Jen Simmons: How to Get Out of Your Web Design Rut

Jen Simmons is a designer who builds stuff, too. She’s a designer advocate for Mozilla, and the host and executive producer of The Web Ahead, a podcast about changing technologies and the future of the web. Simmons has been creating innovative websites and products for 20 years, using the latest web technology and pushing the envelope of what’s possible.

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Simmons will be doing a session called “Modern Layouts: Getting Out of Our Rutsat the HOW Interactive Design Conference in Boston next month, so we reached out to learn more about her career, her projects and her plans for her talk.

What types of takeaways can attendees expect from your HIDC session?

We’ve been designing web page layouts to look the same for so long, we don’t even see it anymore. The habits we have were created because of the technology we had to create the page. Well, the technology is about to drastically change. New CSS properties are going to make a whole world of new possibilities. I want everyone to leave my talk with an understanding of what’s changing, and an excitement to approach web design with fresh eyes. And with the practical knowledge needed to start using this stuff now.

You’re the founder and host of a podcast called The Web Ahead, which recently won Net Magazine’s Podcast of the Year. Congratulations! Tell us a little bit about that and why you started doing it.

Thank you! It was exciting to win such an honor. I started The Web Ahead in 2011, back when we were first getting hit with an onslaught of new technology. It was getting hard to keep up—HTML5, CSS3, responsive design and more. I thought a podcast would be a great way for people to understand the overall big picture. Blog posts are better for learning the details of a specific piece. Reference docs are better for looking up the syntax of something. But what about the harder part— understanding how it all fits together? How can we look up a new technique if we don’t know it exists? What are the design trends really about? What kind of new product is possible? What are the ethical considerations of the changes happening on the web? These are the kind of questions I go after. The show is for anyone who makes websites—whether your job title is developer, designer, product manager, CEO, content editor, etc. We all need a better understanding of this young medium.

cover_quarterYou said you’ve been focused on your own work vs. client work lately. What types of projects are keeping you busy?

My last big client project ended last fall, and rather than look for the next big client challenge, I took some time to focus on The Web Ahead. While it was four years old, it didn’t have it’s own home. So I built a website at http://thewebahead.net. After the launch in February, I turned my focus to touring with my “Modern Layouts” talk. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of conferences and meet great people. And then in August, I joined Mozilla’s Developer Relations team as a full-time employee. The position gives me the chance to spend all my time teaching others about this magnificent medium we work in. I’ll be doing a lot more research into what’s possible with the new layout CSS, creating a series of articles and videos in 2016.

What are you especially excited about and/or challenged to be working on right now?

I do think we are about to see a renaissance, a revolution even, in page layout on the web. I am excited to experiment and play, to see what’s possible. No one has figured this out yet. It’ll take a lot of bright minds working for several years to invent the new possibilities.

 What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in your career thus far?

The biggest ones are the most painful, right? I’ve learned to speak up, no matter the cost—and the costs have been sometimes very big. But I can’t imagine just giving up, phoning it in, and not advocating for excellent work, innovative work, accessible work, usable work. And while speaking up has cost me, it’s also been the key path to much better opportunities. I love where I am now.

Another lesson my career has taught me—find your people. If you are in a place where people don’t understand you, where they treat you badly because of who you are, where they act like you’re weird because you think differently from them, leave. Just get up and go. Find people who aren’t like that. They are out there. You’re just in the wrong place. Once you find them, you’ll have the support you need to do your best work. It’s worth the search.

 Who are your design heroes?

I’m a huge admirer of Mark Boulton. He’s been teaching us all about grid systems and web page layout for years. I strive to climb up inside his mind and understand grids like he does.

I’m a huge fan of Jeremy Keith. He does an amazing job exploring, understanding and articulating a vision for what this medium of the web is all about. If you haven’t seen a video of him presenting, go find one.

And I’m deeply grateful to Jeffrey Zeldman for everything he’s done. His book Designing with Web Standards got me back into the web when I was not really into it any more. And all his work creating The Big Web Show and An Event Apart has given my career several boosts. He is deeply supportive of so many people. We all owe him a lot. I recommend following all three!

Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your session?

You don’t have to know CSS to get a lot out of it. And if you do know how to write CSS, you’ll learn a lot of new code. Come check it out, and get inspired.

If you’re an interactive designer looking for new ideas and inspiration, you’ll want to check out Jen Simmons’ session, “Modern Layouts: Getting Out of Our Ruts,” at the HOW Interactive Design Conference in Boston November 5-7.  One- and two-day passes now available. Register now!

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