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Interview with Design Moo’s Chris Wallace

by Grant Friedman

on July 30, 2009

in Interviews

This week I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with UI Designer and Front-end Developer Chris Wallace (@chriswallace). Chris Wallace is the guy behind Design Moo and the popular WordPress Gallery Theme. In addition to being a designer, Chris is also a cancer survivor and had some inspiring things to say about being a designer and coping with the stress of a life threatening illness.

Chris, thanks for being a part of this interview. Can you start off by telling us a little about your background? Where are you from? How did you get your start as a designer?

I was born and raised in St. Louis, MO, and have been a designer for around 8 years. I started my career as the webmaster for a small Christian college called St. Louis Christian College, where I gained a ton of experience dabbling in everything from print (newsletters, posters, t-shirts, brochures) to custom content management systems and web infrastructure.

I then took a position as an e-commerce web designer for Network Solutions designing a wide range of storefronts for clients on our e-commerce platform, consulting clients on best practices for e-commerce and optimal user experience.

I moved on to a position as a front-end developer for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, working with various websites and web applications and mainly with Enterprise.com.

Over the past 10 months or so, I started blogging on Chris-Wallace.com, releasing WordPress themes, and building a few of my own web projects aimed mainly at aggregating great content for designers: designmoo.com, mixcss.com, mashedjobs.com, and alldevjobs.com.

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Tell us a little about your company Walmedia. How long have you been in business? What services do you offer?

Walmedia is a one-man web design studio that works with a purposefully short client list I’ve built up over the years. My goal is to help startups from day one build a successful and profitable web presence by avoiding some of the pitfalls new companies can make in outsourcing their web work to the wrong companies or freelancers. I started Walmedia in 2006 and offer standards-based web design, UI design, and work mainly with open-source web applications: WordPress, Drupal, Magento, and even ZenCart.

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You are a self-proclaimed Visual/UI Designer and Front-end Developer. Tell us a little about what that means. How is this different from being a web or graphic designer?

That’s a very good question. I think as I’ve progressed through my career it gets harder and harder to assign just one simple title that explains what I do. From design mockups to Javascript development to WordPress theme development, I am always moving in and out of the various types and phases of projects. Once I started working on web applications and not just static websites, my title of “Web Designer” was no longer descriptive of the type of work I was involved with and interested in. Paul Boag (Boagworld), had this struggle a while back and ended up simply referring to himself as a “web strategist.”

I think the difference is in the various skills associated with doing so many different things for various clients and my own projects. One day I’m working on a large-scale interface design project and the next I’m jumping into Illustrator or Photoshop for a set of icons.

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You have a lot of experience designing WordPress themes and releasing them on your website. Can you tell us a little about some of your themes? What are some of your most popular? Are your themes free? Do you have any for sale?

When it comes to developing WordPress themes, I am still very new in the community, but have been extremely fortunate to release a few themes in cooperation with some great guys in the design community, Jacob Gube of Six Revisions and Vitaly Friedman of Smashing Magazine.

I have released 6 WordPress themes since November of 2008 and have really seen things take off since the day my first theme went out the door. Rusty Grunge, my first theme, is my most-used theme, having been downloaded over 30,000 times on WordPress.org and is a great theme for casual bloggers because of its simplicity. Gallery and Absynthe are a few themes which have really gained quite a following as well. I really love seeing people’s modifications to my themes and to see the amazing things they come up with every day using something I contributed to, it is a lot of fun for me.

All of my themes are free to this point except for one, DesignFolio+, which is a great theme for print and graphic designers looking for a solid WordPress portfolio and blog. It is extremely customizable with a slick theme options page, an easy way to upload portfolio images and Flickr and twitter integration.

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Why do you like WordPress as a platform? What makes it so much better than some of the other blogging or CMS platforms?

I think WordPress is one of the best blogging platforms. With such a large community, it makes it easy to find plugins and tutorials to really push the outer limits of what you can do with it. You’d be hard-pressed to find another platform and community that is so well-organized and connected. I’ve worked with Drupal, ZenCart, Magento, Joomla!, and others and WordPress’ plugins and themes are much easier to find, use, and get support with.

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Let’s change pace a little. I understand that you recently had a bout with cancer and had to drop out of school to fight it. How did this experience affect you both personally and as a designer?

Well, to be honest, it was definitely a very difficult time for me and my family. I was a college student and my wife (girlfriend at the time) just found out she was pregnant and had a pregnancy-related condition that put her in the hospital multiple times, all while planning our wedding and preparing for surgery to remove the tumor and go through chemotherapy.

In my design career, this was definitely a huge turning point in my life, quickly shifting my focus to making sure my new family was taken care of, had a home, food, and all the necessities to survive and grow. Just weeks before going through chemotherapy, I set up a meeting with school officials from a small Christian college I attended for 2 years and offered to redesign their outdated website while undergoing chemotherapy treatments in exchange for a full-time position when I was done with chemo. They agreed and that’s how I began my career and have been going all-out ever since.

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Life always seems to present us with certain surprises and challenges that affect our outlook and expectations. How did your battle with cancer change your professional expectations? What advice would you give to anyone who finds themself in a similar situation?

When I was told I had cancer, I immediately thought about my new family and the need to provide for them. If that meant selling Tupperware or kitchen knives door-to-door, I would’ve done it. Luckily for me, I instantly started thinking about ways to provide for my family doing something I knew pretty well… designing websites.

The best advice I could give to someone in a similar position is this: instead of using your condition as an excuse, use it as fuel to motivate you to do things you never thought possible.

The design community couldn’t survive without the sponsors that support it. You sponsor several websites including this one. What is it about the design community that you like so much? How has the design community helped you and your business?

My favorite part about the design community is the people. Everyone I meet, either on twitter or through my blog, has a passion for what they do, always trying to improve themselves through education and experience and there is always someone willing to lend a helping hand when I may need some help myself.

In a business sense, the community is what drives me. I love contributing WordPress themes, tips, tutorials, advice to such a passionate group of people. I’ve been given some great opportunities to contribute to sites like Six Revisions and Smashing Magazine and am very grateful for those opportunities because they allow me to share my projects with people who may need just that extra bit of motivation to act on an idea for a project they had, but couldn’t execute.

Finally, can you name 3 other people who you would like to see interviewed on this website?

I would love seeing an interview with Rogie King of Komodo Media, Mark Hemeon, one of the creators of Design By Humans and TeeFury, and Jonatan Castro of Midtone Design.

Follow Chris Wallace on Twitter: @chriswallace.

About Grant Friedman

Grant Friedman is a graphic design, blogger, and author. In addition to being the founder of this website, Grant is also the editor of Psdtuts, one of the world's most popular tutorial websites.