Our Interview with EE Design

EE Design, a repository of templates and tutorials, tips, and articles on site design for ExpressionEngine, recently approached 16toads to interview us about our recent redesign and rebuild with Expression Engine.  We happily obliged.

Be sure to stop by EE Design to read the full interview and pay Brandon Meeks, the proprietor, a moment of respect for his stellar work supporting the web design community.

Tell us about yourself and how you got involved in web development.
I’ve been working in the creative industry since 1995. I began my career as an illustrator while a student at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta.  Since 1996, I’ve spent only three years working full-time for "the man" (while freelancing).  I’ve pushed myself to learn everything I could about art direction, design, web design and front-end development, motion graphics, and animation. After the Internet bubble burst in 2001, and I found myself unemployed (from my second full-time stint), I started 16toads.com. I haven’t looked back since.

The Portfolio Center has a reputation for producing great talent. Back then; I’m guessing most of the work was more traditional media though. What lessons or skills did you learn from there that have helped you the most with designing for the web?
Definitely. I started at Portfolio Center in 1995, at the time when the "internet" had just been deemed a "commercial" industry by the NSF (National Science Foundation) and was nothing more than a curiosity to anyone outside of the American university system. Web media wasn’t a lexicon on anyone’s tongues. The lessons I learned were simple. I was one of a handful of students who entered PC with a bachelor’s degree and a few years of "rough" experience in the real world. The few of us who had real-life experience took our time there exceptionally seriously and treated our educations like a job, not like college.  I realized that for the school to benefit me, I would have to work three times as hard as anyone else. I studied illustration at PC and completed their two-year program in a year and a half. Twelve years later, I am, to the best of my knowledge, the only illustrator from my group still working in the industry in some capacity. And, I continue to work harder than anyone else.

Tell us a little about 16toads?
The first question I am normally asked is, "Where does your name come from?" It’s a combination of my birthday and a nickname a friend gave me back in my days as an undergraduate fine art student in the studio program at the University of Utah. Why did I choose the name? Simple. There were, even in 2001, far too many companies that ended their names with "ture" and "cent" and used some type of ridiculous ‘techno’ swoosh in their logo designs.  I was shooting for a memorable name that reflected my sense of humor and would lend itself to an "illustrated" look and feel.  It might sound ridiculous at first, but people remember the name and, in the end, that is all that matters.

What do we do?  Same thing as a million other independent design studios … Web design and development, branding, illustration, etc. … only, we do it all better. We have perfected our ability to read the client’s mind.

When you started out in 2001 with 16toads, how many clients did you start with? Do you have any funny clients or projects that you are less than proud of from the early days?
Zero. But, truth be told, I had never given up my freelancing even when I was employed full-time, so I had six years of a reputation to build upon. Do I have projects I am not so proud of?  No, everything I have done is phenomenal … I’m kidding, of course.

The independent design space is crowded for sure.  Can you shed a little light on what it is that you feel you do differently that helps you succeed? How does it impact your designs?
I’m absolutely honest.  I don’t promise anything I can’t deliver and never compromise my integrity to land a job.  The result is I get to work with people who truly "want" to work with a professional designer and understand implicitly that design is process that requires their participation in order to be successful.

I also subject myself to yearly rejection by the Communication Arts Illustration Annual to keep myself grounded.

Why did you choose ExpressionEngine for this project?
ExpressionEngine chose me. I have experience with Drupal and Joomla on Linux and DNN for windows. I hated working with all of them. I am a designer, not a programmer. As much as I know about GUI development, I am keenly aware of my coding limitations. PHP baffles me. I spent over a year testing and implementing CMS solutions before I, literally, stumbled across ExpressionEngine. I was able to do two things with ExpressionEngine that I could not accomplish with any of the "open-source" solutions I have worked with: (1) I was able to learn the code. Granted, the learning curve was a bitch, and there were plenty of long nights filled with cursing, but I finally got there. (2) ExpressionEngine allowed me to do the one thing none of the other CMS platforms could accomplish; ExpressionEngine allows a designer to design and wrap the CMS into the design rather than forcing the design to conform to the CMS.

Like you, ExpressionEngine kind of chose me out of frustration with all of the other systems. I tried Drupal (too confusing), Joomla (too lame) and DNN (UGHH). Can you talk a little about your experience with other systems versus ExpressionEngine?
Drupal. I hated working with it for a number of reasons, but the biggest factor in my decision to figuratively drop Drupal in the circular file revolve around templating. Drupal templates, for me, a non-developer, were like translating the Rosetta Stone. I started with a stock 3-column CSS/HTML template and spent countless hours trying to figure out how to adapt the template to my design. My opinion is that it installing a CMS should not involve "hacking a template" (the results still give me nightmares). Drupal templating simply isn’t flexible and that lack of flexibility seriously impedes the quality of the final design. It also requires far too much PHP knowledge to be of any use to a developer who is not a skilled IT person. Not to mention, from a client standpoint, the control panel (CP) is like flying a Russian orbiter.

On the other hand, ExpressionEngine is akin to Silly Putty.  Pull and twist it in any direction and you can make it fit virtually any design solution.  Granted, CMS is CMS and there will always be limits to how much a template can be designed, but there is simply no comparing the flexibility of ExpressionEngine with any other CMS platform.

I’ve run out of similes.

What was the most difficult part of the site?
The first 100 hours of self-education on an earlier job prior to starting my own site rebuild.

What part of the site are you most proud of?
All of it. I am not a programmer by nature; therefore, what may have taken a programming whiz a few hours to understand took me hours of trial and error. Fact is, it’s not a complicated ExpressionEngine implementation, but I am thrilled with the lack of effort I now have to exert in order to update content.

Tell us about your approach to planning this site out.
Over many years, I have redesigned and rebuilt my site seven times. Each time was an attempt to streamline the architecture and improve my ability to manage the content. That said, I can’t really say I had a plan so much as an idea of what I did not want. ExpressionEngine allowed me to explore design possibilities and then implement the one design that would provide me with infinite scalability and ease of maintenance.

You mentioned that this is your first Expression Engine site. What lessons did you take from this one that will help you with future Expression Engine sites?
The Ellis Lab Knowledge Base talks of a "light bulb" moment. I am not so sure I experienced that apogee … If I did; my cursing must have drowned out the light. Nonetheless, at some point, something did click, and ExpressionEngine started to make sense. My method of learning can be compared to forcing the square peg into the round hole, so I can’t shed any light on a particular lesson.

Can you give us some insight into how you used categories and the embeds to manage the site?
I could have used a single weblog for most of the content entry site-wide, but I opted to create five weblogs in order to help organize the "edit" page and make searching for section-specific content easier.  Each weblog corresponds with a physical section of the site - header, left column, right column (main content), and weblog. The "Work" weblog is the only one with page-specific criteria. I then created categories to help manage all the content on each page. Each weblog entries tag pulls in a specific category entry to a specific location. I used the "limit=" parameter to control how much the layout could potentially shift vertically in a given location.

Embeds. I embedded everything it made sense to embed. Navigation, footer, lists, etc. Basically, anything that I could possibly include on future expansion pages, I embedded.

Are you using any special ExpressionEngine Add-ons (modules, plugins, extensions)?
Freeform, TruncHTML, LG Social Bookmarks

Thanks Paul for all of your insight and entertainment! Be sure to visit 16toads.com and stopworkforhire.com when you have a chance.


First Published on EEDesign, Monday, March 03, 2008