Simon Collison on the privilege of being a designer

This article first appeared in issue 237 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

There’s a lovely scene in Simon Collison’s essay in the first issue of The Manual in which he remembers, as an art student, meeting the artist Ian Breakwell. He was, Collison wrote: “a diarist, painter, collagist, filmmaker, performer, broadcaster and writer… He was the most accomplished person I’d ever met.”

It was the 1990s, and as Collison – spattered in paint and reeking of turpentine – talked through his canvases and ideas, Breakwell listened intently and took notes. “At the end of our meeting, Breakwell passed me the handwritten note he’d scribbled down.” The note was a list of artists to explore and essays to study. Meeting Breakwell had a defining effect on Collison. “This marked a turning point in my methods,” he wrote.

And really, looking at Collison’s career so far, it is very much one of turning points. A fine artist turned designer, his current project, Fictive Kin is neither a design shop nor agency. Rather, as Collison explains over the phone, it is “a product shop”. Functionally, Fictive Kin is a collective: a lab of designers and developers spread throughout the UK, the US, Canada and Denmark.

The shop’s credo is: “Work hard, be nice.” And work hard it most certainly does. Products include to-do app TeuxDeux, online archiving tool Gimme Bar, the Brooklyn Beta event and the BB Summer Camp: a project funding startups. There are more, too, but Collison is tightlipped: “We’re working on a couple of other big projects I can’t talk about, and an even bigger one called Rushmore.”

Rushmore – a designer-led project currently in private beta – has occupied Collison and the Fictive gang for the last 20 months. “People are starting to be excited about it,“ he says. “It’s a beautiful music ecosystem for fans and artists. Our goal is to bring fans and bands closer together.”

From Frieze to freedom

Prior to Fictive Kin, Collison co-ran his own agency, Erskine. Erskine opened its doors in 2006, and by 2009 its stock had rocketed. Along the way, the agency worked on projects like the website for Frieze magazine and the Frieze Art Fair. “They were the biggest projects, and I’m massively proud of these above any others. My designs are still pretty much in place five years on, and influenced a lot of copycats.” Other projects included a website for the explorer Ben Saunders and sites for UK non-profit Business In The Community.

Simon Collison

Erskine’s rise continued. By 2009 it was voted runner-up in the Agency Of The Year category at the .net Awards. And then in one of those signature turning points, Collison walked away. Explaining the decision, he says: “It was a case of being tired of the limitations, of having all those bosses.”

“Now I can work on one project. It’s much more rewarding,” he continues. “Previously I’d be working on one product for a week, or a month. Now I have the space to design every decision. Now I can make a difference”

As we talk, it becomes apparent that this idea of having space and time to design is incredibly important to the man. More specifically, it is the idea of rigid, preordained organisational structures that turn him off. “People are intelligent and have common sense,” he explains. “And they should be encouraged to use it. Everybody can contribute.”

His message is clear: just because something has been made this way before, it doesn’t mean the next site, project or product should be approached with the same conceptual and procedural mindset. “I really dislike the idea of must-read articles,” he adds, by way of further clarification.

All this raises an intriguing question: how, when Collison was doing client work, did he find collaborating with clients? Was it really that bad? “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to come across as arrogant. Client work is very important and I was very lucky. I got to work with some of my heroes, like Jason Santa Maria, Ryan Sims and Khoi Vinh. There are some great designers who only do client work, but it just wasn’t for me.”

It may not have been for him, but Collison was undeniably successful at helping clients tell their stories on the web. So what was his secret? “Choosing the right clients was key,” he explains. “I like clients I can learn from, projects where I can push myself, and clients who [can] be malleable.”

So how do you judge a company’s malleability? “I had a trick. Before we’d agreed to work together I’d ask if could change something arbitrary [in their web design guidelines]. I didn’t really need to change anything; I just wanted to see how they’d react.”

A creator of new adventures

Today, Collison is equally well known as one of the people behind the New Adventures In Web Design conference. “I think it’s a thoughtful and ambitious event,” he says. “I’m proud of the fact that in [the 2012] conference, we had no code on the screen.”

Instead, code was made available in the breakout sessions: the main run of talks focused on simple creativity. There are, Collison maintains, lots of conferences out there that are intended to be practical and help people build, code and ship.

The man’s pride in New Adventures is palpable, and so is his sense of mission. “It’s important to me that New Adventures is in the North. It’s not in Brighton and it’s not in London. Having people like Dan Cederholm and Jessica Hische come up to Nottingham is really important. It shows designers that we’re all in it together. It’s about encouragement.”

But Collison has now suggested that this may be the last New Adventures. “What you’ve got to remember is my partner Greg Wood and I aren’t conference organisers. New Adventures was taking up 25 per cent of our year. It’s difficult to give it the attention it needs.”

Time may be a factor, but you can’t help thinking that this is another of Collison’s signature turning points. “I guess I’m a restless person,” he says.

The restless web natives

So is Collison proud of what he, and his similarly restless generation of designers, have achieved? “Immensely,” he says, stepping up from a spoken canter to a full gallop. “We’ve achieved a lot. We’re not be afraid to question things, to challenge things and try new things. We’re willing to learn. We’ve solved problems, we have innovated with the uniqueness of the web, and importantly, we have identified unique interaction patterns that led us to things like Responsive Web Design”.

Make restraint, reduction and courage your tools, not Photoshop or Fireworks

By way of a summary – or possibly through the need to draw breath – he adds: “Being a designer is a great privilege. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world.”

And what message does his generation of designers have to the ones coming after? He laughs. ”You don’t know how bloody difficult it was!”

He adds: “My friend Greg Wood wrote a lovely tweet: ‘Yo Internet, don’t take anything too seriously today. It’s just computers after all. Be joyous and have fun x.’”

This idea of a duty to the next generation affords a neat symmetry. All those years ago, Ian Breakwell helped out a young hopeful by pushing a note into his hand. If history were to go full circle and Simon Collison found himself sat opposite a young designer, just listening, what would he pass on?

There is what, by Collison’s standards, passes for a long pause. “Wow! That’s a brilliant question. At the time I was smoking a lot. I’m surprised I didn’t burst into flames because of all the turps. I think what I’d say is: ‘Make time for things you love. Make restraint, reduction and courage your tools, not transient stuff like Photoshop or Fireworks’. That’s really important to me – that they are your tools, not things made by Adobe. You can master Photoshop, but what matters are your ideas and how you communicate them to an audience.”

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