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<les misc: old: but i play one on the web>

Because Jason Kottke asked, "How did you become a web designer?" Originally published 1998.

but i play one on the web


Before I could write I was drawing comics. My mom would write the words inside the balloons for me. Sometimes I didn't leave enough space for her.

Around age 10 I started doing a spy series. I named my hero Rick Purvis. He was sort of a James Bond type character. Although at that age I did not understand the political underpinnings or male-wish-fulfillment sexual innuendo of the James Bond ouvre, I did understand that he had fights and used gadgets.

In drawing and layout, I was heavily influenced by Spiderman and Doctor Strange, which were the only cool comic art back then. I'm talking about, I guess, the late 60s.

My drawing skills improved with each issue in the series, and to explain away the fact that Rick Purvis's looks kept changing, I made plastic surgery a story element. (He was always getting plastic surgery to disguise himself from his enemies.)

Constant redesigning based on increasing skills: that was how I did it at age ten, and apparently that's how I'm still doing it.

I also had an imaginary TV station in my head. I called it "channel one." Somehow that also seems to apply to what I do now. I’m not sure when I outgrew this fantasy.

Back then, making comics, I used colored pencils for color, BIC pens for ink.

The colored pencils smeared the BIC pen outlines, sometimes.

I wondered how Steve Ditko (marvel's Spiderman artist) managed to avoid smearing his BIC pen outlines, and also how he got his BIC pen to make such fat strokes.

Later I bought a Speedball pen set and got into lettering.

I made animations with pads of paper and a friend's movie camera. (It was always someone else's equipment.)

I sort-of abandoned art for a long period, mainly because my German girl friend Eva was an artist and I didn't want to compete with her. That was foolish but I've done many foolish things. Besides, by then I was a writer and a composer and that was surely enough. We broke up a year after moving to New York City together.

I've since discovered that one of the things Eva makes now is web sites: fine art web sites. Her work is as interesting and as good as almost anything out there, but she doesn't publicize it or "play the game" in any visible way, and I’ve refrained from linking to her work because someone else, not Eva herself, pointed it out to me, and I don't know how she'd feel about it. We were "friends" when we parted but there was much pain involved and we haven't contacted each other in years.


I always cared about the way things looked.

I’d been in advertising for 15 years and I was tired of the art directors having absolute control over our shared product. So I bought a Mac and learned what I had to learn.

I was unaware of the early web (then again I was unaware of pretty much everything for 16 years. The web started the same year I got sober, and there are no coincidences.)

I fell into the web when an advertising client (Don Buckley at Warner Bros.), who was eager to use the web, approached the ad agency where I’d just been hired and asked us to create a site for Batman Forever.

I was attracted to the work of two art directors toiling at the agency at that time, and by an act of God one of them was assigned to do the web site and he brought the other two of us in. The agency was treating the web site like it was some direct mail crap we were supposed to bang out.

We didn't treat it that way.

We moved our stuff into one guy's office (Steve McCarron the head art director on the project), locked his door, and ignored everyone else and every other project for three months while we figured out how the web worked, what we could do with it, and what we SHOULD do. The other art director, Alec Pollak had a background in CD-ROM design, and that helped. Especially because CD-ROM design was inappropriate to what "could" be done on the web at that time, and we were ignorant enough to ignore those limitations. The client, Don Buckley, was also extremely helpful because he was intelligent, creative, and knew the web was THE medium. He wanted a site that would prove this to his bosses at Warner Bros. He gave us permission to do what we wanted and push hard. He pushed hard himself, not only as a client but also as a creative.

The site got 1.5 million visits a day for over a year.

In the first week after its launch I realized the power of that and started banging out my own (initially pathetic) personal site.

The personal site remains the focus of my work and I treat it like we treated the Batman site: stay focused, stay obsessed, stay with it. The site's many flaws are my growing pains. It made me a designer but there is still a lot I don't know because the specs are always changing and because I have zero formal design background. (I haven't taken an art class since painting, and that was in high school, and I sucked at painting in high school – probably because it required patience and I was more interested in drugs than in developing creative skills, let alone life-skills like patience. I assumed I’d be dead before 30 anyway. Go figure.)

Alec left that project to become a creative director at a web design firm, then he started his own firm.

Steve has moved on to other realms. Too bad.

I’ve learned from everyone I’ve worked with. I learn from everything I see. (Not limited to the web. Films teach me. Photography teaches me. Maps and street signs and napkins teach me.)


I was also initially very influenced by David Siegel’s "Web Wonk," because he talked about controlling horizontal and vertical space, and though a very few people were already doing that on the web, he was pretty much the only one talking about it.

As a result: the third week that the Batman site was up, I sweet-talked someone at Pathfinder into giving me ftp access so I could redesign the text parts of the entire site, adding margins and other niceties. No one else cared about this – the job was "done" and paid for. But on the web the job is never done and I realized that right away, if I realized nothing else right away.

The psychic change I underwent in midwifing this site impressed the client; we became friends and that also motivated me in the early days of '95. I wanted to keep impressing him. In a way Don was my audience.

If I had been part of the "official" revolution instead of working in isolation during the first two years I might have gotten better faster, but I would probably have been too influenced by others. I know I was too influenced by other writers when I was in an MFA writing program. Finding your own voice is the most important thing, and my relative obscurity and separateness allowed me to do that. There are no coincidences.

The author and his opinions.
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