Trent Walton is founder and 1/3 of Paravel, a custom web design and development shop based out of the Texas Hill Country. In his spare time, he writes about what he learns on his blog and on Twitter. Also notable, Trent’s wife has put him on a font allowance.
Interview date: March 6, 2013
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Alright, ya’ll, get ready! You don’t want to miss this week’s interview with the amazing Texas-based designer, Trent Walton. We had the pleasure of meeting Trent at last year’s Brooklyn Beta, so this was a fun opportunity to pick up where we left off and learn more about his path. While he loved drawing from a young age, he didn’t know he loved design until he discovered the Internet. In college, Trent studied a completely different subject, but after working a few day jobs, he took a risk to start Paravel with his longtime compadres, Dave and Reagan. Read on about Trent’s adventures in design, his life among the rolling hills of Texas, why he values being self-taught, and of course, his recommendation for the best burger in Austin.
Describe your path to becoming a designer.
A lot of my friends in the industry have print backgrounds, but I don’t. In fact, I didn’t know that I loved design until the Internet happened. When I was in high school, I built a site using Homestead and then, I used a crappy digital camera to take a photo and tile it to create a background. I took “tile” literally and actually took a photo of bathroom tile to repeat for the background. I had so much fun messing around with stuff like that.
I also liked the idea of constant manipulation and change that could happen online, which is why I liked the web more than print. I could build something in a day, launch it, burn it down, and build something else the next day. It was in high school and college that I really got into this idea of building for the web.
I’ve known the guys I work with at Paravel, Dave and Reagan, since we were all in high school. We didn’t go to the same school, but we ran in the same circles. In 2002, they were both in Austin. I called Dave to ask him to teach me HTML, which really meant teaching me how to use Dreamweaver at that time. He agreed to do it for $80. After that, he went to Japan to teach for three years and we kept in touch via iChat. Almost every night, we had a website show-and-tell of sorts. We taught each other, although Dave was always way ahead of me. Meanwhile, Reagan graduated from the advertising program at the University of Texas and was out contracting design gigs. When Dave got back from Japan, he and Reagan worked together and eventually, the three of us started Paravel.
I really got serious about design when we got serious about Paravel. Prior to that, I was working at a company building websites, but it was more of a day job; I didn’t have a passion for it. When Dave, Reagan, and I started the company, we had a neat relationship in that we taught each other and learned how to problem-solve together. That’s when I started to have a higher standard of work. I got serious about design.
How long has Paravel been a company?
We’ve been formal since 2006, but we’ve been bothering each other on iChat and contracting each other for work since 2002.
Did you study design in college?
Not at all. I studied psychology and child and family development. Even so, I always found a way to volunteer for design work through various campus groups I was part of, but I was never formally trained in design. I like the idea of being self-taught when it comes to the web because it almost creates a desperation and resourcefulness—and sometimes, insecurity—that I might not otherwise have. I often think, “Man, maybe there’s a lesson they teach you on the third week of design class that I don’t know. I could really embarrass myself someday.” The idea that I’ve missed something has kept me on my toes and maybe I use that to my advantage.
Was creativity part of your childhood?
Yes. I can’t draw well, but that didn’t stop me. My parents used to get butcher paper and tape it on the walls in my bedroom for me to draw on. I spent hours and hours drawing enormous, elaborate cityscapes and underground caves with Boba Fett rocket men. My parents loved that because it kept me occupied.
That’s great. You touched on this already, but did you have an “aha” moment when you knew that design was what you wanted to do?
I had a few jobs right out of college, some of which included marketing and design responsibilities. I worked at an Episcopal Church in Austin and another outside of Houston and was always preoccupied with designing things for projects I’d drum up. Thankfully, they were gracious enough to let me wander and freelance during my employment. This continued at any job I had. For example, I worked for an industrial contractor and did data entry, sales, and design stuff. I was so terrible at the data entry and sales because I neglected it; all I wanted to do was design. That was when I knew that’s what I had to do. I left that job to start Paravel with Dave and Reagan, knowing that web design was going to be my focus.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
This is a funny one for me. The answer to this goes back to my dad, who has always been a “you’ll figure it out” sort of guy. It was the best advice he ever gave me, even though it always pissed me off. I seem to attract the same kind of relationships with mentors, always at arm’s length. Most relationships with people who have heavily influenced me have been brief or distant ones in the sense that we’ve had very loose and short interactions. It’s usually a situation where I ask a question, get some feedback, and am then left to my own devices.
Although I wouldn’t call Dave or Reagan mentors, I do think that much of the evolution and growth I’ve experienced as a designer has been a result of my friendships with them. We’re peers and can have a great vulnerability and trust with one another. In the beginning, when we critiqued each other’s work or voiced frustrations about a project, it would become really heated. These days, now that we’ve been through so much and had so many of those conversations, we’re a lot cooler. More than anyone else, I look to those guys for honest feedback.
[Ryan] I’m a big fan of the work you guys do and one of the things that I think is so great is that your shop has stayed small. You have your own roles, know the kind of work you want to do, and you stick to that and just keep getting better and better at it.
We haven’t planned it, but that’s turned out to be the model all along. We don’t really have a business plan, except for commitment to one another. I founded Paravel, but it wasn’t a formal thing; I just said, “Hey, let’s do this together.” It wasn’t me going out and saying, “I’m going to find the most popular designer I can.” It was Dave, Reagan, and I collectively saying, “We care about each other; we trust each other; we’re willing to put our destinies and futures in each other’s hands, so let’s just stick together.” There’s this hump to get over when teams begin to establish boundaries and things get rough, which is usually when they break apart. I think that the reason why we now get to pick and choose jobs and have the freedom to do what we want is that Paravel is primarily rooted in friendship.
[Tina] It’s wild that you guys have known each other since high school.
We’ve definitely seen each other at our absolute worst times, whether it’s the worst we’ve ever looked, the worst decisions we’ve made, or the most embarrassing things we’ve ever done.
In fact, Dave wrapped my house in high school. I have pictures of him standing in my front yard with toilet paper (all laughing). There was a firework night that I wussed out on. I didn’t want to go, so instead of going to the fireworks, everyone came to my house and wrapped it. And now we’re coworkers (laughing).
Nice. Was there a point in your life when you decided to take a big risk to move forward?
It was when we started Paravel. There’s always risk involved in starting a company. The job I worked at in Houston was well-paying and offered benefits. I had saved some money and we knew we wouldn’t have much overhead, but we all had to make a certain amount of money to live on. When I quit my job and Dave and Reagan jumped on board, it compounded things because it wasn’t just my personal finances and future; it was now their futures as well.
That was a stressful time, but I was never conflicted about whether or not it was what I wanted to do. I woke up each month, knowing I had to start over and drum up “x” dollars in new business. I knew that if we didn’t make it through the first 6–12 months, then we were never going to realize what we were capable of. That first step was pretty terrifying, but I wasn’t as scared about finances as I was about not being able to do what I really wanted long-term.
We made it work. The second or third month in, I even called my parents and told them they were going to hire Reagan to draw a scene from The Big Lebowski on an 8-foot wide sheet of aluminum to put in my dad’s garage. There were desperate times when we called anyone we knew and everyone we had ever worked with; we took every job, whether it was good or bad. Thank goodness that Dave and Reagan trusted me.
“I think there’s some value in realizing that most of the world doesn’t give two shits about what we do during the day…it reminds me not to take things too seriously and also not to worry about what anyone else thinks.”
Have your family and friends been supportive over the years?
My friends are supportive for sure. My father and brother are mechanical engineers and they love cars, so they’re totally uninterested in anything to do with computers or the web. It’s pretty funny, actually. I could say, “Hey, look, we just built this jQuery plugin. Isn’t it great?” and it’s not for lack of trying, but they couldn’t care less. My family thinks that what I do is cool, but they have no interest in it and it’s been a good reality check. They’re supportive, but not interested, and I think you can be both of those at the same time.
[Ryan] That seems to be a trend in tech.
[Tina] I think it’s good and humbling because we can tend to be in our own little worlds, high-fiving each other and patting each other on the backs.
Yeah, it isn’t that we shouldn’t be proud of what we do, but I think there’s some value in realizing that most of the world doesn’t give two shits about what we do during the day. That’s not to say that I don’t feel like my work is significant, but it reminds me not to take things too seriously and also not to worry about what anyone else thinks. That’s part of why I live 45 minutes outside of Austin, which most people would call the country. I like that; I like being disconnected and being around people who don’t care about what I do and don’t want to talk about anything I work on. That feeds into the lifestyle I’ve created to keep from burning out and going insane because, when I’m at my desk, I’m so plugged in that I don’t think about anything else.
Do you guys work from home or do you have a studio?
We had a studio early on, but overhead sucks and going back to our cross-continental iChat days, we’re used to working remotely. Now, we all work from home and meet once a week at each other’s houses, which works just as well. If we ever decide to expand, we’d have to do something else, but for now we keep things as simple as possible so that all we have to do is think about the work. Keeping it simple allows me to actually design and code on a daily basis.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
On a small level, I hope to contribute by sharing resources or tools or an opinion in the form of an article. I hope that adds up collectively somewhere, influences people, and helps shape the web. That’s one of the reasons that we like to share things we’ve built if it’s something that has helped us. Or if I have an opinion that’s worth sharing, I’ll try to write an engaging, concise blog post about it. It would be fun to look back every few years and see how, even in a minuscule way, you might have helped shape the web. The implications of it go beyond the kind of technologies we’re using; we have the opportunity to make people’s lives better, easier, and more fun.
“The implications of [the web] go beyond the kind of technologies we’re using; we have the opportunity to make people’s lives better, easier, and more fun.”
Are you satisfied creatively?
The answer has got to be no. Isn’t that what you hope? If you can see that there’s more to do and you have more left inside of you to share, then that’s what keeps you going. There’s no way that the client work we take on or the daily to-dos we must accomplish will ever fulfill us. It’s a constant struggle and it’s what keeps me going. No, I’m not creatively satisfied at all and I hope I never am.
In that same vein, where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? Is there anything you want to do or explore?
Sooner or later, we’ll want to build a product of some sort. The word “product” may even define it too much at this point, but we want to build something that we’re ultimately responsible for. In 5 to 10 years, I see myself still working with Dave and Reagan.
If you could give advice to a young designer starting out, what would you say?
Do whatever you can to set the bar really high. Find people who are better than you and follow them. Develop your taste. Develop a goal for where you want to be and if your skills aren’t there yet, that’s totally okay. I think that knowing what good is and being able to strive for it is key because then you’ll be willing to do whatever it takes to connect the dots. Find what you love about your field and focus on that and the details will take care of themselves.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
We’re members of a CSA—Community Supported Agriculture—so we get a box of fresh vegetables every week. There are trees and hills and lakes outside of my windows. For me, that environment creates a pace for my day-to-day. I think nature has a timing that human beings need—the seasons, days, and nights. The web isn’t like that. When you’re launching things online, you get frazzled and desperate because things are moving so fast. I think that living in the country helps to slow things down and ease that unnatural pace that the web can create in our lives. When I’m working, there’s a very different feeling and pace to what I do than when I walk outside. Again, I think it helps with longevity and helps me slow back down at the end of the day.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Oh, yeah. I’ve totally been like a parasite to the web community since I started. I’m self-taught and everything I’ve learned has been from SimpleBits, CSS-Tricks, and admiring good work. Being a part of that has made everything that I do professionally possible. Contributing as much as I can and continuing to benefit from the community is my lifeline. I wouldn’t have anything without my peers and the relationships we’ve forged.
[Tina] Is your community more online and when you travel versus a physical community where you live?
I’ll count myself as an Austinite in this case. We’ve started to do Dribbble Meetups and there’s a great set of talent here in town, so any meetups add extra weight to the interactions I have online. When you meet people, even briefly, it seems to fortify the relationships you have with them. I always love the opportunity to have the chance to put faces to avatars (all laughing).
“…nature has a timing that human beings need—the seasons, days, and nights. The web isn’t like that…living in the country helps to slow things down and ease that unnatural pace that the web can create…”
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up whenever the kids do, which is usually 6am. I eat a big breakfast, exercise, and then get to the office by 9–9:30am. My office is at home, but it’s a detached space above the garage, so I have to go outside to get there. It’s insanity until 5pm and then I go back inside and it’s all hands on deck. I’m feeding the kids, changing diapers, reading books, and bathing them—I love it because there’s no time to answer email or think about anything work related. It’s a really great transition for me. What I would have thought I would see as a pain in the ass is the best part of my day and it helps me to shift gears.
Any current albums on repeat?
I have two modes. If I’m trying to write or concentrate on something, I have some Rdio playlists that include songs with little or no words. The other mode is when I’m designing; whether I listen to music on Rdio or on my record player, it’s usually stuff that was recorded before Pro Tools: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Bob Wills, and anything that pulls me away from the primarily digital tasks at hand.
Favorite movie or TV show?
It’s probably The Big Lebowski. My dad and I communicate through that movie. It was a really good bonding experience for us.
As for TV shows, I’m re-watching The West Wing, which is a good way to unwind. I also watch a lot of Cheers on Netflix.
Your favorite book?
I have to go back to my formative years and say C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series. Authors who put a lot of time into cultivating a world captivate me.
Something else worth noting is that my new favorite thing is to buy books on eBay that I know jack-shit about and just scatter them around the office, so when I need to reboot, I can grab one. Let’s see, I have A Boy Scout’s Guide to Forestry, Wyatt Earp, Mad Magazine Looks at People—these were all less than $5.
Everything from Texas: brisket, barbecue, breakfast tacos, and the best meal would be the green chile cheeseburger at Alamo Springs Cafe. Texas Monthly does a best burgers series and that was on the cover of the magazine. It’s an hour away, but we drive down there to get it. People think I’m crazy for that, but I’m always on the verge of tears when I get that burger.
[Ryan] Reagan promised me a food tour down in Austin, so we’ve gotta come down there.
Oh, we’ll do that and we’re not kidding!
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I really think that it would be Paravel—just the idea that you can find some friends, commit to each other, and stick it out. That’s really why I enjoy what I do. We’ve been really lucky, but no achievement we’ve had has outweighed how much I value working with those two guys and the trust and commitment that we have with one another. It’s been hard and it’s not something I would universally recommend to everyone, but finding some friends who you can trust and build something with has been my favorite part of all of this. Nothing I’ve done would have been possible without them.
“…finding some friends who you can trust and build something with has been my favorite part of all of this. Nothing I’ve done would have been possible without them.”