for me, reaching a big goal and reaching the achievement of having completed a book, having designed six websites and written the content for all of them and just putting it all together in this kind of nice tidy package that ended up being my book, doing that and having been a person who thought, you know I really like to write a book one day and I really like to designs websites one day and to have that all kind of come together really inspired me and I experienced this rush of energy and this rush of inspiration and motivation, and feelings of accomplishment and achievement and also almost a feeling of feeling invincible and like I could achieve so much more than I thought I was capable of.

That carried me for weeks afterwards and so I recommend big goals.That’s where I have found inspiration.  Achieving, tackling and achieving big goals have been a great source of unexpected inspiration for me and I’m looking forward to the next ones.

“HillaryHillary O’Keefe: And our bonus question, who is your industry hero?


“DeniseDenise Jacobs: Well this is a very tough question because I have so many of them that it’s difficult to choose from, but I’ll name a few people whom I’ve met over the course of my career and many that I’ve met early on in my career, people whose work I admire and who have really helped me figure out my own direction, my own trajectory in my career.

So the first one I have to say is Molly Holzschlag. Molly is a person whose books I used to use when I taught web design and web development at Seattle Central Community College several years back and it was not only was it amazing and thrilling to meet her at a conference finally and talk to her in person, but it was even more amazing and thrilling to have her befriend me and kind of take me under her wing and invite me to South by Southwest 2006 so that she can introduce me to people, and that very act has literally changed my life and has literally changed my career and so in a lot of ways watching her grow and develop and seeing her career change and seeing her reach, expand and everything has just been really wonderful and she’s definitely one of my industry heroes.

Another industry hero is Dave Shea. I used to read his blog a lot back in the early 2000s and I used to marvel at his designs and I was thrilled when CSS Zen Garden came out and would use so many of his blog posts and so many of his website examples as teaching tools for my classes, and so not only was it amazing to meet him and befriend him as well but it’s also been really wonderful to kind of see how his career has developed and grown and changed over time, and just really thankful for all the contributions that he’s given to the industry and especially at a really seminal point and a really important changing point in the industry.

I think I would be remised not to mention Jeffrey Zeldman as the… because I like to think of him the grandfather of web standards or maybe the godfather of web standards kind of like James Brown with like soul except for like shorter and Jewish.

But Jeffrey has of course has been incredibly instrumental in the industry.  I used to again in the early 2000s would use one of his old websites, Ask Dr. Web and would ask… use his website as an example of how to do frames correctly and so I have had my eye on Mr. Zeldman for quite a long time and it’s also been wonderful to see what he’s done and how his career and reach and everything has developed and grown over time in the last 10 or 12 years.

Another person who I have to say that I really been impressed with and who is a bit of an industry hero for me is Stephanie Sullivan. I met her through Molly in fact at South by Southwest 2006 and it’s been wonderful to see her grow and develop and turn into a strong voice in the industry and a strong leader and teacher and trainer and everything.  It’s been wonderful in speaker.  It’s been wonderful to see her do her thing and to be such a bad ass.

And then finally, you know I could list… keep listing for days and days but I also have to say that I very much appreciate Nicole Sullivan and her capacity kind of to develop something new that is so workable and so applicable for large websites. It’s going to really help kind of change how people write their code and do what they do and help them do it better.

And I have to say overall, naming all these people but really there are so many people in the industry who are brilliant and wonderful and for me, I admire and I covet brilliance and I seek out being associated with and meeting people who just kind of effuse and effervesce brilliance and that’s really what makes people heroes for me.

“HillaryHillary O’Keefe: I would like to thank Denise for lending such great advice and encouragement to the Onward Search Career Cast. Be sure to check out her website, denisejacobs.com and follow her on Twitter, she is @denisejacobs for plenty of web design and creative inspiration.

If you’re looking for a design or a development career opportunity, head on over to onwardsearch.com and checkout our web design jobs as well as our web development jobs. Thanks again for listening and I’ll meet you right back here for another episode of the Onward Search Career Cast.

Thank you for tuning in to Onward Search Career Cast. For more information on the career opportunities available through Onward Search, you should visit us online at OnwardSearch.com or call 800.829.0072, and speak with an experienced recruiter. And you should also follow Onward Search on Twitter at Twitter.com/onwardsearch.