Drew Strojny Interview
Meet Drew Strojny (@drewstrojny), designer, founder, show runner of The Theme Foundry, and former pro-footballer. We talk design processes, cutting-edge theme design, what it takes to grow and run a successful WordPress theme shop, and more.
It’s not every day that we find ourselves interviewing a philosophy major who went on to become a pro-football player before taking on WordPress and building a successful business around theme design. Tell us about your journey into WordPress.
WordPress started as a hobby for me. While I was playing football, we had a lot of free time in the offseason. I’d often find myself tinkering on the web. I stumbled across WordPress while looking for a better tool to build websites. After my football career was over I kept an active interest in WordPress and eventually started designing themes. If you want to read the whole backstory, check out “The last 3 years” over on The Theme Foundry blog.
Are there any similarities to or things you’ve learned from professional football that apply to your entirely different role as founder and head honcho of Theme Foundry?
I learned a lot about hard work and the importance of being a dependable teammate. Football is the quintessential team game. It requires you to do your job while trusting the other 10 players on the field with you to do the same. When everybody does their job well, the team is usually successful. I think this spills over into business as well, and it certainly has helped me while building The Theme Foundry team.
The theme Vigilance was a huge breakthrough for you. How did it come about, and what did you learn from the changes that followed in its wake?
Vigilance was my first foray into theme design and it was way back in 2008. The WordPress theme market was in the very early stages, and I think we just hit the right spot with Vigilance. It was minimal and clean, and had some pretty cool options for a free theme at that time.
The biggest lesson I learned from Vigilance was that customers are willing to pay real money when you provide them with value. Until that point it was more of a concept than a reality for me.
What commonalities do you see in your customers, in terms of their needs, frustrations, or objectives?
Most of our customers need a website and they’ve usually already decided to use WordPress. At the core everyone’s objectives are very similar — stake out my spot on the internet, easily manage my content, and make sure my website looks great and functions well. WordPress handles the first two and we focus on that last part.
You tell the story behind Theme Foundry, as well as those of your clients, on your site. How important do you think it is to have a story in a competitive marketplace, and where would you place that in the mix of other factors that set a WordPress business apart from the pack?
I think it’s extremely important to have a story. A story resonates with your audience in a way that a simple set of facts cannot. Human beings love stories, and for good reason. Stories have defined and embodied the human experience across all cultures for centuries. We’re at an exciting time in history as we now have the chance to bring those stories alive on the web as a shared experience using amazing tools like WordPress.
How important is documenting and supporting your work if you’re in the WordPress products and services industry, and where do some people go wrong with this? What have you learned over time about this process?
Extremely important. As a customer, knowing that the product I purchase is supported and will continue to be supported is a deciding factor in whether or not I buy that product.
Tell us about your design process. Has that changed a lot over the last few years or have you settled on a tried-and-true approach that works for you?
Design is about constantly evolving —- new tools, new methods, new ideas. There are so many talented and smart folks working hard on design problems and it’s great that many of them are happy to share those ideas with everyone.
My design process follows this pattern: sketch, rough mockups in Adobe Illustrator, design, and build in the browser. The first two steps only take about 5% of the total time I spend working on a theme or a design. This is also how we design themes at The Theme Foundry. This isn’t the traditional approach, because most folks either come from an agency background or are working in an agency. Therefore, they usually end up following a more rigid waterfall process that works well in that agency environment. They spend quite a bit of time on the mockup stage and then pass Photoshop files over to a front-end developer and say “code this.” Unfortunately, it’s never that easy. When you make the browser your canvas you can truly design around the medium itself and build a better website.
As a self-taught designer what do you think you were able to bring to the table that those trained specifically in one form of design or other might have overlooked?
I think my weakness as a designer can serve as a strength on the web. I don’t have great artistic abilities, but on the web artistic abilities aren’t valued in quite the same way as they are in the physical world. I think the web at its core is about publishing, so we should take inspiration from the centuries of work in that field. I think some of the best designers on the web have a background in print. Ultimately, I think being a great web designer requires a multidisciplinary skillset, which naturally lends itself to self-teaching.
You’ve created a range of beautiful and innovative themes that have often pushed the envelope. Which are you proudest of, and where do you see theme design evolving next?
I’m most proud of some of our latest themes — Avid, Portfolio, Watson. I think they represent the type of high quality work we want to continue to add to our collection at The Theme Foundry. I should also note, I didn’t personally design or build those themes. But, I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with the really talented folks that did design and build them.
When it comes to deciding on your next product, do you approach your decisions from a particular angle, such as serving new verticals or putting new WordPress core affordances into practice, or do you just let inspiration strike?
We have an internal process for deciding what theme to build next. Much of this revolves around gaps and areas we need to improve in our current collection. I still don’t think we’ve nailed down those core areas and filled out our collection completely.
Once we’ve focused on a scope it’s the designer’s job to come up with some sketches and inspiration for the direction of the theme.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known when you were first getting started with Theme Foundry?
Push the limits and don’t obsess over small problems. I have a somewhat obsessive personality, and I like things to be organized, scalable, and structured. While this has helped us in many ways it has also slowed us down in others. I’m just now starting to understand the importance of moving faster when the wind is at your back.