Paul McAleer

We've all got to start somewhere

Paul McAleer

Even before I left college, I was hungry for a job. I graduated in 2000, just a short time after the entire dotcom thing happened. I watched on the sidelines as company after company was founded, hired feverishly, made a ton of cash, and then vanished like a distant memory.

By the time I entered the workforce 12 years ago one could argue that I already had 18 years of computing experience. But very little of that was professional, so my ability to talk about Loadstar or shareware was curtailed and irrelevant. I ended up in a good job at a credit union - definitely not a long-term gig but a solid start.

When I was interviewing I found one company that was interesting. They were in a specialized field and the job listing was for a Web Designer, which was mostly what I did back then. They gave me a homework assignment before my interview: “Look at our current homepage. Come to us with 10 improvements and be prepared to talk about them.”

This felt easy to me. I looked at the site and pored over the details. The type was incredibly tiny. The page was a sea of links. There was very little hierarchy nor structure. It felt like a link dump, a spam site, something “undesigned”. I figured this was a shoo-in. I was 22; everything felt like a shoo-in.

In the interview, I had my list and I spoke with my interviewee about it. After I got through my points (“Change the font size to 12 pixels, or 1.whatever ems, because browsers need that to scale properly”), the interviewee stopped me.

My memory of what he said was this. “This is all good, but those are design fixes. We don’t want you to redesign this page. That’s not what we want. People who use this site, and this page, come here for a very specific reason: they know exactly what they want. They might have our print catalog. But they are looking for a visual or textual clue, and we want it on the front page.

“So fonts and text sizes and making things bigger really won’t work here. Did you think about that?”

At the time, I hadn’t. I knew that these were real problems but I didn’t know how to articulate why my fixes could help.

In the end, unsurprisingly, I didn’t get the job. But understanding the why and the how behind design decisions became increasingly important to me and is now a cornerstone of what I do.