Sarah Parmenter is one of the funniest, nicest, and most impressive designer/entrepreneurs I know. She plunged into this toughly competitive profession at 19, an age when most of us weren’t capable of plunging into anything. Scant years later, she has built an internationally respected web and iOS design practice, with clients including Blackberry, News International, STV, and the National Breast Cancer Foundation of America. A jet-setting speaker, Sarah excels at teaching, and she is a riot with a few cocktails in her. She is also a professional singer and actress, and co-hosts a popular weekly design podcast. In 2011, at .net Magazine’s annual awards show, Sarah’s peers voted her ‘Designer of the Year’. She can probably levitate.
Online Interviews and Podcasts
- The Great Discontent – Sarah Parmenter
- Besquare – Sarah Parmenter Video Interview Part 1
- The Big Web Show with Dan Benjamin & Jeffrey Zeldman
- The Pipeline audio interview with Sarah Parmenter
- Smashing Magazine: Women in Web Design, Group Interview
- The Geek Talk: Interview with Sarah Parmenter
- Boagworld 200th Episode Special
- 40 of the most notable and prominent female designers
- Fuel Your Interface: Interview with Sarah Parmenter
- Sarah Parmenter designs a Woo Theme for Breast Cancer Awareness
- Please start from the beginning: Video interview with Sarah Parmenter
- 50 Best Female Web Designers around the world
- 10 women you need to know in Interface Design
- 25 Female Web Designers
- Co-host of Boagworld Podcast 176
- Co-host of Boagworld Podcast 159
- .net magazine, double page feature spread
- 10 top designers take the Steven Stephenson challenge
- .net Magazine – contributor to various features
- Web Design talk to Students on 19th March 08 about web design career prospects.
I’m really sorry but sometimes, I just don’t have enough time to answer your questions. I’ve put up a resource so that the questions that get asked a lot, can be noted down and used appropriately for your curiosity, dissertations and studies.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a User Interface Designer specialising in design for the web, iPhone & iPad. 31, currently Head of Design at Fahlo in Los Angeles.
How do you enjoy your spare time? Have you got any hobbies?
I do. I’m part of a performing arts group, they keep me sane and it’s a hobby entirely different to sitting at a screen, we meet up twice a week and it’s great to see them all and do something that couldn’t be further removed from design.
How do you take your coffee?
Now, skinny with 1 sweetener. I thought I was intolerant to it up until this year, I guess technically I am but, I love coffee too much.
Please tell us what are your influences. Where do you get inspired from?
A walk in the park, a colour scheme in real life, anything that isn’t on a screen inspires me. I love looking at Pinterest for inspiration, especially old adverts from the 1940′s and 50′s.
What is your biggest challenge/achievement?
Growing and establishing my business from age 19. Itʼs only now, looking at other 19 year olds, do I realise how young I was to be delving into the business world and living without a lot of money. Nothing ever phased me though, as you do when you are young, you feel like you can take on the world and no one can stop you doing what you want to do. Iʼm glad I was able to do this so early on as when you get older and you have the pressure of mortgages, bills and such like, itʼs not so easy to throw caution to the wind in the same way.
What have you done to differentiate yourself from other designers? How do you stand out?
I have never positioned myself to stand out from the crowd, I’ve always been very vocal about my experiences in the web industry and I stand out because I am female in a very male dominated job. In some ways, this has worked to my advantage while in others, it’s worked against me and been quite unpleasant. However, you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth sometimes.
Do you have any formal design training, or are you mostly self-taught?
I did Fine Art at school, pencils, paper, watercolours etc. the school didn’t have any facilities to do graphic design on a computer though, and I was almost discouraged for wanting to pursue this medium, so I did it in my own time and learnt how to manipulate imagery on the computer that I had designed at school on pencil and paper. This might be why I still have to start all of my projects on paper and then move to the Mac.
What was your first job?
I was an actress for a Theatre in Education company, we were employed to go round to schools and teach sex education and drug education to secondary schools, as well as teaching primary school children about bullying, it was a pretty rewarding job. I then went onto “Casting” in an agency where we put people forward for films and television roles, because it was commission based, I found myself earning more money from updating their website than doing the casting itself, and quit to form “You Know Who”.
The workplace is important for designers, how does yours look? how much time do you spend there?
My workplace is a room in my house, it’s very cosy and spacious and points towards the sea. It’s right at the back of our house, so far enough away from any main living areas that I don’t feel like I’m floating from bedroom to office every morning.
Can you describe your typical ‘start to finish’ work-flow when working on a project?
There is no typical workflow for me, but really, it all starts with a lot of communication, understanding the design brief entirely and vetting the content for the website or the app are the most important part of what I do, before I even start sketching or moving into design in Photoshop.
What made you choose graphic design as a professional career.
I was always very arty at school, and from a very young age, going into something design orientated always seemed to be in the stars for me, I think I just never knew all the possibilities of how design could be applied to different careers. After self-teaching myself web design, the graphic design element of this seemed to fit perfectly.
What do you prefer, freelance work or full time employment?
Freelance, I don’t think I could be employed by someone else very easily, I like my freedom and also having my dog at home with me all the time is such a blessing.
What does your typical day look like?
I’m such a creature of habit, every morning when I wake up I grab my iPhone and check Twitter, Facebook and email, I then have a shower and I’m at my desk for 8.30am with a bowl of ‘Special K’ in hand reading through any interesting RSS feeds about the iPhone or iPad. I start work at 9am and this is generally all the admin tasks that I don’t want to eat into my design time later in the day. I always try to stop work at 5pm but sometimes the day will take twists and turns you didn’t expect and so I might end up not doing any work during the “normal working hours” and instead make it up in the evening. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles when you work for yourself.
If you were to picture yourself in a career outside of the design world, what would it be?
I think I would have gone into acting, I got very close in around 2001 to becoming part of a mainstream TV series in the UK but got pipped to the post by another girl. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have it any other way, acting is a very up and down industry and I’d rather be a part of a (for the most part) loving community of people and be settled in my job.
Is their anything you hate working on?
Web Forms. Whenever I see a web form in a project a little part of me inside cries.
Do you ever meet face-to-face with clients?
Rarely to be honest, I’m lucky that 99% of my clients are forward thinking enough to understand the best designer for their project might not live within a 5 mile radius of their home, and so search the internet and are not concerned about working with people overseas. The majority of my client meetings are held via Skype, which proves just as successful as face to face meetings.
Any client horror stories?
Lots, probably too many to mention actually. That’s the trouble with starting a business so young, I had to make a lot of mistakes a long the way, sometimes I kick myself that I still make those same mistakes. The biggest thing I have learnt is, stick to your routine. By that I mean, if you take 50% payment upfront for all jobs, don’t suddenly stop doing this because you feel you know the client or become complacent – sometimes it’s the clients that can seem like your best friends who suddenly turn into monsters.
Is there a real community feel in your profession? Is it not at all competitive?
I haven’t really seen a nasty competitive side of the industry in 10 years, there’s plenty of other ugly sides but competitiveness doesn’t seem to be one – I’m sure it exists but amongst the people I regularly interact with, we’ll actually send leads to one another, or vet clients based on other peoples experiences with them. It can be quite funny for a client who has sent the same proposal to a few of us, to realise we talk and share information freely. The whole industry is very honest as a whole though. The community feel is fantastic, a friend of mine contacted me this week and asked if she could come and work from my office for 2 days as she was in town. Technically she’s a direct competitor but it didn’t even cross my mind, everyone is very respectful of one another and their successes but also help and lend a listening ear with failures.
Where’d the name “You Know Who” come from?
While I was procrastinating from revising for my GCSE’s back in 2000 I was bumbling around the internet and found a site that had “Designed by You Know Who” at the bottom of it, I was curious and clicked it. The link took me through to a very formal web agency who had a completely different name. It was obvious they had linked in this manor to play on peoples curiosity. This always stuck in my head and became the name I started up with in 2003. It’s been a great name for promotional materials and bits like that, but I can’t tell you how many problems it caused us when we used to pick up the phone in the office “Good morning, You Know Who”.
Can you share some of the struggles you faced when starting your own business back in 2003?
I was the ultimate cliché back in 2003, I was working from my Mum and Dad’s back bedroom, I had just turned 19 and I was a woman in business. Although I don’t like playing that card, all the three in the same mixing pot made it very hard to start up a credible business. I persevered though and after working my socks off and starting up on just £1000, after a few years the business had grown large enough to sustain moving into its own premises. Cashflow was always an issue back in 2003, I really was learning about all aspects of business on the fly and sometimes there would be months where I would earn about £300 – I was far too cheap but I was trying to build a client list, which I did – but looking back, a lot were definitely the wrong type of clients to be attracting.
Can you give a PoV of where your studio is?
Back in July 2011, we moved into a lovely Edwardian town house just off from the seafront here in Southend, one side overlooks a park, the other side has the sea. My office is situated at the back of the house, I specifically picked it because the house is longer than it is wide, and it gives me enough distance from the rest of the living areas, without being completely segregated. The closest landmark is Southend Pier, it’s the longest pleasure pier in the world, standing at 1.3 miles long.
How did you start out as a freelancer?
At the time of starting my business back in 2003, it was pre-Twitter & pre-Facebook – it was a much less social place back then, and I think building up clients was a harder feat due to that. I had just come out of an acting job, but had always been doing web stuff on the side so it was a natural progression to go full-time and start my own business. I had no “industry” friends, I wouldn’t have even known the first place to start, I was a timid 19 year old girl in business, learnt everything on the fly, grew up fast and persevered with something I knew I would love. I built up contacts and clients from advertising on eBay (of all places) in the business section, designing logos and small websites for new clients. With hind sight, they were probably the worst type of clients to be attracting, they were fixated on price, as you would have a price war with other people doing the same thing on ebay, bartering was an everyday occurrence and generally you did an awful lot, for not a lot. It taught me valuable business lessons though, and from there, I started to slowly build up a reputation, because I could fill my portfolio with real projects, and gradually increase my rates and attract a different type of client. One of them grew with me, and is still my client today.
Is a freelancer’s life for everyone? Why do you work well as a freelancer?
It’s definitely not for everyone. Being a freelancer means being able to work well on your own, in a variety of situations, just being good at your job is not going to make you a successful freelancer. If you struggle with getting up in the morning to work, or any kind of self-motivation, it’s not impossible, but it’s going to be a much steeper learning curve than for someone who it comes naturally to. Recently I’ve been training up a junior, and trying to explain to him about our industry has been quite hard. On the surface we are a very social industry, friendly and seemingly laid back, especially when you add conferences into the mix, but I had to try and explain that when we’re working, we work very hard and without anyone motivating us to do so. The biggest mistake you can make is thinking that just because you’re in a home office in a small part of England, that what you are doing isn’t significant to the wider industry. It’s also the best thing about what we do, geography doesn’t matter, skills, communication and passion are what set you apart.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never struggled with motivation in relation to freelancing. I’ve always understood that it’s only to my own detriment if I don’t get up and work hard. The most common question I get asked is “do I work in my pyjamas” and I can honestly say, in nearly 10 years of freelancing, I can probably count on one hand the amount of times I have, and even then, it’s been because I’m ill, and it’s better than discounting the whole day. The only thing I do struggle with is work/life balance – especially when I don’t have plans for the evening, I’ll sometimes stretch out a task from 9am to 9pm just because I can, I often need to remind myself that working from home is a huge privilege denied to many, and give myself a bit of a wake-up call that way instead.
Can you give me a proportionate breakdown of the type of projects you do?
I’m pretty much split 50/50 with web projects, whether they be web apps or websites, and iOS design. I absolutely love both, and both bring their own unique set of challenges.
Has your location played any part in your career?
None, and I’m quite pleased with that as my location has never been a factor in winning jobs really. It was the main reason I got rid of my office, I had this lovely office in Leigh-on-Sea, but I was working remotely with clients, mainly in the US – it made no sense, especially financially, to keep the office going when it was only me there, so I moved back into a home office, and have gone from strength to strength ever since.
What exactly does user interface design mean and what does it cover?
I class user interface design as the design of visual, interactive and communicative elements with an overall bias on the intended goal or action of that website or app. Many people think UI design just means making something look pretty, which it very much isn’t – it’s having a much deeper understanding of how something will be used and wanting to make it a more pleasurable experience for the user.
How and why did you get into iPhone UI design?
A client of mine took a chance on me, after I completed his website UI – it was a bit of a natural progression but a steep learning curve.
So how exactly did you get into web design?
My Mums best friends, sisters brother (that’ll take you a while!) was over from Australia and already owned a successful web design studio out there. He stayed with us for about a week when he was over and I was fascinated by how a site was put together, he pretty much taught me everything I knew, aside from what I had already picked up from hacking around with Geocities as a kid.
For a starting out iPhone UI Designer, what would you consider to be the greatest piece of information to give to others?
It’s not all about making a pretty picture. Forget bevels, highlights and gradients, it’s all about a usable interface – you have to think beyond making something look nice and actually get into some mathematics and work out hit sizes, and areas that need to be clear to avoid mis-taps.
How much time do you dedicate to learning design every day?
Not enough. If I see a great blog post, then I’ll take time to read through it, but I tend to stack lots of things up to read throughout the day and rarely get time to read them all. Learning anything else, I tend to read books at the weekends and in the evenings to keep up to date.
Which do you find more challenging, UI design for iPhone, or designing for iPad?
I actually find designing for iPad more tricky, in the case of an app. It’s hard to get out of the web mindset and design for an entirely new device, I still prefer designing for iPhone but immensely enjoyed designing the “Stocks” app for iPad.
I cannot seem to find your FOWD slides, and yes I have googled for them. Where might one find them?
They are only available to those who attended FOWD I’m afraid, in which case, a link would have been sent after the conference, containing the video and the slides. There are elements of my slides that I want to use for something else, and since they take me 25+ hours to put together, I’m quite precious about where they get distributed.
Apart from designing at “youknowwho”, you also give web design conferences, tell us more about this?
Yes, I speak at various conferences, mainly in the US and the UK. I love the conferences, it gives me a chance to see another part of the world and meet up with people I wouldn’t otherwise get to socialise with, as well as teaching a little bit of what I’ve learnt recently along the way.
Are you naturally good at public speaking or was this something you had to learn to do well?
I guess coming from an acting background, it was a natural progression for me. I still get nervous and anxious as it’s completely different to learning lines and becoming a character. It’s just me and there’s no mask to hide behind.
You seem to be really busy speaking at conferences… what kind of topics do you cover?
I seem to either cover designing for iOS or a particular favourite of mine which is looking into the psychology used to design websites, where people play on the use of dark patterns (UI designed specifically not in the users best interest). The conferences play an important part of my work life, it gives me an opportunity to meet a variety of other people I wouldn’t otherwise meet, and gives me a chance to share whatever I’ve learnt with a wider audience. It’s also a chance to travel. If someone had said to me that my job would allow me to see places all over the world, I would never have believed them. Travel and seeing friends every few months or so for quality time, rather than the odd tweet, are worth their weight in gold to me. Speakers often joke that Twitter has made the world such a small place, we could be dropped anywhere in the world and not be too far from some friendly followers or friends – what other industry can say the same?
What is the best tool on the internet for iPhone App design, usability and standards, and why?
The Human Interface Guidelines by Apple, they are stacked full of important information and are often overlooked by newbies. It takes a good couple of hours to read through in its entirety, which is probably why many don’t bother.
What programs do you use most?
I use Photoshop, Sparrow and Espresso the most on my Mac.
What software / equipment do you use to create your user interface design?
Pen, paper, Photoshop and then possibly a hybrid of HTML/CSS3 depending on the project. By the end of the day my notepads end up a jumbled concoction of brain dumps, wireframes and design elements. My friend, Jessica Hische and I have often joked that if anything happened to us and police had to go through our notebooks, it would be the most random, intangible collection of head scratching hex codes, shopping lists and sketches.
What kind of tools do you use to run your business? Do you wireframe on paper?
I always have a pad and paper infront of me everyday. I write little things down, by the end of the day, to anyone else, it’s an incomprehensible list. Looking at yesterdays page of my book, I’ve got some to-do’s, the name and number of a mortgage adviser and who I’ve yet to send Christmas cards out to. I feel more organised if I write stuff down.
As far as wireframing, I always start on paper, as with everything, and generally go into Keynote or Fireworks for the digital portion.
How many Apps do you have in the iStore, which is your favourite and why?
I’ve actually lost count, mainly because there are a lot that I’ve been involved in but can’t talk about due to NDA’s, however, I was involved in designing a donor card for the iPhone, which was released for free to try and increase awareness of the importance of becoming an organ donor. I’m also proud of my involvement with “Beyond the Shock” by the National Breast Cancer Foundation of America. I like being involved in anything that can directly help change a life.
Which apps are the best for design: Productivity, Games, Social Networking, Travel, Utilities?
I never put games in the same category in any of my work. They are significantly more work than designing any other type of app. They can have so many components that can keep you busy for days that the cost of designing a game can be up to 5x as much as a normal app. To answer the question though, Games are always top of the design leader board because they have to be in order to succeed, personally, I enjoy designing utility apps the most.
Who are the top 2-3 designers that you respect and why?
I don’t respect certain people more than another as I think we are all pushing the web industry in the right direction bit by bit, we all contribute, help and guide.
What other designers do you have contact with on a regular basis?
Elliot Jay Stocks,
to name a few – they’re all super nice people and all really interesting even if you take the common interest of the web away. I’ve never met a more friendly community than the web community, it is also a great asset to all of us.
What advice would you give to the newbie designers?
I’m teaching a newbie web designer at the moment, I think the best advice is, take baby steps, and never stop learning. If you learn a little bit each day, you’ll build up to enough knowledge to start doing something great with it.
What is the most important thing you have learned by starting your own studio?
To take the rough with the smooth. Some days you have to wear many different hats, you have to be a designer, an accountant and a mediator all in one. Not every day is smooth but to not let one day, eat up too much of the next. Move on.
Anything to say to other female designers?
Donʼt let being in a male dominated environment make an ounce of difference to the way you do business, itʼs never adversely affected me. As long as you keep your head down, work hard and produce good work, no one can ever accuse you of not doing your best.
Do you think female designers have advantages over their male counterparts?
Itʼs a well known fact that women like to chat, so I think the only advantage we have is that our communication may be a little bit better with clients than our male counterparts, this is purely a guess though!
Do you think there is a lack of female web designers?
No, I think there are plenty of female designers out there but probably more doing the design side rather than the coding side. I think the design element would appeal to more females, so naturally youʼd find more in this side of the industry.
Have you ever experienced any negativity or sexism being in this industry?
Negativity yes, people assuming I am where I am because of the fact Iʼm female and blonde. Iʼve worked really hard to get where I am today (I wrote a blog post about it here http://www.sazzy.co.uk/2010/02/dont- you-dare/) and I get the odd comments pop up in forums and sometimes even at conferences, either about the way I look or the fact Iʼm a minority in a heavily male dominated industry. It really doesnʼt bother me what people think anymore though, you have to have a tougher skin than that in this industry and I can cope with that as the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Ever thought of designing for Android or BlackBerry?
No, not really. It’s enough just keeping up with iOS devices without diluting my knowledge by trying to keep up with Android and Blackberry too. It might be something I look into in the future but at the moment, I’m sticking with Apple.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your career?
Getting to travel. I always wanted to travel and never dreamed this job would allow me to do that, via speaking at different web conferences. That has been the breakthrough point for me, as well as being able to call various webbies, great friends.
Do you have a favourite project that you worked on? Care to share any artwork from it?
I love anything related to designing iOS apps, funnily enough. I love the constraints and the process of designing for these.
Do you have regular clients? Who did you work for/with in 2011?
I do have regular clients who are just wonderful to work for, we have a great rapport where they pretty much leave me to get on with any job they ask me to do, I send it back to them completed and we move onto the next thing. We have quite a quick iterative process because of the amount of time we’ve worked together, I’ve managed to figure out how to perfectly blend myself into their processes and working environment so that the integration is almost seamless. I’ve been working on an iPad app for over a year, that I think is going to rock the iPad world when it’s released soon, I can’t wait to be able to finally talk about it and see it in the real world.
2011 saw the end of a big project for me which was “Beyond the Shock” for the National Breast Cancer Foundation of America – I was in charge of the overall UI design across their website, iPhone and iPad apps, it was a huge honour to be a part of something that will be directly helping women all over the world.
What are some of your favourite conference experiences (work-related or personal)?
So many funny things seem to happen at conferences, they always have a great buzz about them, I’m particularly fond of Brooklyn Beta – which happened in October last year. It was surreal to see so many web folk, in a tiny part of Brooklyn, all inspiring one another with news of what they’ve been working on, successes and failures. Something that really tickled me happened after ‘An Event Apart, Atlanta’ last year, all the speakers had headed off to a baseball game after the show, unbeknown to us it was being televised, suddenly tweets started coming in that some of our followers on Twitter had spotted us as a large group, paused the TV, took a snapshot and sent it to us, I think in particular it was Eric Meyer and Aarron Walters (Mailchimp) – the photos from that night are pretty funny.
Aside from funny anecdotes you come back with, I love the anonymity we all have when webbies are out in a big group – I’ve seen a businessman look down his nose at the way we were all dressed and our general demeanour and laughed to myself, betting that he uses at least one piece of software/web app that someone in the group has been involved in, or launched themselves.