Introducing Chris Ford
Chris spent the first 20 years of her career working as an agency and freelance designer. Five years ago, she took a hard left into project management. Today she’s a hybrid project manager and designer at Reaktiv, a WordPress VIP partner.
Preferred Pronouns | She/Her
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions and our guests share their stories, ideas, and perspectives.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is Episode 139.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we are joined by Chris Ford. Chris spent the first 20 years of her career working as an agency and freelance designer. 5 years ago, she took a hard left into project management. Today she’s a hybrid project manager and designer at Reaktiv, a WordPress VIP partner. Hello – welcome!
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today we’re joined by Chris Ford. Chris spent the first 20 years of her career working as an agency and freelance designer. Five years ago, she took a hard left into project management. Today, she’s a hybrid project manager and designer at Reaktiv, a WordPress VIP partner. Hi, Chris. I’m so glad you’re here. Welcome.
Chris: Thanks for having me. I’m really glad to be here, too. I have missed interactions with the WordPress community.
Liam: I think that’s fair to say that we all have. Chris, what a pleasure to meet you. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Chris: My name is Chris Ford. I started working on the web in 1996 when I graduated from design school. I was supposed to be a T-shirt designer at a skateboard company and then their web guy quit and suddenly I was the new web person on staff. Fortunately, there were like five tags, so there wasn’t a whole lot to learn at the moment. We’re very excited when animated GIFs and background images came out for a little bit of context.
I did that at agencies in every industry from like skateboarding to scrapbooking, at agencies, and as a freelancer. Then five years ago, like I said, I took a really hard left into project management because I was interested in more of the business end of things. Like how do you run a profitable project, how do you managed timelines, how do you manage budgets, which is something I’ve always struggled with as a freelancer.
Now I have just recently, within the last couple of months, started dipping my toe back into the design pond, relearning everything because it’s been five years, which means nothing is the same and everything has changed. I started in WordPress. I don’t even know how long ago but it was before StudioPress was StudioPress. I had been working as a professional scrapbooker, which yes, is an actual job.
The craft industry is like the tech industry. There are bubbles in different crafts, and then those bubbles burst. So when the scrapbooking bubble burst, I knew a bunch of people with photography skills who needed websites. So I got me a copy of the Kubrick theme and added flash headers with navigation to them and started my WordPress journey.
Tara: Wow. I have so many things I want to ask you about.
Liam: I do too. I totally do. Can you start on scrapbooking, please?
Tara: I know. Okay.
Liam: Please. Please.
Tara: Yes. I did a little scrapbooking, but not professionally. Now with digital photos, whoever…I mean, do people still do it? I mean, I assume people still do but it seems like a something that it’s not a thing anymore because nobody prints out their photos.
Chris: Actually, I got into it because I started as a print designer and I loved paper. And I was working it this miserable job where every day I would go in and recreate rainbird sprinkler timers into flash. Like my whole job was to show you how the dial spins and the numbers flash and then you push this button. It was miserable and horrible. There was a scrapbooking store down the street so I would go and buy papers and things. Usually, I just hoard crafting supplies because they’re pretty but I actually used fees. And digital scrapbooking was just taking off. And that’s kind of how I got noticed because I do a lot of retouching and Photoshop was my thing.
So I got to know enough people who knew that about me that when digital scrapbooking started getting more popular, I got more people calling me saying, “Hey, we need someone to write an article.” I was the art director for Digital Scrapbooking Magazine.
Tara: Wait a second. Because I think scrapbooking and I think paper. So what is digital scrapbooking?
Chris: It was basically you would go in and it was when skeuomorphic design was really big. So I could make things look realistic. So you would go in and make something that looks like a ribbon and put it on a page or design your own patterned backgrounds that look like paper. I would do a lot where I would design my own stuff and then print it out on a printer and make kind of hybrid pages with it.
Tara: So the end product is still paper?
Chris: It was super fun.
Tara: Yeah. Oh, that’s really fun. No wonder you did it professionally. That sounds amazing.
Chris: I’d print them out and… Yeah, it was super fun. I had a Michaels in my closet. People would just send me stuff because you would get published in magazines. It was a really, really fun three years until the money ran out, where I basically just got paid to paint things.
I don’t know if anyone knows who Claudine Hellmuth is, but she’s this really amazing collage artist who does acrylic image transfers and packing tape transfers. It was you basically got paid to make crafts, which was the coolest thing in the world. But I had bills to pay so I couldn’t…It was a really competitive thing. And a lot of the people who were involved in it, it was their second job. Their husband was working, they weren’t really in it for the money. And I’m like, “Dude, this is my full-time job. I need to get paid, and I need to get paid on time. So that became a little problematic. So that’s why I transitioned out of it. But yeah, it was one of the funnest things I ever got to do. It was really cool.
I was also the first openly gay, well-known scrapbooker. It was during this really weird time right before they legalized marriage in California, and had just legalized it in Canada. It was maybe a year before that, that I got really into scrapbooking. And the very first layout I ever submitted to a publication was accepted, and I got a call back a week later that the publisher decided they couldn’t publish it, because it would cause a lot of controversy. My very last layout ever published was of my wife and I getting married at the top of Whistler Mountain in the wedding issue with every other wedding that was in there. So it seemed like a good time to kind of be like, “Okay, first chapter last chapter. Peace out.”
Tara: That’s an amazing story.
Liam: Yeah. I feel like we could spend all the time on that alone. How cool that you start effectively being rejected for who you are? Your skills and your talent was, “Yeah, you’re great. We want you.” But when they know who you are, they say no. And then three years, I know that’s a long time to wade through what you had to wade through. But at some measure, that’s a pretty quick turnaround for an industry. I don’t want to make light of what you journey through. I certainly don’t know what you journey through. But that’s pretty impressive. You’re quite the trailblazer I’m learning in our little show here, Chris. Thank you for sharing that story. That’s amazing.
Chris: Honestly, it’s one of my career highs. That to me was a definition of a huge career success was just being really visible someplace where it was really not a comfortable place to be and someplace where you could literally lose employment for being out. There was one website that was like the gossip website because there’s never been as much drama in a workplace as there was in scrapbooking. Someone made a website about how I wasn’t really a lesbian, how I was secretly a trans man.
And I was like, “Well, a. what difference does it make? And b. yeah, because it would be so much easier to break in as that than the other.” Like that was really my shortcut to scrapbooking success. And it was really just such a ridiculous…It was definitely the job that made me realize I’m never going to hide who I am to make other people feel comfortable. I’m never going to not speak my mind even if it puts my job in jeopardy. That was the point where I was like, “I am who I am and I’m not going to pretend I’m going to be someone I’m not to reach whatever financial success or title success.” To me, it just wasn’t worth it. So that was kind of one of those moments where you really figure out what matters to you and what doesn’t.
Tara: Yeah, and to stick with it and to stay in that community, in that industry when you’re being treated really horribly. I probably may have a stereotype of what you think about scrapbooking, and I would imagine it’s mostly women. So to see that treatment coming at you from other women, I’m sure especially that might have been just salt in the wound too.
Chris: I fell in with a group of misfits at the very beginning. We called ourselves the unscrappables because we were sort of the punk rock. Like we didn’t do what everyone else did. So that was kind of cool too. They’re the misfits all found each other. Like we had our little Island of Misfit scrapbookers. So people who had your back even though the larger community might not, same kind of thing. It’s like we talk about the WordPress community and every weird niche thing I’ve been a part of has that like little community with their hierarchies and they’re weird. But yeah, we were the fringe people.
Tara: You were scrappy.
Chris: That’s like a tough dad joke in the show notes.
Liam: I just want to go back one more time and kind of touch on what you shared around “I’m always going to be who I am. I’m always going to speak my mind. I’m not going to hide.” That’s brave and it’s healthy. And this is not the show or the place, and certainly, you and I don’t know you well enough for me to ask us and expect a detailed the answer. But I guess I’m mostly sharing that comes at a cost. That comes at a real cost. Career, I know, it’s not everything. So most of the guests on our show is career is not everything. But a well-paying career makes a lot of other life choices much, much easier. I just want to commend you on that and say that that’s really cool, and really impressive and very hard to do frankly when the rubber hits the road.
It’s one thing to say, “I’m going to stand up and fight,” and then you go look at the rent or the mortgage, or whatever the bill is and say, “Do I have to fight it this month?” So thank you. Thank you.
Chris: That character is what you do when no one’s looking? Right. I mean, I remember being super, super broke. Like no work coming in. I was talking to this company, and someone made a super homophobic remark at the beginning of the meeting and I was just like, “I just have to let you know that I’m gay and I won’t be able to work with you.” And it was really hard to do because it’s like I got bills that are stacking up but you make that one compromise and then you make another compromise and…
Tara: Where does that courage come from? Where do you think that…? I think that’s courageous to do that. It takes a lot of confidence or strength or something, courage, whatever. I don’t think I have it. That’s why I’m asking where does it come from? That’s really admirable.
Chris: Probably me having a temper.
Chris: I do. I have a really hot temper. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at controlling it. But a lot of that is just kind of my flight or fight response being like, “Oh, heck no. No.” And it comes out of my mouth before I can actually think about it. So maybe it’s more reckless than courage. One of these days it’s going to wind me up on YouTube as a meme.
Liam: I do want to ask you about your pivot to project management because that was really interesting to me. That, as I understood it, you noticed a skill set shortcoming in or understanding in how do you make it all work and get paid and get paid what you think you’re going to get paid and equate to the hours? And then you said, “Okay, that’s what I’m going to do.” Talk us through that. Because I would expect that you had to develop some level of skill and then have somebody hire you to do that job. What did that look like for you?
Chris: So I was freelancing and I got a call from Chris Lema and the first words out of his mouth were: “I have a question for you. Please don’t hang up on me.” Which is always a good way to get someone to not hang up on you, because that’s an intriguing call. He said that we’ve done some coaching and we kind of talked a lot about like branding and things like that.” He basically asked me to come on as a project manager at Crowd Favorite. I was kind of in a space where with my freelance design, I just felt like I had sort of reached the limits of what I could do, I was a little bit burned out, there was like a certain ceiling on projects. I was being forced to design things that I knew how to build and not design things that I knew would do what I wanted them to do. So I was really open to the idea.
Also since I’ve been in design school, like my dream job has been to be a creative director somewhere. And not like the kind of creative director who likes to show off what a great designer they are, of which there are a multitude, but the kind of creative director who works with younger designers and kind of mentors them and helps their career. One of the things I’ve noticed pretty consistently working on design projects, even at agencies was that design projects tend to not be super profitable. It’s just something I’ve noticed my entire life. Timelines go, budgets go.
And I know me as a freelancer, I wouldn’t be able to let things go to make money because there was a certain level of pride I took in my work. So what I needed to learn to do was pick up the skills that would eventually let me be able to help run design projects that made money and got done on time and didn’t drive the designer crazy, and were still super high quality. You know, how do you coordinate a team? The cool sideline I found was that being a project manager is a lot about designing a user experience, both internal processes for your team, and the user experience for the client. Everything from onboarding to offboarding. So it just wound up being a really good fit. I’ve talked about like design and project management merging in terms of WordCamp talks. So if you’re interested in more of those, I will blab on endlessly on WordPress TV.< Tara: Yeah, we’d love to put those links in. I saw one of your talks on that subject as a matter of fact. It’s interesting for a designer to pivot to spreadsheet expertise. I mean, as a project manager to use that other side of your brain. So I can understand the appeal of that.
Chris: I think that eventually, there are a lot of good designers out there. There are fewer good design managers. I think it requires a different skillset to be a badass design leader and manager than it does being a badass designer. One is much more about people who aren’t you. Like you’re trying to balance client needs and the needs of the people on your team. To me, those are the problems that are really interesting to solve.
I still love design challenges. But one thing I’ve discovered is every problem I’ve had as a project manager has been some kind of communication problem. So figuring out. Like we talked about design, right? It’s got visual language, and it’s all about communication. There’s just a lot of really good lessons. That was actually a talk I pitched to WordCamp US because I knew it was coming. It was how being a project manager has made me a better designer. Because it’s had such a huge impact on both sides, like a willingness to…what did I call it the other day.
I told my wife, I was really proud of myself because there was this SVG animation thing I wanted to do and the developer and I were having a really hard time getting it to work the way I wanted. So I know what it was. I told her, “I sacrificed the integrity of my design so that it didn’t affect the timeline and budget today.” And I was super proud. I wanted one of those I Adulted! stickers. So I sacrifice the integrity of my design.
Tara: Yeah, you learn a lot when you’re the communication between the client and the designer. You learn a lot. You see things differently too when you’re so close to the design. Sometimes you don’t see that all the rest of the picture. So that’s really interesting.
Chris, I’m going to ask you a question we asked everyone. We’ve talked, gosh, I could just keep going down either of these two things that we’ve talked about. It’s so interesting. It speaks a lot to your background and your personality and character and skills. And how does all that tie together? I want to ask you about success, and how you define success, what that means to you, and how you apply that to your life, your plans, goals.
Tara: I definitely think not so much about financial success as financial stability. It’s easy to say money isn’t everything when you have some. I’ve been poor. So just like being comfortable without having to constantly live paycheck to paycheck and worry about making sure you’re going to make the rent. To me, knowing I can retire, I really don’t need a lot, but having that taken care of is definitely a part of it. Let’s be real.
But to me, the main thing is there’s this designer Massimo Vignelli, and he and his wife ran a design studio together for years called Vignelli Associates. He did the original American Airlines logo. He did the New York transit subway map. He passed away when he was 83 years old. And was like really joyfully doing what he loved to do right up until he passed away. To me, when I think about success, I’m like, “Whatever it is I am doing at that time in my life, I want to do it with the same joy that he did his stuff.”
There’s this great documentary called Design is One. I don’t think it’s on Netflix anymore. But he’s just such a like…you watch him and everything about him is just so happy and content, and you know that he’s doing exactly what he was put on this earth to do. I mean, my purpose changes every five years, I think. So you just kind of stay flexible. And whatever you’re doing at that time, I want to be doing it as joyfully as possible.
Liam: Again, I keep feeling like as I’m saying I don’t know you that well, but on what you’ve shared with us, that strikes me as probably something that you’ve held inside you for a while, believed for a while, you talked about scrapping and designing websites and doing t-shirts designs. There’s a string of creativity and a string of design through it all. But that is not a straight line and it’s doing a lot of different types of things in a very wide creative sector. It sounds like that definition of success is probably one that you’ve developed over a period of time and have lived for a number of years as well. This is not a recent revelation or inner finding for yourself.
Chris: When I watched the documentary years ago, that’s kind of where I had that realization, where it was just, I want to be that guy. At the end of my life, I want to look back and say I learned things up until the end, I was willing to be flexible up until the end, I was just willing to take everything that life had to offer. I want to slide into home base at the end dirty and beat up and having experienced all kinds of things. I’m a huge Brene Brown fan. One of her things is about if you’re going to be vulnerable, if you’re going to live a wholehearted life, you are going to get kicked into the dirt. You just have to keep standing up. So that’s how my whole life has gone, where it’s like, “Okay, this has gone horribly wrong. How do we get out of this?”
Liam: You’re smiling as you tell that story. I love it.
Chris: Well, if you don’t, you’re crying.
Liam: Yeah, yeah. Best not to do that on podcast, too. Right? We’ve all been there. We’ve all been there. Let me ask you one of our other questions if I can. It’s around advice. We’re coming up. We got a few minutes left here. You’ve shared such valuable information and stories and things about yourself that I’m really interested in your answer to this next question. The question is, what’s the best advice that you’ve been given, or you’ve received, or you heard in a song, or you read in a book, and successfully implemented in your life?
Chris: I think the best work advice I ever got was reading or someone telling me at one time nobody likes to feel stupid. Because I was not the nicest person in the world at 25. I thought snarky was a personality trait. That was a big lesson for me to learn is like you don’t like feeling stupid. Nobody likes to feel stupid. Give people the benefit of the doubt. That’s just one that whenever I think about advice comes to the forefront because it helped me change how I interact with people so much. And don’t get me wrong. The snarky 25-year-old Chris will still occasionally slither out. But for the most part, I try to remember that no one likes to feel dumb It’s a horrible place to be, and really it ends any progress on solving a problem as soon as you get arrogant and start treating someone as less than you are.
For just general life advice, one of the things I started doing four years ago is opening up my bubble and following more people who aren’t like me on Twitter. Like seeking out black people, or trans people, or queer people, or different perspectives so that you can start understanding other people. We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion. For me, that’s just about understanding where other people are coming from. Trying to understand it as much as I can without having very lived experience. That’s made a huge impact in my life. Plus, I have been exposed to all kinds of awesome new music, and awesome new books that I never would have known about if I hadn’t opened up from the same people I always follow.
Tara: Both of those things come from a place of kindness. I think there’s a woeful lack of it these days. It’s really helpful to hear. I think the idea of people don’t like to feel stupid comes from just being kind. But it gives it a spin that is really interesting to me, because I think we can come across as maybe not intending to make people feel stupid, but just coming across that way. So being aware of that is something I’m going to take out of this conversation because I think I’m guilty of that a lot. Something that you’re not intending to do, but you certainly can make people feel that way if you step back and look back at it. So that’s really helpful. Thanks for sharing that.
Liam: I think that’s especially true in work environments or in design. As a senior designer, as an art director, the question is always, is it wrong? Or is it just different? Because that designer is bringing his or her, their experience. There’s definitely wrong design. But there’s a lot of right design. And that’s one thing I always struggle with is, is what I’m looking at and not liking wrong, or is it just stylistically something that I wouldn’t go with? That’s learning how to say that in a way that doesn’t attack the integrity and intelligence and creativity of the creator. It takes a little bit to figure out how to do that.
Chris: I was really lucky I went to community college for a certificate in design. The woman who ran the program, Candice Lopez is just amazing. She built the design program up. One of the graduates was the 2012 Obama design director. It was just this scrappy design department. The best thing I ever learned from her if she could look at any design from any student, and find one nice thing to say about it, whether it was their use of type, for their use of color, or their choice of photography, or even just how neatly everything was presented. Like there was always one nice thing.
Because there were times when you’d be looking at something up on the chalkboard and just be like, I don’t know how she’s going to do it this time.” And she always did. I really like that’s one of the top five things I remember from design school is just during a crit, if you can lead off with the nice thing before you have to get into the things that don’t work as well, it makes a huge difference.
Tara: That’s great. What a great role model to head into your career to have somebody treat you that way. That’s great. You gave her a shout out. And use the word scrappy. So we’re back where we started. We’re out of time.
Liam: That’s all we’ve got time for on Hallway scrapbooking. Thanks. Chris, before we say goodbye to you, please share where folks can find you online?
Chris: I actually have let my old website lapse. So you get a 404 error because it’s not even hosted anywhere because I’ve had a steady job for almost four years. I am on Twitter, @ci_chrisford. Although it is primarily political, ranting and music commentary, and occasional design and WordPress stuff in there. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can check me out there and you’ll either love me or hate me within 30 seconds.
Tara: Well, I think I follow you and I love you. I’m glad you’re here. Thanks again for joining us, Chris.
Chris: Thank you so much for having me. This was super fun.
Liam: Bye, Chris. It was our pleasure.
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