I went to University waaay back in 1997 in Newport in South Wales. I did the Multimedia degree course, which was a bit of a guinea pig exercise as we were one of the first year groups to combine fine arts with computers and HTML markup. It was essentially a course in web design and new media. But there was one important thing they didn’t teach me about working in a digital agency…

The Beginning

My University years were great. The years between 1997 and 2000 were epic – The Spice Girls, Tony Blair, Princess Diana, OJ Simpson, Dolly The Sheep, Notorious B.I.G., The Fifth Element, Big Brother, need I go on? We also saw huge seismic shifts in web technologies. Here’s just a few worth mentioning:

  • Internet Explorer versions 4 & 5 were released
  • Windows 98 & 2000 happened
  • e-commerce
  • Google was launched as a search engine
  • Apple unveiled the first iMac
  • the Y2K bug scared the hell out of everyone (then came to absolutely nothing)
  • MySpace and Napster were launched
  • Bluetooth technology was released
  • Various computer viruses like Melissa and ILOVEYOU brought web traffic to a halt world wide
  • The DotCom bubble burst and I got my first, fresh taste of redundancy!

That’s just a selection of some of the big things to happen – how many can you recall?

The 90s were great

The 90s were great

Happy Days

There was a lot to learn and it was an exciting time to be “in at the ground floor” so to speak. My first proper job after graduating Uni was as a web designer alongside my brother in a small design agency we set up called “Lemon Design”. We were soon after both employed by another local company who needed their own in-house design capabilities. Before I knew it I was designing sites in Photoshop and ImageReady, building them in Dreamweaver (version 3 I think it was!) and using Fetch ftp on a lime-green iMac to upload them. No WordPress, no CSS, no boilerplate frameworks, no jQuery, no databases, no looping image carousels, no PNG images, just flashing gifs and tickertape marquee text as far as the eye could see. Ah, happy days.

Trial version of Flash?! Count me in!

Trial version of Flash?! Count me in!

In those early days I was given clear instructions on everything I had to do, but as I grew in skills and confidence I began to have a little more say in what went on, and I took more ownership in the work I produced. Eventually I had my first meeting with a “client” – a strange, fickle creature that seemed hell-bent on standing in between me and all the cool stuff I wanted to do with Macromedia Director.

Bring On The Clients

Clients were a frustrating bunch. On the one hand they were useful because they had money to pay me to do the stuff I enjoyed doing. On the other hand they were super annoying because that money came with a bunch of conditions called something like a “project brief” that placed strict controls over what I could do for them. I (frequently) saw things differently to them, and was usually convinced I could do something quicker, better or with more finesse and coolness than they wanted, and it often involved those Apple-esque glass buttons we all loved so much.

Present Day

Fast forward a few years – ImageReady has been replaced with Sketch, Flash has come and gone (a flash in the pan lol, amirite?) and the Spice Girls have disbanded. I’m still working in a digital agency but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the clients. They’re still there, in the background pulling strings and making demands. Something that has changed – a lot – is me. Significantly, one important aspect of how I work has changed, it affects every project I work on, and it’s something they never taught me at University, or even prepared me for. It’s simply this:

[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]For a project to succeed you must fully understand your client.[/inlinetweet]

I know that sounds ridiculously simplistic and obvious, but honestly it’s something I’ve come to realise is possibly the most important part of my job, and also something I don’t think is covered sufficiently in education.

A Real World Example

As an example of what I’m talking about, let’s use the example of the new website for the English language school Anglo-Continental. We successfully won the bid to redesign and develop their new fully responsive website, and so as part of the project, and in order to deliver a great product, we needed to understand every aspect of the client’s business.


None of the team here at Createful are fluent in another language and none have studied overseas. You might think that would make us a pretty poor choice to build a good site for a language school, but that’s not why Anglo-Continental chose to hire us. They chose us over several other local companies for two important reasons: because we’re experts in our field, and because we worked hard to understand their business.

Anyone can see that we’re good at mobile design and development, but it’s not so easy for an agency to convince prospective clients that it has the ability to interpret and understand the detailed and complex requirements of other businesses.

In the case of Anglo-Continental, it was a job of delving into their prospectuses, analysing their website traffic, comparing their competitors, finding out more about their existing students, and the kinds of decisions people make when they’re considering studying English in England.

We’ve had to learn a great many things about a new subject in a relatively short space of time, and for this is what makes a great design & development team. It’s the ability to listen, to understand, to ask questions and then interpret those into the software and programming languages we know so well to produce something awesome.

Take Aways

In summary, I’ve learned that it is equally (and in some cases, more) important to be skilled in listening to and understanding people, as it is to be skilled in using the tools of this trade.

You want an app? No problem – we could do that in our sleep. But why do you want an app? Could it be that you really just need a great responsive website? Perhaps by looking at your customer base we find you only need it on Android.

It reminds me of The Answer – the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. It turns out the answer didn’t make any sense without asking the right question, and that’s what we try to do every day here at Createful – ask the right questions.

The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything – ask the right questions.