We interviewed James Mathias, designer and Chief Creative Officer of EllisLab. EllisLab developed ExpressionEngine, a flexible content management system our developers and designers work with.

Here’s what he had to say!

Firstly, thank you for doing this interview! What does EllisLab do? How would you describe ExpressionEngine to someone that had never heard of it?


Hi Sita, thank you for asking, I appreciate it. EllisLab is a intentionally-small, distributed software company, started by Rick Ellis. We build software to make building websites easier. Our flagship product ExpressionEngine, is a robust, extremely flexible Content Management System, with a focus on security, extensibility and ease of use.


What’s the most “out there” project you have ever seen created with ExpressionEngine or CodeIgniter?


As a designer and developer, I’ve built quite a few complex sites on ExpressionEngine. And as the CCO of EllisLab, I’m thrilled to see how our customers utilize the product in interesting and unique ways. A major part of ExpressionEngine’s charm is it’s flexibility and to that end, folks are being impressively creative with it.


ExpressionEngine is such a flexible publishing framework which can be used for so many different website types. Where do you begin when designing something like the ExpressionEngine control panel, where one design needs to fit all those needs?


Whenever I approach the design of a feature old or new, I ask myself, will this help more people than it hurts? If the answer is no, I continue to work on the problem until the answer is yes. ExpressionEngine needs to be a lot of things to a lot of different people. It’s not possible to make everyone happy, but if my work makes more people happy, and less people disappointed, I sleep better.


Where do you draw your inspiration from when looking for UI/UX improvements within EllisLab products? Are there any User Interface designers whose work you really admire?


I’ve always looked at nature and industrial design as inspiration. I draw on those inspirations in combination with my fourteen years designing interfaces and processes, to try and come up with something that will help our customers get their work done faster. Occasionally I’ll rely on my gut; and most often I try to get non-designer feedback.

I’m a huge proponent of soliciting feedback from people that aren’t designers by trade. I sometimes find myself getting stuck in my own head, and needing a breath of fresh perspective, which can only be found from someone that doesn’t have any skin in the game. I still appreciate and seek out feedback from other designers, I just want to be certain I get feedback from other sources as well.


When we first discovered EllisLab back in 2007, the website had two very distinct brands/products with ExpressionEngine and CodeIgniter. The new design seems to bring them both much closer together with EllisLab as the predominant brand. Was this intentional, to try and create one ecosystem of EllisLab Developer platforms?


When we set out to redesign the websites, I rallied hard to consolidate and simplify. I wanted to bring all the products under a single roof, so to speak. I feel strongly that it’s easier to maintain brands and websites, when there is a cohesive vision to look to as the guiding principle for future decisions. I still feel like it was the right decision, however, there are things about the timing, and decisions about what to cut for launch that I would do differently, hindsight and all.


Are there any elements of the design within EllisLab applications that you are particularly proud of and why?


Yes. However, those elements aren’t public yet, as they are part of ExpressionEngine 3. I came to EllisLab after ExpressionEngine 2 was released, so aside from some small tweaks here and there, ExpressionEngine 2 is largely not my work. In the curious case of ExpressionEngine 3 I’ve taken my time trying to sculpt a user experience that will feel at once both new, and familiar. From that base, I plan to iterate and improve the control panel even further.


Are there any technological trends which you are particularly excited about at EllisLab? How do you see those trends being incorporated into your products?


I’ve been using LESS to work in CSS since I came to EllisLab, and I’m excited about that. I like the trend of less Internet Explorer testing! I dislike the trend of flat design, and I think responsive design solves the wrong problem.

What are your experiences with ExpressionEngine? Leave your comments below. NuBlue is an award-winning digital agency who also host EE websites! Contact us to discuss your requirements.

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