Introducing Jean Roth
Jean Roth thinks of herself as a creative alchemist because she brings a multifaceted background in marketing, design, writing, and intercultural aesthetics to her design work.
Liam: This is Hallway Chats, where we talk with some of the unique people in and around WordPress.
Tara: Together, we meet and chat with folks you may not know about in our community.
Liam: With our guests, we’ll explore stories of living – and of making a living with WordPress.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 34.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today, we’re joined by Jean Roth. Jean thinks of herself as a creative alchemist because she brings a multifaceted background in marketing, design, writing, and intercultural aesthetics to her design work. Hello, Jean.
Jean: Hello. How are you?
Liam: Hey, Jean. We’re doing really well today, thanks for joining us. Would you tell us a little bit more about yourself? More than what Tara just read?
Jean: Well, I’m a graphic designer and now also a web designer. I started off in a totally different area. Basically, marketing and PR, and that sort of evolved organically. Now, I put all of these things together, writing, marketing, design work, and try to find out the best way to visually express what my clients need.
Liam: That sounds pretty neat. Tell us a little bit about how that works out day to day? What kind of clients are you working with and what kind of design and marketing efforts are you helping guide them through?
Jean: Well, mostly I’ve been working with small businesses. Some of them are artisans, some are other kind of service-oriented businesses. For quite a number of years, I was working for a publishing company, I was contracted as a graphic designer doing mainly advertising design. Enjoyed that very, very much and when that company was sold, I decided to expand into web design. And I already had been doing web design for myself but I decided to make this part of what I offered to clients.
Tara: There’s a difference between print graphic design, and advertising background, and also web design. Some of the things that you learn are completely the opposite in websites. What’s been your path in learning the ins and outs of web design?
Jean: I started with WordPress, first of all. Before that, of course, HTML and Shutter front page back in the ’90s when people started writing blogs and that became a thing. WordPress was still fairly new, I decided I needed to do that as well, and I found WordPress. I found it a little bit more involved and robust than Blogspot, latter Blogger, that everybody else seemed to be jumping on. And so I started with WordPress, and for all of these years, I’ve had several WordPress sites of my own. But since they weren’t my own and since they weren’t my primary gig, I could afford to be sloppy with them, I didn’t have to always stay up to date. Obviously, in the past three or four years, when I’ve been doing this far more seriously and I’m responsible for clients, I’ve had to really up my game and things changed so fast. The technology has changed, it seems like every two days there’s something new and it’s very challenging and I just keep learning every day to bring it up to speed. In terms of how it is different or alike from graphic design or print design, something still stays. Things like less is more, keeping a clean design, making sure that your clients or your audience see what they need to see, making sure your message is clear, keeping your copy succinct. All of these things still apply. Of course, there are other things and when I was first getting into responsive design, one of the things that made me crazy was that I couldn’t make my paragraphs justify the way I wanted them to justify. The lines won’t break where they want to break, and I really had to just say, “That’s the way it is, that’s the medium and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I just learned to live with it.
Liam: I had a very similar reaction to the transition to print to web where on print, when you put the photo there or you use that font at that size, that’s where it stays, and the web says, “Uh, sometimes.” It’s a psychological challenge, I get that.
Tara: Not even going into color and what you can and can’t do with color and how to explain to your client that their PMS color is not really translatable to the web and that what they see on their HP laptop screen is different than what you see on your Retina Mac.
Jean: That was true even with my print clients because they get everything digitally and they see it in their email and I had to say, “It’s not going to be like this.” One of the things that I had to learn when I went back to taking web design seriously was accessible design. Well, accessible color. Yes, a few years ago, I created a website for a local organization for whom I had done extensive branding. And then I found out I couldn’t use those colors because they really weren’t the colors that were approved, so I had to kind of change them. And my nice bright orange became kind of a terra cotta, and I kind of weighed which is more important and I decided web rules rule, that’s it.
Tara: Yeah, interesting. In this path that you’ve taken, has the WordPress community played a role in that? Can you tell us a little bit how you interact with the community? I know you live in California, is that right?
Jean: Right. I’m in Los Angeles on the Westside.
Tara: There’s a pretty vibrant WordPress community there. Do you interact with them? Have they helped you?
Jean: If there’s a community, I don’t know them. I haven’t found them, at least not on the Westside. I know there’s a WordCamp that’s kind of on the other side of town, LA is so spread out. As you probably know, it’s not exactly the most accessible thing so I haven’t made it there. I’m more involved in WordPress community online. When I decided to get into this more seriously and for clients, I was looking for– I don’t know what made me decide to look for a specific framework but I did a lot of research, read a lot of articles about things like Divy and Genesis. What was the rule one of campus? I have a friend that uses it, I don’t remember what it’s called, I’m sorry. But anyway, it seemed that Genesis had the highest marks from everybody and so I decided, yes, there’s going to be more of a learning curve there because not everything is laid out for you, not everything is there. But that would be a good way for me to learn things. I read about how it was stable, how the community was helpful and how the company itself is going to be around, it’s stable and it’s dependable, and I decided that’s the community home I wanted to hang my hat at. That’s what I’ve done. The Genesis community is my primary WordPress community, although I also pay attention to WooCommerce community on Facebook. But Genesis is really where I put most of my attention.
Tara: Yeah, that’s a great community. Do you mostly use the Facebook group or a Slack channel?
Jean: Mostly the Slack channel because it’s just there on my desktop, and you get to know people a little bit. It’s a wonderful group and they’re so helpful and I’m really very indebted and very grateful to the people there with their generosity.
Tara: So you’ve never actually been to a WordCamp?
Jean: No. I really wish I could be. I went to the one that was online. What’s it called?
Tara: Oh yes, there was a WordCamp online maybe four years ago or something like that.
Jean: Three, four years ago when I first started. I have a journal full of notes from that, that was really wonderful.
Tara: Yeah, that’s great. Maybe you’ll make it to one someday.
Jean: I hope so.
Tara: You may be the first WordPress person we’ve had on this show who hasn’t been to a WordCamp.
Tara: Yeah. Everybody has a WordCamp story or their first WordCamp story, it seems. Yeah, people love them, myself included.
Jean: I wish I could. I do have a WordCamp t-shirt though, from an old WordCamp Tokyo because the graphic is so awesome and it’s Japanese and remember my background there is that my academic background is actually in Japanese and that’s how all of this aesthetically came to be. I do have a WordPress t-shirt at least.
Liam: There you go. I would love to have just one WordPress t-shirt. I have about 47 of them.
Jean: Oh, and you have the bear in the back, I see, too.
Liam: Yeah, from WordCamp US a few years ago. Although, it’s more of a Wapuu than a bear but I knew where you were going, Jean. Let me change gears a little bit. One of our questions I would like to get into is definitions of success. Jean, how would you define success in a personal and/or professional way for yourself?
Jean: I would say it would be a sense of satisfaction, contentment perhaps. For me, it’s really enjoying what I’m doing, what I’m designing, feeling that it makes some kind of difference and that I’m serving my clients. Well, if it’s for my clients and if it’s for myself, it’s just something that gives me a lot of pleasure when I’ve designed it. And when it’s for a client, it’s part of a road of discovery. I like to get to know my clients, I always have an extensive phone chat with them, phone or online, but preferably phone, anything that’s audio. So I can really get a sense of who they are, what they are, and what their company is, what their mission is. And then try and figure out how to express that visually, or in words, if it happens to be a writing assignment. But usually, those things come together for me. And then I just get to work on how to translate that message into visual imagery. And for me, it’s just pleasure to do that. In terms of more personal satisfaction beyond that, I would say being satisfied or being even content with where you are in life, regardless of any external circumstances, I think that’s a really big thing. If you can do that, you’re doing well.
Tara: Where do you find yourself then with that being said?
Jean: I don’t think it’s an easy thing. I do try to be very mindful of where I am each day, not be too hard on myself. I think people in general are very, very hard on themselves. I know I am. Whether it’s WordPress, or design, or marketing, or anything. Like, oh, I should be doing more, I should be doing more. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do more and we really need to be balanced. I do do meditation and I just try to remind myself every day that it’s still a journey and that’s part of it. We tend to think that there is some big prize at the end of a long road, and I think it’s important to remind ourselves every day that this is good, today, where I am, right now, and what I’m doing is a good thing. It takes reminding.
Liam: The road itself is an end, isn’t it?
Liam: Jean, you said that for you success, professional success. A big part of that is making sure that your work makes a difference. And I wonder if you can come and chat us through that. What does that mean with respect to the work you’re doing with your clients and you actively seek out some kind of clients so that your work will make a difference? What does make a difference mean to you?
Jean: Let’s see. When I work with somebody, my whole design process is rather intuitive. I do not come from an academic design background, and as I’ve said, “My entry into design has been very organic.” A lot of it just comes from the gut. I’ve many, many had clients say to me, “Well, I’d try and explain to you what I wanted, or how I feel my company should present itself, or who my audience is, or who my market is, and I just couldn’t quite put it into words and you got it.” And that for me is a great deal of success. I can’t always explain how or why, I don’t mean to sound too ‘woo-woo’ about it but it constantly surprises me so I’ll do something and I’ll go, “No, that’s not it. Doesn’t feel right.” And then all of a sudden, boom, that’s it. I would say, 99% of the time, if I give my client several comps, the one that I think is best describing what they are, expressing who they are, that’s the one that works, that’s the one that they go with.
Liam: That’s got to be rewarding.
Jean: It’s very rewarding. I do some work for also non-profit organizations or marketing organization that I’m in. Marketing, I should say actually a networking organization. And the feedback I get is really nice. I just feel that even if I’m doing something where there’s no compensation, at least no monetary compensation, it’s very important for me to still do a good job, a complete job. Again, like I said, we’re often too hard on ourselves. Sometimes we need to learn, “Okay, it’s enough. I just put 10 hours into a three-hour job. Time to close it down.” But it is very important for me to feel that I’ve done my job well for whoever it is I’m doing. Whether there’s compensation or not.
Tara: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about that, about compensation? I’m in a WordPress Slack group and we talk about not giving work away. There’s a certain point in your business where you don’t or where I say to myself I’m not going to do free work anymore, I’m not going to discount my work anymore, and then a non-profit or something comes your way and you feel badly. And non-profits, certainly, are not usually short of money. Tell me a little bit about that when you say that if you’re doing work that’s without compensation, how does that happen for you?
Jean: Well, I’ve gotten much better with that. I understand what you’re saying about doing a lot of work for free. I tend to do that more, actually, with my paying clients. I can get very carried away, it’s hard for me to decide how much is this billable, how much is this my own research and learning. And I try to be really fair about it to both of us. I’m more likely to be more fair to the client than to myself, and a lot of times I just forget to put the clock on. But in terms of anything like a non-profit, I haven’t done any work for non-profits that are well-funded. I’ve done work for a very, very small local organization, the one where I had to change the orange colors to terra cotta. For them, yes, I’ve had to really watch the time because it can just go on forever, and I have learned to say no, it’s hard and I feel guilty but I have learned to say no. And you were right, there were plenty of organizations that can compensate, even if it’s an honorarium with something. And sometimes even a gesture is meaningful, but I have learned. The kind of organization that comes back to you and says, “Oh, but we’re non-profit.” All I can say is, “Well, yeah, but the electric company isn’t.” [laughter] And that’s the bottom line.
Liam: Yeah, there’s a certain level of we all have to get paid at some point in order to provide for ourselves, and whether or not that’s through this immediate non-profit customer or some other paying client, and many times, the non-profit contacts are getting paid. It is tricky, and finding the right way to say no can take some time but it sounds like you’re making some headway there. I wanted to ask you a little bit about being content with where you are. And you have told us a couple of times that sometimes you struggle with that. And I wonder how do you check yourself when you’re not being as fair to yourself as you should be? How do you cope with that? How do you, in your own way, say, “Hey Jean, this is not where you should be.” What does that look like for you?
Jean: That’s, actually, kind of a tough question. Like I said, I do do meditation, I try to get to a specific group every week when I can and do it in between when I can. And I find that it helps tremendously, especially the one where I go physically. Liam: That capacity to reach out to a community, really, whose focus is letting go and being comfortable with where you are, that’s great that you have a mechanism there, that’s really awesome. Thank you for sharing that.
Jean: Sometimes I just need to do a reality check, look at what I’m doing. Even if it’s testimonials, it doesn’t matter what, whatever it is that I need to remind myself that I’m doing okay. If a certain month happens to be a little slow, that’s not really a judgment on myself. That part is hard, when we work for ourselves, that part is very hard.
Tara: Yeah. On that note, what would you say is your biggest challenge that you face either in your business or how you approach it? You’ve talked about that a little bit.
Jean: I would say marketing. And I know it’s ironic but my take on this is that people like me exist and do marketing-based design for others is because an outsider can see what those unique qualities are. So when I come up with the designs, for me, it’s sort of an intuitive process. I do have a process of discovery with clients and I try to find out what are those unique things. Some of them could be equality, some of it could be their background, it could be all kinds of things. It’s their, whatever you want to call it, x-factor, special sauce, and they may not be aware of it. An outsider can see it and say, “Hey, you know what? This is something that’s really unique about you.” And you don’t think it’s unique because we don’t think these things are unique. They’re so intrinsic to us, they’re natural to us, and we can’t see it. And I can’t always see it in myself. I have to shake myself and say, “You know, this might be kind of interesting and different.” Even when it came to sending in the form to be interviewed by you guys, I thought, “Oh, well, gee, I don’t design plugins or themes. I don’t do any of those kinds of WordPress things. I’m not a super coder, that’s not my bail away.” And then I thought, sometimes you have to push yourself out of a comfort zone and say, “Well, but maybe there is something.”
Tara: And we’re glad we did.
Liam: We sure are.
Jean: And I can’t always see it and that’s the hard thing. Getting out to networking events, getting involved in them, being able to walk up to people and saying, “Hello, what do you do?” All of these kinds of things, those are often said, are outside of my comfort zone. I really have to just push myself to do it. Marketing, trying to find that balance between being modest and yet, self-confident. I find that’s something I always have to work on.
Liam: That can be a challenge.
Jean: My earliest work environments were Japanese work environments and you don’t bluster, and then when I was out of them, I found you really can’t just say, “Oh, no.” You can’t do that in the western world. And that’s still with me so I have to find some time to say thank you. [laughs] “Thank you. I enjoy doing this.” And take credit for it. I think the marketing thing can be very, very hard for most people.
Liam: I’d agree. Especially that differentiator what does make you different, what makes me different, what makes Tara different, especially when we’re just getting started and we don’t really know. It takes a while to get constructive feedback, positive and negative, from clients and colleagues and partners to have an understanding of what does make us different. And a big part of that comes from, as you know, getting out and networking and marketing. Let me ask you this around that and it kind of relates to challenges, is getting out and striking the right balance between being proactive and self-confident without being over the top. What tips or techniques have you developed that work for you around that?
Jean: I think being able to hold onto a sense of fun really helps. That allows you to express pleasure in what you do without it being over the top. Many, many years ago, I remembered meeting somebody, a social event, and I said to this woman, “Your little boy is just so cute.” And again, this was in a Japanese environment where people tend to say, “Oh, my child doesn’t study well.” It’s a social construct, it’s not how they really feel, it’s social construct. But instead of saying that, this person who was also from neither a western nor Japanese background just said very modestly, she smiled and she said, “We love him very much.” That had such an impact on me. I learned, yes, you can just say, “I really enjoy doing this. This meant a lot to me.” Or something like that that shows you’re behind what you do. You don’t have to say, “Oh, yeah. I’m great.” I mean, you can say that to yourself but– sometimes we need to, but I think there are ways and I think expressing love of what you do is a great way to do it.
Tara: Yeah. That sounds like that made an impression on you. Good story. Would you share with us some advice maybe that doesn’t follow under the category, specifically, of advice but that’s stuck with you, but similar to that, a single piece of advice you’ve received that you’ve implemented in your life, most important piece of advice if you can think of one thing?
Jean: I get asked that a lot and usually what I say is, not so much advice about what should do or should have done. But more advice that I would not recommend because I grew up in the era of, you go to school, you get a degree, you get a job, you’re a team player, you’ve got to work every day, you should probably have that job for the rest of your life. And at the very worst, have something dreary to fall back on, and that doesn’t play anymore. And I kind of wish that wasn’t drummed into me. Just keep plugging away, don’t always go for your dream because you really have to have something to fall back on. And I’m just amazed at this generation. Some of my younger relatives or my friends’ kids, they get out of school usually, or grad school, and they just start businesses. They get angel investors and they invent things, and I’m just blown away by that, and I kind of wish somebody said, “You can reach for something really special.” That wasn’t how I was brought up. I was brought up with people who had nice solid city-based jobs.
Tara: What do you think you’d be doing now if someone had said that to you?
Jean: Oh, that’s a very good question. You know what? I didn’t really pay attention. It made an impression on me, obviously, but at the time, I was in Asian studies, Japanese studies specifically. And I probably would have continued on but life changed. What I might have done is not stay in jobs that really weren’t serving me well as long as I did, just to be safe. That whole, “Oh, you have to pay the rent, you have to pay the mortgage.” Kind of thing. There is something to that, there is, but there are times where I think we need to say, “It’s time to leave now, it’s time to look for something better, whether it’s elsewhere or whether it’s by myself, but it’s time because staying in this place is not where you need to be.” Way too many times did I stay in places for too long, out of just being overly careful or out of fear.
Tara: Yeah, there is the practical side of things. I think it’s changed a lot now with computers because people can have a lot more flexibility to change jobs, to be remote, to work for themselves. I was just hearing on some financial news last week about the percent of workers who are contractors, it’s the highest that it’s ever been because people can work for themselves and be contracted out. I think that times have changed in that sense. 25 years ago, you didn’t really have that much options. It was not that easy to change jobs I think.
Liam: Well, even 15-10 years ago, to say, “Hey, let’s have a work meeting at a coffee shop.” Like, “We’re not hippies, we don’t do that.” And now, it’s, “Wait, I’ve got to come to your office for a meeting?” It changes.
Tara: Yeah. We would all maybe be born a few years later if we can do it over again. [laughter] Yeah.
Jean: I think we’re working the tech pretty well for ourselves.
Tara: We are, I agree with you. I agree, and WordPress certainly has made it easier for us to make a living in tech as old people. Speaking for myself, of course. [laughs]
Liam: We’re all very young at heart, very, very young.
Tara: We are.
Jean: I do think the entrepreneurial generation of millennials is really pretty impressive. Now, I tip my hat to them because I don’t know what I would have been doing but perhaps I wouldn’t be inventing something. I did once have a very good idea that I wish I would have patented and I didn’t. Lost opportunity. But I do really admire that and I wish that I had grown up with a little bit more of, “Okay, you can reach for that special thing, that golden ring or whatever it is that you really want to do and you don’t have to just stay someplace to be safe.” But we’re still learning, you know?
Tara: It sounds like you’ve ended up in something that you seem to really love and enjoy so there’s that where you are right now.
Jean: I do. It brings a lot of satisfaction and a lot of pleasure to do it. I have wonderful clients, too. I’m very grateful with the kind of people I work with.
Tara: Well, we’re grateful that you joined us today, Jean.
Liam: Absolutely, we are.
Tara: We’ve come to the end of our recording for the day. It’s been great to meet you and hear more about you and all that you’ve done, I’m really intrigued by your Japanese story. We’ll have to talk more after we stop recording.
Jean: Thank you so much for having me.
Liam: You’re most welcome.
Tara: Thanks for being on. Where can people find you online?
Jean: My website is Rotemstudio.com. I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Tara: Okay, and it’s J-E-A-N.
Jean: That’s right.
Tara: Thank you again for joining us and we hope to meet you at a WordCamp some time.
Jean: Oh, I hope so. See you there.
Liam: Thanks Jean, bye for now.
Jean: Bye, bye.
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