Interview with a Designer (Part 1)
I’m not quite sure what the hex code for Kristina Lakeway’s hair would be. #ff7354? #ff7854? Either way, it’s discernibly some shade of orange-red, which trite or not, speaks to a certain fiery passion she brings to her design work and everything else she does. She’s a veteran here at WDG — getting her start as an intern in 2013 and having since ascended to Art Director. When she’s not designing, she can usually be seen keeping the plants alive in our office or at home with her husband and dog. No matter what she does, it’s always done with care.
Humble Origin Story
AA: What led you to be a designer? Did you tell your mother this is what you wanted to do when you were five?
KL: Kind of. So, this is not a unique phenomenon because I’ve met other people who are also of this camp — do you know Neopets?
AA: I don’t …
KL: Once upon a time, there was this site called Neopets. It’s where you could essentially have pets online. You’d take care of them and there’s a whole guild aspect with a community and games. And at twelve years old, this was the thing. I was all-in on Neopets. At the time, I was building very basic websites on the platform and as a middle-schooler, I decided, “Oh, I like web development.” And then, of course, I get to college, find out that I can’t code and don’t have the patience for it. I figured I’d leave the coding to others and that I’m gonna do design. That’s how I fell into this, basically.
The Basics of Design
AA: What is web design?
KL: A designer can be many things. Ten years ago, web design border-lined development — designers were still doing code because they were only working with one or two templates. Now, everything’s changed. There are research-oriented designers who deal more with UX but I fall into the category of a UI-focused web designer. I make wireframes functional and beautiful. I apply colors, typography, imagery, infographics — some people will do animation and Adobe After Effects. That’s all UI design. I’m in charge of making it look good.
AA: Your thoughts on the content-first approach?
KL: My job is so much easier when I have content because I have literal evidence of what needs to exist on a page and I can plan for it. When I create a design without content, I’m making some huge assumptions on what can live on a page whoever puts content in later has to live in those limitations of my imagination. I would love if every client could bring content to the table. I know it’s not always possible but it makes the job so much easier for any designer.
Designing at an Agency
AA: Since you started your design career seven years ago, what changes have you noticed in the design/agency world or right here at WDG?
KL: When I started, and specifically here at WDG, we were only creating sites that had a homepage and maybe two or three templates for the interiors. And so, the deliverables for the clients were a lot simpler. We didn’t even have Strategy — we slowly added that on. User Interface wasn’t even that common of a term. It’s a drastically different field now. Clients are coming to us — not just for a nice website — but to actually come up with smart solutions to their problems. Gone are the days when design was simple and you could just make something beautiful. Now, it has to be accessible, SEO-friendly — there are all these parameters that didn’t exist before.
I hate to say pixel-perfect — it’s more that I’m making sure that everything is in place.
AA: What’s your favorite part of being a designer and/or working at an agency? What’s your least favorite?
KL: They’re the same. My favorite part, specifically with the kind of agency that we are — we’re a small group so we get to do a lot of projects and everything has a short timeline — so you have to do it fast. So I’m constantly doing new stuff and getting to experiment and try new things. But that also means I’m constantly doing new things and I’m not getting the opportunity to really take my time and really explore one beautiful solution for a client. But that’s the thrill of it — there’s something nice about it being fast. It’s not for everyone but I’m the kind of person that needs that fire under them, or else I’m not gonna do it. So for my portfolio, it’s been amazing because I have so much to show for it and you can see the growth — whereas, if I had just one project, it’d be harder to track that.
AA: Do you hate the term design trends?
KL: I don’t hate it — I think it makes it easier for clients to talk to us and communicate using words that they’re familiar with that we’re familiar with. Because someone can say modern, or contemporary and it comes back to — what do those words mean for you? So I don’t mind if they tell me that they like a specific trend because it tells me a lot. It’s like opening a door and finding out more about how they’re thinking and experiencing design.
AA: So when you hear modern, what does that mean to you?
KL: It changes every year. We use it too! Which is part of the problem — our take on modern or unique for someone like me — who constantly looks at websites — may be a bit too wild for an association or nonprofit or government site. Their unique is tamer than mine — so we have to bridge that gap.
AA: How about if a design is clean?
KL: That can be a huge problem. So, clean could be a lot of white space — so it’s airy and it’s open. But they might just mean clean as in there are fewer items on the page — it’s less cluttered — and that’s not a one-to-one at all.
AA: When you hear critiques of a design or design direction, how do you deal with that? Both in the moment or later on when you revisit it — “I don’t like this shade of blue…” for instance.
KL: It’s never personal and that does get said. There’s one person who said, “I don’t like blue because it is a cold color.” And blue was the primary color for their brand — of two colors. I’m not gonna change blue. Blue is inherently a cold color. And when you make it warm, it’s purple. So I gave them purple.
AA: Very practical.
KL: Yes — it’s never a problem when a client tells me that they don’t like something. To use a Vajaah-ism, it’s an opportunity. But it really is an opportunity — because at the end of the day, I get to walk away from this. They have to live with this. They’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and they have to sell it to their C-Suite or whoever’s funding it, if it’s a nonprofit. And they have to be happy with it. So ultimately, I shouldn’t just be their pixel-pusher, where I’m just making the design with them hovering over my shoulder. As in, I know you like purple, but you have to check with the company that you can change the brand colors. Because we’re not comfortable making changes without buy-in from the C-Suite.
Design Process and Spec Work
AA: How would you sequence out the design phases?
KL: Let me break it down for you.
- A brand attributes exercise starts off the design conversation, informing the Stylescapes, wireframes, and visual direction
- As the wireframes are being finalized, we choose which layouts we like and a page template is created internally to reference
- We apply the client’s brand colors and/or typography requirements and make multiple versions
- Client-Stylescape feedback is applied to the wireframe pages to be designed out
- The initial designs with various iterations will typically be for the homepage and several interiors
- Official design comps will be presented with 2-3 rounds of revisions
AA: How important is spec work and when is the right time to use it?
KL: Spec work is an opportunity to get a potential client interested in what we can do for them. When we get a proposal, there’s a lot of suggestion of what the client is trying to get to but they might be struggling to articulate it. So spec work is that chance to really showcase our value or make a better solution than what they came forward with. So let’s say a client was interested in storytelling but they had a very simple idea for it. With spec work, I could very quickly put together a Google AMP suggestion, using their own content to show them what could be. Is spec work always the right move?
You don’t always get the call-back — it’s hard to know and it’s definitely a timesink and investment. But sometimes there are clients that are worth it, that we’re really excited about and would love to work with — and of course we’re going to go above and beyond in that case. I think spec work is really fun because you’re not bound by the limitations of what the client wants or what they like, so you can do anything. It really allows you to do the coolest thing you can think of.
AA: What makes for a good designer? A great designer?
KL: A good designer is one that an eye for design, who can do the work, and who can do it in a reasonable amount of time. Speed is very important. And of course, the more experience you have, the faster you can be. So, that takes time. But a great designer is someone who is never content to continue doing the same thing they’ve been doing. They’re continually pushing themselves and others to grow and to learn — because things are changing. Yearly, there’s new stuff — AI is coming.
AA: By that definition, are you a great designer?
KL: I hope so — you’re going to have to tell me if my portfolio looks dated.