An interview with Ian Coyle

Nov 30, 2011DesignDevelopment

I’m thrilled to present this interview with Ian Coyle: certainly one of my favourite designers, famous for his work for Nike, his collaborations with Duane King, and Thinking For A Living. Here we find out about his thinking and process, and what went into his stunning new personal website. — Daniel Howells

What did you do at the very beginning of the process: are you a pencil and paper person, a wireframer, or did you dive straight into the code?

My process is very non-linear. I tend to jump into a hybrid prototyping and design phase as soon as an idea forms. I typically explore interaction and preliminary ideas in code, to find the boundaries for the design. Then I’ll return to Photoshop in order to create the first visual concepts. Once I find a primary look and feel, I switch back to code and refine the prototype. I’ll find new interaction points and the cycle continues until I have the final product.

The first pass at this project was a 25,000,000 square pixel canvas that was more about connections in my work across both client projects and personal endeavors. While I loved the beauty in the connections, logistically it didn’t work out as planned. I found I wanted to expound on my work more than the structure allowed so I split my client work into Field Notes and my photography and film into Edits.

The initial coded prototype/design.

The initial coded prototype/design.

A visual table-of-contents from the initial prototype.

A visual table-of-contents from the initial prototype.

The nature of the site is very unusual to most individuals’ personal sites and portfolios. What did you want to achieve on the site, and what did you want it to say about you?

I wanted to give insights into my work, to tell a story about the process and journey of each piece. For the last five years I’ve tended to only work on a few projects per year so it was important to show the thought and theory behind each one. Small pieces of inspiration influence each of my projects and I wanted to give other designers a reason to be curious and explore each project.

For me personally, I simply wanted to give people a look into my scattered mind. My interests are varied and I spend a lot of time dedicated to the craft of design, development, and photography.

It’s my first personal website in almost six years so I’m excited to have it out in the world, and I hope people enjoy it!

Did you collaborate with Duane on this project too, or do you guys tend not to collaborate on very personal projects?

For personal work, it depends on the type of project. While we didn’t collaborate on this site like we do on client projects, our collective influence is always apparent in the work. We always seek critiques from one another. We work hard to keep each other on the right track and make sure we don’t stray to far from our initial goals. I think we both make sure that we support what the other is trying to achieve, assist where we can, and give honest feedback.

As a typographer and designer, how did you master coding?

Starting out as a hybrid designer/developer, my learning process was a pendulum swing. I’d focus on both, but with a keen eye on one or the other as the primary objective to get better. I’d go through six-month or yearly phases with a predominate focus on one skill. It’s hard to keep your energy all in one place so I’d find one thing to focus on in each client or personal project.

For example, when I wanted to focus on design I opened a small letterpress studio to keep typography and minimalism at the forefront of my mind. When I wanted to get better at coding, I’d create small prototype projects or pick a client project that allowed me to focus on a specific challenge.

Learning to code is unique to everyone. To a certain extent, we’re all self-taught in this industry. Technology changes so often that you have find what works for you. Perhaps the best advice I can give is to learn to stop “cut-and-paste coding”. If you want to learn it, you’ll have to bite the bullet and commit it to memory. Learn the intricacies of thinking in code.

Ian's math brain, figuring out some trig. An actual in-process shot.

Ian's math brain, figuring out some trig. An actual in-process shot.

What is your take on the “designers should code” argument, given that you are very accomplished at both traditional graphic design and development?

“Should” is the wrong word. It all depends on context, process, and the type of project. It helps to know how to code. But it doesn’t automatically ensure better design.

Our designs are minimal and typically centered on complex interactions that help narrate an experience or create a better user journey. For us, it’s imperative to be able to program. However, it’s taken me nearly a decade of experience to conceptualize in code to the point where it is now part of our design process.

As you get projects of larger scale and importance, if your code is not as good as the quality of your design, you may do a disservice to your project.

There is no simple answer to becoming a better designer. There are lots of types of designers. If being able to code helps you conceptualize your ideas or arrive at new ones faster, it is worth the dedication to learning a new skill. But like design, it is a craft that takes just as much effort. Make sure you love both.

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