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An Interview with Designer, Lecturer and Teacher, Brian Miller

Introduction by Lou Simeone

Designer Brian Miller took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for Illustration Pages. Brian is the owner of the Brian Miller Design Group, located in Norwalk Connecticut. The Brian Miller Design Group is a graphic design studio that focuses on brand-building for leading and emerging brands. Their services include Web design and development, brand identity, publication design, annual reports and Web advertising.

This interview will be of particular interest to those of you who are looking to make the move from print design to web design. I've been there myself and that's why I wanted to interview Brian Miller on this topic. Brian has extensive knowledge on this subject and is the author and designer of the book, Above the Fold: Understanding the Principles of Successful Web Site Design, an excellent resource for all designers. Above the Fold explores topics such as understanding web design, the anatomy of a website, sitemaps, search engine optimization (seo), web safe fonts and font replacement tools such as Cufon. If you don't know what any of these things are then you'll want to buy his book in which all of these topics and much more is covered in great detail. But for right now let's hit the ground running on the topic of Web design with Brian Miller

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

When did you make the jump from print design to Web design and what prompted you to do so?

My very first job was my big jump. In 1995, I took a job as an in-house designer at First Brands corporation, makers of Glad Bags, STP Motor Oil and Scoop Away kitty litter. At one point, very early on in my stay there, someone came into the room of designers and said “Who here can design a Web site?” I raised my hand, but I had no idea how to design a Web site. A few months later the first ever Scoop Away kitty litter Web site was launched — catseyeview.com. To this day I still consider it one of my best sites. When the user arrived at the site they were asked their cat’s name. Upon entering it, the entire site was populated with the cat’s name. So instead of selling kitty litter to “your cat” we spoke directly to “fluffy,” for example. From a marketing standpoint it was revolutionary at the time.

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

Your formal training is as an artist and designer. Does Web design satisfy you creatively?

Absolutely, I am of the mind that limitations breed creativity, and Web design comes with many limitations — although fewer each day. And although I am NOT a coder, I find the small bit of coding that I do just as rewarding and exciting as the design work that I do.

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

How important do you think it is for print designers to make the transition into Web design?

That’s tough to answer. Transition is usually (and unfortunately) a product of need. So if you’re a print designer working in a thriving industry, then there’s no need for you to transition. Unfortunately, that’s becoming a less common occurrence these days.

I will say that reinvention is a necessary process for any career — especially in the creative field. You don’t have to become a Web designer, but it’s almost impossible to do the same thing for 40 years as it was done just a generation ago.

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

What advice do you have for a print designer who wants to move into the Web? What’s the best approach?

Someone very important to me once told me that in order to be a runner you have to do exactly one thing: run. My advice to anyone looking to go into Web design is to put down the books, stop looking at the blogs and just start designing. As questions come up, seek answers, but I’ve noticed even in myself that I’ll spend months “studying” something before I actually start doing it. And the studying is almost never worth it. Nothing replaces just doing it... to coin a phrase.

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

Your book, Above The Fold is a metaphor referencing both newspaper design (print) and the section of a Web page that is visible without scrolling. In your experiences, what are the similarities between print design and Web design?

They’re almost identical at their core. The ideas of hierarchy and conveying a message are exactly the same. Of course there are superficial differences but I think the mistake that most print designers make is they associate Web design only with coding. That’s like associating running a Heidelberg press with print design. There are people who do that, but you don’t have to in order be a good print designer.

What are the crucial differences?

The most crucial difference between a print designer and a Web designer is the ability to tolerate fluctuation — and in fact embrace it. Web sites and screen content is under some control of the user — screen color, resolution, browser capabilities, connection speed, etc. — which can cause variations in a design from widows to color shifts. The stuff that makes print designers pull their hair out.

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

Can a website be conceptual like a logo or a brochure or is it more function over form? Is it possible for a site to be both conceptual and functional?

Of course. Maybe not so much like a logo, which is a unique branch of design, but certainly like a brochure. Metaphor creation is a lost art with so many themes or templates out there, but there are many opportunities to be conceptual while still considering the user experience of a site.

When you first started off in Web design what was one of the first things you conquered? Did you focus more on the design aspect of the Web or the code?

See my previous answer.

I’ve always dabbled in code on my side projects, but I’ve focused on design in my professional career. It’s what I know. Coding is for coders. Designing is for designers. Printing is for printers. And so on...

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

Front-end development, that is Javascript, AJAX, PHP, JSON and JQuery can be a bit intimidating to a newbie in Web design. What’s the best way for a print designer to approach these scripting languages and tools and how much of an “expert” do you think one needs to be in these areas of the Web?

You have to understand what the possibilities are so you can design to them — just like you need to know how ink lies down or how a particular piece of paper scores and folds — but you don’t have to be the one coding. There are tons of great and inexpensive coding resources out there. Hint: Google “PSD to HTML5”

As a creative have you ever felt overwhelmed by the technical aspect of the Web?

Always.

There are so many aspects of the Web – user interface, user experience, design, front-end development. It takes time to develop skills in these areas. What do you feel is important to learn first and why?

Do what designers have always done: Deliver a message in a clear and memorable way. Everything else will take care of itself. I don’t mean to over-simplify, but it’s true. If you can convey a message, everything else is window dressing.

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold


The Web is changing everyday. How do you stay on top of the industry? What books do you read and what blogs do you visit?

As I said earlier, I find books and blogs to be a form of procrastination. The biggest leaps in knowledge that I take come when I’m waste-deep in a project and I’ve identified the solution for a particular client. Then I Google the heck out of it to round out my knowledge.

Doing it the other way, where you read a book about a particular style or technique causes you to approach a client’s problem with a singular mind set. Like the saying “when all you have is a hammer, all the world’s problems look like nails”. Blogs are full of hammers.

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

And the million dollar question – one that is always being discussed – Do you think print is dying? Do you think the opportunities for print designers are dwindling?

Absolutely. It’s indisputable. But only for those who attached their talent and ambition to a medium.

Designers are thinkers; unique individuals who can disassemble a problem and provide an own-able and valuable solution. The demand for that is not dwindling — it’s growing exponentially.

I'd like to thank Brian Miller for this interview. I found his answers to be very enlightening and I hope you did too. I cannot overstate how valuable his knowledge is and how grateful I am for his time. I'm extremely happy that I have the opportunity to share this with all of you through Illustration Pages.

Be sure to look at the logo work of Brian Miller that I featured here on the site almost a year ago. That feature was titled, The Art Of The Logo: The Brian Miller Design Group.

Making the leap from print to the Web will not be an easy one. But it's something every designer should seriously consider. And when I say, "the Web", I'm including tablets and phones in there also. In a future post I plan on listing out some valuable books and blogs that I have found to be extremely helpful throughout my personal design journey.

The Brian Miller Design Group web design and print design - author of the book, Above the Fold

Brian Miller is the author and designer of the book, Above The Fold. Above the Fold is more than a book about Web design, it's a book about the fundamentals of sound communication design set within the context of the Web. Semantics? Hardly. Most books on Web design assume many things about the reader and skip right to the nuts and bolts of the technology behind the design. Above the Fold looks at the basics of hierarchical communication with specific considerations inherent in Web design.

Brian Miller is an award-winning designer and lecturer who specializes in branding for the Web and print. In addition to managing the Brian Miller Design Group, he teaches design at the Shintaro Akatsu School of Design, and is a member of the board of directors for the Type Directors Club.

Brian has an MPS in design management from Pratt Institute and a BFA in graphic design from the Hartford Art School. He also studied design at the Newport School of Art and Design in Wales.

Buy Above the Fold

Below are more of Brian Miller's links to investigate.
The Brian Miller Design Group
Above The Fold
Above The Fold iPad App
Above The Fold Blog
Brian Miller on Facebook
Brian Miller on Twitter

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