Many of the designers we come across tell the same old story of how they’ve wanted to be a designer since the day they picked up a pencil for the first time. But for a lot of people, a career in design comes much later. Today, we’re chatting to Simon Foster, a fantastic London-based web designer who ditched a successful career in hairdressing and dove into design at the age of 31. From there, he quickly worked his way up the ladder to a gain a strong foothold in the design scene.
Here, Simon recounts that initial period when he was getting into the industry, as well as giving his thoughts on responsive web design and self-initiated projects, and sharing his design process and where he gets inspiration. That’s a whole lot of insights for just one interview!
Photo by Ola Lewitschnik
Hey Simon, thanks so much for joining us on The Industry. Tell us a bit about yourself and the work you’re doing.
Well, I’m a freelance designer. I run what I guess you’d call a small one-man studio in London. I work for a variety of clients, all around the world, and, uh, yeah, that’s about it, really!
How did you get into the design industry?
I didn’t get into design until I was about 31 (I’m 35 now). When I left school, I studied art and photography for about three years. I went to university, but, well, got kicked out of university. That was about 17 years ago though, so it’s a while ago now – I’ve grown up since then. I just, uh, didn’t have a very high attendance rate – I’ll leave it that!
After that, I got into buying music and DJing and stuff, and then hairdressing. Eventually I moved to Stockholm in Sweden and worked there for 4 years. Then I came back to London almost 10 years ago now, and carried on working – I was a creative director at Pankhurst at Alfred Dunhill for a while, and still DJing in clubs.
And then I quit that, pottered around for a bit and then got into design about 4 years ago. And here I am now.
So you’ve always had creative pursuits…
Yeah… I mean, without wanting to sound too pretentious, I guess I’ve always been a creative person, but the way I create things and the mediums I’ve used have just changed over time. One thing I’ve learned since becoming a designer is that I kinda have exactly the same approach to everything I do – In a cerebral, conceptual kinda way, I suppose – But I obviously just apply that to whatever medium I’m working in at the time.
You’re big into responsive web design, and to an extent sell yourself around that fact. What are your favourite things about responsive web design? What new design challenges has the advent of RWD brought?
I’ve never really thought of myself as selling myself around that… What I like about working responsively is that it encourages simplicity, it encourages cutting out all the crap you don’t need in a website. It makes you think more about what you’re doing – More about the content, less about the eye candy. More about getting the right balance between functionality and aesthetics, which I think is very important. That’s the thing that I like about it, and it just felt natural for me to do that – It felt right for me to work on sites that don’t have loads of unnecessary decoration and fluff and faff.
And even though we’re always getting bigger and wider broadband, our websites are becoming leaner, aren’t they? Even if connections are going higher, our websites are becoming leaner and smaller and, y’know, I like that. I like the idea of the web being a fluid thing, not so fixed. Adaptive, responsive, whatever you want to call it, I like the fact that any website I make meets your device, and it works. I like that. I like thinking fluidly. I don’t agree with all this “mobile first” or “desktop first”, because, the mobile is the desktop, and the iPad version is the desktop version – It’s all the same thing, I think of it all at once.
It’s a challenge, but, y’know, we’re not sending a man to the moon, are we? We’re just making websites. What works for me is that because I’m a very no-fuss kinda person – and I think that shows in my websites – everything I make is fairly simple in the first place, and it’s not difficult to scale it down or to make it work on a very small screen because there’s no unnecessary faff there anyway.
What’s your design process like, then? Is it all in-browser, or do you comp it out in Photoshop first?
It depends on the project, really. I do sometimes start off doing a few comps in Photoshop, but it all depends on who I’m working for, what the project is, etc. But mostly, everything is done in the browser, and it’s always been that way for me. When I started, 3 or 4 years ago, I never really… I mean, I enjoyed Photoshop, as much as anyone, I suppose, but I never really spent much time making websites in it – I would just get the bare bones done and then as soon as possible, I’d jump into the browser because that’s when it feels right to me. It’s all about context, isn’t it?
Even when I’m comping out a website in Photoshop, I can never really judge what it looks like or how it feels because it doesn’t feel right sitting in a Photoshop window. I have to get it out into a browser and then I’ll be all “Ohh, that makes sense! Now I can see how it looks.”
So yeah, I’d say 80% of what I do, at least, is in the browser.
You do a lot of self-initiated projects, with, I guess, Free Faces being the most well-known of these. How much of your work is self-initiated projects, and how much is client work? Is there one you prefer over the other, and why?
Most of what I do, day-to-day, is client work, but I think I’ve always been the kinda person that does things for the pleasure of it. I guess that’s due to my coming from an art school background. I think, for me, the only thing I really care about is that I enjoy myself. I don’t care about massive client lists or anything like that. From the time I get out of bed to the time I get back to bed I just want to have fun.
So I’d say most of what I do is client work, but there’s always times when you’ve got a free moment or at weekends or after work or whenever, and I just like to do my own thing then. It gives you a chance to experiment, it gives you a chance to…to…just to do things you enjoy, y’know? It’s a pleasurable act – Making your own websites: You get an idea and try it out and tinker with stuff. I’ve lived a very colourful life, experienced lots of bits and bobs, and, y’know, that’s what I throw into my websites – whether it’s music, or whether it’s design or whatever.
That said, I am fortunate that I’ve got good clients and I get to be creative and I get to enjoy myself with my client work as well. There’s a very good post by a friend of mine, Trent Walton, called You Are What You Eat, and it’s just: If you want to be doing a certain kind of work, no one’s going to drop it in your lap, y’know? You just have to go out there and do it yourself. If you want to be a certain type of designer, working on certain types of sites, then you’ve gotta go out there and show people who you can do it, and that you are doing it, and that you’re good at it, y’know? So that’s another thing – A lot of my clients come to me, not only because of my client work, but because of all the projects I do off my own back, whether it’s Free Faces or Decorated Playlists or whatever.
There’s a quote from one of the guys from the Beastie Boys – I remember hearing the interview he did a few years back, and the interviewer asked him what advice would he give to young musicians and stuff, and he said, well, do what you love, do what you enjoy, and people around you will notice that and get a little scene going – That’s what people will be pulled towards. So I think if clients, or whoever, see that you enjoy what you do – That you’re getting a kick out of what you do, and that shines through your work, then it’s like a moth to a flame – People will love that and want to be part of that, and people will hire you.
What do you think of as the biggest achievement in your career so far? And for balance, what do you consider your biggest failure?
My biggest achievement… I dunno really, I never really think in those sorts of terms, I just plod along and react to things when they happen. I guess my biggest achievement was just getting started in the first place. I was 31 years old, I had quit hairdressing, I was DJing and I wasn’t enjoying it. And in the career I’d had before, I was at the very top end of it, and you know that when you start again you’re gonna be at the very bottom again, and that’s quite hard. So it was just getting over that barrier and getting a hold in the industry and making it work – That’s the biggest achievement: Just being here now and working! Y’know, I’ve been nominated for awards and all that kind of stuff, and that’s great but that’s not what it’s about for me. It’s more about, y’know, just the fact that I’m here now and I enjoy what I do – That’s the biggest thing for me.
As for my biggest failure, well, I dunno. I mean, we all make mistakes. The way I see it is that it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them. Making mistakes is human, it happens to us all, we do it every day. The main thing is to identify that objectively and not get emotional about it and realise “Oh, I did that wrong, I won’t do that again”. I don’t see failures or mistakes as a bad thing. I think you actually learn more from them – It goes hand-in-hand with success.
But I guess if had to think of one thing, it would be in the beginning, choosing the right clients. I think every freelancer will tell you that when they first start out, it’s a little bit of a learning curve learning to pick the right clients – Learning to vet and consult before you actually take a client on. You’ll always end up with nightmare clients that do your head in, but that’s all part of the learning curve, and if I hadn’t done that a few times, then I wouldn’t know now to avoid them!
Who do you look up in the web design field? Where do you get inspiration?
I look up to anyone who works hard and does what they love. In any industry. I try not to be too focused on the design world, even though I know it intimately, but it’s very easy to get blinkered, and be very sorta WEBWEBWEBWEBWEB. My influences are from, yeah, design, but also music, film, whatever. I dunno, I don’t look up to any one particular person, just anyone who works hard, does what they love and is honest about it.
Where do you see yourself in, say, 5 or 10 years? Any particular hopes or aspirations, or are you just seeing where the wind takes you?
The only thing I really care about is just enjoying myself, so as long as in 5 years time, I’m still enjoying it, in whatever context that is, then great! I mean, if you had told me five years ago that I’d be this designer now, I’d be like “What?”. So as long as I’m happy and I’m doing something that I enjoy, that’s the only thing that really matters to me.
And finally, for those looking to get started in the big bad world of design, what tips or advice would you give?
I always say that people starting out need to focus more on the “why” and less on the “how”. One mistake I made early on was trying to learn every bit of Photoshop, or every CSS selector or something like that. You don’t need to do that – These things you’ll learn as you go along. It’s more of a case of thinking about why you’re making websites, why you’re designing something, why you’re in this industry. What difference are you gonna make? What does your work say about the world? Don’t focus too much on the process, it’s more about “Why are we here? Why are we doing this?” Because ultimately, when you end up working on websites that have a lot of users, that’s when it comes into play, because you’re going to be making stuff that has a purpose.
I get loads of e-mails from young designers asking me for advice, and I always say “Just do your own thing.” Enjoy yourself. That’s the most important thing. Enjoy what you do, because, like I said before, that’s gonna shine through in your work and people will be attracted to that. Ignore trends and fads. “Ooh, this is in right now” and “This font is in right now” – That’s nonsense. Do your own thing. If what you’re doing is counter to what’s going on right now, that’s probably a good thing, because there are so many web designers out there doing the same old crap. You look at gallery sites and whatnot and you see so many things that look the same, and if you’re doing something that’s a little bit different, then you’ll stand out and that’s good. It’s good to be unique, to have your own flavour, your own tastes.
So yeah. Have confidence in what you’re doing, don’t try to mimic too much, and don’t worry about what’s in and what’s not, because that’s nonsense. Do your own thing and enjoy yourself.