Web designInterview

Conor O'Driscoll on designing for humans

Conor O'Driscoll on designing for humans

One of the net Awards nominees for Emerging Talent, Conor O'Driscoll says we should guard against web design becoming too mechanised.

Conor O'Driscoll is one of 10 nominees for Emerging Talent of the Year in the 2014 net Awards. He is known for creating interview site One Minute With, and is currently studying at Bath Spa University. We quizzed him to find out more.

Tell us about your main areas of competency.

Competency is an interesting word, isn't it? In all honesty, I don't feel competent at anything. Every single day, I get up and I just pretend to know what I'm doing until I go to sleep at the end of the day. I'm sure I might feel somewhat competent at some point in my career, but I don't expect that to come anytime soon.

In terms of what I do, however, I guess it could be effectively summed up as design, and a bit of front-end development thrown in. And the front-end development bit is really just an extension of the design bit: I'm sure it's possible, but I haven't yet figured out a way to design for the web without using code - creating a PSD and calling it a website is sort of like drawing a picture and calling it an animation. I really struggle to get a feel for a website until I force it into a browser, stretch it, pinch it, throw it around, and see what breaks.

Are you currently working or studying?

I'm currently doing both - I'm studying Graphic Communication at Bath Spa University, but also doing freelance work on the side. My course is pretty broad - I didn't want to just study web design, because I think there's a lot to be said for having a wider range of design experience. There are a lot of great things being done in the print world still which haven't made the move to the web, and I think that could pose some exciting new challenges.

However, the flip side of that for me is that it's really easy, when you're not doing as much web work as you used to be doing, to disconnect from the web community and lose track of where the field is at. I'm having to work doubly hard to keep on top of the web these days, because once you fall behind, it can be really tough to catch up again.

Give us a summary of your web work so far.

Well, I suppose that if anyone knows who I am at all, it'll be from my side project One Minute With, where I interviewed a whole host of designers, developers and illustrators. That's probably been the most fun to run, and certainly the biggest success, under any criterion. Whilst other blogs I've run have been good ways of getting my foot in the door of the design community, One Minute With really pushed me right through that door and now won't let me out. Having interviewed the best part of 150 designers, I can now more or less guarantee that if I go to a design conference, I will have interviewed at least one of the people in the room.

I feel really lucky that I got that opportunity: I started the blog before there were quite as many sites vying for interviews (I think there's been an explosion of them, due to The Great Discontent's success) so I was just in the right place at the right time.

Oh gosh, this is supposed to be a summary, isn't it? Right. Better make the rest of it snappy then. I've made a bunch of websites - some for friends, some for clients, some for myself. I've written for a whole load of blogs too: The Industry, AppStorm, WeGraphics, and several more. That's about it.

One Minute With, Conor's collection of web industry interviews

At what age did you start learning to code, and how did your interest in the web get started?

I really don't know how to answer this. For me, there was never a "moment" - just a very slow meandering path that eventually stopped at web design. To plot that path as succinctly as possible: puppet shows for parents, then funny videos with friends, then funny MSPaint animations with friends, then funny Flash animations for people online, then awful Flash drawings for people online, then awful logos for "clients" on 99Designs, then awful websites for "clients" on 99Designs, then awful websites for myself, and now we're hopefully on the path towards good websites for myself, and indeed clients.

I suppose if you wanted to pinpoint a first time I wrote a word of code, it'd be in primary school, using MSWLogo to make pretty fractals, or maybe some ActionScript to make a play button on my Flash animations.

My interest in the web feels like it's always been there: I think my very first introduction to it was when my mother, having just been to the local library, told me that she had gone online and had sent a message to somebody in Australia, and that that message had reached the other person instantly. That just blew my little eight-year-old mind. Instant communication, with everyone - I guess that's just second-nature to us now, but it's still something that fascinates me: communication, and indeed the sharing of ideas, is at the heart of the web, and that's something I really try to bring out in my work.

What was the first thing you built?

How far back are we taking this? I remember building a really awesome city out of wooden blocks when I was about three, but I guess that isn't the answer you're looking for…

I suppose the first website I ever consciously designed was this design blog called Inspiration Overload, that I started about four years ago. It's long gone, sadly, but it was sort of my introduction to the design community. I had set myself the task of producing daily content, as well as the occasional feature article, and worked really hard to get to know the people I looked up to in the design "blogosphere". I'd hardly call it a success, in terms of traffic or recognition or anything, but it made me a few friends, and basically acted as a crash course on design for me.

People go on about the importance of self-initiated projects all the time, but it's really worth reiterating. Even if your project is a complete and utter failure, it will undoubtedly lead to other things, which may be more successful.

What are you working on now?

Well, right now, some uni deadlines are fast approaching, so I'm finishing up a few projects this week, including a fun set of letterpress prints, and a typographic map of the world - typical art school fare, y'know?

In terms of web stuff, however, I'm currently gradually rethinking my website, to make it more personal, and better equipped for sharing of all my work, and not just the highlights. I'm also slowly chipping away at a secret, type-related project that - if it ever comes to fruition - you will undoubtedly hear about. But until then, I'm keeping silent!

Conor's current portfolio site

Are there any people whose work has been especially inspirational to you?

Y'know, if you'd asked me this question a year ago, I probably would have rattled off a bunch of my favourite designers on Dribbble, and let that be that. And of course, they're all still great, but lately I've been looking back a bit, at the people who shaped design long before the web was even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee's eye. People like Alvin Lustig, Armin Hoffman and Paul Rand: there's something inherently human about their work, and that's really inspired me in the past few months. It's easy for web design - especially in the age of designing in the browser - to become mechanised and not have any trace of "the hand". And I think that's something I'm keen to maintain: we are, after all, designing for humans.

Vote in the net Awards!

Celebrating the best in web design and development, the 15th net Awards is open for public voting until 24 March. With a record breaking number of nominations this year, it's set to be the biggest and best yet. Have your say by casting your votes here.

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