Back in December we asked our customers, “who inspires you?” Armed with that information, we set out to ask those people a few questions.
Second in our series: brand identity afficionado FJ de Kermadac.
All of us here at FreshBooks are quite familiar with your work, but for those of our readers may not be, please give us the basics: age, nickname, serial number…
My name is FJ de Kermadec. I am “Frenchman of the Board” at Webstellung, the ﬁrm I founded in 2004. We specialize in identity and strategy — everything for a brand to be born and thrive, on- and oﬀline. We also run a philanthropic program for the living arts and support independent artists.
I am based in Paris, France, but I travel quite a bit between Paris, the U.K. and the U.S. — anywhere Air France goes. In my spare time, I contribute to Mac related publications, which I ﬁnd is a great way to keep learning.
I keep an updated summary of things on my personal site, FJdeKermadec.com.
What led you into the world of Web design? What’s forcing you to stay in the world of Web design?
I started designing sites as a way to put some thoughts and data online, things I wanted to share and get feedback on. I’ve never liked being forced into templates, so I quickly had to write my own tags. It started with a couple styling declarations and it quickly turned into entire pages.
There is always a better way to get a message across. Ways to write or present it to make it spread faster or stick longer in the minds of the recipients. My quest for perfection is a never-ending one, and it keeps pulling me back onto the Web.
Do you relate accessibility and standards with Web 2.0?
Web 2.0 is very much like Web 1.0 in that regard. There are companies and designers that care about standards, and others that don’t. The voice of standards is certainly easier to hear today than it was a few years ago as designers gain a deeper understanding of the Web and see the beauty of code as a part of an overall aesthetic.
Furthering the cause of standards and accessibility has always been a struggle and I fear it will continue to be one, regardless of how rich the Web experience becomes.
Are you a designer with a passion for standards, or a “standards guy” who can also do the design, or some other combination of the above?
I like to think I’m a combination of both.
To me, true creativity can only thrive on a basis that is sound and orderly, regardless of the medium. In paintings and print, it gives us eye-pleasing layouts and enhances the message, on the Web, it gives us interoperability, in music it gives us harmony.
I apply standards to everything practical in my life, from Web design to coﬀee cups. At Webstellung, we have standard rules and procedures for nearly everything. That allows us to build things, and then maintain them without worrying about how they’re built.
What’s the single biggest change you’ve seen in the industry in the last ten years?
Order and method are back. After being dazzled by the idea of constant change and permanent ﬂuidity, the industry is ﬁnally reaching a productive position. New ideas and technologies are seen in the context of fundamental design and business concepts.
Clients come to us to build long-term projects. They’re still very much interested in the newest ideas and cutting-edge technologies but they see them as part of an overall strategy. Weekly re-branding is going the way of the Flash intro, which means brands can ﬁnally be given the attention they’ve been craving.
How do you decide the price of someone’s site design? Is it a formula or are the rules re-shaped for each client?
Web work is only a fraction of what we do, as we focus ﬁrst of all on brand and message.
However, all the work Webstellung performs is billed on an hourly basis and all our hours are billed at the same price. That way, clients can course-correct projects easily, without requiring a whole new contract to be negotiated. They also needn’t worry about the split between development, typography, design, music editing…
Branding especially requires that lots of strings be pulled and many specialists be called in — the same person cannot design the uniform of your lift attendants and put together your Web site. Our clients rely on us to make it all simple, and this means simplifying cost structures as much as we possibly can.
Of course, we’re in contact with our clients on a daily basis, so they know they won’t be surprised when the ﬁnal hourly count arrives. We also keep a log of all hours worked so there’s no question of padding the bills!
One ﬁnal detail, which is important in an international business, is that we bill our U.S. clients in U.S. dollars and our European clients in Euros. This adds a bit of complexity on our end but it takes a big variable out of the equation for our clients.
People who promote Web accessibility often aren’t the best designers, so their work can often be quite dull. How do you keep the spark of your visually appealing work?
I try to stay current in both ﬁelds. I consider myself neither a designer nor a developer but I strive to stay up-to-date and informed in every area my company works in. It’s no easy feat but it’s the only way to help our clients in a meaningful way — not just an eﬃcient or eye-pleasing one.
I also have the opportunity to work with a terrific team and the ﬁnal version of every project is born from repeated interactions between all persons involved.
Every member of our team is given an equal weight in projects. Our typographers can raise a red ﬂag on a Web development project and Web developers often comment on business cards as we draft them up. That ensures everything we work on is cross-examined and analyzed by different “eyes,” ultimately providing a balance that is difficult to attain when a single individual covers it all.
Oh, and we are absolutely obsessive about QA, which helps a lot.
What are the biggest accessibility roadblocks you might encounter in an average day?
We’re here to solve the problems of our clients, and our clients are all active businesses. Active because they are very young, booming, or simply in an industry where waiting is not an option — think IT or fashion.
Some projects need to get out the door fast, especially those that are Web-based. I remember the time we designed and developed a streaming Web radio for a state museum in France in less than a week! (That was actually our ﬁrst project ever.)
In those cases, one is often tempted to cut corners or take shortcuts, which is almost always the wrong answer. Distinguishing between real time-savers and convenient cop-outs is a constant struggle, whether in design or development. Accessibility is an especially tricky domain, in that it’s difficult to judge how a shortcut that doesn’t aﬀect you could aﬀect someone with a disability you don’t have, or who relies on a device you’ve never seen and cannot quickly test on.
How do you blow oﬀ steam? Have you ever burnt out?
I like to read — anything from ﬁction to a book on vi — go to the theatre or see a good operetta. Of course, being from Paris, I’m always up for a late dinner out with friends or a walk through the city at night. That’s one of my guilty pleasures and an endless source of inspiration — things happen when most people have gone back home.
How do you avoid distractions in the workplace? Put another way, how important is it to have a great environment for managing your workload?
I don’t. Design and development are creative endeavours and shutting the world out is no way to be creative. Of course, it is important to have an organized, logical and reasonably quiet space to work in, but life will always creep back in. Attempting to suppress your environment is a life-long endeavour that’s doomed to fail.
Having a great environment, however, is paramount. By great, I mean an environment that’s clean, healthy and organized. A place where you feel good and can stay in for a good many hours a day without bouncing oﬀ the walls, cutting ten years off your life expectancy or gouging out your eyeballs with the electric letter opener. Everyone will have his own set of criteria and a different idea of what makes a place “just right.”
FreshBooks caters to online creative types. What advice would you oﬀer our readers on creating compelling designs, and growing themselves and their companies as designers?
Do not stop at providing the client with what they want, but take the time to understand, and provide them with what they truly need. Want and need are always compatible and I know of no client who will not listen to properly documented suggestions for improvements or developments.
The ability to read between the lines is what distinguishes a communication ﬁrm from a design factory that churns out brochures by the meter. Clients know and appreciate this.
If you could give one piece of advice to people just starting out in the ﬁeld, what would it be?
You cannot and should not launch a business unless running it arrives at the very top of your personal enjoyment ladder, above all other activities, even those involving nudity.
[Editor’s note: the opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of FreshBooks!]
You’ve chosen some pretty interesting fonts. Is it just a visual choice or is there something else driving the decision?
Our choices always start from visual and logical considerations. The tone and mood of a font is paramount to the building of a strong, genuine identity. In fact, if you have done your homework and know your client inside and out, you should never encounter any issue when selecting the right font: it will come to you.
Most of the time, the right-looking font will be from the right country or the right period too. Fonts carry a large cultural baggage with them, which people wrongly ignore. The right font is the one that looks right and ties into your brand inside and out.