Design Interview: Ryan Scherf
Today we bring you, a transcript of our rendezvous with a design mogul from Minneapolis, with a decade’s worth of experience, Ryan Scherf.
Ryan Scherf is a designer, developer, entrepreneur and husband from Minneapolis, MN, USA. He has been a freelance designer for over 10 years under his personal brand: http://ryanscherf.net.
When he is not slaving away at night to his clients, he is pouring his heart and soul into his new health care startup Bloom Health. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, you can also find me on Twitter at: @ryanscherf.
What is your design philosophy?
I try to keep my designs as clean as possible. Whenever I think I have enough white space, I double it, just to make sure there is good separation of elements. Whenever I can, I try to stray away from any of the current trends; you can’t push the envelope by designing the way everyone else is.
Please tell us how you got into web design. What did you study in college and how did you learn to design?
I got into web design via a roundabout path. I earned a Computer Science degree from the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology in 2006, and after my first few months as a Developer intern, I decided it wasn’t for me. I immediately took a front-end position at the same company, and never looked back. I had always loved web design, and had been designing websites for quite some time; so the career change was pretty easy.
Do the colors represent the culture, which colors are in fashion this time?
I think grungy & earthy tones are in right now. Great texture is all the hype, and I’m certainly guilty of following this trend.
How much has the design landscape changed since you started your career? What are the biggest improvements and pitfalls to come from these changes?
When I started designing websites, it was more of a commodity. Clients were not prepared to pay top dollar for a web site, as it seemed like everyone could design one. Now, there are still a handful of clients that think this way, but I find that more people are willing to pay for quality and top caliber talent, instead of the 12 year old neighbor kid down the street.
What I’ve really noticed over the last few years is the overwhelming growth in the community. So many designers helping so many others. I truly believe that the designer community is the best amongst any industry out there. I’m also intrigued by the shift from on-site, full-time designers to using freelancers. I think designers are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the bad economy, as companies do not have to invest in a new employee, but can get what they need from a credible freelancer.
What do you feel are the most important skills for a designer to have/develop (Attention to detail, criticism, persistence, communication skills)?
Communication is key in every job, so I feel that is most important. I think creativity is what will propel you in your career. As I mentioned above, every person could easily copy another person’s site (it happens a lot). When you create something truly unique, the community recognizes you for it, and catapults you to another level.
What is your favorite tool?
Photoshop – it’s all I’ve ever used to design sites. The envious designer in me wishes I knew how to use Illustrator better, however.
Do you go to any website frequently to interact with others in the designer community?
I’m an avid users of Dribbble & Forrst. Getting feedback (and reassurance) on your designs has been helpful to me in many ways. Not only to make sure I’m on the right path and receive feedback, but also to present the link to the clients to show that I think this is the best direction, as well as peers in the community. That’s a very powerful message to send to clients. These tools are great for validation.
What is the one designing lesson that you learned the hard way that you wish newbies to learn early in their careers?
Know your clients, and try to avoid the bad ones. I’ve had my fair share of awful clients, and it took me a few years to learn to screen them from the very first e-mail. I understand needing the money, but sometimes the headaches just isn’t worth it — at least for me. Working on projects you like and care about is a lot more fun than not.
What does your typical day look like?
I currently work as a full-time UI designer at a startup, so that occupies a lot of my time. Nights & weekends are devoted to my wife, 2 dogs and freelancing. I try to only work on one freelance project at a time, otherwise I find myself stressing out over insignificant details on each. I find it better not to overwhelm myself with concurrent projects.
Who were some of your main inspirations in getting started in this industry and why?
My single greatest inspiration was Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain of 31three. I remember scouring his website in awe of his designs (and I still do).
What are the tools you couldn’t live without? (software, invoicing tools, time/task-management apps, pen/paper, online etc…)
The main tools I use are Photoshop, Dropbox, Blinksale & Dribbble. Without any of these, I’d go mad. After Photoshop, I’d say Dropbox is the single most useful tool for me as a designer. It’s saved me a few times with it’s version control (without me even knowing it).
Considering the skills you have, which ones do you consider to be the biggest asset for securing clients?
Communication. I try to show my clients I’m a real person. I respond to each and every design request on an individual basis, with a well-thought out response. I never send canned replies, and I never will. I also don’t have any content pre-written in terms of pricing. I judge every single lead as a new opportunity, and I adjust my prices accordingly.
How do you typically start a new project?
I typically gather as much information as I can (after agreeing upon a price). I ask my clients to collect their favorite sites, styles they like, and any other wireframes/assets they may have. This usually happens after 5-10 e-mails back and forth.
For a new web project, how many versions did you do for the presentation?
I provide one concept to the client. I look at it this way: clients hire designers to create the best design they can, essentially hiring us as the experts. It doesn’t make any sense to provide 3 watered down version so a site, when you can present 1 great version. Regardless of what they may say, presenting 3 versions will always cause the client to like some aspects of 1 version over another, and the end product will be a melting pot of all 3 — which isn’t fun to work on, nor is it best for the client.
Do you freelance? What is the best part of freelancing?
I do freelance, and I love it for the variety. I love working on projects from scratch, as working on the same site over and over again at a day job can be taxing. The freedom to take on projects I think I’ll enjoy has always been a huge draw for me.
How much easier or more difficult is it to freelance than you thought it would be?
It’s hard to say. Some clients make it really easy, and trust your skills as a designer. Some clients get ridiculous meticulous about what they want, and essentially you’re just a design monkey for them. Those types of clients would have been better off finding a younger person, as it would have saved them a lot of money for the same result. A little pro tip for future clients: if you’re hiring somebody for thousands of dollars to do a job, you should let them do it. You wouldn’t micro manager an electrician rewiring your house would you?