The Passionate Sabrina Dent

Sabrina Dent is a strong-willed, no-nonsense pixel pusher based in Ireland. Reading through her awesome blog will easily tell you that. She’s one of the very few web designers who aren’t in it for the money – if you ask her, she would rather work on low-budget start-ups than well-paying, “safe ones”. Truly, she’s one of the most fiercely passionate designers I’ve ever come across.

Sabrina talks about design, the industry’s state in Ireland, being invited to to present in TechCrunch 50, giving a talk in last May’s Future of Web Design conference, and being mildly dyslexic.


It would be really cool if you can introduce yourself to our readers – what you do, what you specialize in, and your hobbies.

I’m a web designer and web developer living in Ireland. Because I work primarily with very small, very broke start-ups, I also do a lot of web marketing and product strategy for my clients. Essentially, I specialise in dragging you through launch and getting you through your first year – I normally expect my clients to outgrow the depth of service I can deliver in 18 – 24 months. At that point, your business should be bankrupt, profitable or funded and I’ll refer you todedicated specialists from SEO to marketing in order to help you move forward.

When I’m not working, which is almost never, I do love to read. I worked in a hospital when I was younger and I guess I became addicted to blood, guts, panic and drama. I like forensics, police procedurals, and true crime. And I love to travel. I work a lot with Katherine Nolan and once a year, we leave our kids, dogs, partners and clients behind and go re-charge somewhere in Europe for a week. Surprisingly, whilst away, we do not discuss CSS layers, font stacks or databases.

What’s your design philosophy?

I subscribe to the KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple, Stupid) although this is more politely described as “form follows function.” Believe me, I like to turn out good looking sites as much as the next dedicated designer, but if you design the most beautiful site in the world and nobody who turns up can figure out what you do, what you sell, or what you are asking them to do, the site fails. So most of my designs are hung off of very simple key messaging. I generally come up with and grid out the key text first and build the site around that.

What/who are your design inspirations?

It sounds hokey but normally I get inspired talking to the client about their project. People in start-up mode are mad-keen about what they’re doing and very enthusiastic when it comes to telling you all about it. Quite often as the client and I talk back and forth, an actual image of what the site should look like develops in my head, and I tell them to stop talking so I can go comp it out.

I’m not a big browser of CSS galleries or other people’s portfolios, but I like to browse fonts. The only newsletter I’m subscribed to that I didn’t actually design myself for a client is MyFonts.com’s monthly typography interview, and I open it and drool. I’m sort of a font junkie, and my plan for retirement is to amuse myself in old age by learning to craft fine fonts for my own enjoyment. My husband is also a fontaholic, and our coffee table is a shrine to classic typography books. It also has the remote control for our TiVo, and I think about that remote control a lot. It was universally hailed as the best designed remote control in the history of the universe when it came out, and it’s an object that still delivers an excellent, intuitive, perfectly placed user experience every time.

Can you tell us something about the design scene in Ireland? Would you say that it’s booming? What’s different about the design industry there compared to the rest of the world?

Well, it’s smaller than the US or the UK, for a start. Everybody is connected to everybody; we have a very active Barcamp and Open Coffee scene here, and a fair amount of incubators. After living here for only four years, it would be unusual for me to be more than one or two degrees of separation from anyone I really needed to put a client in touch with, so that’s a wonderful aspect of the Irish internet. There is also an emphasis on “buying Irish” and more clients here actively prefer to work with Irish designers, developers and hosting providers than I saw in the UK or the US. (Apparently, I count as Irish, which is nice.)

In general, Ireland is still immature in many respects. The guy who does my financial planning, for example, only got a web site last month and my head almost imploded when he told me that – he’s been in business for years. A lot of companies are still evolving from cataloguing online to selling online, and that process is slow. In a way, it’s a positive for the clients who take the plunge – it’s still possible to really stand out here in a way that helps online businesses thrive. We are not yet at the stage where there are an overwhelming number of choices when you want to buy a consumer good online in Ireland, and sometimes you still can’t buy a particular thing and end up purchasing from another country.

But having said that, we have a lot of seriously heavy-hitting, forward thinking developers here who are turning out world-class web apps – Decisions for Heroes, TeamWork ProjectManager, and LouderVoice’s Android apps come to mind. I see a big future for Ireland there.

You were invited to be one of the “elite” 100 exhibitors in the Demo Pit of the TechCrunch 50 event. Why did you finally decide not to go?

I put in the application at the last minute on the very last day, and in retrospect, it was premature. Going to TC50 would have required a financial leap we were not able to make on short notice. Katherine and I would have had to put in a six week, full-time, un-funded development push to be ready for launch, and come up with the cash to take both of us to California for a week and pay for all that stuff you need when you want to maximise an opportunity like that – you only get to launch once.

The cost/benefit analysis wasn’t really in favour of going, either, since we were not truly investor ready. We did listen to everything the internet and loads of people privately had to say – the phone rang for days – and we’ve put cashflow in place, cleared the decks for full time development starting in February, and we’re going to try again next year when the product and our plan for financing is more mature. I have no idea if they’d invite us back again, but if they do, we’ll be there.

You presented a very interesting topic during last May’s Future of Web Design conference called “Throwing Client Collaboration Out the Window: The Stalinist Web Design Model”. Can you expound a bit about this for Devlounge readers? How was the experience?

The Stalinist Web Design Model is a term I came up with to describe the way I work, which is all about *not* giving the client choices and *not* being afraid to say No. It’s a working style for rapid development, lower-budget projects. I do not follow the standard agency model of giving my clients three homepage designs to choose between; I give them my best homepage design and 95% of the time, we get on with it, no revisions. And when a client asks “can you add this, or could we have that, or can you move the Foo?” I quite often just say No – either because the request isn’t going to buy you enough bang for your development buck, or because there’s a very good and well-supported reason Foo is where it is, or because it’s just a terrible idea.

A lot of this is about being aware that there is nobody else in this process to advocate for the end user and their experience. So while the client may want to capture 97 kinds of data about the people who register, you and I both know that the people registering want to give you as little data as humanly possible, and that if you ask for more than that, your registration rates look like the EKG of a dead person. There are better ways, and better points in the process, to ask people to part with more data – something like LinkedIn, for example, shows you the percentage of your profile you’ve completed.

On the flip side, quite often a client will get things they never thought of asking for – if something like Wishlists will bring a lot to the user experience or really drive up retention, then you’re getting wishlists even if you’ve never heard of a wishlist before in your life. That’s the sort of thing you can add that comes from advocating for a good user experience but also brings a lot of unexpected value to the client with little dev overhead.

While I was very excited about presenting this topic, I have to say it wasn’t the highlight of my conference career. There was a technical failure, I couldn’t see the info on what was being projected behind me, and I ended up reading off my notes after 4 and half excruciating minutes of frozen Power Point presentation. And I’m the first to say I am not an experienced enough presenter to not be rattled by that. It probably would have been a different story at a Barcamp seminar with 40 people, but in an auditorium with hundreds and hundreds of people, it’s a big deal.

But you know, it’s good to fall on your ass sometimes. It keeps you humble. I keep my FOWD pass next to my awards to balance them out.
Does being mildly dyslexic affect your work in any way?

I always go to great pains to point out that my dyslexia is really very mild; I’m not a great case study in UI for people with dyslexia since a lot of people struggle much more than I do. The dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers and orientation) is actually a bigger issue for me. But I love what technology does for me; I love GPS, spell check, spreadhseets and the fact that Google search will do basic math for me. My life is a lot easier now than it was even five years ago.

Since I’ve never not had these issues, it’s hard for me to know how it’s influenced my work but I suspect it does. Again, I am all about the KISS. I would never just accept a client spec that called for three or more tiers of navigation; I would always make the client substantiate that need, see if we couldn’t move content around to do it in two, and at the very least split the tertiary navigation off from the primary nav bars. (Stacked navigation bars can be problematic when choices are not effectively differentiated from each other.) I also pay a lot of attention to the location of the search function; I can’t say I always get it right but I do spend a lot of time thinking about it. And very occasionally, like on Twitterfone, I make a concious decision to leave search out altogether when the only thing it will accomplish is to complicate a very simple UI.

Out of necessity, I do design forms I myself could fill out; you wouldn’t assume that was a particularly unusual hurdle for a UI designer to be able cross, but I literally cannot log into my own bank and it makes me insane.

What were the hardest lessons you ever had to learn in your career?

I actually wrote a blog entry on this one day when I was wrapping up a project that had gone to hell in a handbasket. I still believe everything I wrote there, and if anything I’ve become an even bigger fan of trusting my instincts. Every time the voice in my had has said RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY! about a perfectly nice sounding project with perfectly nice sounding people, the project has turned out to be a complete cluster frack.

The flip side of that as a freelancer, of course, is the money. My rates are low for my area because I genuinely prefer start-ups and funds for my guys are usually tight. This puts a lot of strain on cashflow, but every time I’ve taken a “run away!” job to fill the gap in my bank balance, I’ve regretted it. Most people work to live, but my husband is a freelancer also and our solution has been to change our life to suit the way we work. Leaving London was a big part of that, and I have no regrets – I love the start-up culture here, the inter-connectedness of the community, and virtually all of the clients I’ve been lucky enough to have are genuinely lovely people I believe in and enjoy working with.

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