The Arbor Day Foundation (2005–2012)
The Arbor Day Foundation is a national non-profit that inspires people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees. The foundation stakes its mission in yards, communities, and around the world. It has grown to approximately one million members since its founding in 1972.
I was the web designer for the foundation from 2005–2012. I designed the main website, as well as spinoff sites for many of their programs, such as the child-focused Nature Explore Club, Lied Lodge & Conference Center, Arbor Day Farm, and the training site Tree Board University.
- visual design
- responsive design
- content management
- Flash animation
- Dan Shullaw
- Matt Olson
Sometimes my work for The Arbor Day Foundation feels barely relevant. Sometimes I just want to excise it from my portfolio. Today it’s less a showcase of my talents and more of a time capsule; like looking back at your high school yearbook portrait and shaking your head at your dopey haircut. But there’s something worth gleaning from that history.
I began working for the non-profit by animating Flash cartoons for a Kid’s Club. After that, I redesigned the website, and then settled into the in-house role of maintaining the user experience and making improvements as new technology developed. Technical skills that I had learned in college gelled for me on real world projects, and I learned more about programming than I had managed to pick up on the many theoretical projects given to me in school.
It was a wild time. We worked mostly on gut instinct, followed trends, and experimented live. We released fast and loose, and without version control. As a young professional at a small company, it was fun having considerable reign over the user experience. I helped the different departments of the organization best present their content and I rarely received a lot of pushback from clients. Most of the time, they were happy to have me give input on better user interactions, and we didn’t sit in endless meetings refining copy word-by-word.
When I started working there, it was one of the craziest, most tumultuous times in the industry and it defined my values today. Web standards were taking over as the de facto way of developing a website. Having grown up slicing websites into fragile tables, this turnaround energized me. It was like I was learning a new language out of words I already knew.
In fact, I was also learning a whole other language: CSS. I had dabbled in the styling language a bit when it was new and not very well supported, but here, I adopted the mantra of separating style from the document structure. I learned how to master the cascade. I traded finicky tables for finicky-in-a-better-way floats (which were as good as it got in those pre-flexbox times).
I found idols. I was no longer hacking-and-slashing my way through website designs by copying and pasting from the source codes of random websites. I was reading blogs by smart designers, people I looked up to. I was learning not just how things worked, but also why. I was researching, solving problems… and annoying the hell out of my boss.
“Tables just work!” he’d shout from his office.
“Tables are for tabular data, not layout!” I’d retort.
The Arbor Day Foundation was where I learned web standards and mastered CSS. I learned a lot of other things, too, thanks to the developers I worked with—back-end code (Adobe ColdFusion), databases (MySQL), and analytics (Urchin before it became Google Analytics)—but well-crafted, purposeful HTML and CSS became my banner to fly.
With these tools, I can make anything look like anything. Layout, color, typography, graphics, and gestalt, not to mention the interconnectivity of documents and applications through hypertext. I was there, at the Arbor Day Foundation, when it all came together, when it cemented, when it killed Flash, when it became mobile-friendly. And I got to do it all.
I ripped out layout tables. I supported Internet Explorer 6 on Windows for six and a half agonizing years. I supported IE 5.5 for the Mac for six blissfully short months! I built pages by hand, and the CSS from scratch, including writing out every vendor prefix known. I made mobile sites with three different methodologies to figure out which one was the best (responsive, FYI). I even figured out how to make Flash responsive!
Today, my site no longer exists in its original state. Yes, The Arbor Day Foundation is still here, still doing good work, but they’ve since redesigned, updated, modernized. Such is the way on the web. I am left with tragically few artifacts from it. You can see some more of it in the Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20080115175718/http://www.arborday.org:80/
I get down on this site when I look at the screenshots because it’s so old, and technology has changed as much as the trends have. Yet when I look at the work I do today, my work at The Evergreen State College and elsewhere, it’s actually not a whole lot different. I’m still working on projects that benefit from semantic markup. I’m still writing CSS. Some of it is enhanced with additional layers of abstraction—the HTML gets diced up into a CMS, the CSS gets processed out of Sass, the user experience gets borne out in research and testing—but the basis that I learned at the Arbor Day Foundation is all still there, all put into practice on a daily basis.
It’s difficult to hold this site up as a portfolio piece, as an aesthetic masterpiece, a pinnacle of usability. But it’s still an important part, not because of how I shaped these artifacts over the seven years I was there, but because of how it shaped me into the designer that I am today.