Inspired: Hello Derek, thanks for taking the time for this interview, I know from your tweets you have a very busy schedule lately. Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your design background?
Derek: I originally became interested in design or art when I was a little kid, but the first time I really got into design was in the early 90â€²s when I started doing murals and wall art with my friends (AKA graffiti). I guess the first time I became interested in web design and development though was in 2003 when I found out about social networking and how I could use the various sites to showcase my music. I originally got into basic CSS to learn how to edit my MySpace page (believe it or not) back when it was a decent place to showcase your musical talents and not your other assets. During that time I was working as a music producer/engineer, going to college, and holding down a part time graphic design job in a high stress bureaucratic job from hell; which was the catalyst for me becoming a full time freelancer because I hate having a boss.
Anyhow, long story short I gave up music took some classes on CSS/XHTML and PHP, as well as, changed my major and started on a path towards a degree in Computer Systems Application development. A fancy term for a code geek. I find that a bit funny though because I’m more of a creative person than that title could ever represent. Valen Designs actually started as Valen Graphics and was geared towards design work only. It eventually changed when I found I was looking for jobs as a coder more often than a designer so the name was slightly changed to fit a broader audience.
What was your first design job?
I use to be a print designer and my first paying job was creating advertising posters and fliers for music production companies. To be truthful, I didn’t really like it that much, web is where it’s at for me.
I bet every single one of our readers has seen your work for the Envato crew (PSD Tuts+, Freelance Switch, and Creattica Daily to name just a few). What did you do exactly for these websites? Design, WordPress hacks, developing 100%?
My roll at Envato is to take the designs Collis send to me and turn them into a fully functional custom WordPress web site. I take the psd’s once Collis is finished with them and we discuss what functionality is needed and if there is an already existing site what will become legacy code and what will be phased out. It’s actually a very short discovery process because Collis and I both seem to get on the same page really quickly.
In some cases I have even been know to write a plugin or two to extend the functionality of the theme beyond the basic functions.php. In a nutshell, Collis designs while I make all of his requests a reality using CSS, WordPress, jQuery, PHP and on occasion a smidgen of Rails. In the end, I build web sites for Envato, but I don’t design them.
So at this moment, if you had to choose just one position, you would recommend yourself as a UI designer, a backend developer, or a WordPress ninja?
I would say WordPress Ninja with a healthy side of UI design would best describe my abilities. Mainly, because I do a lot of design that never goes in my portfolio but my strongest assets is WordPress manipulation. I think a lot of the time most clients seems to butcher web sites once you pass them off, so I don’t add them unless I know they are going to leave it that way for a while and is why you see a lot of Envato sites in my Portfolio.
What is your favorite Envato web site that you’ve worked on and why?
How do you know when a project is “ready”?
Another tough question. Really, what it comes down to is if all the requirements have been met and you feel good about it and a couple fresh eyes have checked links to make sure you didn’t forget anything or make spelling errors. There is no rule that says if you have done this you are ready to launch. It’s all just making sure everything is working correctly, all the tickets are finished, and whichever team or person you’re currently working with also feels it’s good to go. Then we push it out to the world and hope you guys fall in love with it.
I think that eventually there might be a shift in the width of web sites as computers mature and as the masses upgrade their old machine. It wasn’t that long ago that 800px was the standard and in the past few months I have personally built quite a few sites that utilized at least 1000px, so it’s not that far fetched to think that 1200px is right around the corner.
Do you have any time management tips you’d like to share?
I would not take time management tips from me. I’m the worst at managing my time and making sure I’m following a set plan. I work crazy odd hours and do my best work under pressure and fully stressed. Don’t work like I do, find a healthier way to get things done, that’s my advise.
You run Valen Designs – a solo studio. What do you enjoy about being on your own, and not in a design firm environment?
Design firms pay less and work you until there is nothing left to give. To me it seems like large firms strip away your creativity, at least that was my experience. I would say if you can or really have the drive, freelancing is definitely the way to go. On the downside, if you don’t have the clientele it can be very discouraging at first.
I know you were thinking of hiring a sidekick from Portland. Is the offer still valid?
I’ve been toying with the idea of hiring someone, but they would need to work out my home office. Mainly, because I’m a control freak LOL and I want someone who will learn how I work and code how I code. I don’t want to loose my credibility so they need to be close and I can keep an eye on their work.
So to answer your question, yes I’m looking for someone but I might have found them already. I’m just in the process or seeing what they know and don’t know.
What could you tell us about your inspiration sources?
Well, I’m a Mac fanatic so a lot of the stuff that I’m currently designing reflects that kind of style. As well, Collis has been a pretty huge source of inspiration. I did a lot more designing before I started working with Envato, but the style I had at the time was very similar and for me was a perfect situation because I already coded the way Collis designs. Also, there are many many galleries out there that come in handy when you are looking to get some ideas about color or what have you. When I first started I would look at cssmania.com a lot for ideas and inspiration.
As a WP expert what tips do you have for designers who are interested in creating WordPress themes?
The WordPress codex is your freaking BFF. As well, I found the forums to be a big help for the tougher questions I had when starting out. When I began using WordPress there wasn’t any books written on the subject so I had to learn from trial and error. I guess the most useful tip I can give is download some of the free white label theme frameworks and learn how to take your sliced psd’s and integrating them into one of those. There really isn’t a correct way to learn, just whatever feels right for you. I say learn as much CSS as you can and theming will become easier.
You’re one of the most popular authors on Theme Forest with Sharp theme scoring almost 400 sales. When do you plan to release a new theme and how could you describe it?
I don’t make many themes because of my limited time to code and support them. I have one coming in the next month or so that will be interesting. It’s for showcasing various groups or collections of web related stuff. It’s kind of hard to explain without giving it away completely.
Any current or future projects you would like to talk about?
I have a lot of projects that I’m working on right now, but the one I really like is the Billing/Project Management App I’m doing as a solo project. Hopefully I will find some more free time to work on it so I can give you a more legit timeline but for now it’s only me working on it and it might be a while before it launches. Another project coming up is the Envato marketplace blogs are all getting a makeover, so keep an eye out for that.
If you had to give our readers one ultimate advice, what would that be?
Be obsessive and don’t let other people tell you what you should do with your life.
What would you like to receive for your birthday?
Wow, interesting question. I would like a really big party with tons of available pool tables.
How can our readers socialize with you online?
Thanks for the interview Derek, you gave us amazing insights, good luck with all your projects!
Thank you for being interested enough in my work to ask me these questions, it’s very exciting and I’m honored. Cheers!
Bottomline: Derek is a modest, awesome, and very talented all-in-one web ninja who almost never sleeps. Word!