Creative Lives — How to “make things for the internet”, with freelance designer and developer Dan Powell
In a self-driven role that’s constantly changing, Dan Powell admits that describing what he does can be tricky; “I’m not really sure I have the tightest definition, other than making things for the internet.” As both a designer and developer, he will concept and build online interactions for existing sites, or create an entirely new ones from scratch. Among brilliant and playful work for a range of companies that span editorial, fashion and advertising, Dan also built our very own Lecture in Progress website – growing it from concept stage, to overseeing ongoing developments. While the freedom of freelancing allows him to work on personal projects, including Hover States (a blog showcasing the best in progressive web design), it’s entailed more WiFi and plug-socket chasing than the leisurely cafe cruising he imagined. He talks us through how he got here, from teaching himself to code, to embracing a professional network while in-house at Animade.
Freelance Designer and Developer
Freelance at Assembly London, Studio Hato, Hudson Bec Group and Lovers (2015–present)
Designer Developer at Animade (2011–2015)
BA Graphic Design, Camberwell Collage UAL (2008–2011)
Dan Powell in his studio photograph by Jack Stanley
How would you describe what you do?
I split my time between consulting on and ironing out concepts for websites or interactions and coding. The work is divided between in-house jobs for several studios I’ve built close relations with over the years, and work from my own clients.
My work tends to be a mix of playful campaigns, editorially led sites and portfolios, and I’ll often work with designers to create the final product.
What does a typical working day look like?
Depending on whether I’m working in-house or on my own projects, I will start the day by looking for interesting websites to feature on Hover States – a blog I run with Mike Guppy, Nate Van der End, Simon Neveu and Nick Fahey (who I met while working at Animade). I’ll find these by trawling Twitter and looking at portfolios of developers and designers.
After this I’ll settle down to work on the production of whatever I’m focusing on that day. Personal projects and experiments tend to play a big part of my daily practice. I’ll see what’s technically possible by making prototypes of ideas, although these rarely see the light of day – they are more about personal growth and exploration.
Work for streetwear brand and online store Slugz, created with Louis Bennet
What do you like about working in London?
London is a great city to work in, it’s full of high energy and interesting people working on exciting projects. I personally thrive on being around a community, and forming close partnerships and collaborations. However, that high energy can sometimes be a downside when work-life balance takes a back seat.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
A lot of my work comes from repeat jobs and word of mouth, which is quite a lucky position as I’m not someone who’s great at self-promotion. I would like to think people come to me for my experience of working on a wide range of projects, and the playful nature of my work.
How collaborative is your work?
For client-based websites I believe they are all collaborative. Websites aren't static objects; they are in constant evolution, and many people will have a hand in shaping them. This is why it’s important to reflect the sensibilities of the people involved, so collaboration is key. This exchange can happen through regular conversation and workshopping, or just spending the time getting to know someone.
“A lot of my work comes from word of mouth, which is quite a lucky position as I’m not someone who’s great at self-promotion.”
Transition created for the Soda Zine site, created with Alex O’Brien
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
New challenges and people are the things I enjoy most about what I do. There are some parts of projects I enjoy less, especially on some larger projects, with repetitive tasks. But the one really annoying thing is looking back at old work. You’re constantly learning and changing approaches, so going back into old projects is like looking at your crayon drawings from primary school.
What skills are essential to your job?
Openness, the ability to learn (or Google fast) and perseverance.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I work from a 13-inch Macbook Pro, write code in Atom text editor, use Google Chrome as the default browser, Trello for organisation and Slack for communication.
A personal website created for designer Craig Jackson
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I think I probably wanted to be a marine biologist growing up (I could hold my breath for a long time!). But when I was around 14 I got my first copy of Photoshop, found out about graphic design and it took off from there.
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
My family isn’t in the slightest bit creative, however they all come from roles in care work and other empathy-driven careers. I think this has played a role in my mindset towards the way I work, but not why I chose it.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
My first exposure to creative learning was on a BTech in moving image at Cirencester Collage, then the graphic design course at Camberwell. At the time I never considered coding and designing websites as a possibility; at times I actively fought it. But looking back now, they both provided a great foundation for the projects I work on.
“Websites aren't static objects; they are in constant evolution.”
Website for Public Practice, created with Oliver Long and George Haughton
When and how did you learn to code?
For me, learning to code was another extension of my technical knowledge. It was a creative tool that let me express things in new ways. I first started playing with code properly when I was finishing my degree. I started by building my own and friends’ portfolios, and was just constantly creating experiments.
In the early days my work probably leaned more towards art than design. I started coding ‘properly’ when I joined Animade (previously called Chambers Judd) surrounded by a team of people pushing animation and web design and learning from James Chambers.
What were your first jobs?
While I was at Camberwell I started taking on small-scale commercial projects, and working for studios as a graphic and type designer. I spent a large chunk of my second year interning and freelancing at Simmonds ltd, building typefaces and working on logos.
After graduating, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to code. Luckily I got an offer to intern at Chambers Judd (Animade), which felt like a good fit, and I went on to work there for over two years. It was a great community to work in, and exposed me to a lot of the people I regularly work with today.
The Hoverstates blog Dan runs alongside Nate van der Ende, Mike Guppy and Simon Neveu
The Hoverstates blog Dan runs alongside Nate van der Ende, Mike Guppy and Simon Neveu
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Learning when to say no has been a struggle, especially with projects that really excite me. I can end up pushing myself too hard to get things perfect, or go that extra mile, and this has been at the detriment of other projects and personal life. It’s a delicate balance, but I’ve found it gets easier with experience. Doing a manageable amount makes your work better, as you’re not stressing or making silly mistakes.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I’m not really sure I have the tightest definition of what I do, other than making things for the internet, so I didn’t really have expectations.
With freelancing, I had visions of lazy afternoons in coffee shops working on projects at a leisurely pace, but the reality is spending most of your time hunting down that one elusive plug socket while suffering very slow internet.
What would you like to do next?
I would like to keep exploring new technologies and, potentially surround myself with a team of people, either in-house or though regular collaborations with other freelancers.
I don’t think my role will continue to exist as it does currently, but I feel I will always work in related fields and look forward to watching it evolve.
“I don’t think my role will continue to exist as it does currently, but look forward to watching it evolve.”
Work for London-based artist Sean Roy Parker
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Build a community around yourself, be patient with learning. There will be days when you want to hit your head against a keyboard, but like all things – it will get easier with practice. Be open to new opportunities and talk to people about what they do and their interests.
Show interaction from personal project Skate Shop