Interview with Web Designer and Developer James Atkins

James Atkins is a web designer and developer who did some work with my uncle’s company, Thompson Reuters, which is an umbrella company of the Reuters news service.  I interviewed via James via Skype from his home in rural France.  His website is located at http://jamesatkinsdesign.com/.

Mark Dennin: How did you first get into web development or design?  What led you to it?

James Atkins: I was asked to work at one of the UK’s first web design companies, it was called New Media Factory, in Cambridge, UK in the mid 1990s. I was a freelance designer and wanted to find out more about the web. I was bored of conventional design companies.

MD: What was your first web development/design job?

JA: Prior to New Media Factory I was a design consultant at LIFFE, now NYSE Euronext, in London. It was essentially a trading floor where the traders all wear loud jackets and shout deals across the floor. That was 1994-5 if I remember correctly, it was the first time I’d seen the World Wide Web. I’d downloaded a copy of Mosaic and loaded a few pages – the first Yahoo, the FBI “Most Wanted” page and a few academic sites. I was intrigued that this stuff was published, free and available at anytime. I suggested to LIFFE that we could do a web page. They didn’t listen, so I started making pages in HTML 1.0 in my own time to try and work out how it all functioned. However I didn’t understand web servers, not many people did and remember, I’m a designer first, so didn’t really get very far on my own. I’d decided I’d need to find out more somewhere else.

So my first real projects were probably at New Media Factory. We worked on several sites all at once. I worked on the first site for the Economic and Social Research Council [esrc.ac.uk/]. Did some consulting and the first version of ft.com in early 1996 and created several internal intranet sites for BP. Another large site which we threw a large team at was for Nationwide a UK Bank that sponsored the English football league.

MD: What does your current or most recent web development job entail?

JA: I’m working with a team for the redesign of website for Private Swiss Bank. This will be launching this year for desktop and mobile versions. We’ve also been helping them with their intranet, email and other digital communications over the last couple of years.

MD: What field was your education in and did it prepare you for a career in web development?

JA: I studied Fine Art, Painting. That doesn’t prepare you for much in the way of a career except for being an artist. When I left art school I moved into the design world because I’d always had a love of typography. Desktop layout applications were just coming out then, PageMaker 1.0, Quark Xpress 1.0, Adobe Illustrator 88, and I was quite computer savvy as a kid so it was quite accessible for me, perhaps more so than most graphic design graduates at the time.

There are thousands of web developers these days. A lot of them very good – but my fine art education has taught me to stand on my own two feet, not wait to be told what to do and to have certain amount of self-belief. That’s useful when you are a consultant.

MD: What are your main responsibilities now in web development or at your job?

JA: It depends on the project. For larger projects I am generally an Art Director working with a team of juniors. I do a lot of presentations for clients and there’s a bit of problem solving and brainstorming. But for smaller projects I still do a bit of production, layout, design.

MD: What websites have you worked on?

JA: Lots! Recently I’ve been collaborating with colleague from NMF days [scheybeler.com]. We’ve re-launched Prixpictet.com we did a lot of work on www.univadis.com/ which is now rolling out around the world – essentially a website for doctors.  The Swiss bank thing should be going live this Autumn. I run a few smaller sites on my own – of course you know about psenterprise.com which I templated and PSE created the pages. But these days it’s not really all about websites. Apps, social media, interactive advertising – there’s all aspects of digital design to be get involved with.

MD: What has been the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your career in web development?

JA: The big challenge is keeping up with new developments!  It’s constantly changing. Technology, approach, specifications, browsers, standards, devices. It’s rewarding; well these days I no longer have to go into a London office or studio every day. I can work remotely from my house in rural France.

But it’s always good to launch something too!

MD: What languages (HTML, PHP, JavaScript) have been most useful in your career?

JA: Probably HTML and CSS. They’ve been the most constant languages. It’s useful to know the basics of a few of the standard CMS systems like Drupal, WordPress or Textpattern.

MD: Do you have any experience doing web development for news or P.R. organizations?

JA: I did some work the FT. I started working with the Daily Telegraph but that didn’t really work out (they were starting a new company to do apps and dev – but it seemed not well thought out or resolved so I bailed very quickly). It’s important to know when to say “No!”.

I’ve just been working on the redesign of kernelmag.com which is re-launching on August 12th.  They are a news/journalism/tech blog/ which launched last year. They are re-launching with new backers. P.R., no, although I’ve done some digital work for Brunswick PR in London  – but that wasn’t really a website as such.

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