Jeremiah Tolbert is a writer and web designer living in Lawrence Kansas with his wife, newborn son, and two identical cats named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. His fiction has appeared in magazines such as Asimov’s, Interzone, and Lightspeed Magazine. He has also designed the websites of a few dozen authors ranging from Ann Leckie to Michael Connelly.
Interview by Deborah Stanish.
1- Clockpunk Studios has a reputation for developing gorgeous, artistic, yet highly functional websites for authors, publishers, and other businesses. When taking on a client, how do you approach melding their needs and aesthetic with the technical necessities of a well-designed website?
Balancing form and function is one of the core struggles of any design job. They’re not always necessarily at odds with each other, but maybe they are more so in web design because it’s still a relatively young design medium, versus, say, print. Because web technology is constantly advancing, and at a very fast pace, we get new tools every day. I’ve always erred on the side of function over form – it doesn’t really matter how beautiful a website is if it can’t be used. Increasingly, though, we don’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
Still, websites are not art; at least not most of them. Websites are tools and their design should reflect that. Which is not to say that we think websites should be ugly; absolutely not. But their design should enhance and serve their functionality. If a client requires something design or aesthetic-wise that we think is a detriment to the user’s experience, we try and point out those issues and work with the client to solve the problem in different ways.
Sometimes, a client might come to us with really precise instructions like, “Make this 3 pixels bigger, and change the color to blue.” Which is fine, but we try to dig deeper. Instead, we ask, “Okay, what’s the problem you want those changes to fix? Because maybe we can use our expertise to come up with a more effective solution.”
2- You are a writer yourself. Did that inspire you in any way to focus on building websites for creative types? Are there similarities in the creative process of writing and designing a website?
Absolutely. When I decided to strike out on my own and launch Clockpunk Studios, I knew I would need a niche to service. I’ve worked for clients such as AOL, and Kraft, and other Fortune 500 companies, but there’s no shortage of competition for jobs like those. Instead, I wanted to make my own way and work with clientele that didn’t traditionally have the services of professional web designers. And because I was already a writer with a large social circle of writers, writers started coming to me right away to build their sites. I was very lucky to have a lot of friends who needed work early on, and the business has ballooned from there.
At the time I started, websites for authors were in a pretty sorry state. Since then, a lot of tools have come along to make having a great author website so much easier than before – to the point where we are constantly working to provide more and more to our clients to compete with such solutions.
I think there are definitely similarities between the creative processes. Our projects begin with something akin to an outline, which we call wireframes. They’re pencil sketches of the interface and layouts of websites. Next, we move on to visual mockups to define the site’s design/look/feel, which would basically be the meat and bones rough draft. Finally, we write that design as code to make the site come alive. This involves a lot of revising of code and testing things, which in some ways emulates the rewriting process.
3- A website has a lot of jobs to do: highlighting the “product,” being user friendly, offering an enhanced user experience – but it is also a creative endeavor. How do you challenge yourself as a designer and developer without over-challenging the user?
I challenge myself as a designer and developer on my own time with personal projects more than I do for my clients, unless they’re specifically asking to take some risks. The trouble with challenging and stretching yourself is that sometimes you go down dead-ends or find less than ideal solutions. The learning process is valuable, but I prefer not to do that on someone else’s dime. We’re more than happy to do so if that’s the expectation up-front.
Most of the work I do for clients is a challenge of iterating on successful design patterns; things that work, and trying to improve them, enhance them, without necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel with each project. There’s an enormous amount of value in consistency when it comes to user experience. This might result in some elements being the same across most websites – for instance, you’ll find that the search tool is often in the upper right, navigation at the top, and so on. This consistency, a design “pattern,” results in a better user experience.
As far as a website having a lot of things to do, this is true, but most of those things are in service of a singular goal (or a few goals). With your product example, user friendly and enhanced user experience are all things that service highlighting the project. A good website works in concert to accomplish goals like that.
4- What is the “uncanniest” thing that has ever happened to you?
Goodness, that’s a hard one. I’ve lived a pretty uncanny life, for which I’m pretty thankful. Here’s an absolutely true experience from my childhood, as I remember it.
It was July 4th, probably 1988 or 1987. My father, sister, brother, and I were driving back from my great-grandparents who lived in the country outside a tiny little town called Carbondale, Kansas. We were on a dirt road, and it was maybe one or two in the morning, miles from anything but farms.
Up ahead, we saw a man running down the middle of the road. He wore a track suit, looked to be in his 50s, and most peculiar of all, he consisted entirely of grays. He looked like he had sprung to life from a black and white photograph.
He ran straight at us, not acknowledging us in the car at all, gaze set straight ahead. My dad swerved to miss him. This all happened in a matter of seconds.
Here’s the thing about childhood memories– hard to know which parts are true and which are parts you made up. I know all of the above actually happened. I remember it clearly as do the others that were there. I just can’t tell you if this last bit were true or if I tacked it on afterwards and it just feels real now.
But I could have sworn when I looked back at the man as he faded into the darkness, out of the reach of the car’s tail lights, that I could see through him; I could swear that he was semi-transparent and did not disappear into the darkness but instead evaporated into the summer night air.
I could swear that, but I won’t. Everything else is true though.