Most of this community, was my impression, hung out at Flasher.net. I definitely felt like I was part of a movement to better the web. Keep in mind, this was a time when it was probably widely believed that the web would eventually be a 3D virtual reality interface. Fun times.

Your name, plus your original "web name/handle"

Joen Asmussen. For handles I’ve used either my last or first name.

Your first web encounter, year etc.

Around 1997 or so, the high school I attended got Internet access.

My brother sent me a link to Gabocorp, and I was blown away. I showed it to my friend (Anders Nielsen, lunarmedia.com) and it wasn’t long after we would both start browsing for more info on this tech.

What fascinated me about Flash was the juxtaposition of what was possible compared to the straight HTML I’d seen so far. Not only could you pick your own fonts, but you could in fact make sure they were nicely antialiased in every browser that had the plugin installed. Oh, and you could animate big blobs of color. Everyone loves blobs.

The trend at the time was to create full-bleed Flash sites, effectively mimicking the “multimedia CD-roms” you’d receive along with your new computer: interactive experiences with background music, intros, all that stuff.

Most of my favorite sites from that era are offline today, but yenz.com is still around, and it’s still so pretty.

I’d also found my way to flasher.net (love that name), a forum dedicated to Flash development and showcasing great Flash sites.

It was an interesting time to join, because Flash had just moved from Flash 2, which was barely interactive, to Flash 3 which with its basic ActionScript opened up a world of possibilities. It was early days, in other words, and the community that used Flash outside of its initial “animated banner ads” purpose wasn’t yet that big.

Most of this community, was my impression, hung out at Flasher.net. I definitely felt like I was part of a movement to better the web. Keep in mind, this was a time when it was probably widely believed that the web would eventually be a 3D virtual reality interface. Fun times.

What our readers might recognise you most for, when you first hit the web.

Most of the stuff I built around the time was just fun and games: simple little Flash animations. Eventually I put together a showcase of sorts I called “Asmussen Interactive” (archive link).

I’m pretty sure it was widely influenced by the mood of “Riven”, a video game released at the time. Mostly for its animating blobs, I’m sure, the site was eventually picked for “Site of the Day” at Macromedia.com. That got me a lot of email.

I suppose looking back at your old work in embarrassment is one indicator that you’ve improved since then. That said, I’m no less embarrassed by the second attempt I made, “The Turtleshell Story” (archive link).

Revisiting it today, though, I do notice an emerging love for color, a love I still have to this day. I remember being inspired by the work of Me Company, particularly what they did for Björk’s fantastic “Homogenic” album.

Your digital journey since.

Around the time when I built the Turtleshell site, I had just about finished high school and was moving on to the next phase of life, the one where you start to find out what you’re supposed to do. At this point I’d developed a love for great design, so I applied to a design school.

What appeals to me about visual design is twofold. On one hand, it’s the enjoyment of seeing a beautiful illustration or a great piece of artwork and thinking: oh I wish I’d made that.

More importantly, though, it’s that sensation of accomplishment you feel when you create something just for the sake of doing so. Creating something out of nothing is a deeply satisfying experience.

Doing it for a living, however, adds a dimension. Having to deliver on a client request: being creative on demand, adds a level of anxiety and at times even a sense of insufficiency to the mix.

Unless you pour your heart into your work, I find, it’ll never be great. When you do, you put your soul out there for criticism. So the challenge for me was clear: I’d definitely found a calling, but I craved a thicker skin capable of handling the way of the trade. I suspected I could only get that by improving my skills overall and acquiring routines and processes I could rely on when the going got rough.

So I shelved all plans I had for a followup turtle site, and instead created a new website. I called it “Noscope”: no scope, no target, no aim. By deliberately not setting a bar for the quality of my work, I hoped to relieve myself of any pressure I was feeling.

The plan was to create artwork every month — 5 pieces around a theme of my own choosing — solely for the purpose of improving my skills and rediscovering the joy of creating. I built a basic portfolio system I could easily update to show 5 new pieces of artwork every month.

I launched it along with the first installment of artwork on May 1st 2001 as part of the “May 1st Reboot” project and was fortunate enough to be picked a winner by one of the judges.

I’d never thought it would go on for so long, but I’d definitely found something. Sitting down and indulging in great music while I was composing something with only myself as the client was a great relief.

So I kept at it for 6 years. 5 pieces on a theme, every month, coming to a total of 360 pieces (theyre all still online, in fact). In hindsight, some of them weren’t that good, sure, but others were pretty decent. More than anything that taught me that creating a great piece of work is not so much a matter of talent or skill, but a matter of perseverance and the luck of the draw.

What I also found was that if you take pleasure in expressing yourself visually, it doesn’t matter what tool you use to accomplish that, what matters is that you enjoy what you’re doing.

At the time, I’d finished design school and was working with Flash at an agency in the city, and frankly quickly tiring of it. It wasn’t a matter of fans spinning up or batteries draining or any of the criticisms Flash is drawing in this modern mobile age.

I was tired of Flash for the simple fact that I felt like I was starting over from scratch every time I created something new. No matter how much I tried to compartmentalize and optimize my processes, creating a fast-loading and user friendly website was a chore bounding on impossible.

Although I would never have said this back in the day, Jakob Nielsen was right: Flash is 99% bad.

So like it is with horse racing, you bet on a horse until you bet on another one. Since this was now both my hobby and work, I needed a new horse to bet on, one that wasn’t waiting for Adobe to hardware accelerate it.

The year was 2007 and I’d long since understood why Zeldman.com was a great website. While it wasn’t a bunch of blobs animating (which I was fond of at one point) it was fast-loading, user friendly and often updated. It was even accessible, something Flash could never really be.

Over the course of the decade, it had slowly dawned upon me that if you create 360 illustrations in a forest and no-one is there to see them, all you’ll get is the enjoyment and skill of having created 360 illustrations in a forest. In other words, for a website to be truly engaging, it has to be more than what Flash would ever be able to deliver.

So I bet on HTML, CSS and WordPress.

As my new creative outlet, I started creating posters. I felt “closer to the metal” painting and doodling in Photoshop, than I did adding keyframes to a timeline, and receiving a physical printout of my work was tremendously satisfying.

Workwise, I picked up the skills rather quickly — you get so much for free when adopting HTML and CSS: a separation between data and presentation, a back button that just works, a page that’s printable, zoomable, all that stuff. I didn’t even miss creating big animated blobs. So I quit my job to make WordPress sites for a living. Eventually I joined Automattic to work as a designer.

What are you up to now?

I’ve developed quite a passion for creating great UI design that’s also user friendly (see the part about designing in a forest), so I thoroughly enjoy my job at Automattic.

I mainly work on WordPress.com in my day to day, particularly the stats page and the notifications. Every Automattic designer is encouraged and empowered to improve all aspects of the site as well as deploy code to users, though, so if I see something that needs improving, I can improve it.

It’s exciting and a privilege to be able to do that for millions of users at the push of a button.

I’ve also started contributing to WordPress and recently designed a WordPress theme called Twenty Thirteen, soon to ship as the default theme of WordPress 3.6.

I’m also attached to a project called “MP6” to bring a new UI to WordPress. It’s a plugin in constant development, and you can add it to your WordPress install today (get the plugin — no, I didn’t design that banner).

In my personal life, my daughter Selma arrived just under two years ago. Having an infant that grows into a toddler changes your whole perspective on things, spins you around, shuffles your priorities.

I still do poster designs, but the style has changed to something I’d hang on her wall (so it’s colorful blobs again).

We’ve moved from the big city to the suburbs, so I barely go to the cinema anymore.

But playing in the yard with my baby girl makes me feel like the luckiest man in the world. 

Joen Asmussen, Then and Now
Joen Asmussen, Then and Now

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