An Interview with Sarah Parmenter

Sarah Parmenter is a designer, front-end developer, speaker, and writer based in Essex, UK (although she can be found at many conferences all around the world). She does some amazing iOS design work, and also co-hosts a podcast with our friend Josh Long, which I’ve come to love. Happy Monday is a weekly show where the two talk with creative people from our industry.

On top of those, Sarah was voted .Net Magazine’s 2011 ‘Designer of The Year.’

How did you get into design?

I was always drawing from a young age, I remember my parents giving me rolls and rolls of wall lining paper to draw on because I used to run them out of paper so quickly – as long as I had a pencil, crayon or felt tip in my hands, I was happy. Going digital was something I did much later on, since my school didn’t have great technology facilities. I studied “Fine Art” up until I left school, all the while practicing web coding and digital graphic design in the spare hours I had at home. I guess design was always in my blood, but I’m not sure where it comes from, because neither of my parents are like this at all. Web design was something that just interested me when the internet was still in its infancy, and I was lucky enough to jump on board at this time, when we were still designing table based layouts! I was very lucky to also have a family friend who owned a web design agency in Australia, who was able to help me out on the finer details of web design and was always about with great advice!

How long have you been designing?

I started my design business back in 2003, it was pre-Twitter & pre-Facebook – it was a much less social place back then, and I think building up clients was a harder feat due to that. I had just come out of an acting job, but had always been doing web stuff on the side so it was a natural progression to go full-time and start my own business. I had no “industry” friends, I wouldn’t have even known the first place to start, I was a timid 19-year-old girl in business, learnt everything on the fly, grew up fast and persevered with something I knew I would love.

I built up contacts and clients from advertising on eBay (of all places) in the business section, designing logos and small websites for new clients. In hind sight, they were probably the worst type of clients to be attracting, they were fixated on price, as you would have a price war with other people doing the same thing on eBay. Bartering was an everyday occurrence and generally you did an awful lot, for not a lot. It taught me valuable business lessons though, and from there, I started to slowly build up a reputation, because I could fill my portfolio with real projects, and gradually increase my rates and attract a different type of client. One of them grew with me, and is still my client today.

Where have you worked?

I was an actress for a Theatre in Education company, we were employed to go round to schools and teach sex education and drug education to secondary schools, and to teach primary school children about bullying. It was a pretty rewarding job. I then went onto “Casting” in an agency where we put people forward for films and television roles, because it was commission based. After a while, I found myself earning more money from updating their website than doing the casting itself, and quit to form “You Know Who.”

Who do you look up to?

Rachel Andrew was one of the people who made me sit up and think that being female, wasn’t a barrier in a very male dominated industry. I loved SitePoint back when I was learning, which Rachel wrote a book for, and read another industry magazine religiously that Rachel used to write for – the cogs in my head started to turn over and gave me the inspiration to continue learning. The main helper in my career was a guy called Roger though, he is a family friend who already owned a successful media business in Australia. I vividly remember Roger staying with my family and having his laptop open and a copy of Dreamweaver on the screen, and him taking me through the basics of how to create a website. It was all table-based back then, with good old spacer.gifs, I could have only been about 14 or 15. I remember practising on my own when he had returned home, and he would be kind enough to answer any questions I had, and help on anything I got stuck on. I remember being so frustrated about not being able to code something properly when I was about 15, I punched the keyboard. I look back now and think, why did I torment myself with that? It wasn’t my job, I was taking some pretty scary exams at school at the time, but yet I wanted to persevere. Years later, I can only look back and put that down to passion in its purest form.

What affects the way you work? What motivates you?

Getting to travel. I always wanted to travel and never dreamed this job would allow me to do that, via speaking at different web conferences. That has been the breakthrough point for me, as well as being able to call various webbies, great friends. I also love getting motivation from reading. I read .net magazine, and then tend to work my way through various interesting UI and UX books that I find on Amazon. Tapworthy by Josh Clark is an especially good read. As far as blogs go, I don’t really have any “go to” blogs that I visit daily but I love A List Apart and also listening to The Big Web Show which I stream through to my Apple TV and listen to in a quiet moment with a nice cup of tea!

Has your location impacted your work?

Back in July 2011, we moved into a lovely Edwardian town house just off from the seafront here in Southend. One side overlooks a park, the other side has the sea. My office is situated at the back of the house, I specifically picked it because the house is longer than it is wide, and it gives me enough distance from the rest of the living areas without being completely segregated. I love taking time out and being able to walk out of my front door and into a tranquil park, just to get some distance from a screen and gather my thoughts again. Just five minutes over there, or walking along the beach, can do wonders for my creativity.

What does an average day for you look like?

There is no such thing as an average day here. It’s pretty split with sitting in Photoshop and planning on paper. I try to leave all my admin tasks to later in the day, after the general working day is done and then start all over again the next day. I spend an awful lot of time in Photoshop to be honest.

And your workspace?

We have a long 3 meter oak bench with our equipment on top, 15″ Macbook Pro with Retina Display for me, plus another 11″ Macbook Air and 24″ monitor and keyboard setup for my assistant, plus a Rode Podcaster, iPad and various other bits and pieces hooked in.

What music gets you “in the zone?”

My tastes can vary on a day-to-day basis, I love Coldplay but I also love old 1940’s music such as The Andrews Sisters. When I’m working, I don’t tend to put much music on as I find myself singing along rather than working.

Where or how do you position yourself as a member of our community, our design industry?

I haven’t really seen a nasty competitive side of the industry in nearly 10 years, there’s plenty of other ugly sides but competitiveness doesn’t seem to be one – I’m sure it exists but not amongst the people I regularly interact with. We’ll actually send leads to one another, or vet clients based on other peoples experiences with them. It can be quite funny for a client who has sent the same proposal to a few of us, to realize we talk and share information freely. The whole industry is very honest as a whole though. The community feel is fantastic. Just this week a friend of mine contacted me and asked if she could come and work from my office for 2 days as she was in town. Technically she’s a direct competitor but it didn’t even cross my mind, since everyone is very respectful of one another and their successes but also help and lend a listening ear with failures.

As a member of the community I try to do anything or share anything I find useful. That tends to be the ethos of most people within this industry to be honest.

I also try to do at least one thing a year that is a free download that the community will find helpful.

What do you consider to be one of the worst design-related decisions you’ve made in your career?

I have some client horror stories, probably too many to mention. That’s the trouble with starting a business so young, I had to make a lot of mistakes a long the way. Sometimes I kick myself that I still make those same mistakes. The biggest thing I have learnt is stick to your routine. If you take 50% payment upfront for all jobs, don’t suddenly stop doing this because you feel you know the client or become complacent – sometimes it’s the clients that can seem like your best friends who suddenly turn into monsters.

Where do you want to see yourself in 5-10 years?

I’d like to see myself as more of an art director role with You Know Who standing strong at 6 people, who are the best in their individual skill sets.

Finally, what advice can you give to designers just starting out?

Specialize in one thing, then move on. Don’t try to be a jack of all trades, but do try everything, then decide what you get the most enjoyment from and specialize in that. Learn all you can, then move on.

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