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Reagan Ray is the lead designer and resident illustrator for Paravel.

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Interview

Andy McMillan

January 15, 2012

Let’s start off getting to know you. Who are you, where are you from, and how did you get your start in design?

Well, I'm Andy. I'm from Belfast in Northern Ireland, where I run a bunch of different projects, under the name Fiction. Right now, it's responsible for Build, a week-long festival, and The Manual, a tri-annual journal, both of which have a focus around designing for the web and who we are as designers.

After high school, I began studying Music Technology at university. Feeling somewhat underwhelmed with the course, but welcoming the time it afforded me, I spent my evenings building websites and learning HTML & CSS, and after two years, left the course and began freelancing as a front-end designer / developer full-time.

After a few years of the standard freelance life — work, conference, repeat — I decided to start my own event. After the first year, planning and organising Build became my full-time gig, and just before the second event, I began work, along with Carolyn Wood and Jez Burrows on The Manual. We announced the first issue at the end of last year's conference, which went on to be successfully funded through Kickstarter, and the rest, as they say, is history.

When did your interest in web design begin?

I guess it goes all the way back to when I a kid, spitting out fan sites for video games from Microsoft Creative Writer 2 and throwing them up on Angelfire. (Fun fact: my first website was called "Dr. Doaks’ Guide to Goldeneye," bonus points if you get the reference). As the years progressed and I grew more and more frustrated with things breaking in various WYSIWYG editors, I taught myself to write HTML and CSS by hand and continued to gain a better understanding of web standards and best practice through books, articles and tutorials in my spare time. Practically speaking, that's how I got my shit together.

When I went to university, I chose to study Music Technology because I wanted to produce radio documentaries for the BBC. While I eventually grew frustrated with the course, university and pursuing a career in radio as a medium, I don't think my underlying interest in telling stories ever changed. I’m happy that I found a way to scratch that itch with my work on the web and eventually through Build and The Manual, which are both very much focused around sharing ideas, experiences, lessons, and telling stories.

Has the web as a medium satisfied your desire to tell stories and if so, how?

The web has always been about telling stories. I was only able to successfully teach myself HTML and CSS because of the vast amount of resources shared freely online. Web design is a fast-moving and complex beast, and the reason we've all been able to keep up is because we create, collaborate, and share unlike any other design discipline. As humans, we're hardwired to best share information through storytelling, and we've effectively evolved an entire industry out of telling stories. Personally, I find that utterly fascinating.

Right now, I'm sharing stories through spoken word at Build and through printed word with The Manual. As someone who designed for the web for many years, I'm enjoying the more tangible nature of more traditional storytelling. Experiencing a conversation or reading a book is completely different from communicating on the web, and right now they're the right medium for both projects. I'm excited about what's happening with publishing and digital books though; it's certainly something I'd like to experiment with more in the future.

The Manual has had a fantastic start and the physical product is beautiful. Clearly you are just as passionate about the storytelling part as you are the item itself. Tell us a little about the process involved with creating each edition.

I know anytime I've talked about this before, it often surprises people just how much is going on behind the scenes at any one time. For example, right now Issue #2 has just gone on sale, the first draft articles and lessons for Issue #3 have just arrived, and we're beginning to brief our authors for Issue #4 (I'm pretty sure Carolyn Wood, the editor of The Manual, is powered by some kind of Iron Man-style fusion reactor).

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Some of the process of how an issue comes together has a clear formula, but a good deal, like choosing our authors, is more organic. Carolyn and I are constantly discussing people we'd like to have involved, so we're usually a few issues ahead of ourselves with ideas for authors. Once we've invited everyone and sent out a schedule, Carolyn will work with each contributor over a number of weeks to get them to a solid first draft.

While we're editing, copy-editing and proofing, Jez will begin pairing each article with the right illustrator and getting them involved in the process of producing a companion illustration. Once everything has come together, Jez will design and typeset the issue, then we'll collectively proof it before it goes to the printer, then to our distribution centre, then to your door.

It's easy enough to summarize this process in a couple paragraphs, but it can't be emphasized enough just how much time, care and attention both Carolyn and Jez put into getting every element of the editorial and illustrations right. I'm extremely lucky to work with two such talented, hard-working and committed people.

Since everyone involved works remotely, how do you go about managing each piece of this process to ensure communication and production are flowing? Do you use a mixture of tools to help you all stay in sync and on track?

Oh, absolutely. Between authors and illustrators around the globe, Carolyn in Portland, Jez in San Francisco, myself in Belfast, our printer in Reykjavík, and our distribution centre in Northampton, we're not only managing a number of different people doing a number of different things, but also a number of different time-zones to boot.

Fortunately, we have email and Skype to keep in touch with one another, our Basecamp account to manage incoming editorial and illustrations, and Google Docs for any real-time collaborative editing, copywriting and proofing. Carolyn will write up a calendar well in advance of each issue, so we individually understand everything we need to do to collectively stay on schedule.

With so many elements involved, it sounds like a potential recipe for disaster. Fortunately, now that we're two issues deep and well into working on the third, we pretty much know what works best for everyone involved, and we’re sure to build contingencies and flexibility into the process when we need to.

In addition to The Manual you have Build, which you founded and run. Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for starting that, how you manage it, and how you want to grow it.

Smash cut to 2008, and I was in London with some friends for a web design conference. After the day’s events, a group of us gathered for dinner, and began discussing the day’s events. It was a familiar conversation by this stage — we’d all felt the same for some time — our favorite events had been getting larger, more commercialized, and, we felt, were losing their focus. We spoke of a desire for something more reflective of the community, and over the course of that evening, fueled by burgers and beer, we spoke of what such an event would look like.

I left London the next day with the basic structure of Build in my head: it would be small, focused, honest, and with an emphasis on bringing people together, putting a drink in their hand, and restoring that sense of community. A few weeks later, I found myself the owner of a new domain name, with a list of prospective speakers, and a deposit paid on a small venue in Belfast. And so, Build was born.

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This year was the third Build, now made up of a full week-long schedule of events — not just the conference, but a full workshop programme, a practical day, an evening of film, a beer festival, a pub quiz, meetups, parties and more. Although new events and ideas have effected and evolved Build over the last few years, those basic principles remain: keep it small, keep it focused, and keep the emphasis on community.

It seems like you spend the majority of your time these days directing designers rather than designing yourself. How has that experience been for you, especially when the projects are so personal?

Sharing something personal and letting someone else make their mark on something you care about can be pretty terrifying. But that trust ultimately begets great work.

I've been very lucky in the past few years with the other designers I've had the pleasure to work with. Individuals who I may have approached out of respect or admiration for their ability have gone on to become more than contractors. They've become collaborators, co-conspirators, and good friends.

Jez took the message of Build, the idea of what it was and what I wanted it to become, and made it into something visual. He took the ethos and motivation behind The Manual, and made it tangible. Kyle Meyer pieced together the website for Build, and again more recently as we work on The Manual, with a level of care and attention to detail I've rarely seen in another designer.

I’m not just crossing my fingers and hoping for the best after briefing them and producing a spec. They're involved because they’re just as interested in making it a success as I am. They put so much of themselves into what they produce, and they take pride in doing it right. I don't feel like I'm directing other designers when I work with these guys. We're designing together. They augment my ability, and in that, we produce great work.

Tell us about your work day. What are the hours & rituals you keep? What does your work environment look like? What kind of music do you listen to while working?

I see this question come up often in interviews, and the answers are almost always written through rose-tinted glasses. We all want to paint this ideal picture of being effective and disciplined, when a lot of the time, we're maybe not.

Every day for me is different. Some days I'll start at 5am, some I'll start at midday. Some I'll wrap up by 6pm, some I'll work on ‘til 3am. Working across so many time-zones, on so many different things, and additional wrestling with a body clock that's out to destroy me means that I usually don't keep regular hours. Over any given day I might be working from home, at a friend’s office, a coffee shop, or simply from bed; I don't really have one place I work from either.

Certainly, like most, I'm at my most productive parked in front of a sketchbook with a good cup of coffee and my headphones on. But sometimes I'll spend a whole morning answering email or taking calls, or I'll be awake at 4am at my desk eating toast and answering interview questions. I’m sure that one day soon, I'll wake up right as my alarm goes off, knock off at a not-indecent hour, learn to maintain regular sleeping patterns, keep a balanced diet and a healthy social life, but right now, my day is whatever it needs to be.

Music is a constant. I spend every waking minute listening to music. Thanks to Rdio there's never a dull moment; whether I'm knee deep in my own collection, listening to friends playlists, or hopping around profiles to find something new. Right now I'm listening to mostly chillwave, shoegaze and surf-rock, but I also go through an unashamed amount of Hall & Oates and Phil Collins. Whatever it takes to get the job done.

Show us an image of the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this week.

Honestly? It was probably this photo of my friends Tim & Gwenny's newborn daughter, Spencer.

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I couldn't be happier for them, and seeing these photos appear online also made me think. As designers, we seek most of our fulfillment through the things we make. Ultimately though, our greatest creations — what we'll really remember at the end of it all — will be what we create with others, such as friendships, relationships, families, shared lives and shared experiences. Sometimes it's easy to get tied up in the madness of it all and forget that.

(Plus I'm a total sucker for baby photos.)

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us Andy!

My absolute pleasure, thank you! Big fan of your work.

Andy McMillan's Work
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