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A Dozen Questions for Mr Kember


Elliott Kember is a freelance web developer with a passion for the colour pink. New Zealand’s third most famous export, he now lives and works in Bath.

Working predominantly in Rails, he is noted for the countless web applications he has built; applications distinguished by their balance of creative thinking, design sensibilities and flawless execution.

Kember’s eye for design is equally finely honed, his fine-tuned design style more often than not resorts to an elegant blend of 32pt Georgia, sometimes in italic and printer’s primaries, often in #FF00FF.

Kember also writes about his practice at think pink, where he has written about, amongst other things, failure and his love of the App Store approval process.

We asked Mr Kember a dozen questions.

Think Pink

Where did you learn your craft?

I played around with HTML a bit when I was young – I remember using Netscape Communicator, which helps date things a bit – after that, not much for a while, until I started working with a friend of mine writing PHP and CSS.

I was fortunate enough to work with some great developers back in New Zealand, which was a big help. I did some computer science at university, but left when I started doing contracted dev work; the money seemed worth it, and it was fun.

All the work and training I got was through people I met. One person knows someone else, who knows someone else… soon you find you’re talking to someone really cool and interesting, and then you’re working for them. Getting to know lots of people is the most important thing you can do, especially if you ever go freelance.

Other than that, I taught myself. The resources are all there, and once you’ve started it only takes a little bit of input by someone much better than you to help steer you in the right direction.

Who inspires you?

Anybody who mixes great work with personal flair; I miss _why. Conversely, I also enjoy designs that are wall-to-wall - applications that keep up a flawless façade of design, without revealing the hard work going on in the background.

I was blown away by Divvyshot, for example - which was bought by Facebook recently - and I also love Dribbble. (I bet you thought I was going to say 37signals! Everybody’s inspired by 37signals. It’s pretty hard not to be.)

I have a few friends who are doing great things too: Adam Cooke, who runs Codebase; and my hugely talented designer friend Hector Simpson; not to mention Tim Van Damme; and Paddy Donnelly. All constantly churn out excellent stuff.

What are your influences?

I don’t really know, this is more of a designer’s question. I don’t spend nearly as much time reading other people’s code as I should. I look at stuff that I really like using, and I try to pick up bits and pieces from there.

If you look at everything with a critical eye, you start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and why. Then, when you create something, you can throw in all the tiny tips and tricks you’ve learned. This also works if you see things that you hate, or even just tools that don’t quite fit your needs.

Spreadtweet [Detail]

You’re known for a number of free, personal projects - Spreadtweet, Chatrbox and Speckle, to name but three… Is this simply to answer an urge to create or do these projects fit into some kind of grand masterplan?

It’s a bit of both. I love making new projects, and they’re great for productivity and for exposure. Every new project is more practice, and each time I figure out some new tricks. It’s great fun, everybody should do it. Working on several projects at once helps keep you from burning out.

The grand plan is that, with a bit of luck,one of them will be useful enough for people to use it - then I can do a bit more here and there, and turn it into a really useful app. We’ll see, I guess.

Which of your projects has seen the most success and why?

That depends on how you define success. Monetarily, none of them have been successful, but for me the most successful one so far has been Spreadtweet, my Excel Twitter app. It was a fun app, and it’s free - but it’s still being talked about on Twitter now, and people are still discovering it. I didn’t spend much time making it, so in the overall scheme of things the juice-to-squeeze ratio was very high! It was in the New York Times, which was very cool.

Has the Kember Identity Hash been found?

Ha! No; my $100 is pretty much safe. The conservative timeframe estimate was around a billion years, so I think we’re more likely to see the heat death of the universe. Some guy set his CPU on fire trying to calculate it, I know that much. There’s only a 30% chance the damn thing actually exists, anyway.

Tweets from Build

Is Twitter important?

On a personal level, Twitter is as important as you want it to be. Personally, I’ve found it to be really important for my work - I promote all my apps using Twitter, and I also use it for support questions. Also, if you’re working from home it’s great to be able to talk to other people in the industry.

I do think there are some people who attribute too much importance to Twitter, or try to make money off it, but that’s bound to happen. I’m not a fan of Twitter politics, though - to me it’s all just slacktivism. Fickle, too. Everything’s interesting for two minutes, and then we move on. In my opinion, real change takes elbow grease and shoe leather.

So yeah, Twitter’s important to me, but it’s not as important as recycling. It’s all relative, like West Virginia.

We had the pleasure of first meeting you at Build, and you’re shortly speaking at DIBI; what’s the appeal of the small, boutique conference?

So far it seems like the smaller conferences are way better. My inner armchair-economist says it’s a recession thing. Small conferences are less about making money and more about the community. There’s less advertising, and more fascinating content. Andy McMillan did an amazing job at Build, and DIBI’s shaping up to be really good too.

FF33FF or #FF00FF?

A designer will say #FF33FF because it probably looks better, but #FF00FF is an absolute value.

I like to think that developers are more vector-oriented, while designers are bitmap-based. Everything has to line up for a developer which is pretty much a crutch for not having any artistic talent. We’re paid to be logical, and design is illogical: what makes #FF33FF better than #FF32FF, for example? That’s an impossible line of reasoning.


What’s your favourite typeface?

For writing Ruby code, Monaco. As a sidenote, I think some of our language preference comes with typeface association, which sounds silly but actually makes sense. I saw some Python in Monaco recently and suddenly I saw the language differently. I’m used to big chunky letters, so reading Python like that was an easy transition. Usually for me, Python’s all thin and spindly.

From a design perspective, I love Fontfont’s Meta Serif, and Fontsmith’s Clerkenwell (Elliot Jay Stocks used Clerkenwell for a talk once and I’ve been hooked ever since). From a web perspective, I’ve been seen flirting with Gill Sans and there’s a place in my heart for Georgia, but Helvetica’s my go-to gal.

What’s your favourite plain text editor?

I use Textmate for writing. I use it all the time anyway for Rails, so it’s familiar and easy enough. I quite like OmmWriter for long blog posts, but I usually forget to use it. If I’m just writing things down, I use Notey. That was very much a plug; I wonder whether it’ll get edited out.

What’s your favourite tea?

I’m more of a coffee man.

I buy Extract coffee from the local farmer’s market when I can be bothered, and Illy from the local shops when I can’t. I feel like a smug coffee-hipster when I buy from the farmer’s market, like I know something you don’t. In truth, I don’t know whether it actually comes from Indonesia, and I don’t really mind as long as I can show you the packet while I’m making one. It may just be the satisfaction I’m tasting, but it’s great.

Tea-wise, I’m a fan of green tea - the proper stuff which comes as scrunched up leaves and you buy in a big tin. I think it’s supposed to be good for you. It’s got electrolytes.

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