Interview with Joen Asmussen: Design Wrangler at Automattic

Rohit Palit by | Updated:

Joen Asmussen Interview

You may not know Joen Asmussen by name, but I’m sure you’ve definitely seen and even used his creation if you’re into working with WordPress sites. Joen is the main creator of the default theme of WordPress 3.6, Twenty Thirteen. I fell in love with the theme so much, that in addition to using the theme since WordPress 3.6’s alpha stages on my personal blog, I use a modified version of it on this site.

Joen lives in Denmark and works remotely for Automattic. Joen has also been involved with the development  of the new admin interface (MP6) from WP 3.8 onwards. In this interview, we talk about how Joen started as a designer, his experience working with Automattic, and much more.

Hi Joen, it’s awesome to have the opportunity to talk to you, thanks for doing this interview with me.

Sure thing, my pleasure!

Q1: How did you first get into designing and then web designing and website usability?

My high-school got internet access back in 1997, and already being a fan of tech I explored this new space. I remember my friend forwarding me a link to gabocorp, an immersive Flash site, and I was blown away by what was possible. At the time my favorite video game was “Myst” and I remember yearning to try and recreate the feeling of that game in a Flash site of my own.

I’d latched on to Flash because it allowed me to do exactly what I wanted. Hoping for a career in print-design, just the ability to pick my own font instead of settling for Verdana or Arial was huge. As time went by, though, it became clear that full Flash sites weren’t very user-friendly at all. Many of the usability and accessibility features you get for free when working with HTML were non-existent in Flash: simple things like printing or using the browser “back” button.

It culminated in an article by Jakob Nielsen called “Flash is 99% bad” which sent ripples through the Flash community. It also started my path of moving off of Flash and eventually settling on WordPress, which was at version 1.2 at the time.

Q2: So, you used to be a web-game creator for Titoonic, how did you feel about the change initially, back in 2007 when you decided to first go freelance and then started working with Automattic?

It was pretty much a natural evolution of my process to move off of Flash and bet on a different horse. While Flash was great for many things, especially at a time when HTML5 wasn’t a thing, I always felt like I started over from scratch when beginning work on a new project, whereas with HTML and WordPress you could always build on the previous theme you (or someone else) had made.

So eventually going freelance and exiting the game business became inevitable. I completely loved it, being my own master.

Q3: How did you get hired by Automattic – how was the recruitment process like?

I was fortunate enough to meet Matt Mullenweg in Copenhagen around the time of WordPress 1.5, and became somewhat involved with the UI development. After that we basically frequented the same circles of the web and crossed paths time and again. So eventually it was natural for me to freelance for the Automattic. That eventually turned into the usual trial project and hiring process Automattic gives to all employees.

Q4: You live in Denmark, and most of the time work remotely from there for Automattic, how do you feel about that – do you prefer working remotely over having to go to office everyday?

I love it. Working from home is definitely not for everyone, but having been here 4 years come October I can confidently say that it really is for me.

Besides, the first two years I had an office away from home. I’d simply kept the office I freelanced from, so I could still have lunch with my old freelance buddies. I lost that office when we moved to the suburbs, but I hope to find a new one at some point.

Q5: Do you think physical offices, especially for web-based companies, may get replaced by virtual offices and remote working environments in the near future?

Yes and no, and I think it depends on the particular company. WordPress was built in a distributed way, so it was a natural evolution that Automattic kept this in place.

A distributed company can only work if employees are empowered to act in the absence of colleagues that may be asleep. It requires a certain level of maturity and drive on part of the employees, and a flatter structure on part of the company. On the flip side, someone able to act is always awake, and the company can hire great talent outside of the company home city and even country. But working in a distributed company requires strong communication tools, tools which are thankfully becoming increasingly available to everyone.

Q6: What’s your opinion about Automattic’s work culture? What has been your experience working for Automattic thus far?

I feel privileged every single day not only to be empowered to improve software that millions of people use, but to work with such a vast pool of talent. I’m impressed by both the work ethic and the level of quality work being output every single day. It makes me want to improve my own quality of work and learn new skills (which is encouraged to the point that courses and books are paid for by the company).

In just the few years I’ve worked for Automattic, I feel the quality of my own work has increased drastically, and I’ve learned more faster than I ever did in the past.

Q7: You’ve been quite famous as the main creator behind Twenty Thirteen, the default theme with WordPress 3.6; how does it feel to witness your creation being found useful by millions of users across the world (I’m using WordPress 3.6 since its alpha stages on my personal blog just because of the default theme) and, perhaps, often being used in random websites you come across (such as this site) ?

It’s a great privilege but also terrifying to see people using anything I worked on at a large scale, and a constant reminder that the world is a big place. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work on a default theme, and I really hope people enjoy it.

Q8: Tell us something more about Twenty Thirteen – what were the main goals for it when you first started working, and your experience of creating an icon-based font, Genericons?

The primary goal of Twenty Thirteen was to create a colorful and blog-focused departure from past Twenty themes which had been very minimalistic to that point. Twenty themes don’t disappear just because they’re no longer default, so people can always go back and install Twenty Twelve (which was amazing) if they want to. By shaking things up a bit, hopefully the Twenty themes can alternate between magazine- and blog-focused every other year. The gorgeous Twenty Fourteen, for example, was magazine focused.

Another big focus for Twenty Thirteen was to make sure post formats really shined — so Video, Gallery, Aside and all the other post formats had a unique look tailored to each type. Initially the headline feature for 3.6 was to be an overhaul for the post format admin interface, so it made a lot of sense for the new default theme to play into that. That’s why we decided to have post background colors alternate as you scrolled down the page. This made Genericons almost inevitable, as having the ability to easily re-color icons using only CSS became important.

For people who don’t use a lot of different post formats, I created a number of child-themes that would alternate the colors sequentially instead of by post format.

Q9: How are you currently involved in contributing to WordPress?

I was very much involved with WordPress 3.8, working on the new admin interface codenamed “MP6” which was designed by Matt Miklic and a number of other great designers. This involved a new icon-font (Dashicons) that would be easy to re-color with admin color schemes.

Currently I’m only peripherally involved in WordPress development, giving some advice once in a while to some of the plugin projects. But I hope to circle back to WordPress some time in the future.

Q10: Would you mind talking a bit about what you do in your free time? What are your other hobbies apart from designing beautiful posters?

As a parent of a two-year old girl, most of my hobbies these days revolve around playing with her in the yard or with LEGO. You never get too old to have fun with that. Though I do enjoy a good old belgian comic-book once in a while.

Q11: You have a family that also comprises of your little girl, Selma. Do you find spending time with your family easier because you work remotely?

Yes, very much, that’s just one of the pros of working for a distributed company. Because everyone works in different time-zones regardless, I can be very flexible with my time and once in a while take long unhurried mornings before I deliver Selma to the pre-school.

Q12: Lastly, I’d like to know what your productivity mantra is. You’ve expressed that you believe more in hard work than inherent gifts. How do you stay on top of things that you love and manage to keep working hard without losing motivation?

The most important part is to try and find a job that involves doing what you love. I know how hard that can be when you have a family to feed and rent to pay, so I feel extremely lucky to have found just that. But even then, once in a while you just have to settle in and do the work, motivated or not. That’s where hard work comes into play. My great grandfather used to say that it helps to have a good chair, because you’re going to have to sit on it until you’re done. That’s another way of saying don’t give up, just keep going.

On a very practical level, I keep vast to-do lists. I can easily forget things if I don’t write them down. On the other hand if I do write them down, I know I’ll either get to it one day, or decide the task is no longer relevant. I use

Other than that, I’ve found Bruce Mau’s incomplete manifesto for growth to be almost completely descriptive of my philosophy of work. “Begin anywhere” in particular is something I use on an almost daily basis: you don’t always have to start at the beginning. In fact I agree with almost everything Bruce Mau has to say, except for “don’t clean your desk”. I happen to like an orderly desk.

So, that’s it. Thanks a lot, Joen for the interview.

If you want to stay connected with Joen, you can check out his personal site, as well as follow him on Twitter.

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