Cameron Moll on the Principles of Design

With the web changing as quickly as it does, it’s hard to find the leading edge—but we can be sure that Cameron Moll is on it. We’ve admired Cameron for years—he’s been a voice advocating for usability, strong design, typography and generally all that is good on the web. And so we’re thrilled that he’s part of the advisory board and speaker line-up for this year’s inaugural HOW Interactive Design Conference.

Cameron and I recently exchanged e-mails in a digital dialog about his first blog (circa 2003, before most people knew the term “blog”), about learning and teaching, and about what he’s seeing now.

So, you’ve been at this interactive design thing for awhile now. I imagine that you didn’t launch a career as a web designer right out of school. Describe your path toward becoming one of the most influential people doing this work.

It’s interesting that you mention school because, in my case, it wasn’t really a vehicle for a career in design. I was in college on a path towards a degree in business management, and I was intrigued by this whole world wide web thing. This was the late ’90s, mind you, so a lot of us were just beginning to access the web, myself included.

I was on a campus one day and flyer fell out of the school newspaper I had just picked up. It was advertising web design positions at a local dotcom in the area. Intrigued by the world wide web, I had gotten my hands dirty building two websites—horribly ugly but websites nonetheless—before that fateful day the flyer fell. Those two sites were not only my first exposure to any kind of design but also apparently enough to land me the job, which said more about the dotcom hiring frenzy in the late ’90s than it did about my design skills.

But I think the real answer to your question is this: I had a passion for learning new things. I spent hours and hours consuming anything I could find about building websites, about the practice of design, and about bringing the two together. And then sharing what I was learning with others, first through my personal blog beginning in late 2003, and later through other mediums. I still have that passion for learning today, and I think it’s a large part of what’s helped me be a successful designer.

What’s keeping you busy these days?

About 90% of my workday is spent running Authentic Jobs, a job board for designers and web professionals. It’s a one-man business, so I’m lead designer, customer support rep, strategy guy and president. I work with a few part-time contractors, too, who do awesome work.

The other 10% is dedicated to my letterpress posters, blogging, tweeting, conference speaking, and stuff like that. I’ve got a third poster planned for my letterpress type series, but so far I haven’t been able to find the time to begin designing.

On your blog, you wrote that most designers are embracing interactive work, either by choice or by necessity. Let’s talk about those who fall into the latter camp—maybe their clients are asking for websites to go along with print campaigns, or their employers are assigning them to do interactive work. For a print-oriented designer with limited interactive experience, what’s lesson No. 1?

Don’t fear writing code. Too many print designers are terrified by it, and it’s not that bad at all. HTML is the easiest of any programming languages to learn. In fact, it’s not even a programming language, it’s a markup language. CSS, which accompanies HTML and styles the markup you write, is nearly as easy.

If a print-oriented designer is serious about doing interactive work long-term and not just satisfying one client’s needs, WYSIWYG editors should be seen as a temporary crutch and not a dedicated tool. I’ve always believed those who code HTML/CSS as well as they design will always have an edge over those who only design, and it’s because they know intimately what a browser will do with their design.

I’ve been inspired by watching Jessica Hische, very much a traditional designer, embracing HTML/CSS more and more over the past couple years. She wrote something about that recently.

Are there universal big-D Design principles that apply across the board, regardless of medium? What are some of those principles?

The big-H principle is at the top of my list: Hierarchy. Hierarchy is just as critical, if not more, on the web. In one sense, it’s because web users are so fleeting, making instantaneous, snap decisions about what to click on and what not to click on. Hierarchy can play a major role in helping users click the right things.

In another sense, the web is largely about content and consuming it. Good visual hierarchy helps immensely with this.

At the HOW Interactive Design Conference, you’ll be speaking about designing for mobile devices. Aside from screen size, what’s the biggest difference in the thought process for designing content that’s displayed on, say, an Android phone vs. for a desktop computer?

It used to be that the two were very disparate and you could talk about them that way. In other words, the mobile web was all about accessing content on-the-go in short bursts, while the desktop web was about long intervals in a comfy office chair.

Nowadays, we’re all accessing Twitter and Instagram and whatever else on our phones while seated at our desk. So it’s more about touch vs. mouse and keyboard and tapping into things a phone or tablet can do better than the desktop, such as drawing gestures, location data and so on.

What’s the biggest false assumption that designers make when they first try to create a project for mobile technology?

That it’s overwhelming. With the advent of tablets and phones with really capable browsers, there’s never been a better time to develop for mobile.

As you scan the technology landscape, what are you seeing that really excites or intrigues you?

Oh, lots of stuff. HTML5, CSS3, responsive and adaptive web design. I’m wearing an iPod Nano right now that’s held on my wrist with a wristband. I’d love to see the next generation of Nanos have a web browser or allow for apps to be installed, and then push ourselves to fit web content into such a small screen and make a good user experience out of it.

What’s your favorite…

  • website? 
    Today? Designers.mx. Tomorrow? Probably something else.
  • mobile app? 
    Flipboard for iPad. I browse news and tweets and other stuff on it every morning at breakfast.
  • book?
    I’ve been reading the Homer Hickham’s “Rocket Boys,” the book that inspired the movie “October Sky,” to my sons at night. It’s probably my favorite book at the moment because of that.

Learn more about Cameron Moll’s session at the HOW Interactive Design Conference and register now to get the early bird discount.

This post originally appeared on HOW magazine’s blog.

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