The DTP years
I’d left school at 17, too affected by my dad’s passing to even consider finishing my A-Levels and going to Uni as planned. Instead I joined a local training program at the technical college in Brighton where I learned Information Technology (IT). In those days, IT meant office applications such as Lotus-123 and WordPerfect. Extremely dull stuff, but useful for getting a job. What really interested me though was using an early version of PageMaker for designing magazines, and the flair I showed with it secured me a work placement at American Express for the next two years. There I produced a wide variety of training materials and presentations using PageMaker and Harvard Graphics.
Subsequently I joined Mobil Europe and worked on designing training materials for the SAP program being rolled out to Europe. Again the work was created using a combination of PageMaker and Harvard Graphics and I stayed there for a year before the contract came to an end.
The CD-ROM years
My digital career started after I replied to an advert for a ‘CBT Author’ at Maxim Training, a management training company that’s now defunct. Initially I built training courses that were delivered on floppy disc. Floppy disc! We built this interactive training using Quest, a hideous and clunky DOS based tool. Somehow we beat Quest into submission and used it to make very popular courses. It was fun and rewarding, and I built a reputation for my high production values and eye for detail.
Then came the multimedia years as we progressed to developing fully interactive CD-ROMs. I became proficient in the Macromedia tools Authorware and Director which gave great creative power to those of us who weren’t traditional programmers. The state of the art was 640x480 screen resolutions and video no bigger than a postage stamp, and I spent a few years honing design and development skills on a wide variety of interesting projects, for clients such as Rover, Audi, Motorola, Powergen and LIFFE.
I left Maxim in 1998 for a year to work at FEDA, the Further Education Development Agency (which no longer exists). The role was lead designer of their new website. I was then head-hunted by Maxim a year later! I returned as Lead Multimedia Developer for a long CD-ROM project for the University of the West of England. In 2002 I was made redundant along with many of Maxim’s best employees, a painful and bizarre experience best left forgotten. I secured a new role at Tim Neill Associates for 6 months on high profile CD-ROMs for Nestle and South West Trains.
Web Design and Development
By the late 90s, CD-ROMs were falling out of favour: the Web was becoming mainstream and the CD-ROM industry started to move to this new platform.
While at Maxim, I taught myself HTML by doing a lot of viewsource and by reading the spec for HTML 3.2. (I wouldn’t recommend that these days, but back then there wasn’t much HTML training available). You can view my very first website in the Wayback Machine, though I’d advise not: it’s an early version of the Maxim Training company website and is a travesty of embarrassing horrors: awful design, colours, frames, chaotic structure… Still, being embarrased by our early work is an important aspect of recognising our growth.
Around 2000, I started to learn about web standards, accessibility and good usability, thanks largely to the efforts of the Web Standards Project (WASP). Like many other frustrated web developers, I realised this was the way forward. I was tired of spending so much time writing different code for different browsers – I just wanted to make websites that worked. At the time, so many sites didn’t work and I knew I could do better. What I learned in the next two years opened my eyes to a better future; one where we could concentrate on designing experiences, rather than worrying about fighting with technology.
During this period I worked on notable projects for UNICEF, British Airways and DFES. I also formed my strong views on universal web accessibility which I continue to believe in to this day.
In 2003 I decided to go freelance which I did for a year, doing work for SpecSavers and then working with digital agency CogApp on a number of museum related projects. I returned to full time employment with the web agency Nixon McInnes in 2004 as a designer and front-end developer. Here I established in-house standards for accessible, semantic front-end coding, as well as designing and building the front-end of many client sites. I mentored several interns, training them in HTML/CSS and worked closely with the rest of the team which was very fulfilling. A great place to work, with a unique company culture, Nixon McInnes gave me a wonderful opportunity to improve my skills in a small but very talented team.
Self Employment in Web Design
In April 2007 I left Nixon McInnes and worked briefly at HSBC in London as a web-designer and accessibility consultant. Although this was initially a one year contract, it was clear very quickly that the corporate life was not for me so I left after a few months to set up my own freelance business: Frisk Design. Despite the ridiculous name, I secured some good work and went on to design and build a number of websites for small businesses and also collaborated with several London web agencies.
Frisk Design was extremely hard work—being freelance is at least two full time jobs in one—but I was pleased with the success I had. There were some dark times of course: securing enough projects to remain profitable and working primarily alone takes it’s toll after a while. I suffered depression and poor health. No amount of perceived freedom was worth becoming ill for, so after four years I decided to close shop and return to team working as I had begun to miss it terribly.
Design Culture, one of my earlier freelance clients, were keen to do more digital work and needed help. The timing was right and I joined them for about 18 months. I was in charge of the entire digital output, a full spectrum of digital design, front-end development and client/project management of complex websites. The work was interesting and varied and I achieved some very good work for clients such as Carebase, Work Place Giving, Croner and Weber Shandwick.
After finishing at Design Culture, I returned to freelancing for 6 months, then took a new full-time role at EdComs as Senior Frontend Developer. I wanted to work on more socially worthwhile projects and the work EdComs were doing in the education sector was compelling. I was the lead Front End Developer on a number of high profile projects for EDF Energy and projects connected to Olympics 2012.
However something had been pulling at me for the last few years and I realised that I had been ignoring a long standing inner voice: I wanted to work on my own projects and be more in control of my work, and full-time roles were not giving me the creative freedom I craved. Despite fantastic opportunities offered to me at EdComs, I knew that I couldn’t stay there: I had to find a new path for myself.
I left EdComs in April 2014 and entered the world of contracting while I decided what I wanted to do longer term. Contracts for Barclays, Global Radio and Alan Rogers Travel gave me a great opportunity to work on some high-profile projects, while consolidating my years of experience into producing some lovely work.
I took some time to reflect on what I wanted out of my working life. I realised that I still had an urge to write, something that I’d loved at school but hadn’t touched since. I started getting ideas, and very quickly I realised I’d been collecting story ideas in the corners of my mind for years. An old dream of writing a children’s adventure book came rushing back to me. But I knew I couldn’t do that as a full-time job.
Something else had also been bothering me about web design: boredom. The complexity of creating robust responsive sites, and the rise of design systems and frameworks meant that websites were rejecting the complex aesthetics of the previous decade. This maturation and normalisation of web design was inevitable, but I was dismayed. Websites had lost their character and personality, and I pondered how to bring some of that soul back to the web.
I decided to develop artistic web templates for popular platforms like WordPress and Blogger. These templates would use modern development practices, but branch out from the now ubiquitous simple grids and flat colours. I became excited as I realised I had all the skills to do something a little different in the web-template marketplace.
However, after self-funding some research and development into producing these atmospheric templates, I concluded that it wasn’t the right path for me. I fundamentally did not believe in web-templates as a product. For me they didn’t offer any interesting problems to solve, and the market was saturated. I realised that what I was doing wasn’t about returning the lost soul of the web; I really just wanted to make art.
In September 2015 I looked at my options. I pondered contracting again, but thought that I might be happier working on a long-term product. It was the one thing I hadn’t yet done in my career, having always been in agency style work for multiple clients. Perhaps working in a team on a product would be more fulfilling than short term projects?
It was pure luck that I saw a tweet from FutureLearn just before I went on holiday, advertising for a front-end developer. I applied, they hired me, and I started work there in October 2015. I worked within a great team of lovely people, helping to build a brilliant learning platform for millions of learners around the world. But despite FutureLearn being one of the best places I’d ever worked, I wasn’t happy. The front-end role was more limited than I’d expected, and my existing design skills were not being used. I felt that I’d reached a plateau and was looking to the horizon for something new.
After years of being frustrated in my career, working at FutureLearn finally taught me something important about myself: I need variety in my creative life. Specialising in one thing simply doesn’t do it for me, and I get extremely anxious if I feel I’m not growing in the way I want to. So in November 2016 I left FutureLearn with a revised plan.
It took me a long time to learn to celebrate my diverse skills and interests. For years I had been trying to fit myself into the narrow job descriptions of the web industry, but finding time and again that I didn’t quite fit in. I had plenty of skills and experience and was able to do many things, but my expectations were never quite inline with the roles that were on offer.
So how could I get the job satisfaction I craved? The only solution would be to create the kind of role that I wanted to do. Something where I could find the balance between artistic design work and collaborative development work.
For years I’ve tinkered with personal projects that never see the light of day. I realised that the enjoyment I got from these personal projects was something I wanted in my day-to-day work. And I also realised that my passion for books, and book covers in particular, had been hiding in plain site. I realised I had been quietly developing the skills to do something else. So this year I’m kick-starting a new creative side-line in book cover design.
I may have found the answer to my old problem of maintaining creative happiness. For the foreseeable future I’ll still be working on the web, taking short-term contracts with agencies and such, but now it will be balanced by the artistic creativity offered by designing book covers.
I finally feel like I understand what I need from my working life, and I’m really looking forward to the new creative challenges ahead.
Matt Hill, 20th February 2017