The phrase “who needs no introduction” is bandied about all too often these days, and usually with no good reason – Surely it’s a bit presumptuous to assume that everybody is acquainted with some person whom you are acquainted with.
But then there’s Jeremy Keith.
Unless this is the first time you’ve been on the internet ever, Jeremy shouldn’t really need much of an introduction – You’ve almost certainly encountered him in some form or another. Jeremy is a designer, developer, writer, speaker, co-founder, founder and, most importantly, from the same county as me in Ireland. I caught up with Jeremy to chat about success, failure, writing, Twitter, and the transiency of the web.
Hey Jeremy, thanks so much for joining us on The Industry. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
So, as you said, you don’t do all that much client work these days. Do you ever feel you’ve lost sight of what you started off your career doing?
Well, if I do go for a while without doing any hands-on work, I definitely do get that feeling. But even if I’m not doing client work, there’ll usually be internal projects that need to done, like making the website for a conference that we’re running, or some other internal stuff.
Personal projects also really, really help. I would say that for as long as I’ve been making websites, personal projects have probably been actually where I would have learned more new skills than anywhere else. Sometimes, when you’re working on a client project, you feel a bit guilty using that time to learn a new skill, whereas, with a personal project, you’re like “Okay, I’m gonna spend some time to figure this technology out so I can use it for this personal project and not feel guilty.”
If you could only do one of the things you do – Writing, speaking, designing, etc. – which would it be, and why?
It took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of calling myself a writer, or even a speaker, because it doesn’t really feel like “real work” – Making websites is “real work.” I am comfortable with it now though. Sort of.
I really enjoy teaching, whether that’s giving a talk on stage or giving a full-day workshop on something – Y’know, really getting hands-on. I like that a lot. So I’d probably want to pick some sort of compromise answer, like a front-end consultant, where maybe I’m not actually doing the front-end work, but I’m helping other people do theirs. I have done a bit of that, and I really, really like it – Going into a company and looking at their code and offering advice on how they could mark things up or style things. It’s like doing front-end development, but it’s also like speaking – I guess it’s sorta halfway between the two.
What would you consider to be the biggest failure in your career? And for balance, what would be the biggest success?
Oh, that’s a really good question. Gosh, I dunno. When I look back on what I’ve done with my life so far, there was definitely a long period where I wasn’t really doing anything significant, but also it was before the web was really around – It’s almost as if I was waiting for the web to come along, just killing time. Was that wasted time? Well, no, I was having fun and enjoying myself, so I don’t think it’s wasted, but I do sort of wonder if I was born too soon…
As far as failures, I dunno. Depends who’s judging, y’know? I mean, I’ve done sites or written things that weren’t hugely commercially successful, but I was always learning new technologies whilst doing them. Even for the successes: It depends on how you’re judging it – The biggest financial success wouldn’t necessarily be the biggest creative success.
I’m actually struggling to think. Maybe the failure to do more – Learn more technology skills, y’know? But that’s kind of failure by absence, so it doesn’t really count. I’m trying to think of something concrete that I did do that was a failure.
Success-wise, I’d say the personal projects have been really rewarding. I’m really proud of Huffduffer, which I more or less built for myself, but turned out to be really useful for people. It doesn’t make any money, but it’s just very fulfilling. Oh, and, uh, this Irish music site I run, called TheSess– Actually, no, that’s it. TheSession.org is simultaneously my biggest failure and my biggest success. It’s been online since the late nineties, in one form or another, and in its current form, it’s been online since 2001. People contribute tunes, session listings and track listings for recordings and stuff, and it’s basically been in much the same state since 2001 – That’s a failure. For about 2 years running, it was my New Year’s resolution to update the site.
But at the same time, the effect that The Session has had on the world of Irish music worldwide has been amazing – It’s my passport to free drinks in any Irish bar anywhere in the world – I just turn up and say “Y’know that website? I made that website.”
But you could argue that if it is that successful, that means the site doesn’t need changing…
Yeah, no. There is no shortage of things wrong with it – Just frustrating things that would really not be that hard to fix, but I haven’t got round to doing. Yes, it’s been really successful, but there’s so much potential for it to be better: People submit session listings and event listings, so there’s all this potential geo-data that you could do all sorts of great stuff with – I’m not doing any great stuff with it yet. It’s definitely the source of my biggest dejection, but also the source of my biggest euphoria at the same time.
Note: Between the conducting of this interview and its publishing, Jeremy actually did manage to redesign The Session. And here’s how it looks.
In 2011, you gave a talk at Build about, amongst other things, timeless and future-friendly design. That’s something that I, personally, have been struggling with when it comes to web design – How do you combat the transiency of the web? Or have you just accepted it?
No, I definitely haven’t accepted it. That’s the easy route – To just say “Oh well, that’s the way the web is.”
This is probably going to be occupying my mind, and my writing fingers, for the next year or so. On a very broad level – and maybe this is simplifying too much – the more backwards-compatible something is, the more future-friendly and sustainable it is. If you have something that works on a text-and-links-only browser, chances are it’s going to work on a device that’s coming out next week that you don’t even know about.
I’ll bang the drum of progressive enhancement again – It’s my particular hobby horse: I’ve been around a while, making websites, and it is remarkable how resilient it is as a technique – It sorta does allow you to have your cake and eat it too. There’s this misconception that progressive enhancement means that you’re designing for the lowest common denominator. You’re not – You’re starting from the lowest common denominator, but there’s no limit to where you can go. You can add all sorts of great stuff for the devices capable of handling it.
As a general rule, I think that’s the trick – To begin with that lowest common denominator. That may be one of those things that if you’re not used to doing seems hard to the point of impossible, but then again, I think that would have been true if you’d talked about responsive design 2 years ago: If you were making fixed-width sites and that was the only way you knew to make sites, you would’ve thought you’d never be able to do fluid grids and media queries and all that sort of stuff. It’s actually just a matter of adjusting your brain to look at things in a new way. It’s similar to how the CSS Zen Garden adjusted our brains to look at things in a different way, when standards came along. It’s a mental adjustment more than anything.
The point I was making in my talk last year about digital preservation was that the biggest issue of all is acknowledging that there’s a problem. Once you just get people to acknowledge that the internet doesn’t automatically remember everything is the first step on the road – People trot out “Google never forgets” or whatever, and it’s like “No. Citation needed!”
Absolutely! Now, you live in Brighton. How does that impact on your life or work?
Brighton turned out to be a really great place to move to. My wife and I made the move to Brighton from Germany more for musical reasons than anything, but, as it turns out, there was a good scene there, and now, there’s a really good scene there. There’s no particular reason why it should be Brighton rather than anywhere else – Y’know, it could just as easily be Leeds, Bristol, Manchester or wherever. It’s just a positive feedback loop.
How do you define success? Have you found it yet?
I don’t really think about it that much… I think about less about success, and more about happiness: Am I happy? I am in a good place, definitely. I get to do what I like. I’m really lucky at Clearleft, actually, that they haven’t kicked me out, because, uh, like I said, I don’t really do that much client work – I’m doing what you could maybe generously call research and development. Really, it’d be more accurate to call it goofing off on the internet.
But yeah, I get to travel to places to speak. I’ve got a nice flat in Brighton. It’s got a garden outside. I’m happily married. I would say all those things are good.
As regards financial success, it’s not really something I think about – I’m not saying there isn’t a correlation between finance and happiness: There is. You want to be making enough money so you don’t have to worry about money. I’ve always been fortunate – For example, I’ve never gotten into debt. Well, I say that, but I’ve got a mortgage now, and that’s a form of debt. It really hangs over me – I’ve never ever had that feeling of owing anybody anything before, and I really want to pay it off.
I don’t think I have the definition for success. I tend not to analyse things too much. In general, what happens in society is you tend to compare yourself to people around you, and ask “Am I doing better or worse? Am I happier? Sadder?” You should try to avoid doing that – I can see how that would lead to the rat race – trying to keep up with some perceived level of, I dunno, income or success or whatever. As it is, I’m very happy.
At the same time, I’ll get restless sometimes – Everyone has those days, right? Days where you think “Ugh, why am I doing this? This is so pointless. I should be working in a kitchen somewhere, doing something meaningful.” I think that’s pretty normal.
What tips would you give to anyone getting started in design? Or, actually, what tips would you give to yourself if you could travel back in time?
Well, I wouldn’t go back in time, because you can mess with the timeline and there’d be all sorts of knock-on effects, and paradoxes would form.
Write. That would be a big one. I don’t want to do that thing where someone who’s done something reasonably well proceeds to extrapolate that everything they did must be the correct path to success – That’s not a very scientific method. However, anecdotally, it certainly helped that I wrote pretty much all the time. If I learned something new, I’d jot it down, and if I saw something cool, I’d link to it, and it’s definitely worth doing. And do it for its own sake, not in pursuit of becoming a well-known blogger or an authority on X.
The ability to express yourself, as a designer, is hugely important: There was a post from 37Signals a few years back, about how, when they were hiring, they looked for people who could write, because it’s a form of communication, and design is a lot about communication. So yeah, write. For its own sake, without expecting to get anything back. If you expect to get something back, you’ll only be disappointed when it doesn’t happen, and you’ll kinda self-censor yourself.
Nowadays, most people have given up on blogging and just tweet stuff, so now is the perfect time to be establishing yourself as someone who can write. When I think about all the people I admire as designers, they tend to be really good front-end developers (and I don’t think that’s a coincidence) but also great writers. When we’re hiring at Clearleft, I always look to see if someone has a blog. If someone writes about design – or whatever they’re interested in – that’s always a few bonus marks in my book.
Oh, and don’t think “Nobody’s gonna be interested in what I have to say!” or “Everyone knows this already!” There was a great post by Laura Kalbag about why you shouldn’t use display: none when you’re doing responsive designs. The reason why she was writing it was that she mentioned it on a podcast, and assumed that everyone knew what she was talking about, but in the chat room, everyone was like “Oh, why shouldn’t I use display: none?” She had assumed it was obvious – It was obvious to her, but not to someone else.
I learned CSS in 2000 or 2001, so I was kinda done with CSS by 2002 – I had had my revelation, and wasn’t as excited about it anymore. But I remember Andy Budd, who was a Flash person at the time, asking me about this CSS thing. He then started a blog, and he wrote as he learned CSS. I was kind of like “Huh? Why would you write that? That’s so obvious!” And of course it’s not. It’s obvious to me because I’d done it a year before, but in the comments, people were like “Ah, brilliant! Thank you so much!” Andy became a CSS authority – Not because he learned CSS and then wrote about it, but because he wrote as he learned CSS, and it’s actually a really valuable perspective.
When I’m writing, generally, I’m not thinking about any particular audience out there, I’m just thinking that there’s somebody like me out there – a mirror image of me – who’d be really interested in this cool thing that excites me. Essentially, I’m writing notes to self: Note to self: This is really cool. Note to self: Check this out. If it turns out that other people think it’s great, that’s just a bonus.
Now, for my in-person interviews, I decided to add a fun little feature: A quickfire round. With the emphasis very definitely on the word “round” – Speed rarely factored into it. Essentially, each person picked 5 playing cards, with each card assigned a certain topic. Then, they had to speak on those topics for as long as they wanted, with quite interesting results…
Twitter’s role in the design community.
140 characters is very useful in some ways, for condensing thoughts down, but some things take longer than 140 characters, and yet lots of people have stopped writing and now only use Twitter. And then there’s that thing where you see people blogging on Twitter, when they do, like, 10 tweets in a row. I just want to scream at them “GET A BLOG!” I dunno, Twitter is just a communication tool, like any other.
Open Source Projects
I haven’t actively contributed to any open source projects, to my knowledge, although I am a fan, and I use open source technology all the time. Open source is great. There’s open source, the technologies but then there’s also open source, the philosophy. That seems a natural match for the web, when you think about how Tim Berners Lee licensed the web even more liberally than open source, as simply no license at all. That act, I think, has reverberated down the history of the web. Every couple of years, people say “Oh, well the web was great when it was for academics publishing documents, but now it’s for businesses, and we need to change it fundamentally.” Screw that.
The line between copying someone’s style and stealing their work
Ooh. That’s a tricky one. I mean, there are some great design exercises you can do which are literally copying a logo to get the feel for the shape. And Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby, to see what it would feel like to write the Great American Novel. But you don’t then go and publish that.
Copying something to learn: Great. Copying something and then charging money for it: Not so great. A lot of grey area there. As for the fine line of influence and stuff, it’s very very tricky, especially if something has a distinctive style. You also get the whole simultaneous invention thing, which happens in the sciences, but also happens in design – Where similar ideas crop up at the same time, and then someone accuses someone else of ripping something off. It can be hard to judge.
Digital vs. Analogue Design
I heard a talk from Dan Williams recently, where he was sort of pushing back on this comparison everyone’s been making lately about atoms and bits – how we’ve been doing stuff in bits and now we’re doing stuff in atoms. We used to just make things in code, and now we make things in plastic. He pointed out just how hard atoms are – The fact that there’s no undo, that there’s no reverting your commit – You can’t get away with drilling that hole just one inch to the wrong side. And you’re left with physical stuff around you, and it’s messy and it’s dirty.
I must say, I do get annoyed with analogue nostalgia. But then again, I also get annoyed with digital utopians (The whole “Everything will be digital, blah blah blah” thing) But with analogue nostalgia, people are like “Ah, remember the good old days, when you had to hold a book in your hand and smell the paper?” And for some reason a bathtub always comes up: “Oh, you can’t read the Kindle in your bathtub.” Um, well, it’s pretty hard to read a paperback in your bathtub. It’s probably easier to make a waterproof Kindle than a waterproof book. There’s a lot of rose-tinted nostalgia about analogue stuff that’s unwarranted.
I don’t really have any experience with analogue design, so I can’t really talk about how it feels, but I am wary of both analog fetishism and digital fetishism. We can romanticise a lot, especially when it’s the older people, saying “Oh, I remember in my day, we didn’t have these tools, and we used to make our entertainment like this” Y’know, if those tools were around, you would have been using those tools too – Don’t act like your brains are wired any differently and that if you were presented with the opportunity to have access to a world wide network of computers in your pocket, that you wouldn’t have used it like those young kids today.
I find it funny to hear people talk about how they like making physical things because it feels more permanent. You should just be taking better care of your digital creations. That’s the solution, not to go and make stuff with paper.
Working on projects you don’t believe in morally
Don’t work on that project. Simple as that.
Now, of course, I’m in a very lucky position: Clearleft’s a small agency, and we don’t have to rely on any one client who’s gonna make or break the company. Right from the start, we established that if there were ever a client that one of us – any one person in the company – had an issue with, that they’d basically had a veto on the project, be that that the client was from a democratic country with a government we strongly disagreed with, or that it was for a product we didn’t agree with.
When I was freelancing, before Clearleft, I got an inquiry from a medical testing lab about doing a website for them. I said no, but even then it wasn’t clear cut – They were doing cancer research, and you have to understand that somebody else is gonna build that website, so you could argue that you might as well do it, if someone’s going to. But with that way of thinking, you can justify absolutely anything.
I remember talking to a guy who indulged in some black hat SEO techniques – he was a smart guy too – and he could always find a way to justify it. The classic one is “I have to pay the bills.” That justification is true, obviously, but it’s kinda the prostitute defence – There are ways of making money, if that’s the bottom line, but that shouldn’t be the bottom line.
I know it’s very easy for me in my ivory tower to say all this, and ultimately, people need to take on whatever work they can, but I strongly believe that you should have a belief. And it should be a personal thing – It shouldn’t be a mandated “We should all get together and agree to never work on this kind of thing.”
I have some friends who are now at Facebook, having had their company bought up by Facebook, and they basically have golden handcuffs on: They have to stay there a certain time. I was chatting to one friend who was like “Well, y’know, I feel like I’m on the inside, so I can make a change from the inside. I can do more from in there.” I was just like “Whatever it takes to get yourself to sleep at night.” We all find justification for doing things.
More fundamentally, I heard a talk by Jon Kolko at UX London last year, and he was talking about design as a means of solving real problems – He teaches in Austin, and he was getting his students to solve proper problems around healthcare and homelessness: Real issues, as opposed to making fart apps. He pointed out that in design critique, you’re allowed to criticise a lot, and there’s a tradition of criticism in design, but you’re not allowed to question why something exists in the first place. Maybe it’s time we did – Maybe it’s time we are able to critique other designers and say “I don’t think you should even be building this thing.”