A conversation with Lisa Sabin-Wilson, blogger & designer

Filed as Features, Interviews on April 19, 2008 9:09 am

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Lisa Sabin-Wilson

Today’s interview is with Lisa Sabin-Wilson, a blogger & designer based in West Bend, Wisconsin, here in the United States. Lisa is the owner & creative director of E.Webscapes and the co-owner of hosting company Blogs About Hosting

Lisa has built up quite an impressive portfolio of design work.

In this interview, Lisa shares her experiences getting started blogging & designing blogs, her tools & workflow for client design, and shares some thoughts about tools like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Lisa Sabin-Wilson. I live in West Bend, a small town in Wisconsin (USA) and I work full-time from home as a designer and web host.

My design business is E.Webscapes, the hosting company I own, with my husband Chris, is Blogs About Hosting and my personal blog can be found here: Lisa Sabin-Wilson. I quite my decade-long career as a Registered Nurse in 2004 to pursue design as a full time job. Design has been a hobby of mine since the late ’90′s and I’m very happy to have the fortunate opportunity to be able to turn a hobby I love into my full time career.

I’m recently married (2006) and have two kids, three cats and three birds. When I’m not working, I like all things outdoors. I’m a scuba diver, downhill skier, fisher, camper and gardener.

How did you get started in blogging?

As a hobby, I used to build HTML sites, for friends and family, in Microsoft Frontpage way back in the day. Tables and inline styling, anyone?

When Movable Type hit the scene, I kept seeing these great sites out there with some awesome tools and interactivity and I wanted to learn more about it. After doing some investigating, I discovered MT and started learning more about blogging and its technology. I started using MT on my personal site and I started a political blog with it in 2001 with Movable Type version 1.0. I really started blogging just as a creative outlet.. telling stories of my boring life, trying to make it all seem so much more exciting, you know.

I started getting creative with MT templates on my own blog and people started asking for help in sprucing up their own blogs. I began in design by giving everything I did away for free. I was doing downloadable free themes back then.. except we called them ‘linkware’, at the time. That is really how I built my business in blog design and how I broke into the world of blogging.

Your design company has grown a lot recently – tell us about your recent expansion…

E.Webscapes has been around, in various forms and functions, since 1998. As a company, it ebbs and flows and I do my best to keep up with what’s current and new. I really got into doing blog design in 2002 when I broke my teeth on creating custom themes for Movable Type users. From there, it was a natural progression into other programs like WordPress, Expression Engine, etc. Business has grown at a nice and steady rate since 2002, mostly through word of mouth and a small bit of advertising. I authored the WordPress For Dummies book that was published by Wiley Publishing and released in November 2007 and I would say that book has created quite a dramatic boost in business, as of late. This has been both a blessing, and a curse (in some regards), because it was a little difficult to adjust to the increased demand for a few months there, until I was able to re-organize a bit. If there is a lesson to be learned it’s to always have a ‘Plan B’ already in place that helps you easily adjust in times of change, good or bad. I should have – - it was painful, but I survived :)

Tell us about your design work flow – in brief, from start to end, what’s your design process like with a client?

As with any new business agreement, in any industry, it starts with good communication between both parties. My process starts with obtaining several specific details on what the client is looking to achieve with their design, from both a visual and a functional standpoint. The initial contact is a lot of back and forth – discussing colors, artwork, layout and functionality preference. After that, I start with the design work and present the client with a preliminary concept for the creative work. The client and I work together and I’ll make adjustments in the design work based on their feedback. I do hop in and make recommendations and suggestions on things that might look nicer or would fit into the design work – - but my end game is all about making sure the client has exactly what they want, even if, sometimes, it’s not necessarily a direction I would have taken.

From there, once the overall visual design piece is agreed upon – I start building functionality by taking the design work and applying it to the template and CSS work for the theme. I develop the theme on my own test bed domain so that, when I have finished, I can preview the entire work to the client in a ‘live’ environment so they can see how it acts and works in their browser.. their mother’s browser… their mailman’s browser… :) Again, during this phase we’ll work together on any adjustments or modifications they need for functionality, placement and format until the client is satisfied with the result. At that point, I’ll package the theme up and usually perform the theme installation for them, including the installation of any plugins/extras they need to create the functionalities they want.

That’s pretty much my work flow on each project, in a nutshell. Of course, every single project is different from the next – so the experience might differ, one from the other. I’m pretty flexible that way.

What specific design tools do you use?

As far as blogging platforms, or content management systems (CMS), goes – it’s no surprise to anyone that I’m partial to WordPress. I love its flexibility, as a program, and the community is hard to beat! I started working with WordPress in 2003 with version 0.72 and I’m currently using version 2.5 and have really enjoyed experiencing the growth and progress of this platform – it’s exciting!

I also work with Movable Type which has seen some amazing strides with their 4.0 release – the more I work with that program, the more I’m really appreciating the template system. It’s funny because when I first started working with MT4, I was frustrated with all the templates, modules, widgets, etc..but the more I work with it, I have come to appreciate the flexibility it offers. I really like what they’ve done and think MT, sometimes, gets a bad rap when it doesn’t really deserve it. I also do a fair amount of work with Typepad, using both the Advanced Template and Custom CSS options they make available to their users for design solutions.

Expression Engine is another content management system I have come to love and appreciate. I usually hold off on recommending the use of Expression Engine for smaller sites. However, for those larger sites that need to integrate a full E-Commerce section, Forums, Mailing Lists, Wikis – the whole deal.. then Expression Engine is the platform I would turn to because it can handle those additions all under one roof, and quite gracefully, too.

For Graphic Design, I pretty much stick with three: Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator and Corel’s Paint Shop Pro. I do most of my graphic work in Photoshop – but will whip out Illustrator when I want to do comprehensive vector work. When I first started doing graphic design, I used Paint Shop Pro (back then it was owned by Jasc) exclusively, but it did not take me very long to realize how much more powerful Photoshop is. I think I still use Paint Shop Pro sometimes just for old time’s sake :)

For CSS and coding – I’m old school and very boring, in that regard. I use Notepad. Although, I have recently gotten into using UltraEdit for those tasks and probably will switch over to that for 100% of my coding needs soon. I usually reach for the Notepad icon out of habit, these days.

Where do you seek your design inspirations?

Everywhere! Magazines, newspapers, in-store advertising, billboards, greeting cards, album covers – whatever my eyes fall on, really.

Online inspiration is very easy with all the different CSS gallery showcases out there — I browse those to see what techniques other designers are using and how they apply them to their work. I like browsing those galleries sometimes for color inspiration, as well.

My clients are also an endless source of inspiration – - all their ideas keep me from living inside a vacuum too much.

Any recent designs that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m glad you didn’t ask me about designs I’m not proud of – - we all have a few of those, eh? :)

Recently, I launched a new design for Christina Jones, of b5media fame. She recently started a blog called “Christina Loves. She contacted me to do the design for her and I had a lot of fun with it. I was able to work with the WordPress platform in creative ways to create one of those ever-popular ‘magazine-ish’ layouts that manipulate the front page of her site to pull from different categories, featured posts, leading articles, etc. The topic matter, color scheme and design work were a lot of fun and I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out, overall. I had the lucky opportunity to catch up with her at SXSW this year (2008) – she’s a great lady!

A design I completed in 2006 is still one that I’m very proud of today. New Music Nation is a blog run by former MTV2 producer, David Powers where he reviews new music that hits the scenes. Powered by WordPress, I did this design in ‘magazine style’ fashion before Magazine style themes were really popular, as they are today with WordPress theme designers and users. The design work was really only the beginning on this project – and really probably the easiest part of the project, overall. There are several custom features on this blog that I built into it, just for Dave. For example, the ability to browse and individual category by month using a drop down menu. Dave’s site, at the time, had well over 1300 categories (probably more today) and I customized his search function so you can do a regular search, or you can search by category – - limited to a few select parent categories he chose, rather than all 1300+ categories. I also developed a nice alphabetical navigation system for his category navigation – which you can see here. You click the letters of the alphabet and it gives you a clean listing of the categories that start with that letter, or range of letters – - click the category, and you get a listing of posts in that category. This project was also the impetus behind Alex King’s great Category Overload plugin. My full post about the entire process behind this project can be found here. It still remains a project I’m pretty proud of – even 2 years later.

When you look at blog designers out there today – who did you particularly respect or admire?

How much room do you have in this interview – - there are so many!

I respect and admire the designers who work with me at E.Webscapes – mostly because of their determination, work ethic, creativity and perseverance. Leanne Wildermuth, Joni Ang, Dino Latoga, Char Polanosky and Devin Boyle are all Associate Designers at E.Webscapes and they all bring a different style to the table. It’s great to have the opportunity to work with this bunch – we learn from and inspire one another constantly. I feel very lucky in that regard.

Outside of the folks I work with – I have greatly admired the work of Nick La, Chris Garrett, and Elliot Jay Stocks… just to name a few…ask me tomorrow, and that list is bound to change.

Outside of tools that you’re using for design – what other social software or tools do you utilize?

Aside from the obvious fun that Twitter can be – it really is a serious networking tool. I’ve gotten new business, hired new staff, sold more than a few books, and keep my book and blog readership up to date as much as possible through posts of 140 characters, or less. Twitter is awesome. Find me on Twitter here: LisaSabin.

I also use LinkedIn, semi-regularly. I’ve gotten back in touch with some old friends from college and high school, as well as making several new business contacts.

I also use Flickr – but don’t update there as often as I would like.

I used Facebook for about a month, but it didn’t hold my interest for very long.

Other than that, I keep in touch with friends and colleagues via RSS, YahooIM and Skype.

wordpressfordummies.jpg

You’re the author of WordPress for Dummies – how did that book come about?

In 2006, I spoke on a design panel at SXSW Interactive in Austin Texas. It was there that I made the initial contact with Susie Gardener, who has written several ‘For Dummies’ books – including her most recent: Blogging For Dummies, 2nd Edition. Susie knew that I had been working with WordPress for several years and also knows my excitement for the project, as a whole. She put a bug in my ear that Wiley Publishing was interested in doing a WordPress For Dummies book and asked if I would be interested in collaborating. That was in March of ’06.

I didn’t hear anything again on it for months, so I figured that the deal fell through, or they found another willing author. Then in November ’06, I was contacted directly by an Acquisitions Editor from Wiley asking if I would be interested in doing the book solo, starting yesterday. After a bit of negotiation, I officially signed the contract in December of ’06 and completed the book in April ’07. It was published in November ’07. It stayed at the #1 position on Amazon in the Blogging category for several months until, very recently, Darren Rowse and Chris Garrett announced their new book “ProBlogger: Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income” and they shook me down to position #3. I can’t complain, though, with those two guys, I’m in some pretty damn good company! I’m very encouraged and thrilled at the results WordPress For Dummies has had, thanks in no small part to the great platform it is written about!

You recently announced that you’ve made a deal for a 2nd edition – what will be different in this new edition?

I’m really excited about writing the 2nd Edition of WordPress For Dummies, I have to say. There have been so many great changes to the WordPress platform, I’m really looking forward to writing about it. It is very satisfying to know that Wiley Publishing recognizes the popularity of WordPress and the excitement of its community – so much so that they are moving forward with a 2nd Edition less than a year after the 1st Edition was published. I feel it’s important to keep this book as up to date and relevant as possible for users of the software and am thrilled that Wiley is 100% behind that concept, as well.

Last time, the focus of the book was a 3-in-1 concept. It covered the basics of how to use the three different versions of WordPress: the hosted version at WordPress.Com, the self-hosted version of WordPress.Org and the multiple-user version of WordPress MU. The feedback was interesting because a lot of readers were surprised to find three different versions . . kind of a flavor for everyone. The book focused on the novice user, teaching the basics from the very first step of discovering WordPress, to working within its Dashboard, along with some information on themes and plugins.

As any author, who has worked with a large publishing house like Wiley, will tell you – there is not always enough room to include everything you want to write about. Editors can have VERY sharp scissors! The publisher has budgeted for only so many pages in the book, and the author is required to stay within the boundaries of the set limits. This can be somewhat frustrating at times, because you cannot include all of the information you want. I won’t even tell you how many of my pages were removed.. if I start to talk about it, I might cry :)

This time around, I am able to add in some additional information that, based on feedback, WordPress users really want to learn and know about. We made the difficult choice to remove the chapters on WordPress MU to make room for more comprehensive information on WordPress themes, templates, design & CSS and plugin development. Some of the feedback from the first edition shows that people are really excited to learn more about design and how to customize their WordPress blog. Aside from updating the book so that it is current to the most recent version of WordPress 2.5/2.6 – my goal is to provide a lot more information on WordPress themes and theme development. I’m really looking forward to writing those chapters because it is within WordPress templates and themes that I spend the majority of my days!

Any advice for new/up and coming designers?

1. Working in design is like being a terminal college student. As technology moves forward and progresses, so must you. Stay up to date or you’ll be left behind.

2. Admit when you’re wrong. Apologize when you screw up. Acknowledge your limits. Avoid making promises you cannot keep.

3. Network with other designers in the industry. They are not your enemy just because you perceive them as competition. They will be a good resource for you, and vice versa.

4. There is always room for improvement.

5. Keep copies and backups of every single project you’re involved with. This includes creative work and communications. You just never know when you might need them.

I guess that’s advice for any designer.. new or old – present company included.

Anything obvious that I neglected to ask?

Just an opportunity to thank Matt for his time and interest. Matt and I worked together a few years back on the design for BlogNetworkWatch before he sold it to SplashPress Media. We recently re-connected via Twitter, speaking of social networking :) Thank you, Matt!

Lisa, thanks for taking some time with us today!

Disclosures: I am a client of Lisa’s – having retained her firm for a few blog designs, including the aforementioned Blog Network Watch.

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