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Wise-Women Member Spotlight

Experience, Elegance, and Style

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The following interview was conducted in June 2002 via email by Wise-Women Web Site Assistant Editor-in-Chief Lisa Boyd:

I have always admired Suzanne's knowledge in all things design-related. She always has great advice and is willing to share that advice with anyone who'll ask. When she posts to the list, you don't want to miss it! I have many of her posts saved for reference even if they're about subjects that don't concern me. She has wonderful insight into the whole process - now get some insight into her.

Wise-Women: What is your computer background/education?

Suzanne: Interesting questions.

Some time ago a man introduced me to someone as a "computer graphics person." I quickly corrected him to make an important distinction, "No, I'm a graphic designer who happens to use a computer as a tool, and I was a graphic designer for years before I started using a computer." To me, graphic design is about creating effective visual communication, not about computers.

Likewise, graphic design isn't just about the Web. The Web is simply one of many media available to professional communicators. I have also designed for newspapers, magazines, and countless other forms of print media: brochures, billboards, buttons, bumper stickers, etc. I've even been involved in producing television and radio ads.

A more appropriate question would be, "What is your design background?"

I've always liked to draw, sketch, and arrange objects into pleasing visual compositions. If I weren't a graphic designer, I would probably work in fine art or in another design field such as apparel design, landscape design, interior design (all of which I've also studied) or architecture.

As a kid, I used to get in a lot of trouble for "wasting" notebook paper. Finally my parents gave in to my compulsion and enrolled me in private art lessons with Clara Zimmerman Clayton in my hometown, Burlington, NC (North Carolina). I studied with Clara from the fifth grade through high school graduation.

I went on to study fine art and art history at Hollins College, Roanoke, VA (Virginia). Then I transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC (New York City), a division of the State University of New York, graduating with a degree in apparel design. I worked in that field for several years in NYC and NC, but never really enjoyed it, so I took evening courses in graphic design, landscape design and interior design courses at community colleges.

Volunteer work on the newsletter for the local Lamaze association during my pregnancy further increased my interest in graphic design. So, after my son was born in 1975, I enrolled fulltime in graphic design courses at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in Charlotte, NC. When money for school ran out, I began working as a fashion/product illustrator for a department store chain then moved on to a newspaper. Frustrated at being pigeonholed as a fashion illustrator, I did freelance advertising design work on the side.

Eventually my freelance work expanded enough so that I could go fulltime freelance in the early '80s. Then my freelance business evolved into a full service ad agency, with a staff providing media planning and buying services and creative production for print, TV and radio advertising. Ironically, even though I was unable to graduate from CPCC, I was later honored to become a class advisor for the school's design program.

My first foray into computers was when I was running my ad agency. Even though my partner thought I was a little nuts, around 1983 I insisted on researching, then buying two PCs to use for word-processing and agency management. Before buying the computers, we typed copy for ads and brochures on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Every time a client made a revision, the whole page of copy had to be retyped. At that time, Apple's current model was the Lisa. Since this was several years before Macs were to become the predominant design platform and also before the introduction of Windows, I bought an IBM DOS PC and an IBM clone.

As my ad agency grew, I was becoming heavily involved in whitewater boating and teaching canoeing and kayaking. When I burned out with the ad agency, I moved to the NC mountains to work for Nantahala Outdoor Center, a large whitewater school and rafting operation, as Publications Manager. While at NOC, I met Native American intuitive counselor Rose Morningstar, who became a dear friend and who continues to provide me with spiritual guidance.

When my ex-husband and I divorced, I left my beloved NC mountains and moved to San Francisco, where I freelanced, working primarily as an art director for one small ad agency specializing in food marketing. I also did short freelance gigs for other ad agencies, including one that I had always especially admired, Chiat/Day, whose work for Apple Computers may be familiar to other designers.

During that phase of my career, California ad agencies were beginning to shift from traditional to Macintosh computer design and production. My first in-depth exposure to computer-based design was when I watched a Mac specialist at a typesetting firm produce a complex brochure for me in QuarkXpress. Very intrigued, I was also fearful of becoming unemployable without Mac skills. So, in 1992 I talked my father into giving me the money to buy my first Macintosh system. (His help was vital since back then my first Mac, a 33 mhz Mac IIci with 5 mb of RAM, plus peripherals and software, cost nearly $25,000.) He also helped me pay for private instruction in QuarkXpress, Photoshop and Illustrator.

With my new equipment, I began freelancing from home instead of commuting into San Francisco, working mostly for a book publisher near my home. Since the service bureau that I used for film output kept suggesting that I use their bulletin board to send them files, I bought my first modem, a 2400 baud speed demon, in 1994 and signed up for America Online. My first weekend online, I was intrigued by some funny messages in the graphic design forums written by Dave Stephens, so I contacted him. Within weeks we were living together, then moved together from the Bay area to Ashland, Oregon.

Right after we moved to Ashland, we were invited to a meeting about doing a homepage for the City of Ashland. We had no idea what a homepage was, but figured we needed to go find out. At the meeting in a coffee shop, several computer programmers, OSU computer instructors and local ISPs enthusiastically raved about the very first release of Netscape Navigator, looked at several Web pages on a laptop, and tossed around meaningless 3- and 4-letter acronyms. For the most part, we had no idea what they were talking about.

When I learned that a company could have a Web page for as little as $40 per month, the hair on the back of my arms literally stood on end. Having bought media as an ad agency executive, I knew that it costs millions of dollars to communicate worldwide through traditional media. Intuitively, I knew that the Web was going to be HUGE, a major paradigm shift in communications.

Right away, Dave and I delved into learning Web design, assisted by our ISP and others from the coffee shop meeting. I became obsessed by the Web and completely quit print design, leaving Dave to support us. At that time, the only instructional materials available were pages of HTML tags that we downloaded from Netscape's site and printed. We made our graphics in Photoshop v2 after teaching ourselves how to make GIFs and JPEGs.

Eventually I found and gleaned a wealth of info on Web layout and graphics from sites published early on by David Siegel and Lynda Weinman. From Siegel, I learned the clear gif trick and how to use borderless tables for layout. One of Lynda's design students had thoroughly researched Web safe colors, so I began using Web safe color charts downloaded from her site. Our only tools were Photoshop, Simpletext and some utilities that we downloaded for making imagemaps and for stripping the icons out of Photoshop files. When I discovered and began using BBEdit instead of Simpletext, my Web coding became much faster and easier.

We published our own company Web site in early 1995, becoming one of only some forty Web developers listed on Yahoo! (back when the two Yahoo! Guys still answered email). For a couple of years, we tried to sell Web site design to people who had never heard of the Web. Finally it caught on, however, and we stayed very busy doing Web graphics and site design, primarily for California clients.

Knowing that few had ever succeeded in making money with the Web, we watched the dot com 'boom' in amusement and wonderment. When the bust finally hit, we lost several clients. Finding it very difficult to make ends meet while based in tiny Ashland, we recently moved to Lake Oswego, a Portland suburb. We are just settling in and beginning to make sales calls here.

W-W: What general tips or ideas would you give to new web designers?

SS: Find some way to learn professional design and typography. If you can't take college courses, many fine books are available in the art sections of bookstores. I particularly recommend books on design by Robin Williams.

Learn about marketing and copywriting (including how to spell).

Learn about and respect copyright law.

Learn HTML instead of trying to depend solely on WYSIWYG programs.

Learn to price your work high enough to be profitable. "The Graphic Artist Guild Handbook of Ethical and Pricing Guidelines" www.gag.org and Cameron Foote's publications available at http://www.creativebusiness.com/ are excellent resources to learn about pricing and professional business procedures.

Get a good contract written by a lawyer such as WW member Scott Fine www.finehummel.com

Never, never, never start a project without at least 1/3 to 1/2 payment up front and collect the balance before delivery of your finished work.

Don't expect to get full emotional satisfaction from doing contract design work or working as an employee. As long as you must cater to someone else's needs and preferences, you probably won't find great satisfaction in your design work. To fill the resulting void, do pro-bono or personal interest work. Also, develop a life apart from your work. Find other things to be passionate about -- music, sports, other art forms, whatever fascinates you. You may find your life and emotions more in balance if your design work becomes simply the activity that provides the money for you to pursue your other passions. The flip side is that pursuit of your passions is likely to send design customers your way.

W-W: What or who has influenced you design-wise?

SS: My mother, Nancy Ford Wade, who ran a custom monogramming shop out of our home for many years. She loved letterforms and spent hours designing custom monograms for her wealthy clientele.

Mother's half-sister and my aunt, Mellie Ann Etheridge, a fabulous painter, portrait artist and horsewoman. She had a hip, contemporary viewpoint and was outrageously outspoken. She and her first husband, an architect, were the first truly stylish people of whom I was aware. I admired her tremendously and she loved me in a very special way. Mellie Ann passed over a few weeks ago and, I'm sure, is busily shocking and amusing the angels.

Clara Clayton, my childhood art instructor, who taught me tools and tricks that I still use every day.

Evie Chang Henderson, a fabulous instructor in the Visual Communications Dept. of Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC. Evie emphasized fine typography as well as "concept," the creative ideas that make great ads stand out from the rest.

My father, Ben Wade, an electrical engineer and all-around handy person. From him, I learned to tackle any kind of traditionally "man's" job or activity. Because of him, I'm unafraid to paint a house, wire a light fixture, use a power tool, crack open a computer case, paddle a kayak, play in a band.

W-W: What graphics program do you use? Is there a reason you use that particular graphics program?

SS: Just as I view a computer as simply a tool, I also view programs as little more than tools. My design, conceptual, creative and marketing abilities are much more important to me than any of these tools.

Like many print designers, I use the "Big 3" -- the predominant print design programs -- QuarkXpress, Illustrator, and Photoshop. With my longtime familiarity with Photoshop, ImageReady was a natural choice for me. Likewise, I adapted easily to Dreamweaver since it was compatible with BBEdit. I've also dabbled with Fireworks and GoLive but am most comfortable with Dreamweaver and ImageReady. The other programs are fine but are simply not my personal choice.

W-W: What are the most common web site mistakes that you see on the web today?

SS: After years of mentoring Web designers on email lists, probably the most frustrating mistake that I see is over-reliance on use of such programs as Fireworks or ImageReady to write and generate HTML. Many new designers waste incredible amounts of time pleading for help with troubleshooting their pages. They could save lots of time by learning HTML, then using that knowledge to tweak and troubleshoot their pages.

Since broadband connections became widely available, I've seen many sites that demonstrate the designer's ignorance of file optimization. Most of these sites are probably inaccessible by people with slow dialup connections.

W-W: Do you feel equally comfortable with the design and technical aspects and how did you become that way?

SS: Dave and I divide our work up according to our technical expertise. His area is printing and color-separation, and especially the tight specifications required in CD package design. I am better with copy writing and editing, typesetting, and, for Web projects, HTML and cut-n-paste JavaScript.

In one of my first graphic design jobs, I had learned to use a newspaper's typesetting system. That system used SGML tags, very similar to HTML. With that experience, it was especially easy for me to learn HTML. However, my brain shuts down and I go comatose when I try to grasp real programming such as JavaScript.

W-W: Where, and how, does a design begin?

SS: It begins with a client's business objectives.

W-W: If there wasn't a web, what do you think you'd be doing today?

SS: If there was no Web, I would still be a graphic designer. Or, I might have gone on to master another design field that interests me, such as landscape or interior design.

W-W: What would you like to do or learn that you haven't yet? (This is a completely open question and you can discuss design, technical stuff or skydiving if that is the answer).

SS: I wish I could have started learning whitewater boating or percussion at an early enough age to truly master either.

W-W: Whose brain would you like to pick?

SS: Rose Morningstar's thought processes fascinate me. I would love to be able to see the world through her highly intuitive viewpoint.

W-W: What steps have you taken to keep work from devouring all of your time?

SS: My problems are more finding the time to do my work and finding enough work to keep busy. Living outside mainstream society in small rural towns between 1987-2002 has made finding work challenging. Hopefully our recent move will correct that situation. Plus, our pets demand a lot of attention. We go out to play music several nights a week and music practice and lessons consume time.

W-W: What is your favorite music?

SS: I like playing music that includes complex funk and/or Latin clave based rhythms.

W-W: How many different languages can you speak or read?

SS: Besides English, I can speak and read a little Spanish and French. I studied both extensively in high school and college, but without opportunities to use them, I've forgotten a lot.

W-W: Are you having fun yet?

SS: You bet!

W-W: Thank you for the interview!

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