Get Inspired! | Interview with Designer John O’Nolan

One of the best parts of being a writer at Bit Rebels and the assistant to Richard Darell is that I get to be in the company of some very talented people. When I was asked to interview one of our site’s sponsors, veteran web designer, John O’Nolan, I had no idea what I was in for. I thought this was just going to be another interview, but wow, was I wrong. I felt inspired and enriched after interviewing him, and I learned so much. There is a lot of wisdom, inspiration and creativity in his answers.

I understand now why he is in high demand, and why he is so passionate about his work. I am confident you will feel the same way when you get to know him. After reading this article, please click on the yellow rectangle in our sponsor section to the right to learn more about him. Sit back, get comfortable and enjoy this Bit Rebels interview with John O’Nolan.


Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): Thank you, John, for allowing me interview you today. It is a pleasure to have you featured on Bit Rebels. Let’s just jump right into it! On your website you talk about your love of the internet almost like it’s a real relationship. I can relate to that myself. I also read that you loved art and music as a child and you grew up in a tech oriented family. How did you discover your love for the internet, and more specifically, your love for web design?

John: First of all, thank you very much for having me here on Bit Rebels – I’m always humbled when anyone wants to interview me! I grew up (as you mentioned) in a very tech oriented family; my father built up one of the world’s most extensive enterprise networks as platform for collaboration between scientists. Think of a more advanced version of Basecamp and you’re pretty much there, the only difference is that he came up with all this stuff over 10 years ago when 37Signals didn’t even exist yet!

Coming from that background, I spent most of my teenage years attempting to shun the fact that I was good with computers. I’d always loved art, and I liked business, but I didn’t want to do anything computer related just because I wanted to “make my own path”. Eventually I managed to get past that when someone asked me “how much do you charge for websites?” And I figured out that people would actually pay me real money to do something I’d been doing for free anyway!

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): I see that you are very active in social media. On Twitter you have sent over 10,000 tweets and have over 5,000 followers! How would you say social media has impacted your business overall? Do you use Twitter to gain new clients or is it more of a tool to share valuable information about your craft to others?

John: Twitter is basically the core of my entire business – strange as I’m sure that sounds too many people. I rely on it so much that if someone said I had to pay $300 a month to continue using it, then I probably would. I don’t do radio advertising, or TV, or direct mail, or cold calling, or any forms of traditional marketing. All I do is talk to people who I like on Twitter, and participate actively on other web design blogs and sites. The point of all this is that my best clients have come from social media, and my worst clients have all been local businesses.

I’ll give you some examples: Ubisoft [] hired me based on seeing my work in Smashing Magazine, I’ve done a lot of work for the awesome guys at OnWired [] which started out because I interviewed their MD on my blog, and right now I’m working with Virgin Atlantic Airways (who found me through twitter) to design and build the blog for their brand new travel website. []

Those are all my great clients, now on the flip side of the coin; a local clothing shop contracted me to rebuild their ecommerce site, which I spent 2 months doing, then they refused to pay and I couldn’t afford to take them court. A local stereo company took (seriously) 8 months to pay a small deposit, then they wanted to know why the site hadn’t been started yet, and then they pulled out of the contract (even though they’d already signed it). Again, I couldn’t afford to take them to court.
What I’ve learned from this is that the best clients are the ones that seek me out because they really want to work with me, and the worst clients are the ones who just approach me because I’m “local and convenient”

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): What is your number one favorite part of the whole design process?

John: The end! I love it when you get to the end of a design and it suddenly all comes together perfectly. It always surprises me a little, because it seems to “just happen” at a certain point.

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): Do you work in a traditional office? What does it look like? Where is it located? Is your desk messy or neat?

John: Right now all of Lyrical Media’s staff is home-based. There’s only a few of us, and we’re all in different countries across the world, so it doesn’t make sense to have a “real” office for anyone. My desk is fairly neat at the moment, but most of the time it’s pretty messy!

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): I read that you are working on a web app to incorporate your love for music. That sounds very exciting! Can you elaborate more on this?

John: I can’t say much about this one; it’s quite a long way away! I have 2 major side projects that I’m working on, and this one is the 2nd of the two. In simple terms it’s an application to really help out unsigned musicians in a big way, but that’s about all I can tell you at this point! The concept has had a really warm reception when run past a couple of chart-topping artists, so I’m confident it’ll be something really cool once I find time to build it.

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): On your website, it seems like you have a lot of fun and you love what you do. Can you describe what your typical day looks like?

John: Haha! I definitely love what I do, often I think to myself “I should stop screwing around and do some work” – until I realize that what I’m doing is work! That’s one of the best feelings around, which I never (ever) got that from any of my previous jobs. Right now my routine consists of waking up around 8am, dropping off my girlfriend at work, and then getting into my office for about 6 hours of non-stop work. In the evening I pick her up from work again and relax for a little while, then I usually break out the laptop and spend another 4-6 hours in the evening doing more work. It’s a lot of hours, but like I mentioned, it doesn’t feel like work. If I had $100 million in the bank and I didn’t need to work to make any money, this is still what I’d be doing!

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): As a new blogger myself, I am fascinated by your successful blogging career. How do you find the time to update your blog so frequently and manage the over 600 regular readers?

John: Well the answer to this is quite simple – I don’t find nearly enough time! I’ve always found with my blog that it’s most successful when I post regularly; 2/3 times a week seems to really make a big difference. Right now I’m struggling to find the time to post once a week, which has dropped my traffic, levels down a bit. To answer your question about 600 subscribers, that one is really just a matter of time. I mean I do my best to make clear calls to action with a big “subscribe” button at the end of every post, but I’ve never really focused on trying to build that number up – it just takes time!

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): Like many creative artists, it appears that you are a bit of a perfectionist. How does that affect your work? Do you find that helps or hinders you?

John: I think it does both in equal measures. On the plus side it drives me to produce (what I hope are) some pretty good pieces of design work, but on the down side I sometimes work more hours than I bill for in order to get the design “just right”. Overall I think it’s probably a good thing, but it can be a real pain sometimes!

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): I love this quote below of yours. Is there any other advice you would give to someone just starting out as an entrepreneur?

“Life is too short to do things you don’t enjoy. LOVE what you do and believe in yourself. If you stop loving what you’re doing for even one moment then go and do something else! I know it’s easier said than done for financial reasons, but that doesn’t matter – you can work a full time job and start doing what you love in every bit of spare time that you have, then once you’re doing well enough you can quit your full time job. Persevere!”

John: I should point out here that I’m heavily ripping off Gary Vaynerchuk, and can’t really take much credit for that message – but it is one that I completely support. My single biggest piece of advice to any entrepreneur would be to answer this question: “If I told you that your business would only ever make $20,000 dollars a year, and you’d have to work 12 hours every single day… would you still want to do it?” If the answer to that question is “no” – then get out right now, because it’ll never be successful. Once you find something where the answer to that question is “yes, definitely” – then you’re onto a winner.

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): Since you dropped out of school yet still became wildly successful anyway, what advice would you give to a teenager today wanting to do the same thing? Do you think that decision made it more difficult for you or did it allow your creative side to bloom much sooner?

John: This is a subject that’s very close to my heart, and while I feel very strongly about it, I think that it’s something very personal to each individual. So I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone to do what I did just for the sake of it. I’ve never been great with people telling me what I can and can’t do – I genuinely believe that I (or anyone else for that matter) can do anything if I try hard enough, and I see no point at all in spending any time in this short life doing something that I don’t want to do. You can imagine how well that always went down with parents, teachers, and bosses! There’s no one in the world that could’ve prevented me from dropping out of school and finding my own way – it was something that was always going to happen, because that’s who I am. If you’re the same as me (or even if you’re not), there’s nothing I can say that will change anything. You just have to decide what you want to do, and go do that, no matter stands in your way.

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): When you think about the future, where do you see yourself in 5 years, personally and professionally?

John: In 5 years time I’d like to be outside of the service industry. I love design, and I love the web, but I love both of those things most when I’m doing them for myself. I get the most enjoyment out of designing and building my own sites and blogs – so I’d love to build up a web based business that sells products rather than services. This is something that I’ve already started work on, and there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. 2010 should see the launch of at least one exciting new project along these lines.

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): Now for a fun personal question, what will your next tattoo look like?

John: Good question! I have several at the moment that aren’t finished, so I should really get those completed before I start any new ones – but knowing me I probably won’t!

I think next will be a ‘new skool’ chest-piece by one of my favorite local artists called James Robinson [], then a geometric piece covering all of my back by either Xed Le Head [], or Tomas Tomas [], and eventually when I have the money and the time to fly over to the US, I want my right arm filled up by Jeff Gogue [].

Tattooing has always been very close to my heart from a young age, and I worked as a tattoo artist before I was a web designer. Many of the styles and influences from that industry have crossed over directly into my design work, most notably an inexplicable love for skulls, hearts, and the number 13!

Bit Rebels (Diana Adams): You know we can’t end this interview without the “would you rather” questions. Just answer with the first thing that comes to mind.

Would you rather spend the day surfing the internet or the ocean?
This is a difficult one, I really love both of those. I’d probably have to pick surfing the ocean, just because I already surf the internet every other day!

Would you rather be a dog named Killer or a cat named Fluffy?
Dog named killer, no question.

Would you rather be forced to tell your best friend a lie or tell your parents the truth?
I think I’d always rather be forced to tell a lie rather than be forced to tell the truth – I’m not sure what that says about me!

Would you rather know it all or have it all?
Know it all, definitely. Having it all is fulfilling for a little while, but knowing it all is fulfilling forever.

John, again, this has been a real pleasure for me and for Bit Rebels. We are grateful that you are one of our sponsors and I look forward learning even more from you.

You can find John O’Nolan and Lyrical Media by visiting and following him on Twitter at @JohnONolan.