David DeSandro is the kind of person Textpattern often draws to its community; people who are talented, genuine and friendly, and who like to create things from the canvas up. He’s also the kind of person that rolls good things back into the communities he belongs to, and the Textpattern community has benefited greatly from his contributions. David is passionate about the work that he does, shares his experiments for the benefit of others, never has a bad word for anyone … the man is going nowhere but up!
Saying David is going nowhere but up is an understatement. In just three short years—from the time he was a student and I had the good fortune to work with him to produce the STC France logo, to his recent hiring at Twitter in New York—David has blazed one heck of a trail.
David DeSandro, 29, is the oldest of two brothers from Italian heritage, and happily married for the last year. He was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ate plenty of cheesesteaks. Of the three big hobbies so many digitalists are into these days—riding bikes, playing in bands, and shooting photographs—David admits he’s a bike nut:
I used to be into photography years ago, but have since only been a camera phone kind of guy. I discovered you have more fun when you’re in front of the camera, doing stuff that is camera-worthy.
When not pushing pedals, David says he takes in a fair amount of “nerdy or quirky fiction”; reading authors like Neal Stephenson or David Mitchell, and watching shows like The Legend of Korra.
David received a bachelors degree in Communication Studies from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia; an experience that has left him with a tendency to yell things like “GO DUKES!” He then attended Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Art (CDIA) in Washington DC. As he told me:
I didn’t have a good idea of what I wanted to do as far as a career goes. But I did get to attend some pretty inspiring classes that opened my eyes to how the media we consume every day shapes the world we live in. And CDIA is where I developed a portfolio that allowed me to leave my cubicle job and start down a path in web design.
What kind of portfolio work did David put together before fame came knocking?
I put together my own side projects that suited what I was interested in. Some of the more successful projects were user styles for very public sites like Gmail and Craigslist. They demonstrated I could design with content that everyone used.
I also started contributing to the Textpattern community: designing an admin theme, a stylesheet for the community forums, and a revision of textpattern.org.
The admin theme he mentions is actually seventeen admin themes, which you can find in the admin-side themes listing. The themes are a little dated now, but maybe he’ll come back to his favourites now that the new admin-side code is released in Textpattern 4.5. His forum stylesheet is the default presentation you see in the support forum today, and the textpattern.org revision is this dynamic prototype .
Here’s another DeSandro prototype for textpattern.com from 2008. I especially like the clever choice of images. It’s clear to me this early concept comes from consideration of Textpattern’s “just write” and classic publishing essence. Though speculation on my part, this concept could have been an early iteration of something in place today if another fine designer, Matthew Smith, had not already been selected at the time to do the design work.
Choosing to develop his portfolio with practical and hypothetical designs was a smart move, as was the simple way David chose to source his content, like getting involved with an open source community and contributing more than just lip service. I asked him what he would recommend to anyone else trying to get a leg up on their portfolio efforts:
If you’re aspiring to get into a career, I would advise you try to put together projects that you are interested in. The Web is full of things that could be designed or developed better. These self-initiated projects will demonstrate you are excited about doing work and can take charge of it!
Of course, David didn’t just do hypothetical redesigns, he also created new things that have become extremely popular; Masonry, Isotope, and Dropshado.ws are three other projects of David’s that came later. He describes each one:
Masonry is a jQuery plugin that enables an organic grid layout. I originally created it as an experiment. But it has since grown into a widespread solution that web designers have made a part of their toolkit.
Isotope is another jQuery plugin that can do what Masonry does plus filtering, sorting, and dynamic layouts. Isotope builds upon Masonry, but adds another level of intelligent interactions that enable developers to rearrange content better when there is lots of it.
dropshado.ws is a development blog I maintain. Whenever I learn something new, I blog about it. I often go back and reference posts after I forget a solution. Oddly enough, other people seem to value the content on dropshado.ws. I like the idea of keeping a sort of learning journal. Think of all the valuable content that would fill the web if everyone did the same!
If you’d like to see great examples of Isotope in effect, check out joshuadavis.com and jamestedmondson.com and note how the grids seem stacked up in uneven (yet efficient) ways, like rocks in a lovely old-country wall.
David makes an excellent point about personal web journals. It reminded me of the days when that’s what a lot of designers did before the social media wave came along. People actually wrote meaningful things, and put their souls into designing around their words. Blogs and websites were badges of pride, bearing the ideas and creativity of their owners, and evolving over time like Pee Chee folders after a long semester in school (a past American phenomenon).
But modes change. Now people create their identities using combinations of web-based channels and tools; Facebook, About.me, Dribbble, and Github, to name a few, can be assembled like varied and colourful vegetables at the Mongolian Grill for the bored sauté cook to neutralise into a pile of mediocrity. And readers are newly equipped too, with tools that strip out creativity for the sake of Readability. Not always a bad thing, mind you, but it underlines the fact that times have changed. But I digress.
Near the end of school, David landed an internship at a public relations agency in Washington D.C. But his first real job out of the academic cooker was a hot one; a front-end / interaction designer position with the good folks at nclud.
David began public speaking while at nclud as well, which is always a sign someone is going large. I asked him how the speaking gigs got started and how he feels about being up on stage:
I started regularly giving talks last year. At first it was local, being asked to speak at events coordinated by companies in the DC area. This year I’ve been fortunate enough to be asked to speak at several larger-scale events. Speaking is a fantastic pursuit. You get to share what’s important to you, meet new people, and travel.
My first talk was at Refresh DC in 2010. Refresh DC is an awesome organization that puts on web-related events throughout the year. I had been given the reins to coordinate it for 2010. And I was terrible at it. I spoke at the first event in January because I didn’t actually invite anyone else.
Well, that’s one way to get a speaking gig. But what about the butterflies?
I’m fairly lucky in that public speaking has always been something that comes naturally to me. Once you’re on stage, everyone is rooting for you. That’s the easy part. I get anxious when I’m putting together my notes, typically because I’m procrastinating on it.
And what words of advice would David have for someone yet to give a public talk but might like to? Four things, actually:
1) Tell stories. This is advice from one of web design’s founding fathers, Greg Veen. Everyone can tell a story. Stories are fascinating. They have a beginning, middle, and end, so you already have a structure.
2) Identify two or three things you want to tell your audience.
3) Don’t worry about slides, or PowerPoint, or whatever appears on screen. Slides force your talk to be structured in a bizarre manner. Spend more time on figuring out how you’re going to talk about your main talking points.
4) Entertain yourself. I try to put something stupid and silly in my slides that makes me giggle.
To get a better idea of the kinds of projects that really make David tick, I asked him if there was a particular project he especially enjoyed working on while at nclud. But he said most of his client work was pretty fun in some way or another. He gave me an example for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:
Even the projects that might be considered uninspiring could turn out to be exciting. A great example is the last project I worked on, Report Card. The content is not that compelling—an education research report made by a government agency—but I got to work with some great people, all of whom were excited to see their content displayed in a way that properly supported their conclusions, while making it fun and interesting. They were open to using some forward-leaning technologies like CSS transitions and SVG. Instead of plain old tables for displaying data, I added Isotope so that they come alive when you sort the results.
Isotope, as it turns out, is David’s most rewarding personal project:
I am very proud of the work I did for Isotope. It took about three months of my spare time to take it from initial idea to public release. Isotope has a lot of functionality, and several nuanced approaches to things like animation, sorting, and layout. Each one of these items requires its own challenges to be met. So the end product is the culmination of numerous solutions that all work together cohesively (most of the time). On top of that, half of those three months were spent building out the documentation and examples. While a robust script can be compelling, users mostly depend on docs and demos for their own implementations.
Every week I get to witness another talented developer implement Isotope in a manner that is unexpected and refreshing. Seeing my own work in use within other’s larger projects is a great reward.
David first discovered Textpattern in 2006 when looking to move his photoblog at the time, nemoorange.com, out off Blogger’s clutches. Upon finding Textpattern, he said it immediately felt like the right solution, “with a simplified interface, and an approachable syntax.” David’s site thereafter evolved to encompass nearly all aspects of his digital life. As he said, “I added sections for movie ticket stubs, interesting words, and art-directed posts.”
Impressions: good, bad, and ugly
Of course, I asked him what his overall impression of Textpattern was, system or otherwise:
I loved being a part of the Textpattern community. Because its size was relatively smaller than other CMS-oriented communities like WordPress or Drupal, I felt like I could actually be a part of something, instead of just a newbie requesting help in a big ocean of newbs. Textpattern had big-name designer support from Jon Hicks and Tim Van Damme, which meant a lot to me as an aspiring web designer.
The CMS had a minimalist approach that resonated with me. Everything out-of-the-box felt like a blank canvas; it demanded you put your own work into it. I feel most other CMSs are plugin-oriented.
David didn’t have anything negative to say about Textpattern. But he did move away from it as his own CMS choice because he preferred working directly in text editors, as opposed to editing his site through the Textpattern interface.
This is a sentiment shared by a lot of people, myself included, and especially with respect to collaborative situations. There are workarounds for setting up development workflows where Textpattern page templates, stylesheets, and form partials can be edited (using any text editor you want) as files on the server, under versioning, and symbolically linked to the CMS. But for as popular as the technique is with designers, the process is a little wonky, and it’s probably invisible as a solution to most people due to no write-up about it outside of this tip.
A similar process for collaboratively editing article copy, however, is hypothetical at best. Granted, designers and developers are not as concerned with content as they are code, unfortunately, but I would bet Textpattern would get a lot more attention from publishers and other companies who use editorial workflows across multiple authors if functional and presentational advances on collaborative publishing were worked into the admin-side. As we see individual site owners increasingly moving to cloud-based services, and more systems jumping into the cloud services game as a response (MODx being the most recent, to my knowledge), collaborative publishing functionality is probably the smart look forward for existing AMP stack projects with no cloud aspirations.
But even on an individual use basis, where no collaborative workflow is needed, the Write panel editor is not the most ergonomic place to write, and the choices of theme designers for font types and sizes aren’t always the best. There are interesting tools to work around this, apparently, like Ace Editor, and possibly Escrito, but how well those would still allow for managing individual article components (titles, excerpts, bodies, unlimited custom field types in text and textarea formats as anticipated in v4.6, etc.) is not yet clear.
What David found, and has been using ever since for desandro.com, is Stacey, and a person has to appreciate how David has put it to use. Every one of his articles is a unique feast for consumption. Here’s his article highlighting the eventual transition to Stacey. And here’s the fruity article (check out the slick page-flipping) that inspired me to start the same sticker collection habit with my two young kids, who now race to the fruit sacks after every trip to the store.
As for nclud, David says they rely on WordPress for most CMS-related projects simply because most clients are familiar with that CMS. But he admits, “there is a great opportunity for Textpattern to make a CMS that’s just as familiar to people as WordPress,” and if he were on a client project that required a CMS, he’d absolutely put Textpattern to use if the fit was right.
On brand direction
Being David was once very active in the Textpattern community, with many artifacts to prove as much, I was keen to have this thoughts on the new brand direction…
This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. In 2008 and 2009 I was very interested in establishing a consistent visual treatment throughout the Textpattern world. I created a Forum style that felt more in-line with the brand. Then I attempted to re-design textpattern.org.
I’m happy to see that textpattern.com and textpattern.net are now aligned closely. But this effort still has a long way to go. If you are an HTML/CSS person interested in helping Textpattern, I would consider taking the brand that Matthew Smith established in textpattern.com, and building out a brand-wide framework that could be implemented across the Textpattern network.
We can forgive David in his current pursuits for not being aware of Textpattern’s new designer, Phil Wareham, and his redesign efforts in collaboration with the editorial team on network branding, but David’s sentiment is no less important—a network-wide branding effort with consistent project features like site identification and common navigation is badly needed. We can take some comfort in knowing there are tremendous efforts being made by many people to see it through. Textpattern’s future holds a lot of exciting promise.
The speed date closeout
Where we wrap this interview up with rapid-fire one-offs before the bell tolls.
What hardware do you use, David?
At home I use a 2007 iMac. At nclud I had a 15” MacBook Pro, connected to a 22” Matte Cinema Display.
And what software do you use?
What’s your typical workflow for a given project?
I try to jump into prototyping as soon as possible. Working with code is where I develop my own flow. The sooner I can get to a prototype, the better I can resolve interaction issues.
What would be your ideal setup
A 13” MacBook Air connected to a 24” Matte display.
Business card, Google Profile, About.me, or hand-rolled?
Business cards are still a good idea for when you meet someone at a cocktail hour and you forget their name the next day.
What are the top three things on your wish-I-had list?
The Ritte Bosberg road bike, with the best paint job out there. Aside from that, I don’t think there’s anything else we could fit in our apartment.
Any new personal projects in the pipeline?
I’ve got some ideas and some prototypes, but right now there’s nothing worth talking about.
What would you say to a house loan agent that asks what you do for living?
I help make websites. You know when you click on something and something else pop-ups or moves? I do that!
Where do you want to be in five years?
I just want to be making compelling content for the Web.
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