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Q&A with Heydon Pickering

Web developer from UK, editor at Smashing Magazine

I'm Heydon. I'm a web developer and a writer based in Norwich working with a company called Neontribe where I'm the lead designer. Basically, I'm in charge of HTML and CSS and I concentrate on web typography; both creating and setting type. To put it another way, I'm the last one of us you'd want to write javascript for you. I'm also a recent convert to the importance of screen reader and keyboard accessibility, so I spend a lot of time worrying that my designs don't work for as many users as they should.


Colleagues take the mick out of me for being the "design bloke", but visual design is not hugely interesting to me. Accordingly, clunky looking hardware or interfaces are fine, so long as they're not too clunky to use. I do most of my work on a Samsung laptop running Windows 8. It's had 4GB of extra RAM crammed up it just to be sure. I run to work with this is a backpack, wearing normal clothes and about twice a week someone will shout "RUN, FORREST!" at me. I've also been pulled over by the police.

My only Apple device is an iPad Mini which I got for testing with the built-in VoiceOver screen reader software. I took a refurbished one to the "Genius Bar" because it wouldn't activate and the "genius" replaced it with a brand new one, no questions asked. William Blake never did that for anyone.

At Neontribe, we're big on paper prototyping. We make wonky "interfaces" out of card, acetate, marker pens and blu-tack then get testers to play with it while one of us pretends to be the "hardware" that runs the application. We take pens, scissors and tape to testing sessions so we can tear up the "app" and rebuild it on the fly. Sometimes we come back from sessions with little more than hamster bedding, but it's all part of the process.

I've started doing talks lately and Christian Heilmann from Mozilla got me onto the idea of recording them myself. I already had a Zoom H4n laying around for recording the Doom Metal I play. The on-board microphones are superb and it's fast to set up too. Last time, I set the levels by getting the audience to "boo" at me in unison.


I'm big on open source and web standards. Inkscape meets both of these criteria since its native format is SVG. The two "icon fonts" I made on Font Squirrel were drawn and assigned to glyphs with Inkscape, using its inbuilt SVG font feature. Font Squirrel's generator is also indispensable, especially given its subsetting feature. Subsetting web fonts is an overlooked part of website performance.

I have another, more expensive piece of software from Adobe called "Photoshop" which I mostly use for saving screenshots. Or I did, until I found Lightshot. I use FontForge on the rare occassions that I need to do kerning, which has to be achieved in 15 second bursts, such is FontForge's crash rate on Windows 8.

I mostly design web pages in the browser using Firefox and have recently moved from using the Firebug extension to just using the on-board development tools. The HTML inspector isn't as good, but it's faster and the "responsive view" feature is great for squishing the viewport without squishing your tools with it. For screenreader testing, I use NVDA with Firefox and JAWS, then VoiceOver on the iPad before I try anything else: I can expect these combinations to support a good chunk of the "rich" accessibility features specified with HTML5.

In terms of frameworks and Content Management Systems, I like anything that lets me easily write my own HTML for everything. To do this with Drupal takes a lot of time and effort, whereas Perch and the recently released Ghost blogging platform give you much more control. I love the simplicity of Ghost with its declarative Handlebars templates. As an experiment, I redesigned my blog so it contained no CSS classes in the markup. Perch was the only way I could achieve this easily at the time.

When I'm writing, I start by going to a pub with a notebook to start jotting down and structuring my ideas. It's important to go to a crap pub where you don't know any of the other punters. Times that I've tried writing at my local have just resulted in drinking sessions. I usually forget my notebook and come to collect it the next day, finding it filled with obscene drawings. The stuff I'm happy with gets stuffed into Evernote, then I write the article up with the same software I use for editing HTML: Usually Notepad++ or Sublime Text. Smashing Magazine are getting me onto using Editorially soon, which I hear is nice.


Every web developer will tell you that one of the biggest frustrations comes from different browsers not rendering web pages in the same way. When you start working with Assistive Technologies like screen readers you realize that each of these works differently per browser. Effectively, the disparity is "number of browsers x number of screen readers". I'm not complaining: I think the W3C does surprisingly well at getting vendors to agree with one another, but it is depressing when one party insists on doing things their own way, making life harder for everyone else. Having two HTML specifications doesn't help, but I only ever consult one of them.

Oh, and I want a new head for my Peavey bass cab. The other one blew up years ago and my Fender combo can't handle a guitar tuned to "G". It's too low, so the speaker cones have perforated around the edges. I think they're trying to escape.