Lea Alcantara is one of the better-known web designers online. At only 27, she has already set up her own design company and has made a name for herself in the design community.
Here Lea talks about how she got started on design, being the boss of her own company, her love for ExpressionEngine, some of her favorite apps and websites and her personal branding.
Hi Lea! Please give us a little backgrounder on yourself – age, degree, hobbies.
I just turned 27 this year. I went to college, majored in Design & Digital Media and got myself a Visual Communication Design diploma. When I’m not designing, I really love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. I also love to sing. Bonus trivia: I used to be in a choir and was in 5 musicals throughout high school.
This is such a cliche question but it’s something that can’t really be avoided – how did you get started on web design? Why did you choose this particular career? Did you just kind of fall into it or was it something that you’ve always wanted to do?
I’ve always been an artistic person, ever since I was a child. I started playing around with websites when Netscape 1 and 14.4 baud modems were out. The habit never went away, even though it started as a hobby showcasing my writing, artwork, and a fledgling blog. In some ways I did “fall into it” — I was considering several career options and paths during my last year of high school; pursuing web design seemed the most natural way to express both my artistic and technical side. Originally, I thought I was going to be more of an illustrator or animator, but web design won out in the end.
When you started professionally designing websites, how did you get clients? More importantly, how do you keep them?
In one word: networking. Making sure I make great sites, got the word out there, and soon referrals started coming. I got exposure through a lot of my peers’ and CSS galleries back when it was still new. From there, I just tried to keep making great sites and designs. How I keep clients is essentially providing them excellent service and results. Building trust is key; finding someone new is always cumbersome so half the battle in keeping clients is to make them feel that working with someone else wouldn’t be as rewarding as working with me.
You run your very own one-woman company. What were the difficulties you encountered in the beginning? Do you plan to expand any time in the near future or do you prefer to continue subcontracting some of the work you receive?
In the beginning, I think the main difficulty is the unknown. I think when anyone first starts a business you’re always in survival mode. You just want to make sure you can pay the bills. So, I think one of things that I could have done more was plan for success. However, with the network, trust, and reputation I built, it wasn’t as hard as it seemed to garner clients.
I don’t plan to expand any time soon. Sub-contractors are the “new employee.” I like being able to work with experts of their craft and we all get to do what we like to do or are best at. Being a boss is often misunderstood and under-appreciated. When you take on an employee, you really are responsible for that person’s livelihood. Right now, I don’t want to take on that type of responsibility.
What is your CMS of choice? Why?
ExpressionEngine! I would call it “the designer’s CMS.” I love it because the templating system is extremely powerful and the syntax used is not a huge leap of logic for front-end developers who are used to an XML tag structure (open tag, content, closed tag). I love that it can do a lot of things out of the box without having to install that many add-ons, and it’s a relatively affordable solution for clients. That being said, the add-on and developer community is amazing. Actually, the entire ExpressionEngine community is really second-to-none. I think this is partially because as a commercial product, you attract professional clients. This means, naturally that everyone “plays nice” on the forums, and on top of that, the support is fast and top-notch. There are very few CMS communities out there that can rival the friendliness of ExpressionEngine’s community.
What software do you use in your design work? What are the hardware you can’t live without?
I use Adobe CS3 as my software suite of choice. I use mainly Photoshop for my work, but you can also see me dipping into Illustrator for vector and identity work, and InDesign for any print or wireframe work. Coda is my main html / css editor and I use Cyberduck for FTP. Regarding hardware, as someone who started as a PC studio, I can’t imagine ever working without my 17″ Macbook Pro. I’m definitely an Apple convert.
Name three apps that increase your productivity.
I use The Hit List as my main to-do app, iCal synced with Google Calendar, and Billings for timing projects.
What are your top five favorite websites of all time (in terms of design) and why?
He is really taking the idea of art direction on the web to the max. Design with context and meaning? Yes, please! I love his customized entries and how he is able to really push the flexibility of CSS and CMSs, as well (he also uses ExpressionEngine). As also the mastermind between Typedia, he really knows how to play around with type.
Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain is a master designer, and he never even had any formal training! Can you believe that? He simply knows how to use contrast and subtle details to draw out the best in a design, no matter what element he’s focusing on. The man is a stickler for details.
3. change.gov – actually, the entire Obama campaign
I think that Blue State Digital did a great job of tying all their web properties together, consistently and beautifully. They knew how to manipulate imagery (dramatic gradients, thoughtful photograph choices, great colour scheme), grids, and type to convey a lot of information in an attractive manner across all platforms.
I love how super stylized it is, and extremely consistent even throughout the years. They really own the type and colors. They somehow manage to squeeze in as much imagery and information possible and yet still not make it too overwhelming.
They live and breathe design and have established a strong aesthetic. Strong imagery and whitespace usage, they aren’t afraid to take risks with their grid or content; unlike most websites, they’re one of the few who choose to be the least verbose possible on their homepage. Almost unheard of!
I’ve observed that designers tend to work harder on their own website than any other project that came before (and comes after). What is the inspiration behind Lealea.net? Did you have any difficulties creating what is, essentially, your “alter-ego” online?
It’s hard to pinpoint one single inspiration. Since lealea.net was such a personal endeavour I can even say that all my personal and professional experiences up to now has influenced lealea.net. I also take a little bit of issue regarding “alter-ego.” That implies that I’m being someone completely different online, when that is not the case and absolutely opposite of what I advocate when I talk about personal branding. It was a difficult process for sure, but I outline all of that in my article on A List Apart: http://www.alistapart.com/articles/redesigning-your-own-site/
What does the Lea Alcantara brand stand for? How did you build your personal brand? How do you maintain it?
It stands for design with sass and class. In short, working me assures that you’ll never have a dull experience or product in the end, but I’m a professional through and through. As for building my personal brand, I achieved that by going through an adjective-association exercise, outlined in my series of articles Art of Self-Branding (http://www.lealea.net/selfbranding)
To maintain it, if I’m doing it right, all I really have to do is make sure I’m being myself in every touch point. So, it’s actually not that hard. It’s harder to maintain a company brand because it’s a step removed. A personal brand is essentially you, concentrate. You know you’re doing it wrong if people say, “You’re nothing like I imagined you from your website.” Fortunately, I’ve never had anyone say that to me in the almost 5 years of being in business. What you want people to say is either one of the two, when you meet: “You’re exactly as I imagined.” or “You’re even better in person.”
What do you love most about your job?
I absolutely love being my own boss! The freedom — manufactured, or not — is really quite intoxicating. I love that I have the opportunity to work on a variety of projects, and the sense of satisfaction in making my clients really really happy with the end product, especially if they make money or gain exposure as a direct result of a design of mine. I love meeting and networking with people, and I love sharing my knowledge.