May 27 2013

Learning by Pulling Apart: An Interview with UI/UX Designer Matt Dempsey

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Every once in awhile, we come across an amazing story of someone in the design world who seems somewhat hidden or insignificant. Matt Dempsey is such a someone. His career as a web and graphic designer begins at the very young age of 13 and includes such inspirational highlights as hiring a developer to build an app that was acquired by SitePoint when Matt was only 15 years old!

You can tell he knows what he’s doing, no doubt about it. Just take a look at his website and portfolio. However, a search for “matt dempsey” on Google search brings up his website, linkedin profile, and twitter profile as the first 3 results. But after these, there is no more coverage to be seen. The MMA fighter of the same name and other various semi-famous namesakes of the UI/UX designer fill the next several pages.

Matt’s website and portfolio.

So, Matt seems to be a hidden gem in the web community. Someone that hasn’t yet touted his own horn much, but he is still in design school and also working for Camayak.com as well as taking small consulting and other web design jobs in on the side. Whew! That seems like too much ambition for a 20-something-year-old.

I stumbled across Matt in my own research in the field on an article I was writing at the time and asked him for an interview. He kindly acquiesced, but I never expected this interesting of a story from this freelance UI/UX designer from London:

Matt Dempsey: Learning by Pulling Apart…

Noupe: How did you get started in your career as a Web UI/UX and graphic designer?

Matt: I guess I started by pulling apart websites like Hotmail when I was about 13, to see how they worked. Back then everyone used tables for everything and Microsoft FrontPage was awesome. I learned the very basics of HTML and began making small websites about random little things like The Simpsons.

One of Matt’s personal projects.

From there I got excited by the possibilities of Flash and taught myself how that worked. I started offering to do free simple flash sites for small businesses on online forums and helped people out here and there. I learned the basics of Photoshop to get some better graphics for the flash sites I was making and became obsessed with it, quite accidentally. I followed a thousand tutorials to create some dreadful graphics but quickly enough knew Photoshop inside out. I took Graphic Design as a subject at school from the age of 14 and decided I wanted to be a Graphic Designer. Advertising was going to be my thing. I always wanted to be working on new stuff and the school work wasn’t challenging enough, but finding work as a 14 year old Graphic Designer was hard. Finding web design work however was pretty easy.

Matt designed the externally facing promo site as well as the internal content creator tool.

I teamed up with young developers I met on forums and started designing web templates in Photoshop which I sold predominantly to web hosts. At the time, reseller hosting packages were becoming popular and creating your own mini hosting company was the new thing, so there was no shortage of demand. I posted on up to 10 forums about each template I was selling and had to update every post when there was a new bid. I got tired of that, and hired a developer to build an app to help sell these templates and automatically update every forum post through an embedded image. That’s a story for another day, but it was acquired by SitePoint when I was 15 and morphed into the marketplace they still use today, pretty exciting for a teenager!

Matt worked on a social network for guitar lovers.

I started to get my own clients here and there and kept learning and improving. It was a fairly slow process. I was still doing web design to make some easy money with the intention of being a Graphic Designer later on, and it was only a few years ago at 19 when I stopped and realised that my real passion was actually in the web after all and that there’s so much more opportunity there. The demand for print Graphic Designers will always be decreasing but the demand for Web Designers is increasing rapidly and there’s so much potential for innovation and new exciting things.

So, I focused on that, realised that my hatred for things that don’t work well and my constant moaning about people and companies treating each other badly are good qualities for UX designers. I kind of accidentally ended up doing ‘UX’ work, I never trained for it and am probably not qualified. I don’t do information architecture or tons of user testing, I’d say I’m probably half way between a UX and UI designer.

Matt designed the same-page help interface and all the email templates, along with numerous other internal tools and group projects.

In the past couple of years I’ve been lucky enough to work with some big clients, including an incredible 3 month internship at Facebook in Silicon Valley a couple years ago. I’m finishing my Graphic Design degree next year so I can get a visa and hopefully work out in the US some day soon, I loved it out there.

Noupe: How did you develop your current workflow? What kinds of trials and errors did you go through before finding a process that works for you?

Matt: I think I’m still learning, and that I adapt the rules for each client. I like to talk to my clients a lot and get a real understanding of their company and their goals – not their goals for their website/app, but their business goals. The more you know about a company, the more easily you can make an informed decision about what they actually need. (Hint – what they actually need is not always what they’re asking for.)

Matt worked on the National Health Service (now HowAreYou.com) funded social network for patients and doctors.

Everyone has client issues when they start out and I think that’s actually important. You’ll learn more from those experiences about yourself and how to deal with clients than you will from countless articles offering advice on the issue. It’ll suck at the time, but bad clients will teach you how to avoid bad clients in the future and those experiences will improve the way you treat good clients too.

Noupe: What is your favorite aspect of having a design career?

Matt: Well to start with, that I’m doing what I love. I enjoy simplifying things, making things easy to use and trying to make them beautiful, and I’m lucky enough to do that every day. I can’t imagine waking up and completely dreading ‘going to work’. If you feel that way you’re doing something wrong. The flexibility is great too. I work part time with an awesome startup called Camayak.com and freelance on my own, and I love the fact that I can get up at midday and work until midnight if I like, or take a day off if I’m not feeling inspired or have another commitment and make up the time later. That’s not necessarily a healthy habit to be in throughout your entire career, but whilst I’m young I love that flexibility.

Noupe: How do you deal with providing quality design and clients who have their own idea of quality (i.e. their preferences do not match up with yours)?

Matt: There’s a lot to this, and almost everything I know on the subject I learned from Paul Boag’s talk at FOWD 2009, which is transcribed here: http://thinkvitamin.com/asides/get-clients-to-say-yes. It is absolutely worth your time reading the whole thing. It will likely change the way you approach your clients, improve your client relationships and thus ultimately increase recurring work and word of mouth referrals. You could probably say that article will make you more money as a designer.

Another impressive project of Matt’s: one of the leading web hosts in the UK.

Noupe: Do you have any advice for those new to the field of UI and UX?

Matt: I’m a big believer in learning through doing. If you’re inexperienced, make time for personal projects and for working with small businesses for small money. It’s all about experience. Never stop learning.

To see more of Matt’s work, visit his website http://www.mattdempsey.com, or check him out on Dribble as mattdempseycom.

(dpe)

About the Author

Tara Hornor loves writing about marketing, advertising, branding, web and graphic design, and photography. She is a Senior Editor for Creative Content Experts, a copywriting company that she owns with her husband. Connect with @TaraHornor for more design inspiration and marketing help.

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