Web Afternoon


Design Edition

February 26th – 1-6pm · The Garage at Tech Square · Atlanta, GA

Jason Pamental

Once Upon a Drop Cap (When Words Were the Experience & Letters Were Your Voice)

What we have to say has always been intimately intertwined with how we say it. Design is about communicating those ideas and influencing users’ behavior, so it follows that influence is imparted largely by how we design. For all our intellectual complexity, our brains are still wired to make near-instant judgements about the value and importance of the message we are receiving based on how that message appears.

Thankfully, most of us are still familiar enough with actual books to remember the feel of paper under our fingers, the smell of the ink, the elegant transitions from one idea to the next – all in service of the story. While pixels remain odorless, there’s much more we can do than just deliver a digital message. Practiced typography transforms that message into a compelling experience. Let’s take a journey forward through time and see where typography can take us.

About Jason:

After over 20 years in the industry, you could say Jason Pamental knows a thing or two about how to build a successful design career. He has held positions such as Director of Design & Product Experience at Fresh Tilled Soil, Platform Architect & Creative Director at Schoolyard, and co-founder of h+w design, Jason is also the author of Responsive Typography (from O’Reilly), and a co-host of Talking Drupal, a weekly podcast focused on all things Drupal and eCommerce.

Self described as a web & typography nerd who specializes in being a generalist, Jason has an impressive portfolio of work that is truly in a league of its own. He is frequently found leading client workshops, defining design processes, and serving as a day-to-day touchpoint and ‘block-remover’ for project teams. He has also led groundbreaking designs for the likes of Yale, the NFL, and numerous Fortune 500 companies.

Jason is a designer who is truly at the forefront of what’s next in web design and typography, and the opportunity to learn from him about his processes and pattern of thinking can’t be missed. He’s excited to speak at Web Afternoon - Design Edition, and to encourage fellow designers on toward excellence in all they do.

A Brief Interview

First off, you’re a published author. That’s pretty impressive. Are the paparazzi constantly hounding you?

Constantly. You have no idea how relentless the fans of good web typography can be. (Full disclosure: I’ve had a couple of instances of people saying, “oh, hey - I know you! I have your book. I should read that!”)

You have 20+ years experience in the design field and have worked with clients from the NFL to Ivy League schools. Is there a particular project you’ve tackled that is especially dear to you?

There are a couple, separated by about 15 years. I designed two sites for Dennis Connor for his America’s Cup campaigns in 2000 and 2003. I’ve always been a fan of his, and I love to sail, so working with him was really cool. One included a community site that launched over 100,000 online sailboat races, and the later one included the first “live text commentary” online during the challenger series. That was one of my first experiences with something scaling so fast: we went from zero to over 10,000 active users during the first race! Happy to say we never had any problems, and we designed/developed the whole thing ourselves (that was when I had Bathysphere, a small web shop I started with a few friends).

More recently, though, I have to say my favorite by far would be the Yale Graduate School of Arts & Sciences site. That was done ‘soup-to-nuts’ by my wife and me: all the research, user interviews, IA, content strategy, design and development. It took about a year (with a break for the client to work on content), but it was probably the most successful client relationship we’ve ever had. They were great people to work with, and we got to do some really innovative things that helped the school tremendously.

Can you describe your creative process?

Two words: carefully paced! I like to structure projects for lots of smaller interactions, asking clients a smaller set of questions at any given time. This helps guide them through the design process, and gives us lots of chances to educate, understand, and build relationships with our clients. It works wonders to build trust, and ensures we don’t get off-track.

There’s a heavy focus on reviewing and iterating with site maps, content structures, and navigation prototypes. I also find using Style Tiles to be helpful as a way to start the design exploration so the client only has to think about and answer a few questions at at time, like type combinations, color, image treatment, and form elements.

We move from there to an interior page or screen, and work up/out to the main screen or home page. That way we only have to work on one design direction once we get past the Style Tile stage. It’s a way more effective use of time, budget, and attention.

I had someone use the analogy once of client trust being like a cup, and every interaction you have will either fill it more, or slosh a bit over the edge. The more interactions you have, the more opportunities there are to fill the cup a bit, or make corrections for a misstep from an earlier stage. If you can end the project with a full cup, you’ve got a really strong relationship that will likely carry forward to many more projects in the future.

What are some questions you ask when considering taking on a new project?

  • What is the goal of the project (rather than ‘what do you want us to design/build)?
  • Who is it for and what do they need to do?
  • What else is going on in your organization? What pains do you have?

I find that by asking these kinds of questions we can get behind the “what” of a request and dig into why they think they need that “thing.” Many times, it’s the wrong “thing,” and we can help figure that out by digging into what prompted them to call in the first place. If all they want is a simple brochure site, it’s probably not a good fit. But if you look at it as a business tool that can help with marketing, sales, customer relations, communication, and internal collaboration, THEN you have something interesting that can deliver WAY more value for the client.

How do you stay on top of design trends?

I prefer to stay off of them, actually. I do read a lot, so I see loads of trends come through Twitter, newsletters, the “top 17 best ____-design-trend designs” posts, and whatnot. However, there have been a lot of really bad trends (giant photo with big text overlay with an outlined button, anyone?), so I try to get our designers to look past that. It’s not that photos are bad, but clients want their sites to be successful and stand out, and that may not be the right way to go about it.

Which industry sites and blogs do you read regularly?

I can fairly say that I read 3-5 articles a day at a minimum (sometimes they may be a 2-3 minute read, some are longer). That’s my own commitment to learning. If I don’t learn something new every day, it feels like a lost opportunity.

What apps do you use daily?

Do you have a favorite design tool? Why?

  • A pencil & a sketch book - I have dozens going back to my first semester of Graphic Design. You have unlimited chances to undo when you’re sketching because you can always go look at what you did on the previous page. It’s too easy to lose the evolution of your thought process when you work only digitally.
  • Illustrator - I know it best.
  • Sketch - I’m trying to learn more as a Sketch user. I like what I know, but I’m just not as good with it as I am other programs, so it can slow me down.

Who are some of your design heroes?

  • Erik Spiekermann he’s first type designer I ever knew by name and author of the first book on typography I ever bought: Stop Stealing Sheep
  • Paul Rand for his writing as much as his design
  • James Victore based on a film interview of him done by Hillman Curtis
  • Mark Boulton for being a really thoughtful designer, and for the amazing work he’s doing to remake the design language of Monotype.
  • Dan Mall for being the kind of designer/speaker/teacher that I’ve tried hard to emulate
  • Jeffrey Zeldman & Ethan Marcotte for making better design possible on the web with constant prompting and guidance for the web community as a whole

If you had a magic wand and could create the perfect job, what would the job description be?

It may well be the one I have now! It’s taken me a while to realize it, but I think that I’m a much better director/guide/teacher of design and web tech than I am a doer. I don’t think I’m a bad designer or developer, but I know there are many others who are better than I. However, I can almost always help them do whatever it is they’re doing BETTER. I’m very good at understanding clients and explaining hard concepts to them. I’ve been a blend of designer, strategist, and technologist for many years, but this is the first company I’ve found where I’m not the only one. Being able to shape the design process and see it applied across the whole team is pretty fantastic.

Is there anything you’d like to say to Adobe Flash before it goes away for good?

So long and thanks for all the fish?

Honestly, as much trouble as it’s caused me over the years, we also did some pretty amazing stuff with it: a modular, interactive educational piece for a “green” apartment building in NYC, a video-interview application for a hiring platform, and a data-driven print-on-demand sail quote application for North Sails that drove their quoting process for about 10 years. Pretty cool stuff, even if it did have a habit of blowing up my web browser whenever ads ran too long.

You seem like a really smart guy, so we have to ask: what happens if you get scared half to death twice?

You are only ¼ alive

That’s profound. Ok, one more: if money doesn’t grow on trees, why do banks have branches?

Because calling them ‘tentacles’ is too creepy