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A few words from the apes, monkeys, and various primates that make up the Cheeky Monkey Super Squad.

New Orleans DrupalCon logo. Transcript of Interview with Chris Arlidge

What is graphic design, why is it important, and what was your role in the 2016 North American DrupalCon?

Yesterday morning, I met with our Creative Director Chris Arlidge.

Chris has worked with Cheeky Monkey Media since Rick and Gene started the company in 2008. He’s been part of the troop in an official capacity since 2013. Multiple international publications have published his artwork and colleges and high schools use his tutorials in the classrooms. In fact, Chris is so famous a potential date was hesitant to meet him, because she was intimidated by his google presence.

Over the past few weeks, Chris has been busy working with the Drupal Association (DA) on the design and branding for the 2016 DrupalCon in New Orleans and the 2017 DrupalCon - location to be announced. He is either behind his computer tinkering with Adobe Photoshop or Sketch, or he is in the lounge area sketching designs.

I was lucky enough to steal him away from his work (sorry DA), to pick his brain about what graphic design and branding even means when it comes to web design and development and about his role in the North American DrupalCons.

Here’s a transcript of our conversation. 

Q. For those that aren’t familiar with the design world, especially the design world for branding and the web, can you tell me a little more about what you do?

For the web, specifically, I do User Interface design. I’m responsible for taking an organization’s content and Information Architecture and making it look good on the web, and making it useable for the organization, their website visitors, and their potential clients. I also match the website design with the organization’s brand, so that the organization’s online presence matches their offline presence.

Q. For web newbies like me, who may not be familiar with the term user interface (UI) and information architecture (IA), can you tell me a little more about what that is?

Well, to really simplify it, the information architecture is your navigation, the big bucket items at the top of the page. That’s a really simplified version, though. The information architecture will extend to how all of the content on your website is organized and presented, from calls to action to how you organize all your different categories and taxonomies (classifications). And I think I just introduced two new words in there, so we'll just forget about those ones.

Q. And user interface, that's just what you see in front of you when you open up the web page?

Yep. The User Interface is sort of like the window dressing. That  thing that makes a website look good.  But, it's also the buttons and the graphics that you interact with. It's what makes the user want to use the site, be able to find things on the website, and be able to use the website properly.

Q. Why is this kind of work important?

It’'s important because a website is often a huge component to any business. It’s a large part of any organization’s growth or profitability. Because the website is such an important component of any organization, you definitely want to make sure it looks good, it works, and is in alignment with your brand. It has to look and feel like it's part of the company. It has to behave and act the way it should, so that that it makes the company profits or gets them leads or whatever depending on the goal website.

You need to have somebody that can design it and make it work at least from a user interaction perspective, although I really don't like the term user, we'll just say visitor interaction.

Q. It sounds like, you don't want a website that just looks pretty, you want a website that actually does the job?

That's right. Pretty doesn't cut it anymore. It's one of those things where, it should always look good, but the design should never be noticed. The design should always be in the background and just help facilitate the website’s goals.

Q. I like it. So, you’ve been working with the Drupal Association (DA) for a few years now, right?


Q. What kind of work have you done for them?

We've done the DA Job Boards; a little bit of interface, initially, just to get things off the ground; but primarily, we’ve done branding and design work for the DrupalCons, which you mentioned earlier. We’re the DA’s North American design partners. We did the design and branding for the 2015 DrupalCon, which was in Los Angeles, we're doing the design and branding for this year's DrupalCon in New Orleans (2016), and we're also doing the designs and branding for the 2017 and 2018 DrupalCons. So, we're in for the long haul.

Q. That's quite a bit of work. The New Orleans DrupalCon is the one that's coming up pretty quickly, in about a week or so. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work you did for this project?

We did the same work for New Orleans as we did for Los Angeles. We start by doing a logo design and brand identity for the Con itself. Cons are usually selected for a city, so we try to capture that city’s energy.  Then there are a lot of different deliverables: we do the user interface design, or rather the graphic design for the website; then we do signage, so wayfinding and signage; T-shirts; program guides; presentation slides; and lanyards. There is probably more, but some of the specific deliverables are escaping me right now.

Q. So, pretty much anything you can imagine that a conference would hand out, or that would visually present at a conference?

Yeah, I would say that 90% of the DA’s visual presence is stuff we do or we prepare so the DA can do it on site.

Q. That's a lot of stuff - a lot of different moving components, a lot of different meetings that you need to go to. What's your process for a project like this?

Well, working with the DA is really good. The team that we work with is very efficient. Everything is sort of all lined up, and we knock everything down one thing at a time. We have weekly or bi-weekly meetings to make sure we are on track with everything and deliverables.

For the process, I’d say we start off with the branding: We work with the DA and members of the local community, so they're sort of the eyes and ears on the ground. They give us a flavour of what we should do and what we shouldn't do for things. Ultimately the DA and that particular group of people decide the final version. They decide what is suitable for the conference and everything like that. They're a really big help with that.

It also helps that the DA and the community group continually give feedback throughout the entire process on the designs that we do and send and make sure that things are being built up properly.

(To see the designs, check out "Who did the design for NOLA?")

Q. Your answer makes me think of two other questions. I read an article recently, actually one you posted, by Elizabeth Grace Sauders - “Artists Evolve: The Dangers of Creatively Typecasting yourself.” In the article, Sauders notes that she’s “[s]ure Monet and Picasso were nervous about breaking new ground.” She also explains that “it’s a deeply emotional struggle when we shift our fundamental ‘brand’ or style of creative.”  When you’re working on a project like the New Orleans DrupalCon, you are creating a new brand, and it's not necessarily your brand, how are you able to coincide or put aside (I suppose) your own style to take on the style of the brand you are working on or creating?

Well I think as graphic designers, we're sort of birthed into this world with that in mind. We do design for other people, essentially. So, yes, the identity isn't for us specifically, but there is a lot of us in the identity. As much as you want to be as flexible as possible, you want to be able to trade a bunch of different styles and accommodate different requests and stuff. But ultimately, I don't think there's too many designers out there that you couldn't actually look at a body of work and realize that it's their body of work. There's always that signature tell. There's a certain thing, a certain feel, and that's the part of you that is always going to be there. I think it's one of the reasons that people come back to you specifically for work, because they like what you do and they know that it will jive with what they want to accomplish, etc, etc.

Q. So you can't completely remove yourself from the process?

I don't think I can. I mean, I wouldn't want to. Because then I think it would just be a robotic thing, and I think you would end up seeing that in the design.

Q. Do you have to remove a part of yourself?

Well, my left arm.

Q. It’s almost like you have to take someone else's idea as your own. You have to live and breath that idea. Or am I not understanding?

That's not a bad way of putting it. I mean, like with any of these things, we do a lot of research for the DrupalCons. We do a lot of research ourselves and we get a lot of research that’s sent to us from the local community, and then it's the really the fun part: injecting yourself and bringing out your personality and then shaping that identity around that. From there you give the team you are working for a multitude of options, and you hope that they pick it.

Q. As a writer, I’ve always been deeply attached to my own work. I rarely think it’s any good, but I nevertheless feel a sense of pride and experience twinges of discomfort, shall we say, when my work is critiqued or I receive feedback. Working with clients, you will be working with other people’s judgements as well. Do you struggle with this at all and do you ultimately find it helps you grow and produce better content?

I think I’ll start by comparing writing with graphic design. When you're talking about writing, are you writing creatively or are you writing for a specific goal, or is someone asking you to write something specifically?  Because when we are talking about art and creative writing, or just writing for yourself, yes it's difficult to take criticism, because it's coming from you. It’s really sort of  this is what I wrote, or I like, or I don't like. Artists are never happy with anything that they do.

But when it comes to graphic design, I think, and writing specific articles, for instance you've been asked to research and write certain things, that's a little different.

So, with graphic design, I embrace the critique.

Yes, sometimes it can be stinging; yes, sometimes it hurts, but you have to distance yourself from it, because ultimately you need to look at it and go, is this actually bringing the goals of the project forward.

So if the criticism is objective, and like this would be better and make things more effective if we did this, then yes, I love that stuff, because you can't always see the forest behind the trees. And ultimately the people that are critiquing graphic design are not trying to critique you personally as a designer, they are trying to make their product the best thing that it can be. So you have to keep that in mind, most of the time.

The problem that I run into, or at least the times that you kind of cringe, is when it's a subjective critique, when it's something that's you know, "their grandmother doesn't like the color purple." That's great, but, is that really going to impact the success of the design? Well, the grandmother might not like. Those are the  types of things where you kind of have to go, that critique is not really of any value, or use to the project. If that makes sense?

Q. Yes, definitely. And I would definitely feel like it's spectrum. When it's your own personal creative work it's much more painful, for lack of a better term, than when you're writing for someone else, or at least that’s my experience. When you’re writing for someone else, it's a lot easier to hear that critique.


Q. So, two last questions. I'm kind of envisioning two different audiences listening to this track, and I could be wrong, so we'll find out when we look at the analytics. But one of these audiences is probably an aspiring artist or an aspiring professional. What is your advice for someone that's coming up in the web design or the web agency, or the creative field in general?  What kind of advice would you have for someone like that?

That's a good question.  I mean, there are so many different things. Be passionate... about it. Learn as much as you can. Never assume that you know everything. Because of the way technology intertwines with the creative world, for example in web design and app design [application design], you need to be on the edge of everything all the time. So always keep yourself from under that rock.

Q. How do you do that when it's moving so quickly?

It's not easy. It really isn't.  But you just find time: bookmark articles, learn stuff, um try new things.

Q. How many articles do you have bookmarked?

I use Instapaper, so I think right now, I think I have about 75.

Q. What about for clients, prospective clients that are looking to make a change on their website, or they need a full redesign, and they're thinking they're going to be working with a web development firm or graphic designer. So, let's say you've got a manager or executive that's been tasked with redesigning or improving the website in some way, and they know  that they need to start looking and they need to find someone to help them. What's your advice for that individual?

First of all they have to find somebody that they want to work with. That's a whole thing in itself. I think the first question I would ask is why? Why do you want to redesign? Why do you want to do this? Why is this necessary? You should know those things before you move into that, but even if you don't, that's still ok. There is obviously a reason that you feel, maybe it's a gut level thing, that we need to redesign, because the site isn’t working. We don't know why it's not working, but we feel it might be the design or something like that. That's a good place to start. And that's something that we like to do here, is to take a look at that and say, ok, well, you want to redesign, but why. Is it even something that's necessary. Those are the sorts of things that start a conversation anyway. So that would be my advice. Don't just jump in blindly and have someone redesign your website, ask yourself why you need to have that redesign or what's not working with the current design.


If you liked this interview, and want to connect with Chris directly, you can reach him @GraphicJunkies on Twitter and by email at [email protected]. Want Chris to help you out on your website redesign? Contact us here!

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