Five Questions with Jonathan Longnecker

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Chris Coyier on (Updated on )

I met Jonathan at a conference last year. Jonathan was giving a presentation about ExpressionEngine and how good it is for designers. He gave me a good natured ribbing about my use of WordPress. Read the interview below where I ask him about that, his work, his side projects, and more.

*Chris: You’ve recently released a side project: DesignersMusic. One of the fun hooks is that you can browse music by what kind of task the designer was doing when they like to listen to that song. Have you found trends emerge between certain types of design tasks and certain types of music?

Jonathan: While some of the more generic tasks like “Designing” end up being a catch-all of sorts, the really specific tasks start to show interesting results. For instance, “Late-Night Coding” seems to be full of more ambient and electronic music while “IE6 Debugging” is definitely full of heavy metal. Can’t imagine why :) Do you think this site could work for other professions, like accounting? Haha well, probably not for accounting. I want my accountant to be completely distraction free! There are a few other industries this might work for, but you have to admit that there’s a strong bond between artists and musicians. Kindred spirits, maybe. Designers encompass a lot of industries, though. I think this site is great for all sorts of creatives. It leans towards Web and Print design right now, but we want to add to that list of jobs in the near future. Stay tuned!

*Chris: Your day job is FortySeven Media right? What’s the story there, is it just you and Nate? Do you keep a traditional office or do you guys work from home? How did it start and what kind of work do you do?

Jonathan: Yeah we’ve been full time for several years now. Nate and I are the main guys, but we do work with some others from time to time. We worked together in Nate’s home office for about a year, but then he moved a couple of hours away and we’ve been working independently ever since even though he’s moved back. We do try to get together at least once a week somewhere to hash out ideas, though.

If you want the full story, the short version is this: Nate and I met in High School. I played guitar for a long time but had gotten tired of the lessons. He was rocking Smashing Pumpkins solos on his electric and I got a little jealous. So I picked the guitar back up and we started writing. We found out we worked very well creatively together. Several years later, we were still in a band together and we needed t-shirts, posters, a website, etc… So we just started teaching ourselves design. We ended up getting graphic design degrees and doing print design for quite a few years. We mostly did print when we started 47m, actually. Somewhere along the way I started teaching myself web design and we saw the shift happening so we just jumped early. We still do some logos and the occasional print piece, but the vast majority of our work is web design and web application design.

*Chris: You might be bored of telling it but I think that’s a pretty kick ass story. It’s awesome that you guys mesh so well creatively together to the point that you’ve taken several major steps together and succeeded at each. I would argue that print design is so different from web design that even if you are a great print designer and decide to move to the web, you may not succeed. You’ll certainly have a leg up, but web designers need to do so much technical junk that it might suck the life out of a non-suspecting print designer (re: dealing with DNS, setting up databases, coding in general). Do you see it that way?

Jonathan: Haha thanks man. It is pretty crazy to go back and look at it. So first, I think that understanding the fundamentals of typography, whitespace, visual flow and the history of design are vital. If you don’t have that foundation it’s like trying to ride a bike without wheels. Technically….print definitely has it’s own huge set of issues you have to know inside and out, so as long as you were good at understanding that stuff you have a chance I think. We learned everything we know just by trial and error; doing it ourselves. I will say that what a print designer will have to do is change their thinking. Designing for the web is not only vastly different technically, but a whole different mindset. It’s an interactive medium; much more than just page turning. People have to click, tap and navigate their way through your design. I’m challenged by that everyday and I love it.

*Chris: We spoke at the same conference this past year and your presentation was about ExpressionEngine and why it’s such a great CMS for designers. I obviously feel that same way about WordPress, but part of that for me is that I believe in “instant productivity.” I already know WordPress very well, meaning that I can build out a new client site very quickly and efficiently with it. I also have a ton of sites using it, so I can switch between them with relative comfort. Do you think that factors into your feeling about ExpressionEngine? Or is EE so awesome that it transcends that and it’s worth switching to?

Jonathan: Whoo! that’s a can of worms, there :) I think it goes without saying that we’re always looking to be as productive as possible, and once you kind of “become” an EE shop like us it doesn’t make much sense to be doing a WP site one second and Joomla or Drupal site another. That being said, our decision to go with EE a couple of years ago was not without much testing, research and thought. I don’t want to repeat my whole presentation here but here are a few reasons we think EE is great:

  1. Templating is completely up to you. Chop it up however you like. I don’t think I can stress how amazing the templating system is compared to every other platform out there. You really have to try it to use it. Also, EE doesn’t screw with your HTML so you can integrate whatever javascript craziness you want and make it dynamic very easily.
  2. The syntax is wonderfully easy to understand which was a huge deal for designers like us who were already cramming our heads full of HTML and CSS
  3. The custom fields, field types and content channels make it simple to setup all sorts of sites, not just blogs. The flexibility is awesome.

I could keep going, but flexibility is really why we like it so much. And with EE 2 being build on the CodeIgniter PHP framework it’s about to get even more so. Just for the record, I feel the same way about WordPress on #1 and #2. For #3 I feel like EE probably has a bit of a leg up out of the box but I’ve gotten quite good at finding fitting solutions there when needed. Interesting, you really think the templating setup is better in WP? I think the syntax is preference. I don’t like PHP syntax so that’s why I like EE better :) But I digress!

*Chris: Let’s round this thing out by staying controversial and pick on accountants one more time. Let’s say you guys took on a new client that was a local accounting firm. You created a darn nice website for them and it helped them pick up a few more clients. But now they’ve been hearing about this “Twitter” and “Facebook”, and how it can potentially benefit businesses, everywhere they turn. They want to get on the social media bandwagon. They turn to you for advice. Do you get involved? What do you do?

Definitely! It’s our job as web designers and developers to educate clients, especially when they ask. We’re finding more and more that clients just don’t have the time to research all this stuff. We live in it everyday and have the opportunity to teach them how to use it properly. To make personal connections, provide a “face” for the company and open their reach – I think all that’s great if it’s done with decency, honesty and openness. If they were the type to buy email lists and spam people, we don’t want them jumping on the bandwagon, and we’ll tell them that. Tough love! But it’s also an opportunity to integrate those things into their site, maybe even run small promotions. If you use common sense this social stuff can work out for you. Shoot, I got invited to speak at a conference in the Netherlands through Twitter. It’s just another way to make you and your company more accessible and real if used right.