I'm a Christian, a designer, and a gadget fan who lives in Cheltenham, UK.

This is my blog, a creative outlet to mess around and play with as well as a place that logs my thoughts and inspirations.

Interview With Shawn Blanc

At the begin­ning of the year I prom­ised to myself that I would strive to bring con­tent to Elec­tric Week­end that con­tained a little more pith. I began to brain­storm a few things and although a lot of those things haven’t come to fruition, one has.

I’d like to present to you, the first inter­view to appear on Elec­tric Week­end. Very kindly Shawn Blanc agreed to be my first vic­tim inter­viewee. I’m sure many of you know Shawn, but for those that don’t I’ll intro­duce him.

Shawn is a Chris­ti­an and has two blogs, his first was The Fight Spot which evolved into a Chris­ti­an focused part of the inter­net, and Shawn has writ­ten many chal­len­ging posts. His second blog can be found at shawnblanc.net and was launched as a birth­day present to him­self. Both are crack­ing reads.

PB: I thought a good place to begin would be with The Fight Spot and why you began blog­ging, but also how you began to focus TFS into the Chris­ti­an blog it has become?

SB: My first web­log was on blog­ger. Some friends of mine had blogs and I really liked the idea of me writ­ing some­thing and oth­ers read­ing it. Also, it felt like a great out­let for me. I’ve always con­sidered myself a writer but nev­er found an out­let that worked for me in the long run. Post­ing to a web­log seemed like it could be ideal.

After a few months on blog­ger I got my own domain and then ended up installing Word­Press. For the first year or more my web­log was a “per­son­al” blog. I told stor­ies and shared thoughts, etc. The change of focus on The Fight Spot to a Chris­ti­an web­log may have seemed ran­dom to some but totally nor­mal to me. I am a habitu­al tweak­er, and pub­lish­ing a web­log has *tons* of room for tweakage.

I real­ized that what I really wanted to write about was­n’t stor­ies of what happened in my day but rather issues and prin­ciples and things that were import­ant or rel­ev­ant to me. Part of that decision came when I real­ized that I am a bad story tell­er – I’ve always been a bad story tell­er, but I thought I could pass it off in writ­ing, but I was wrong.

PB: Well you cer­tainly write about those issues well, The Fight Spot is a great read. I found it through your Apostol­ic Blog­ging series and sub­sequently sub­scribed. I know a lot of people were chal­lenged by those posts and they gen­er­ated a lot of dis­cus­sion. With the con­tent being so focused on yours and oth­er peoples Chris­ti­an faiths, how do you begin writ­ing posts for TFS? Are they triggered by any­thing or do you feel some kind of prompt­ing to write on a par­tic­u­lar theme?

SB: I don’t think I could nail down just one meth­od or prompt­ing of how I write for TFS. I used to just write about whatever, then I began to write them­at­ic series of posts and now I seem to write once I have some inspir­a­tion for something.

I think the biggest change to writ­ing on TFS came when I launched shawnblanc.net. I was get­ting to the point on TFS where I wanted to keep it much more focused on Chris­ti­an top­ics but that did­n’t mean it was the only thing I wanted to write about. Hav­ing a second web­log gave me an aven­ue to write some­thing else which I love as well: design and tech­no­logy. (I’ve been a com­puter nerd since as long as I can remember.)

I know that guys like you and Ben Gray do a good job of meld­ing the two togeth­er, and I did that too for a while, but I wanted to try an exper­i­ment and see how things would fare if I split the two top­ics off and gave them each their own home. I think it’s been a great suc­cess. Read­er­ship for both sites has grown quite a bit since last summer.

Now when writ­ing for TFS I usu­ally post once I have the inspir­a­tion or prompt­ing. I went almost the whole month of Janu­ary without being able to put any­thing to words that I wanted to pub­lish on there, but then just yes­ter­day I wrote two great and un-related art­icles in one sitting.

PB: Thank you for the compliment!

I know how you feel with the whole aspect of not really being able to put any­thing into words, it’s some­thing I struggle with a lot. What I think is great, and very import­ant, is that you don’t try and force it, you let it come and when it does it’s always a very worth­while read.

How do you deal with a “bar­ron” patch? I know when I’m strug­gling to write some­thing, I’m very con­scious of the lack of any longer posts, are you aware of it in a sim­il­ar way or does it not really both­er you? Can you patiently wait it out till some­thing sparks you into action?

SB: I deal with dry spells in two ways: (a) I ignore them and just wait until I have some­thing to write about. I love to write so much that inev­it­ably it will get to the point that I’ll find some­thing to write about. Oth­er­wise, (b) do some­thing that will help me find a groove or topic.

Kick­ing off the reviews on Mac Soft­ware was a great way to give myself a top­ic and some momentum to write.

How­ever, I think a big reas­on for dry spells can be “false pres­sure”. Say someone wants to write some­thing but after think­ing about it, or even begin­ning the post they decide it will be lame and their read­ers won’t like it. So they end up not writ­ing it, and then say “I don’t have any­thing to write about.” Well, that’s not true. They do have some­thing to write, they’re just afraid to write it.

PB: That’s a really inter­est­ing point. I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m guilty of that kind of think­ing, but I would guess most blog­gers are at some point in their blog­ging life. Is it some­thing that’s ever troubled you?

SB: Sure it is. It’s hard not to write some­thing, know­ing it will be read by the pub­lic and not won­der about how oth­ers will respond or what they will think.

PB: I also like your approach to find­ing a groove for blog­ging with your top­ic based themes. How do they come about? Take your Mac Soft­ware reviews, were they triggered by any­thing in par­tic­u­lar or was it just some­thing you wanted to do?

SB: Well, it was sort-of a “one thing leads to anoth­er” scen­ario. I did an inter­view with Brent Sim­mons and prom­ised him a review of NNW in return for his time. I loved writ­ing the review so much that I thought it would be fun to do a whole series… and that’s how it started.

PB: Everything seems to fol­low on from one thing you’ve enjoyed, which I guess is logic­al and to be expec­ted. It’s become really obvi­ous to me through this inter­view that you enjoy pretty much every aspect of blog­ging. How long did it take you to “get” what blog­ging should be like? And do you have any advice for someone who is strug­gling to find their feet?

SB: I do enjoy pub­lish­ing a web­log. The chal­lenge of main­tain­ing it and devel­op­ing it is fun, not to men­tion I enjoy writ­ing and inter­act­ing with read­ers. I assume what you meant by “get” what blog­ging is, is how long did it take me to find my rhythm as a web­log pub­lish­er. It took me about a year or so before I found a voice that I liked, the top­ics I wanted to write on, the areas I wanted to devel­op and the areas I was­n’t con­cerned about.

Though, out­lining those into more clear con­cepts would not be too easy. It’s mostly intern­al, and hon­estly is sub­ject to change at any moment. How do I feel about the cur­rent state of my web­logs? Good? O.k. then I’ll leave them alone and keep on doing what I’m doing. If not good, then I’ll change some­thing. Per­haps the focus, the design, etc… Since writ­ing my web­logs is not my job it’s easy to enjoy them for what they are: a hobby and a side-pas­sion. Now that I say it, I sup­pose defin­ing those bound­ar­ies has helped me quite a bit to “get” it.

PB: I’m pleased you men­tioned ShawnBlanc.net. You’ve already filled us in on why you decided to setup the second blog, and you cer­tainly seem to be enjoy­ing it. I’m intrigued as to how the two are work­ing side by side. Do you feel more pres­sure from the read­ers of sbnet to write more great reviews, or do you feel more pres­sure from TFS read­ers to come up with more great though pro­vok­ing posts? Is there any con­flict between the two blogs?

SB: I get occa­sion­al com­ments or emails on The Fight Spot from long-time read­ers who miss the times when I was pub­lish­ing a full-on post every single day, but hon­estly the only pres­sure or con­flict I feel is from myself. I am con­stantly ana­lyz­ing and cri­tiquing my work, and I am super hard on myself.

There’s not much con­flict between the two sites; there are quite a few read­ers who read both and I think that’s great. Some­thing else I like about hav­ing both sites is the design of each. One is dark serif on white, the oth­er is light sans-serif on dark. I very much like the look of The Fight Spot, and though I’m still not 100% settled with the design of shawnblanc.net at the moment, it is get­ting there.

PB: We come to anther point I wanted to talk to you about. Design. I very much like the look of both of your sites. The con­trast of the col­ours between the two works very well and they both are a pleas­ure to read on.

You men­tioned you aren’t totally happy with SBnet yet, I’m enjoy­ing watch­ing the slight evol­u­tion of the site, do you have a par­tic­u­lar pro­cess you go through when it comes to design­ing your blogs? Or even when you are doing design work for cli­ents or OneThing?

SB: I have found that i design best when I have a prob­lem to solve; i.e. a spe­cif­ic pro­ject that needs to be cre­ated. Unlike my sis­ter who is *incredbly* artist­ic, I am not usu­ally think­ing about cre­at­ive things. I’m usu­ally prob­lem solv­ing some­thing or anoth­er. I real­ized I had a dif­fer­ent approach to design when at my first meet­ing work­ing for our mar­ket­ing depart­ment I was the only guy not dood­ling on my run-sheet.

So to answer your ques­tion. I don’t really have a pro­cess. When I sit down to start a pro­ject I look at the prob­lems that need to be solved by it. What needs to be com­mu­nic­ated? What needs to be said? Can it be said visu­ally or do I need text? Etc… Then I usu­ally sketch out some ideas until I feel like some­thing “clicks” in my mind. Then I put my hand to the mouse and start work.

As far as the evol­u­tion of shawnblanc.net there cer­tainly has­n’t been any rhyme or reas­on what­so­ever. It’s actu­ally rather funny how the design has evolved. Last sum­mer I began mulling over the idea of start­ing shawnblanc.net, but did­n’t have too much motiv­a­tion to get the ball rolling. On the side, I have always been a fan of Kyle Neath’s Hem­ing­way theme1, but nev­er had an out­let to use it. Then when I came across Nal­in’s Hem­ing­way EX2 ver­sion of Neath’s ori­gin­al theme I knew it was the look I wanted to go with. I bought my domain, highly tweaked the theme to cus­tom­ize it into a one-colum, side­bar-on-the-right lay­out and launched the weblog.

When I tweak some­thing it’s usu­ally because I’ll see some­thing on my site and decide, “that could be bet­ter.” So I’ll think about it for a day or two or more and when I decide how I want it to be I’ll make the change. Some­times it sticks some­times it doesn’t.

I think that visu­al famili­ar­ity plays a pretty big role for vis­it­ors and reg­u­lar read­ers, so I try to keep the over­all *feel* of the site the same, while mak­ing minor adjust­ments here and there. Plus I think it gives reg­u­lar read­ers some­thing to do when their bored: notice some­thing dif­fer­ent. Even­tu­ally I sus­pect that I’ll finally land on all the ele­ments in a way that I’m happy with.

PB: I next wanted to talk to you about your recent reviews on Mac share­ware. You’ve garnered a lot of atten­tion from them, which is well deserved, and I’ve found them to be very inter­est­ing reads. I like how they are from the per­spect­ive of someone who has lived with the apps for a peri­od of time. Often reviews are from people who only use the app or product for a week and I find they feel oddly dis­con­nec­ted. I like that yours are relat­able and born from a genu­ine appre­ci­ation of the product. How do you go about writ­ing such com­pre­hens­ive reviews and have you been sur­prised by how well they have been taken?

SB: I really enjoy it, but those reviews are a lot of work to put togeth­er. I start out by search­ing up inform­a­tion about the applic­a­tion and read­ing all about it. Mostly blog posts and oth­er reviews by the developer, oth­er fans, oth­er tech sites, etc…

Then I think about what are the things *I* like about the app. Why am I a fan of it? Why did I buy it? I jot out some notes and high­lights of what I want to talk about. Then I decide what I actu­ally want to com­mu­nic­ate with the art­icle. More than just shar­ing inform­a­tion or highlght­ing fea­tures, I want the post to have a per­son­al­ity and a feel to it that com­mu­nic­ates some­thing as a whole. It’s as if the whole art­icle were a can­vas and I’m try­ing to paint a pic­ture, there is a lot of fine detail and unique attrib­utes to the paint­ing, but they all come togeth­er to form a spe­cif­ic image that you might not see unless you were on the oth­er side of the room tak­ing in the whole thing at once.

Have I been sur­prised at the atten­tion their get­ting? Yes and no. I expect a lot of people vis­it and link to them simply because the post is long, so geeze…it *must* be good, right? On the oth­er hand, I do know that a lot of people really are enjoy­ing the art­icles – hope­fully as much as I am enjoy­ing writ­ing them – and that is a great thing.

PB: Well I for one am enjoy­ing them, please keep writ­ing them.

You’ve recently writ­ten a couple of inter­views with Camer­on Hunt and John Gruber, which have been fas­cin­at­ing reads. How do you go about approach­ing inter­views? Do you have any tips for someone like me who is par­ti­cip­at­ing in his first email interview?

SB: I learned a ton about how to con­duct a prop­er email inter­view through my exper­i­ence with Gruber. I asked a sim­il­ar ques­tion to him as well, and I like how he men­tioned know­ing the list of top­ics and ques­tions you want to cov­er up-front but mold­ing the inter­view and allow­ing it to take on its own personality.

For the few inter­views I’ve done I sent an email to the poten­tial inter­viewee ask­ing them if they would be inter­ested in an inter­view and will­ing to take the time to exchange sev­er­al emails. None of inter­views were time sens­it­ive for pub­lish­ing so I men­tioned that – let­ting them know they did­n’t need to feel any pres­sure about reply­ing as fast as they could.

Anoth­er thing I’ve learned is that chan­ging top­ics in an email inter­view is dif­fer­ent than chan­ging top­ics in a vocal con­ver­sa­tion. Although it’s great to have the feel of a con­ver­sa­tion in a pub­lished email inter­view you don’t have to lit­er­ally talk to the inter­viewee as if it were a face to face con­ver­sa­tion. If I ask a ques­tion and they reply with all the inform­a­tion I wanted to know and I have noth­ing to add then I don’t, I simply move on. Try­ing to make sure the replies I give are an addi­tion to the con­ver­sa­tion, not just com­ment­ary, if that makes sense.

PB: And there’s that name again. John Gruber. Your site is the only place on the inter­net (or at least the first) which con­tains the reas­on why Dar­ing Fire­ball is com­ment free. Since com­ing to John’s atten­tion you seem to have col­lec­ted a few links on DF. I’m intrigued to know how much this affects vis­it­or num­bers and sub­scriber numbers?

SB: The links from John have been extremely help­ful in estab­lish­ing a sol­id read­er­ship and sub­scriber base. I am extremely grate­ful to all of those who have stuck around my site after the DF links. It’s a lot bet­ter than the ran­dom, un-involved sub­scribers you would get from a site like Digg – the sub­scribers from DF like design, they like to geek out on their Macs and they pay quite a bit of atten­tion to detail.

PB: Well as I’m a sub­scriber to both you and Dar­ing Fire­ball I can quite safely say I under­stand how you have built up a sol­id read­er base.

I’d like to say a final thank you to Shawn for par­ti­cip­at­ing in this inter­view. I’ve enjoyed it and learnt a lot, and I hope you have as well.

  1. Kyle Neath’s Hem­ming­way Word­Press theme.↩
  2. Nal­in’s Hem­ming­way mod which is the basis of Shawn’s site.↩