Spoilt by Design – Interview with Alan O’Rourke

Alan O’Rourke was a nominee in the 2005 Net Visionary awards in the design category. He runs Spoiltchild Design.

First of all well done on getting nominated and commiserations for not winning. Still, what was it like to be nominated? How did you like the event?

Absolutely devastated, I was ready to jump up and cry foul!! Nah, not really. I wont say I wasn’t disappointed but there is also a relief when its announced because you can then relax and look forward to dinner and enjoying yourself, which I did.
I had a ball. These events are great for meeting everyone, many for the first time after interacting with them online for a couple of months previously. The web is great for keeping in touch and communicating but nothing beats a good face to face. But try explaining to your wife that you have only just met the person in front of you while you chat like old mates.

You’ve also been nominated for a BAFTA Interactive Award too, which is pretty big. That must have been a big moment for you? Spoiltchild also got nominated for a few Chambers of Commerce awards, you’re getting a lot of attention fairly quickly with all these nominations. Are they good learning processes?

It’s a case of always the bridesmaid and never the bride! Eight award nominations since we started, seven this year and not a win yet. Your right, its amazingly quick considering we are only two years in business. I am proud as punch in fact. The Bafta was a “Holy Shit� moment. There was some amazing competition in it and the BAFTA judging panel are not afraid to put forward no nominations in a category if they feel that none are up to scratch. We found out on the night just how close we came to winning and it was something to either make you sick or thrilled that they considered it so good. I think that was the first validation that I might have something with Spoiltchild. My second thought was at least if Spoiltchild never gets off the ground it should make me more employable.

The chamber of Commerce awards were a great learning process. They helped highlight a big weakness in my business and myself which was verbal presentation. Its one area where a lot of designers, and developers too, fall down. The judging panel for that award was great to come up to me after the event and explain exactly where I fell down. I came away with more that evening then if I won anything. Presentation is something I am currently working on very hard at the moment and practicing every week.

How long have you been in the design business? How did you get into doing this? Have you always been a doodler? What inspires your designs? What are your views of Jakob Nielsen who seems ultra-conservative when it comes to design?

Haha, yes I have always been a doodler! I designed a magazine in primary school to try and sell to my mates for 50p a go. Mostly it was content from the Siamsa redrawn or traced by me and photocopied. It didn’t sell too well because once done I was more interested in designing the second one then marketing the first. Thankfully my business sense and respect for copyright law has improved since then.

I did take a roundabout way to get into design and realise that that was what I had actually been doing all along. No guidance teacher ever mentioned Design as an option. I tried a year in Fine art in Galway but despaired of the flighty nature of it. Took a year or two off and got a FAS job as a sign writer in a centre where I discovered their computer and proceeded to try and design their whole identity, branding, advertising and guide book. I think their signs still need painting. I then proceeded into film and TV production and then into gainful employment in a web development company called Spin Solutions.

I have no idea what inspires me. Everything I suppose. It seems to come at strange times and I have never been able to work out a formula for it. I think you just need to keep your mind open and also strangely be able to step away from your thoughts and look at them for potential. I think everybody has inspiring thoughts but not everyone steps back to realise what it is they are thinking. I am not sure if that makes sense.

To be honest I have never read anything by Jakob Nielsen. A lot that I have read about what he says just seems common sense to me. Like everything else in life design is a balance and you use your own best judgment.

Web 2.0 seems to have a massive amount of hype surrounding it, do you think it’s all hype or is it a big improvement?

Everyone seems to have different ideas as to what web 2.0 is. But all the interpretations are great anyway so I don’t think it matters. It is a rallying call and has created a renewed energy on the web that is great to see. Thankfully one of the universally agreed definitions of it is simplicity. Simple interfaces are always a good goal in my mind and so many applications are being realised with this ideal leading the design. It’s a clever and successful branding exercise that has made standards and user centric designs (that were once hard work) sexy!

Are you finding the likes of Skype and even instant messaging a benefit to your business? Do you get much business from outside of Ireland via search engine results? Do you foresee extending your reach to outside Ireland and increasing the number of international clients?

I was amazed this week when I actually thought about it. I have just employed a killer PHP developer from Poland, been dealing with a fantastic programmer in Singapore, a flash developer in south Africa and working on a Firefox extension with a brilliant extension developer in Mexico for a client based in Denmark but from the UK who has a business partner in the states. It truly is an international medium.

Mostly we use email and the brilliant Basecamp to work together on a project. Where Skype gets used mostly is actually in the office. There are now four of us here and everyone works a day or two from home to get a break from commuting and have a bit of an extra sleep in. Skype keeps everyone in touch throughout the day and files are normally passed back and fourth through it.

So far I have had no business come through search engines. But where they come in is if someone is looking for us explicitly or is considering working with us already and wants to check our profile on the web to be reassured. Nearly all our work comes through word of mouth.

Blogs and podcasts have really started to take off in Ireland, though a bit behind everyone else in the world as usual, how important do you think blogs and bloggers are? What about blogs for business? Are they effective for generating business and interacting with customers?

I think blogs are vitally important but like every other medium it depends on the blog and the blogger. Some are used well and written well with interesting helpful content very well targeted to a specific audience. Some are just rants and raves (not that I don’t enjoy a good rant!) which have limited business potential.

I am moving slowly into the whole podcast thing (the listening not the making). While a great idea and handy for filing in time between other things I am begging to wonder where people are going to get the time to be alone with their own thoughts and let their mind work and play on its own. My best ideas happen on the toilet where there is nothing else to do but let the mind wander. This is nothing against podcasting but against the way we insist on finding handy ways to occupy our every moment with outside stimulus.

The Irish blogosphere is still very much in its infancy. Do you foresee it expanding to a large degree or will blogs stay a niche or fad in Ireland? What blogs and Irish blogs do you read on a regular basis?

I think Blogs will always stay a niche, that’s their attraction. But there are millions of niches. Must it be put in Irish terms when it’s a global thing by its nature? In which case, at a guess, we probably have a pretty average share of bloggers per head of population. People seem to forget that Ireland has the population of a decent sized world city yet many comparisons seem to be made on a country basis even against countries of many many times the population.

I have too many blogs in my reader at the moment. Some culling needs to be done. Some Irish ones include:

And others:
… I could go on �

Are you a fan of gadgets and all the latest geek must-haves? Do you own mp3 players, digital cameras, smart-phones etc?

I love gadgets. I am currently drooling over the PSP and hoping Santa will be very very generous this year. I don’t travel enough to get enough use out of a really good MP3 player so I share a pretty basic one with my wife. As for a phone, I currently carry a brick around with me but its slowly dying and the new Nokia N70 looks so shiny and pretty.
Usually its down to money and if I have any or not.

You currently have a blog for your Pinstripe product and you are talking about the ups and downs of getting it out the door. What benefits did you see for being somewhat transparent while still being in semi-stealth mode? Pinstripe and Toddle both appear to be applications, are you moving into a new market with these and away from core design?

I don’t want to move away from design, and any clients reading this don’t worry 🙂 I love design, its my first love and always will be. There are a couple of reasons for building these applications. First they are great ideas. If I wasn’t going to build them who would. Also like all great products they fill a need, primarily mine. They will make my life as a designer and business person easier. But I figure if they make my life easier wouldn’t they make life easier for others as well. They also allow me to build an application the way I believe one should be built and interacted with. I am a huge believer in simplicity. When I approach a user interface I want to be in no doubt a) what it does and b) how to use it. In the case of Pinstripe and Toddle I really believe we have done that and I think you will agree when you see them.

Second is money. There are very low margins in Design and limits to growth. It’s a service industry so you get paid for your time. The big limit is that you only have so much time and can only bring in so much money. You have to be working a certain number of hours each week to ensure that you and everyone else in the team gets paid at the end of the month. That means you have a limit on the time you can work on the jobs you want to work on and need to accept less interesting jobs to cover the bills.
There are few limits with a product. If set up right you can be selling products when you sleep. Its selfish really. I want to relax more and not worry about covering the bills at the end of the month. I want on work more on the jobs I am interested in. Give design projects more time to make them really great.

The benefits I see to blogging about the process is early exposure to the applications. Its already building interest and it is also getting people involved in the process and journey. If people are interested and feel involved they become emotionally invested in the product and hopefully want it to succeed. That in turn leads to wider exposure as word spreads.
Also the market for the applications is predominantly business people. As I openly discuss the business process I go through I am touching on topics of great interest to them which will hopefully mean they will stick around to try out the applications when they come out.

I have never built an application before. It’s a new area for me and the business. I am sure there are a lot of other people out there considering doing it as well but they don’t know where to start or what they will run into when they do. I am a huge believe in giving to receive. That philosophy has built Spoiltchild. So I am sharing the information about all the ups and downs of the journey in the hopes that someone else might learn what works and what doesn’t work so they don’t make the same mistakes. Hopefully the universe will send that back to me somehow.

What’s it like in Ireland in terms of support from Govt and local organisations for a small business? Is the Govt doing enough to encourage inward investment and entrepreneurship? What changes would you like to see happen in order for increased success rates for small companies?

My business plan for Pinstripe has gone in this week. I will tell you how I get on 🙂 Toddle is small enough of a project that we don’t need any outside support. Education is the best way to increase success rates.

Where do you see SpoiltChild going in the next 12 months and the next 3-5 years?

In the next 12 months Spoiltchild will have released five products. At that point it should be out of my system. It should give us the comfort zone to grow how we want to. I don’t want to grow too big. There is a stage in design studios where management and admin takes over from the design and creates a separation between the client and the designer. I don’t intend that to happen. We will grow to about 7-8 people and be working from a nice office in Dublin working on some creative projects for many of the same great clients we have today helping them get bigger. That’s all I want…that and the PSP.

2 Responses to “Spoilt by Design – Interview with Alan O’Rourke”

  1. Dave says:

    Another great interview Damien, you should interview yourself, that’d be an interesting excercise.

  2. Damien says:

    Not a bad idea but I’d be afraid the interview would get quite heated and violence could happen if the interviewer known for asking quite incendiary questions pissed off the interviewee who is known to have a low tolerance for troublemakers.