Web stars speak
/ Interview with Makiko Itoh
Makiko Itoh, principal of PRODOK
+ CSS + DOM Magic.
Makiko (Maki for short) was born in Tokyo, Japan and grew up all over the
place -- various scenic spots in England, the U.S., and Japan.
She went to 13 different schools before reaching 17. After college, she
worked for several years in New York, first in the designer lingerie industry,
then interior design and finally advertising/print design, where she encountered
Illustrator and Photoshop on a Mac IIci and fell in love forever.
In 1995 she moved to Switzerland, promptly got married, and started a business
with her husband, Max Wyss. They run PRODOK Engineering, a web and "low
paper solutions" development and design company, together.
Maki is also working on a book about *Web design / development stuff* due
out later this year.
read one of her latest .pdf related article on Planet PDF:
Practical Smart PDF: When
they ask: 'Why PDF?,' Show Them! by Max Wyss and Makiko Itoh
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were you first introduced to the internet?
Well I started out online first on CompuServe. Then I started exploring
further, with local BBSes, UUNet, Delphi and so on, and it all progressed
you remember your first impression of the internet?
I was first fascinated by the online communities, whether on the Internet
or on closed systems like CompuServe. When everything was text based, the
only reasons for being online were to do research and read things, and to
interact with other people.
Then graphical browsers came into being and people went crazy over that;
initially I was quite unimpressed with it - after all, people had been exchanging
photos, graphics etc for years already. Web based graphical representation
only started to get serious around the time of Netscape 3 I think.
But first and foremost, I was attracted to the idea of these little villages
and towns forming amongst people who most often than not never met each
other in person. In a way, I think that's still my main fascination with
at your track record, you have a *multiple path* career. Why?
It basically comes from having too many interests, though there has always
been a thread running through everything I've done - I like having to think
creatively, and having to learn new things all the time.
was your initial profession?
My first fulltime job (I wouldn't call it my profession..) was for a lingerie
company. I worked in a division of that company that financed big name designers.
Basically, my job was to make sure that the money got paid and the letters
of credit got processed. It was very boring, but the compensation was that
I'd get amazing gifts from the designer companies whose letters of credit
I handled - clothes what would cost hundreds of dollars retail, perfume,
chocolates, flowers, etc. They wanted to keep me happy so their goods wouldn't
get stuck in Hong Kong or whatever!
But, I quit that job after a year and went to work for an interior design
company. I did things like sketch rooms, do floor plans, and got to go to
the D & D building in New York (wholesale interior design building)
a lot. That was so much fun.
I did think about getting formal training to become an interior designer,
but then the company I was working for went out of business, and I ended
up with a job at an ad agency, doing layouts on a Mac with Quark, Illustrator
and Photoshop. That was it for me. I had found my métier, as you
say in French.
your present professional activities and why you chose it.
If I worked at a large company, I guess the closest title that would fit
would be "producer". Currently, we do a lot of consulting work,
where we figure out processes rather than doing actual brute coding (though
we do plenty of that too!) Like...a recent example is, a company needed
a better travel expense reporting method than what they were using (which
was paper forms mailed or faxed back and forth!) So, we helped to figure
out how they could solve that. And that kind of thing.
I don't think I chose my current profession - it chose me, or us (my partner
and I). Initially, when we started the re-started the company as a "new
media" company about 6 years ago, all we were thinking is we'd do web
sites and design brochures and...
As it turns out, we found out that both of us were pretty good at getting
our heads around processes and then transmitting that information to other
people. We still do plenty of design and development but right now it's
about 40/60 in favor of consulting/planning.
write web related articles. Explain why you like to write.
Writing comes very naturally to me, and I do enjoy it a lot. And most of
the articles I write are just an extension of what I do in my "day
people respect you as much or expect you to be technically knowledgeable
because you're a woman?
I do get a lot of "wow, I can't believe you understand this stuff
being a woman!" type of thing, perhaps more from other women than men.
It is very strange in a way because I am not extraordinary, and there are
plenty of other very technically savvy women out there. It's just a matter
of our training and backgrounds. I think there is somewhat of a stigma attached
to women being technically proficient - being geeky is not cool, for girls.
you think there are more men than women in web development? Why?
There are WAY more men than women. Why...because most of the math/computer
science grads are men...girls are not encouraged (at least in the U.S.)
to study math/science... there is no Web Developer Barbie.
It is changing just a little bit though; however, I think I saw some news
reports about girls still not being encouraged to study math/sciences. Not
that a math degree means you'd be a great web developer, but you know, it's
makes for a good project?
A good project is one that is challenging but not daunting, calls for creative
problem-solving, progresses briskly, and has cooperative, intelligent clients
that pay promptly. :)
did your love of programming start?
I took an Intro to Programming course (Pascal) to fulfill part of the math/science
distribution requirement at university. I hated math...or rather, once we
got to Linear Algebra my brain shut down. So, I took the Intro to Programming
class instead and it was fascinating. I had always been interested in computers
anyway, but just in using the programs. That course made me want to explore
So, I took more programming classes (Assembler, C, dBase). I even took
a weekend/evening class at another school in town (School of Visual Arts)
which was offering something called Intro to Computer Graphics. What that
meant at that time (I think it was around 1987...) was programming single
pixels on a VGA monitor in BASIC and C++! My proudest achievements were
a Jack-o-Lantern complete with flashing eyes and mouth that I made in BASIC,
and a program I made in C++ that had little circle thingies falling from
the top of the screen, then bouncing off the bottom.
I ended up with a degree in art history/French literature (that too many
interests thing...) but still, the programming course I took then later
came back to help a lot. I didn't go directly into a 'programming job' because
all my friends from programming classes were getting these amazingly boring
sounding jobs like database programming on AS400s at a Pepsi bottling factory
and things like that, and I definitely didn't want that. I wanted to do
programming that was visual and immediate.
do you promote your talent and land gigs?
I wrote a rather long article about this for A
List Apart where I detailed what we used to do. Right now we get most
of our business just by word of mouth. We also find that doing workshops,
participating in conferences, being friendly with software vendors, and
participating on mailing lists, to be really good ways to promote ourselves
in gentle way. It's not like we participate on mailing lists just to market
ourselves, and we probably both spend way too much time on them, but we
have gotten some good contacts via mailing list contacts. Also, the writing
is a form of marketing.
do you look for when hiring?
If you are talking about subcontractors (since we haven't hired our first
real employee yet :)) we look for people who are really good at what they
do. It's not experience or how many years someone has been doing whatever;
if they can actually do the task at hand, they're in!
If they aren't good, we soon find out. It's hard to find good people, though.
I think sometimes we are too picky. For example, if I were to hire a graphics
person, I'd want them to be very proficient in Photoshop and Illustrator/Freehand,
plus have a good eye, know about typography, know about different color
spaces besides RGB....in short, such people are rare and rather expensive.
So we keep on hiring subcontractors, who more often than not run their own
makes for a good web site?
Content, a sense of community, and good aesthetic values, in that order.
Content doesn't just mean words...it can be great graphics... sound... multimedia
experiences... just... good, meaty content that is interesting to its target
A sense of community can be very important if you want people to keep coming
back. It can be something as simple as an update newsletter, to a forum,
mailing list, chat room, an entire conference suite, whatever can be managed.
Good aesthetic values - to be pleasing to the eye.
do you sharpen your talent?
By always maintaining a sense of curiosity, and never underestimating yourself.
And practice, practice, practice. Nothing like repetition to improve your
did you first get involved in pdf production?
I knew PDF as a prepress tool since Adobe Acrobat first came out. But we
did our first scripted PDF project in 1997-98. We had a client who needed
to turn a huge stack of product catalogs into something a bit more portable
and manageable. It had to be printable and viewable offline. After discussing
We ended up producing a CD ROM catalog that even includes a kind of mini-CAD
program to design custom parts, plus a printable/faxable or email-able order
form (all in PDF, viewable with the free Reader). We showed it to some people,
including people at Adobe, and it absolutely floored them - they didn't
know their program could do that.
are a business woman. What was your first venture?
PRODOK was my first fulltime business
a list of 5 things a woman starting in business should do.
1. I think the most important thing is to really decide whether starting
a business is for her. It is _not_ for everyone - especially not
this business. Making enough money to support yourself is a serious, serious
commitment. You may be able to pick up some money as supplemental income;
there's a huge jump from there to actually supporting yourself. There is
nothing wrong with working for someone else - there's more security that
way, you work less hours, and you sleep better.
2. Find or build a support group. I think that women do need more emotional
and psychological support generally speaking. Many women feel more comfortable
in a mostly female group, and there are plenty of such groups - online communities
like Wise-Women, Digital
Women and Women Web Designers or if you prefer human contact, local
chapters of organizations such as Digital Eve and Webgrrls.
3. Talk to family about her priorities and make sure they understand and
support her. Also, tell your spouse/SO if you have one that yes, he will
be doing the dishes frequently.
4. Get a good grip on financial/money management skills. This hasn't been
too much of an issue for me because I got bookkeeping skills drilled into
me by my mom...Japanese women traditionally have been responsible for household
money management. But I know several American women who have had disastrous
things happen to them because of a lack of money-management skills.
5. Try to work on self-confidence, if that is an issue (and I think it
is for a lot of women...especially when starting out.) Again, support groups
can help with this.
should she avoid at all costs?
Giving up at the first sign of trouble. Letting criticism affect you personally.
makes a good team?
When people can bounce ideas off each other without the fear of others
not respecting their ideas, that makes for a great team. You can always
disagree and thing that individual ideas are not good, but if you have that
basic respect for the others' capabilities, then it all works out. Having
a devil's advocate to bounce ideas off is a great thing.
makes a good storyboard?
One that is flexible enough to accommodate the unforeseen, but still remain
true to its original purpose.
what is *inspiration*.
Inspiration is those moments of incredible clarity when most of your brain
cells seem to be sparking. It's the fuel that drives you to work on something
long into the night - you can't resist, it's too much fun. It's the thing
that makes you grow.
what is a top-notch client?
One that is critical yet fair, has definite opinions but is smart enough
to know when they might not know better, is open to new ideas and methods,
and fulfils their part of the obligation - such as delivering data, content,
source materials, etc. - in a timely manner. One that has a lot of enthusiasm
for the project.
do you protect clients from their own bad taste?
This is not always possible with all clients. It's very important to do
your homework of course - see what sites they find appealing (and why!),
and ideally to observe how they surf and use the Net. What we can do is
to present them with at least a few options, so that they get to pick. (I
don't mean fully rendered comps, but just a few variations, which can even
mean something as simple as different colored buttons.) You often encounter
the client who just has to make/suggest changes, perhaps to feel that they're
in charge. If you give them the feeling that they do actually have the final
say, you can often gently lead them to a good choice.
We find that most clients do not respond well to bullying, but respond
well to gentle suggestion (that also fits our personalities.) Also, the
more work you do for them, the more they just leave it up to your judgment.
This has been true ever since my ad agency days - the first project or so,
the client would want to stick their fingers into everything; the second
project on, once the trust was there, they'd just leave it to us.
branding an important issue online?
Well, a corporate web site is just like any other kind of corporate collateral
- it's all part of that company's marketing strategy and identity, or should
be. Actually, I am kind of surprised at how few companies seem to have a
uniform strategy that encompasses their web presence. For example, we've
done a lot of work for a certain worldwide electronics company.
We have their CI (Corporate Identity) Kit - 5 CDs in a beautiful aluminum
box, with templates for every kind of printed material imaginable (which
we use for some print-on-demand PDF datasheets). They even have a Powerpoint
template set. But, if you go to their web sites, except for their logo every
one of them looks and acts totally differently. This is a bit silly and
short sighted imo.
was the catalytic thought that gave birth to Prodok
Uh..."let's try to run a business together. How about web/graphics
design and stuff?" Honestly, that was it. :)
what the internet means to you?
It's a means of communication. It's a natural progression, from storytelling,
stone and clay tablets, papyrus and paper, printing press, telegraph, telephone,
television...internet. Who knows what's coming next?
3 qualities necessary to succeed online.
The thing is, I think that "online" is just another form of communication,
as I stated earlier. So, success can be measured in many different ways.
Let's say you are running a business - you have to have a good business
model whether you are brick and mortar or only online.
Let's say you are trying to show off your art work online, If a lot of
people visit and think your work is wonderful and it even leads to paid
commissions or awards or... then you've succeeded.
And so on.
is the single achievement that makes you most proud?
I don't think that's come yet. :) I have several high points in the past,
but that's the past.
there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you
I guess you are talking about an online project? Well, I think I would
create a kind of internet artists space and museum, with a companion brick
and mortar museum.
It would have a school where high quality teachers would be funded by the
project to teach kids (for free) how to use the internet to express themselves
creatively; qualified artists can get free space to play with and to exhibit
their works; an archive of past artwork would be kept; there would be a
thriving community for the exchange of ideas, plus a research lab to work
on future technology.
There would also be a solidly researched archive of past online artistic
endeavors, because such things disappear so fast.
is your opinion of the present situation in the dotcom industry?
It's about time there was a shakeup. The Internet is not a "goldmine"
for making easy money. I have no tolerance for speculators who have no clue.
The strong and prudent will survive and thrive.
the www an international network?
Definitely. I have a cousin in Japan that I've never met in person. He's
posted pictures of his house that he took while it was being constructed,
on his website. I can peek inside his walls and see his wiring. How cool
is that?Of course, it's an international network only in the wealthier countries
though, so far.
us what the future (net) looks like
In the kind of near future, (in about 3 years, maybe) there will be a total
separation of content and presentation. There will be a variety of ways
of presenting that base information. Some will be visual, some aural. For
this to happen, browsers have to become transparent and reliable. But in
any case, most processing will be done on the server side. I think that
HTML as we know it will be dead eventually. More robust visual editors should
make the transition easier, but designers will no longer be able to think
just in terms of "pages" and "canvas" but have to think
in three and more dimensions. Still, having a good grasp of the underlying
technologies will help designers stretch themselves more and be more creative.
On the flip side, it will become easier to get up a simple web site, as
visual editors get better and more user-friendly. New home computers will
come with "make your own web site" kits that actually work. I
think this is good because it will eliminate the people who think you can
"get rich" by "getting into web design", kind of like
you get "get rich" by "selling Amway products". Ultimately,
good design skills combined with good awareness of the technology, should
prevail; however, I am rather worried that design schools don't seem to
have a clue as to how to teach their students about good on-screen and multimedia
As more countries become active online, the definitely US-centric view
of the Net that exists now will be shaken. It will be interesting to see
how people and governments handle that issue. On the other hand, English
will become even more the Universal Language, which may be unfortunate in
some people's view. Unicode will make dealing with multiple languages easier.
Eventually, the Net will become just another part of our lives like television;
every household will have an internet appliance. We'll take it for granted,
so we won't be talking about it so much. :) (I wonder if there was so much
social commentary when the telephone was invented...)