Grafik’s Nick de Jardine on learning code, working solo and what it takes to run a remote studio
Working under the moniker Grafik since 2012, New Zealander Nick de Jardine operates at the intersection of design and code; building brands and websites with a bold typographic aesthetic for clients all around the world. Throw in accounting, project management and strategy, he’s a veteran in the art of working solo, and knows what it takes to successfully work remotely. We had a chat with him to learn more about his background, practice and process.
EM Hi Nick, what led you to start your own studio back in 2011?
NdJ Before starting Grafik, I had spent about 10 years in the UK and New Zealand as a designer/developer. I had hit a dead-end in my agency job at the time after being manoeuvred into a managerial position. Having always dreamed of running my own studio and desperately wanting to get back to being a creative, I realised that the only way out of the situation was a leap of faith. It was a challenging time as I had just become a Dad and also bought a house. I used to think that I needed to be ‘ready,’ and things had to ‘align’ for anyone to make this type of move; this proved to me otherwise.
TBI How did you go about getting your first clients?
NdJ Before I took the plunge, I set up meetings with various agencies to introduce myself. This proved an excellent way to get started and enabled me to have immediate paid work straight from the get-go. This first project is always a make or break situation; I put everything into it, which helped set the trajectory for my studio.
This first project is always a make or break situation.
EM What came first for you, design or code?
NdJ I was interested in graphic design as a kid; drawing logos was a hobby despite not really knowing what it was actually called. My love affair with computers began when I was introduced to the Commodore 64. This liaison continued with the 486 and Bulletin Boards, and then things got serious when the World Wide Web emerged. At Secondary School, I was lucky enough to have a forward-thinking teacher that taught us how to make an HTML page. When I first started making websites, there were no design tools, just straight coding into HTML. Everything was centred, everything was moving (gifs), and everything was unstyled! So I guess code came first, as that was the only way to do it!
EM Time always seems to be a big constraint for designers that want to learn to code. How would you recommend getting started?
NdJ A good entry point to learning code could be to start with the CSS typographic rules for your next project. A designer always has typographic adjustments once the design is coded, so getting your hands dirty is a good primer to see that it is actually relatively straightforward. From there, move on to margins/padding and just gradually build on your skillset. I’d recommend learning at least CSS to anyone who designs for the web; it will give you a deeper understanding of the discipline and greater control over your design.
I’d recommend learning at least CSS to anyone who designs for the web.
EM How has the work you do changed over your time in the industry?
NdJ When I first started creating websites, everything was made by hand-coding, then DreamWeaver came along, and we suddenly had a drag and drop interface. But people soon realised the output from this was too rigid and bloated with garbage code.
With the emergence of Web 2.0 and responsive design, complexities multiplied and required a more systematic approach, so it was back to hand-coding.
Nowadays, my preferred method is still hand-coding within a framework such as Nuxt, which comes with big chunks of functionality that you would have had to build from scratch in the past.
I’m sceptical about any website builder that promotes a ‘no coding needed’ interface (i.e. Squarespace/Webflow). Ultimately websites made with these tools all start looking the same, and you end up with a hot mess under the hood, making any further work difficult – it’s like nothing has been learned from the DreamWeaver days.
EM How about the industry as a whole, do you feel like it’s changed?
NdJ When I first started out, a website was a nice to have feature, often just a replication of a printed brochure. Now it is one of the most essential parts of a brand and often the first touchpoint for an audience, so it needs to create a strong impression.
EM As a team of one, how do you manage your time to make sure the work gets done on time?
NdJ As a team of one, I have an excellent understanding of my own capabilities. I also have a direct relationship with the client, meaning a constant open dialogue throughout the project. Because of this, I can quickly build trust with my clients, enabling a relaxed environment to pursue riskier ideas. A big part of my success is due to the fact that (I) the designer/developer can talk directly with the client – something that is missing in most agencies.
EM Do you find putting yourself out there as a one-man band attracts particular types of clients?
NdJ Despite it stating on my website, people often assume that Grafik is a team! I think the work attracts clients, and if a client appreciates good design, that is the type of client I want to work with.
EM Why did you decide to work under ‘Grafik’ instead of your name?
NdJ My approach to website design is heavily influenced by print design, and one of my favourite publications is ‘Neue Grafik’ from the 1960s. I wanted a moniker to describe an idea rather than simply using my own name. ‘Grafik’ (the german word for graphic) is a nod to this magazine and international typographic style; it describes my approach to website design.
EM Have you thought about expanding your team?
NdJ For this to happen, the quality of the work would need to persist. I would want to continue as a creative, but not become a manager of creatives.
EM Having done it for close to a decade, what do you see as the pros and cons of remote working?
NdJ Pros – Location freedom, flexible work hours, no commute.
Cons – Not for those that require the energy of others to be creative or those that need the support of a team. Sometimes you feel like you are missing out on deeper relationships with clients as you never meet outside of a video call.
EM What tools and systems do you use to stay organised?
NdJ I work in a completely virtual office, it’s a simple setup:
Todoist as my work scheduler, Harvest for timekeeping and budget management, Trello for project management, Xero for accounting, Indesign for visual design work, VS Code for development.
New Zealand has some of the best design studios in the world.
EM What would you like to learn or do that you haven’t been able to yet?
NdJ I’d like to learn more about decentralised data architecture and artificial intelligence. Both are powerful technologies that will drive Web 3.0 forward.
EM How do you feel about the creative culture in New Zealand?
NdJ New Zealand has some of the best design studios in the world. We are known for innovation as well as our high level of craft. Because the industry is so tiny, there is a friendly camaraderie between most studios, fostering a close-knit community.