Sarah Jacobs Interview
Sarah Jacobs taught herself the ropes of web design, and uses WordPress much as she does typography and graphic design principles: to cut through to the emotional core of a client’s brand. It’s not about pixels, it’s about personality, and Sarah’s approach to designing websites with WordPress puts the identity and the heart of the project she’s working on center stage.
How did you get started working on the web? What do you love about it?
While attending Eastern Michigan University for graphic design, I worked for the student newspaper designing print pages and layouts. The new web team had a position available and in 1998 I was hired to post news and photos to the newspaper website. In 1999, I took on an internship where I learned to update the company website. That same year, in my senior graphic design class, one of our final projects was to design and build a website. Opportunities for working on the web seemed plentiful and these experiences were enough to get me started. From these basic skills I began to build my own sites. I’d always loved the instant gratification of the web—even more so back in the day when printing wasn’t as quick and inexpensive. And I enjoy making the design come to life with clickable elements and rollovers.
Graphic design is my specialty. I’m experienced in just about any medium from web and print to signs, t-shirts, and other promotional goodies. I really love starting from a blank (or near blank) canvas and defining an identity for a new brand. My art degree has taught me to focus on the emotion that certain shapes and colors create. Not just that they look cool, but why they look cool. Or classy, or friendly. And I really love making my designs come to life with custom WordPress themes and CSS3. For jQuery and database awesomeness I call in the machine guns over at BinaryM. There’s so many possibilities with coding that I’ll always be learning. And that helps drive me too, because I love seeing how things work.
Tell me a bit about your design process.
It all starts with the client. Most of the time I phone clients to learn about their personalities. This step involves mostly listening. I keep them on the phone until I have a clear idea of their goals and a visual for their sense of style. Most clients have a hard time saying what they want—after all, they aren’t designers! But they all know what kind of emotion they’re looking to invoke or what kind of look suits their business. (Or that the sidebar should go on the right.)
After the meeting, I start with a quick layout. For a bigger project I’ll get out a notepad, but most of the time I can visualize the direction and go right to Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator is wonderful because I can sketch and edit appearances in vector format without having to mess with Photoshop layers. And if a client wants to switch mediums, for example, to create print pieces from a website design, no time is wasted because I can scale the elements without losing quality.
Once I have the document sized and elements placed, I start a type study. I use a type manager to preview titles and text as they will appear in the design, and select several that speak to the project. I’ve found this to be a very important step because fonts really set the mood. I usually create three sets of type, each with two-three fonts that work well together. That way I have a backup if I don’t like the way some of the letters or numbers turn out.
Then, I size the design elements and create a hierarchy for the design. I choose which title or group of text needs to stand out the most. Then the second most, etc. When I can design around the project content, I can assure a unique look because I can pay attention to the way letters come together and choose appropriate text sizing for a perfect fit. And adding photos and other graphics too soon can sway my decisions. In black and white, I start adding design details. Most things look better in color because colors all have emotion. So if I can get that feeling into the design before the color, it will be that much more flexible, and I won’t be relying on color to sell the design.
Once I’ve got the design details set in black and white, it’s finally color time! As the design comes to life, I look back at the original client notes to capture any last details and make sure I’ve addressed everything. And since we spent so much time on the previous steps, the design looks great even when the client chooses wacky colors like brown and yellow! If I’m designing screen graphics, I’ll recreate the layout in Photoshop to make sure everything is pixel-perfect. That always sounds cumbersome, but it’s actually a swift process, and makes my Photoshop files very minimal. I can also include elements as vector smart objects for easy resizing.
Tell me about your favorite project. What was most challenging about it? What did you learn that’s served you in your work?
Most definitely preggiepals.com has been my favorite. It’s been challenging to launch such a big site—and then have two sites using child themes launch immediately behind it. Throughout the process I’ve learned how to use child themes and GIT to keep track of what was uploaded where. I think I’ve used every skill in my toolbox on this project, from a fresh design with print pieces to a website design flexible enough to look unique on each site.
How did you get into working with WordPress?
I was tired of updating my static website and I had been reading about WordPress and other platforms. One day I downloaded them all, tried them out and, of course, WordPress was my favorite. To say it stuck would be an understatement!
What made WordPress stand out among the crowd when you were trying out the platforms? In other words, what was it about WordPress that made you stick with it?
Honestly—I wasn’t able to break it! Getting into WordPress as a graphic designer and being able to create totally custom themes with a little bit of PHP knowledge was—and still is—really just amazing to me. I would never be able to build a database-driven website on my own. The other platforms weren’t as easy to theme and didn’t have good help and resources.
Tell me a bit about your freelance network. How did you come to cultivate it and how does it help you in your work?
My network of clients has grown from just a few clients to working full time. Upon graduating college in 2000, I started freelancing. I built a hobby Jeep forum in 2002, and when vendors saw the logo and site layout, they wanted me to do the same for them. Any way that you can tell the world, “hey! this is what I do!” is always helpful in the long run. Once I decided to start my own business and dedicated myself to that goal, it was easy to make it a reality. I’ve found that if you do what you say you’re going to do—on time and for a fair price—the referrals will follow!
You’ve sponsored WordCamp San Diego—are there other ways you give back to the community?
I really enjoyed working with the WordCamp San Diego team and hope they will have me again in the future. Unfortunately, there aren’t any meetup groups near me, and I don’t spend a lot of time on social networking sites. I’ve found other ways to volunteer in the community around me, however. I’ve donated web design time to political parties, candidates, the San Bernardino National Forest, and local clubs.