Developer Rifke Sadleir on her first website, coding’s gender issues and being mathematically-minded
After initially joining the illustration course at Brighton, Rifke Sadleir switched to graphic design within just two months. Although she now works predominantly with other people's designs, she cites her graphic design background as having had a major influence in her practice as a developer: “Having a design education enables me to offer opinions on design decisions”, she says. Only a year out of university, she has already compiled an impressively sophisticated portfolio, complementing her work as a developer at design studio Our Place with an eclectic and revolving set of self-initiated projects. Here, she talks early experiences, getting to grips with the gender issues surrounding coding and overcoming fraudulent feelings for not having a ‘legitimate’ coding background.
Designer and Developer, Our Place (2016–present)
It’s Nice That, Dropbox, Contra Journal, Sparrow, Ben Weaver Associates, Pete Sharp, Harry Butt, Corin Kennington, Adam Slama, Synthetic Ecology
Multiple States, Designer and Developer (2015–2016)
Assembly London, Design Intern (2016)
BA Graphic Design, University of Brighton (2013–2016)
How would you describe what you do?
At Our Place, Alex and Ted (the two founders and graphic designers) usually design a site in full, which I’ll then work from. We always have an ongoing dialogue during the design process and build, so our roles in any given project overlap to an extent. Although my predominant role in the studio is as a developer, my background in design enables me to understand and offer opinions on design decisions, and have a clearer understanding of the intent behind the Alex and Ted’s designs.
What does a typical working day look like?
A typical working day at Our Place starts at 10am and ends at 6:30pm. How I spend my time day-to-day can really vary. Some weeks we will be working solidly on one project for several days, and often there will be several projects running alongside each other, and time will be split between them. A few months ago we moved to a new studio in Hackney Wick with Seetal Solanki of Ma-tt-er. Before that we shared a studio in Autumn Yard, Bow with sign-painting collective This Is My Costume.
What do you like about working in London?
I moved to London just under a year ago so living here’s still a bit of a novelty. A lot of friends who work in similar circles have since moved here too. Being surrounded by this creative community is pretty important in terms of staying motivated and challenged in my work.
The downsides are the usual stuff: commuting and the price of rent. The other thing is the number of people who expect you to be willing to work for free in return for ‘decent exposure’ or ‘the opportunity to be part of a cool project’. The worst was when someone offered to pay me in t-shirts!
Do you also freelance alongside your full-time work? If so, how does this work differ and how do projects usually come about?
I freelance a bit outside of Our Place. At the moment I’m freelancing in-house at Wonderbly, the children’s book publisher who make the ‘Lost My Name’ books, working across design and development. Previously I did a lot of freelancing from home making websites, but that could sometimes feel isolating, and if you didn’t manage your time properly you could end up not leaving the house all day. Working in-house means you get to meet a whole new group of people and feel more involved with the work.
The majority of my freelance work comes through friends and friends of friends, but occasionally someone will get in touch after seeing my work featured on a site like hoverstat.es.
How collaborative is your work?
At Our Place it’s completely collaborative. We have consistent, ongoing conversations surrounding the process of both the design and build. It’s good because we all have pretty similar tastes in terms of aesthetics, so it never feels like we have a hard job explaining our ideas to each other.
“My background in design enables me to understand and offer opinions on design decisions, and have a clearer understanding of the intent.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
One of the most enjoyable things is meeting people I would never have otherwise met in everyday life, and finding more out about what they do. Building someone a website often offers me a chance to talk to them about their creative process, and get an idea of of how they work. Seeing a project I’m proud of, and that the client’s happy with, going live is definitely another of the best bits of the job.
One of the worst things can be clients who ask for extra amendments outside of the brief as semi-favours. ‘Can you just like, change this little thing?’ often becomes a whole series of ‘little things’, which can easily become a few days of unofficial work that you aren’t getting paid for. This happens particularly on freelance jobs, as it’s more difficult to define your time in terms of studio hours – people sometimes assume you have a completely open schedule as a freelancer.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
It would have to be the project I did in 2017 for It’s Nice That and Dropbox Paper. The project involved working collaboratively with photographer J.P. Bonino and illustrator (and poet) Anna Haifisch under the direction of multidisciplinary creative Max Siedentopf to create a interactive 3D site. The site combined J.P. Bonino’s photographs and Anna’s poems which were created in response to a set of rhyming words written by Max. There was loads of scope for each of us to have creative freedom within the brief, and I got to work with some people whose work I’ve followed and loved for a pretty long time. You can see the site here: snake-lake-awake-cake-drake-rake-shake.com
What skills are essential to your job?
Having a background in design is pretty important for me, as it enables me to work more flexibly with designers. There is always a dialogue surrounding the design rather than designs being finalised before we start working on the site, which enables us to experiment while the build’s ongoing. I guess it’s also important to be fairly mathematically-minded, or at least have an enjoyment of this kind of thing, otherwise you’re probably going to hate it!
Are you currently working on any side projects?
At the moment, I’m trying to get back into drawing. There was about a year where I only really made work using digital media, and I kind of overdid it. I’ve also got a few typefaces that I’ve been meaning to finish for ages. There’s also a collaborative project I’ve just started working on with some graphic design students from Kingston University which is in its very early stages. I get bored easily, so I think I’m the happiest with my work at times when I’ve got several personal projects on the go in different kinds of media and disciplines.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A MacBook and an iPhone (I’m an Apple slave!), Sublime Text for coding, Chrome for developing, MAMP (which creates a server on your computer to enable you to test server-side languages), BrowserStack for cross-browser testing, and InDesign for creating initial rough designs and layouts.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I think I always wanted to do some form of visual art and I had a vague idea that it would involve drawing; nothing specific. In foundation year I decided to apply for illustration courses. But before then I hadn’t really known that it was an option. I went to study the illustration BA course at Brighton and lasted a whole two months before one of my crits went badly and I switched to graphic design, in what I think was meant to be retaliation. They were taught in the same studio so it felt like an obvious alternative.
“After I left uni and started describing myself as a ‘web developer’, I felt like a bit of a fraud for not having done a computer science degree.”
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
I don’t know if it was that influential. My dad coded his own business website, so he tried to teach me a bit of HTML when I was about 12. But I was very resistant to learning at this point; I think that went as far as me changing the background to lilac and the text to pink Jokerman and inserting a gif of a glittery cat before I got bored and went back to my GameBoy.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
After I left uni and started describing myself as a ‘web developer’, I felt like a bit of a fraud for not having done a computer science degree and having a ‘legitimate’ coding background. I now don’t think this is the case; I’ve met a lot of other developers without formal qualifications. It’s also been really important in terms of meeting people and making contacts; I still see a lot of my old course mates and everyone I live with was on my course at uni! I met Our Place through mutual friends from Brighton, and I get most of my freelance jobs through these connections too.
When and how did you learn to code?
It was a bit of a mixture; the first time I developed an interest was at uni when we were taught how to use [open-source computer programming language] Processing. Seamus White, one of my best friends got into coding for web, and got an internship at Multiple States, a web development studio. After he finished his internship, the studio were looking for their next intern and Seamus put me forward. The internships were a week long, and the premise was that you had to come up with an idea for a website before starting and you’d learn to code it over the duration of the week. On the last day of the internship they asked me if I’d like to stay on for a day’s work per week, so I worked there once a week through my third year of uni, which definitely informed my work a lot through the year.
Who in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Definitely Will McLean and Kevin Beck from Multiple States. They gave me all sorts of valuable advice, from teaching me about the code itself to practical things like how and when to invoice, how to manage time and the importance of doing personal work outside of your job.
“I feel like there’s rarely a neutral response to the fact that I’m a female developer, as it’s a very male-dominated industry.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Not necessarily a challenge, but something that I have to constantly re-evaluate for myself are the gender issues surrounding code. I feel like there’s rarely a neutral response to the fact that I’m a female developer, as it’s a very male-dominated industry. I guess my name can sound gender-ambiguous so sometimes people find it hard to conceal their surprise when we’ve been emailing about a job and I turn up and I’m not male.
The other side of this is the whole positive discrimination thing. Sometimes people are keen specifically to employ a female developer for the sake of equality, which has often worked in my favour for getting jobs. But it also leaves me slightly paranoid that if I was a male developer with the same body of work, I’d have to work harder to get noticed.
I never really thought about gender when I started coding. I just knew that coding was something that I enjoyed, but maybe some girls do get put off by thinking that it’s a typically ‘male’ job. Giving exposure to female coders is important in convincing more girls that they won’t be excluded because of their gender.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I didn’t really have a clue what it was going to be like.
What would you like to do next?
I’d really like to combine the different parts of my practice a bit more. I do a lot of jumping between disciplines but I feel like I haven’t quite worked out how they sit together.
Could you do this job forever?
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Talk to as many people as possible! Talk to people you admire, and who are doing a job you’d like to do. I generally found that people are flattered and pretty receptive (as long as you’re not nagging them) and you might even get an internship or job out of it.
Do you have any tips on learning to code?
Give yourself a project to work on instead of just focusing on learning everything there is to know; having a bit of context gives you motivation to learn, and enables you to get more of a feel for your own place and style within the industry.
Online courses! There are free ones and paid ones. I used Codecademy and Code School when I was first learning. These are also useful to return to when you’re more confident, to refresh your knowledge and to prevent yourself from falling into bad habits.
Start intensive, then learn little and often. This depends on how you learn best, but I found that the best way for me to learn at the very start was to lock myself away with some online courses for a day or so, and then learn in short sessions every day after that.
Find a mentor! I was really lucky to have Will and Kevin from Multiple States as mentors, as they were brilliant teachers and incredibly generous with their time. They not only taught me how to code, but also taught me why certain things work the way they do. It can be frustrating and a bit demoralising when you’re learning on your own and things are less than intuitive. Having a mentor(s) to support you and explain things in person is a lot more encouraging than relying on stack overflow forums to provide you with answers.
It’s fine if it’s buggy, or you do something wrong, or if you don’t immediately understand something. None of these things mean that you’re ‘not good enough’. Coding is largely a process of solving and refining, and there’s always loads more to learn even for experienced coders because languages and trends can change so quickly.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Rifke Sadleir