Interviews With Early Web Developers · Heather Champ 1

What this is about:

Heather Champ is a pioneer web designer, an inspired young woman who has been at it as long as the web has been around. From her early days as the Special Projects Coordinator for the School of Architecture at Princeton University, through a remarkable string of successful professional design firms in New York and Montreal, to her present free-lance career with, Heather has been a guiding and innovative force for contemporary design elements. Photography is her signature, and her passion. Heather's work has been on display in galleries and museums, written about in journals, magazines, and newspapers, and is sent all over the world as electronic postcards. Exemplified by her long-term project, Mirror Mirror, it is easy to see why she has been held in such high esteem for integrating imagery with web design.

Jeff ClarkThis is your friendly interviewer, Jeff Clark, as he appeared in 1999. Time changes things.

The Web Was Very Grey

Heather Champ Heather is Canadian, growing up in Ottawa, and is a Fine Arts graduate of the University of Guelph. She will tell you her sense of humor comes from too many episodes of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. She was twice selected a Project Cool Sighting and one of the very early winners of the original Cool Site of the Day. Internet Brothers contacted Ms. Champ in early December 1999 and invited her to talk to us about digital photography technique, the evolution of web design, and a whole lot more.

[Internet Brothers] Heather welcome. You've been developing and designing sites for the World Wide Web since its invention. Can you take our readers through some web history and your own experiences to help set the stage?

[Heather Champ] Thank you... I accepted the position of Special Projects Coordinator at the School of Architecture during the summer of 1994 after working as a free-lance designer with a number of architects and architectural firms in New York. My first assigned task appeared when the school's administrator mentioned this little thing called the "Web". I went off to a brown bag lunch at CIT (Computer Information Technology) to be initiated into HTML page development by way of a Hypercard stack. It was very early days, NSCA Mosaic was still in beta versions, and the only graphical browser available if you didn't want to surf with Lynx. The web was very grey and either left justified or centered. It was thrilling.

I created a site on Princeton's servers as a development environment that wouldn't embarrass the University. I was hooked, or to be perfectly truthful, I was addicted; and through the time I spent online, I met some interesting people who afforded me incredible opportunities. H's Home Page was chosen as Cool Site of the Day March 31, 1995 because of an April Fool's joke I created by looping a series of HTML pages with the meta refresh tag. The traffic crashed Princeton's servers three times before they finally pulled the plug. That summer I decided to pursue a professional career in web design and moved to New York.

[IB] In those early years, you wrote volumes of articles for the original Web Developer Forum. From typography to coloring, JavaScript navigation to Flash animation; your advice and examples were eagerly anticipated by all the faithful. That work was a splendid and humble contribution to web evolution. Did putting your thoughts on record for others to learn from help reinforce the direction you were heading?

[HC] I was writing a bi-monthly design column for Web Developer Magazine, published by Mecklermedia. I was then asked to write a weekly online column of 500 words for iWorld's Developer's Forum. I think I wrote 51 columns in the year, only missing one due to flu. I found that writing a weekly column was an invaluable tool for taking stock of the ever changing landscape. The technology seemed to be advancing at the speed of light. 1996-97 was an incredibly euphoric time. Traditional media hadn't yet fully embraced the "new kid" on the block, Microsoft was just entering the arena and no one took a decent vacation until 1998.

Picking a topic, sitting down and writing — it was very therapeutic. I think writing can be a very useful tool for designers. Having to translate ideas and concepts from pictures or diagrams to words can sometimes be frustrating, but it focuses attention, and can become a great help when it's time to develop proposals, project descriptions, etc.

“While some may yearn for an old Wurlitzer jukebox, I'd love to have my own black and white photo booth. I'd ask every visitor to sit for a commemoration.” — Heather Champ

The Photography Bug

[IB] We have enjoyed amateur photography for more than 25 years. Photography is also your theme, your substance. How did you get started, and what are your favorite techniques and technologies these days?

[HC] I've never really thought of myself as a "photographer." It's rather presumptuous (I've always been suspicious of artists who call themselves artists). While I studied studio fine arts in University, photography was never a medium I had direct education in. Both of my parents were inveterate shutterbugs snapping away at every opportunity. I suppose I developed my love of photography from them. I think I was hooked when my mother purchased a Polaroid SX-70. The immediacy of a Polaroid is magical and I feel that this magic has returned with digital photography. Instant gratification!

I'm also rather entranced with photo booths. Every Metro station in Montreal has a photo booth, some are the traditional black and white vertical strip of four different images and others deliver colour images in a two across, two down block with the possibility of selecting a large, single image. Photo booths create an interesting dynamic between the sitter and the booth. While some may yearn for an old Wurlitzer jukebox, I'd love to have my own black and white photo booth. I'd ask every visitor to sit for a commemoration. There was one on auction at eBay earlier this year, but it was a few thousand dollars — a tad out of my price range.

I favour point and shoot 35mm cameras over larger, more bulky SLR — though I've decided to track down a decent second hand Nikon. It's easy to slip a small camera into a pocket or bag and never miss an interesting photograph if the opportunity arises. I currently have a Canon Elph that I'm not too thrilled with (I think that APS is really over-hyped. The actual negatives are much smaller, and the final prints don't have the same quality as standard 35mm. They are quite grainy and only the central portion of the image is in focus), and an older Ricoh R1.

Then there are all the wonderful novelty cameras. I've just purchased an "Action Sampler". The first roll didn't work out too well, 200 ASA in the house wasn't such a good idea, so I'm trying out a roll of 800 ASA. The dogs are ideal subject matter but they are a wee bit spooked by the odd noise the camera makes as it "clicks" through the exposure process. I'm looking forward to the results.

Digital SLR Camera [IB] Digital photography is quickly catching up with more traditional film processes, particularly for the instant gratification one can obtain with the new gadgets. What do you see as some of the advantages and disadvantages of the digital art vs. more traditional methods when used for web publishing?

[HC] I find the immediacy of digital photography very compelling. With traditional methods of photography you keep your fingers crossed until the film comes back from processing, but with a digital camera you can easily switch back and forth between "capture" and "view" settings to see your results. Larger storage enables photographers to snap more pictures, increasing the likelihood of a better shot. I typically take a number of images of the same subject, playing with the framing and distance from my subject matter.

Until recently, digital photography has been rather pricey. Colour printers and digital cameras with enough resolution to generate a decent print copy were beyond the reach of the average consumer. Mega pixel digital cameras have stepped toward addressing the resolution issue, and it is also now possible to purchase a very decent colour printer that can generate remarkable prints at reasonable prices.

Proceed to part 2 of Internet Brothers interview with Heather Champ.

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