Interview With Veerle Pieters of and Scroll Magazine

Last week, ODIN interviewed John Allsopp of Web Directions and Scroll Magazine, and are pleased to have the opportunity to interview Veerle Pieters, who designed the layout of Scroll and who has redesigned company's site to great acclaim.

Veerle, how do Belgian companies (your clients) think about web identity/design?

Actually only about 15% of my clients are from Belgium, 85% are international from all over the world. In general I have the feeling that the majority have trouble thinking beyond the boundaries of Belgium and approaching things from a more global point of view.

So, does Belgium have an identifiable national design aesthetic?

I can't think of any really, so no I don't think so.

Is the Belgian web development scene vibrant? Lots of innovation going on?

Hm, I'm afraid not at least I don't feel like that. Except for Drupal thanks to Dries [Buytaert, creator of Drupal]. Not sure what the reasons are but maybe it's because of the way people think here in general. Like I said before they don't think global enough and people aren't very vocal. I'm sure it isn't a case of lack of talent. We're just not really good in marketing ourselves internationally. Isn't it striking that people say at some international web conferences "ah the Belgians" and they just mean Geert and myself? So that's a sign. I think it must be a certain mentality that we Belgians have. There is hope because I see it is very very slowly changing, so don't give up on us Belgians yet!

So is everybody looking at what the Anglo-Saxon world is doing?

Most agencies know about the major trends for sure, take Web 2.0 for example. They sure milked that marketing cow dry! If they describe a project in the press it must have AJAX in it otherwise it ain't hip! :-)

How about mobile in Belgium? Do clients ask for mobile-friendly sites?

As far as my experience go, no client of ours has ever asked me this. However there is one Belgian client called Mobiya who is very active in this segment. It's an online classified advertising platform purely based on text messaging. We designed the logo and the site; the back- and front-end implementation is done by another party. Maybe they have adapted the site so it works on mobile phones. I'm very not hopeful though, because the backend developers butchered my clean valid templates.

Do clients know about web standards already, or do they want 90s "flash intro"-like designs?

The majority have no idea what web standards are, but on the other hand I don't think they want the "skip flash intro" either. Maybe in the market segment of small business, such a local shops etc. they might, but that's not the segment we're doing business in. I have the feeling that most of our Belgian clients want their presence on the web and they want to be found easily. I see this as the ideal opportunity to explain the advantages of web standards and why a good and clean HTML structure is important. Secondly I explain to them about the importance of the visual part and the content and that they have to try to create an added value (news, regular updates) so visitors will return.

In general web agencies aren't thinking about web standards here. They believe div is the new coding approach instead of td and tr. That's where it stops with most of them, and so they say "oh it's XHTML" and "we use CSS too". Structure doesn't matter, quantity and numbers matters more, such as turnover and to be able to make it in the top 100 list of web agencies, because that list is purely based on turnover.

Tell us about Scroll magazine. What's your involvement, and how did that happen?

Maxine Sherrin contacted me in June with the question if I was interested in working on a design of a brand new magazine for Web Directions South. Not sure why she picked me but it could be because she knows my print background and likes my design style.

We were asked to design the logo and the entire magazine layout. It was really a fun and challenging project due to the difference in time zone and the printing deadline being a day ahead for us. We had to make sure things were well organized. That's a challenge on its own, having the magazine (60 pages) completely finished and delivered to the printer within 2 months. For me it was definitely an honor to be part of this cool project and Maxine is one of the best organized clients you can dream off—and I am not sucking up here!

What are the main differences in thought processes between web and print design?

I think with web design you approach things more from a structural point of view: what if a user disables the images, the javascript or the CSS for example. You also have to approach the design aspect from a usability point of view and you're constantly thinking about functionality in the back of your head. While with print design you purely think about the visual aspect.

The technical part comes in later, not during the design process itself. Unless of course you're dealing with packaging design, special forms, die-cut or other special finishing in print. Than that's your main focus during the process itself. In general the technical aspects are more things that are "common knowledge" and not things you need to put your mind to it while designing. It's more like a checklist: making sure the bleed is in place where needed, the resolution of the images is 300 dpi and the color mode is CMYK etcetera.

Was it a challenge, coming as you did from print design?

Yes, it was because of all these variables to consider. Also the fact that typography for the web is so very limited. Typography has such a huge impact on a design. It's a challenge to work with a limit amount of typefaces and yet make a beautiful design. The other challenge is of course the coding of XHTML and CSS. As a designer you have to get your head around this kind of stuff.

Is there a conception of usability of the printed page, that is different from web usability: for example, widow and orphans control, pullquotes, gutters and margins, position of page numbers and chapter headings?

The principles of usability for margins, gutters, position of page numbers are basically the same in print as they are for the web, but in general I would say that for the web there are way more variables to consider. Such as screen resolution, platform, browser, device... The different types of screens as well: red isn't the same on all screens, on some it'll look more pink on others more orange. There is also the question of fixed versus liquid design. On paper the layout and outcome will be exactly the same for every user, for the web it's not.

...or are the conventions more established, given the length of time books have been around?

They are definitely more established in print. Print has been here already for a few centuries, it's mature. The web is very young and constantly changing and growing. Print grows too, but not in such complex way as with the web. New technologies emerge but for the designer, things are getting easier and easier. We used to have way more steps from design to final printing, but the design techniques (bleed, crop marks in place, CMYK images....) are exactly the same as they were years ago. It's the way we deliver our files to printer that has changed. Now most printers use computer-to-plate just to mention one thing. Less steps means faster, easier and also more controllable towards the outcome. Everything is far more sophisticated and more controlled to achieve the most perfect results. Nowadays we deliver our certified PDFs with the right Color Sync profile embedded that our printer recommends us to use. Before PDF was becoming mainstream we had less control over color proofing and how things would look in the final printing stage.

I'm design challenged (see for yourself at How can I make myself a better designer, given that I have no training, no natural ability and very little time?

Wow—tough question. I would say without time it's hard, because if you have no training and no natural ability than how will you be able to become better if you don't have time?

The only thing you can do to become better is learn about the principles of design and that means spending time studying. Then turn these principles into practice : well balanced layout with enough white space, a well balanced color scheme and well balanced typography. The well balanced part is of course the key and to get to this you need to learn the principles. You need to make some time for this I'm afraid. Improvement always means sacrifices for the better good my friend!

Thanks very much for the advice and for your time, Veerle!