What goes into a good web design, an interview with Daniel Burka. ~ Ask The Admin

Monday, March 03, 2008

What goes into a good web design, an interview with Daniel Burka.

We are talking today about What goes into a good web site design and have Daniel Burka with us to answer a few questions. Daniel has some amazing work under his belt from his career at Silverorange but you probably know him from his Digg/Pownce claim to fame. He will also be presenting at WiF (Web Design International Festival) this year in Limoges. Check out the interview:

AtA: Thank you for taking the time to talk with our readers today. Lets start off with some general questions. What application(s) do you use to design most?

DB: I've got a pretty simple set of tools that I most frequently turn to. After whiteboarding, I'll often jump straight into Adobe Photoshop, which is where I spend a lot of time. For coding, I've recently made the switch to Panic's Coda. It's got sFTP support built-in and basically serves as a great GUI text editor with code completion and highlighting.


AtA: Where do you find your inspirations and resources?

DB: I get inspired by lots of different things. Often, I'll derive inspiration from fantastic web design I've seen during random jaunts, but I'll also get inspired by offline design as well. The three-column layout on Pownce, for instance, was inspired by the annotated script design in a textbook I had in university.

I frequently turn to resources such as A List Apart, design stories on Digg, and the writings of influential designers like Doug Bowman and Dan Cederholm. In San Francisco, one has the advantage of having real live-action resources like Tantek Celik, Chris Messina, and Lane
Becker, who you can turn to for advice directly. One can easily get spoiled here.

AtA: What do you feel is one major mistake most designers make?

DB: With specific regard to web design, I think many designers concern themselves with the aesthetic of their work as opposed to creating clarity of functionality.


AtA: What is one thing that should go into EVERY site?

DB: Every site should be developed with a strong sense of audience. Everything you design and every feature you create should be dictated directly or indirectly by your users.

AtA: What should NEVER be put on a site? Any colors or combination of colors to avoid?

DB: I'm not terribly strict on color theory. There are many unusual color combinations that yield surprisingly good effects, partly because they're so unexpected. However, I think that the gradient has run its course and it's high time it got scaled back or retired for 5-6 years.

AtA: Can you put these in order of importance to you and tell us why?

Good Content, Layout, Design. Can you have a successful site without any one of them?

DB: I would absolutely put them in the order you listed them, although I'd argue that really good design has a lot to do with layout. Creating great content or enabling your users to contribute great content is at the core to many websites and Pownce and Digg are not exceptions. Why would someone come to a usable and visually stunning site if there's nothing to see there otherwise? In my mind, layout and design go hand-in-hand. I spend a great deal of my time working on information architecture problems. The aesthetic part of design follows the lead
of this foundational work.

AtA: What advice do you have for our budding web designers out there in Admin land?

DB: I'd suggest that you find a few smart, like-minded people to work with you. I benefitted a great deal by learning design with my friends at silverorange. We were able to challenge each other and give advice to one another in a critical way. Also, you don't have to wait for projects to fall in your lap. Redesigning existing sites, conceptualizing new products, and generally experimenting publicly are great ways to gain experience, build a portfolio, and get your name
out there.

AtA: What is/was your favorite project?

DB: I know I'm equivocating here, but I'm pretty much equally into Pownce and Digg currently. Pownce is exciting because it's fresh, undefined, and fast-moving. Digg is exciting because of it's scale and the ability to carry through on iterations over a long period.

AtA: How did you get down with Digg and Kevin Rose?

DB: Kevin originally approached Silverorange after seeing the work we had done with Mozilla -- I had worked with the Mozilla Visual Identity Team on the Firefox branding and on the Mozilla.org website design. He offered us one week of work on the site, which, as it turns out, came out of his life savings. One week turned into a regular contract with him and I eventually moved to SF to take on the role of creative director.


AtA: What was the ultimate goal when you started the digg project? Did that goal evolve? Was money the original goal, or was it something else?

DB: The original goal was to address fundamental UI issues on the site, to hit the low-hanging fruit. That project eventually evolved into speccing out future features and I became more involved in setting the direction of the site and brainstorming with Kevin.

Sure, the original impetus for the project was as a paying design gig. But, we were very busy at the time and Digg was quite an unknown quantity. It seemed really interesting as a concept and Kevin seemed like a good guy, so we were interested in seeing the site evolve over time. Silverorange, thankfully, frequently is able to pick projects that we find engaging, not just profitable.

AtA: Do you have any projects that are heating up that you want to share with us?

DB: We're currently developing a new version of the comments system on Digg that I'm super excited about. We're also designing a suggestion system that will provide you with relevant content based on your past activity. This could be a fundamental change to the site. For Pownce,
we've got a bunch of really new things planned, but I think I'll be a bit coy about what we've got coming down the pipes.

AtA: We use Pownce on a daily basis to interact with our writers and some other blog teams. What was your original intent for Pownce? And now that it has been opened to the public is it still on track?

DB: Pownce was originally conceived as a way to share a piece of data (we chose files, events, links, and messages originally) with a group of people. That's still pretty much true at this point, though we're still defining exactly what that means. I think it's becoming more and more clear that we're really developing a platform for sharing 'things' in a general sense within a social network. I think we're still on track with that original vision.

AtA: One last question Daniel - How important do you feel education is in a design career? Is real world experience preferred or is that piece of paper from a university still king?

DB: I studied History at university and took 8 years to complete my undergraduate. It turned out to be very convenient that I received my 'piece of paper' two weeks before I needed it to get a work visa in the US, but I'm not sure a university education is directly valuable to a design career. I want to make it clear, however, that I think a university experience is very important in developing abstract, critical thought processes, research abilities, and writing skills that are indirectly very important to anyone and especially to a designer. However, when I'm hiring designers, their portfolios are their most important assets.

So AtA readers do you have any questions for Daniel? How do you do web design? Hit us up in the comments!