Building a website can be tricky. So we asked Ben Hughes, Creative Director of Squarespace, for some advice.
Here he reveals the freedoms and limits of creating a site, and shares how the brand has grown throughout the years to continually empower anybody who makes and builds with it.
Words and Interview by Reena Mesias
Graphics by Therese Luna
It seems Ben Hughes is all about balance. Being the Creative Director of Squarespace where he stands on the intersection between a beautifully branded website and its design system-slash-processes, it’s a constant mixture of method and madness.
For a creative, a sense of structure is usually done for good measure, as it allows for everything else to run smoothly. It was this same alignment that got Ben involved in Squarespace in the first place. “My first interaction was as a customer, actually,” he recounts. “A few years ago, I was looking for a new way to put my portfolio online, and Squarespace became the obvious choice. This was also around the time they were releasing great advertising work with John Malkovich, and I was struck by how aligned the product and brand were. Here was this company selling taste and sophistication, and the advertising perfectly mirrored that. I definitely took notice.”
From buying a domain to setting up a website, from promoting with marketing tools to tracking with analytics, Squarespace helps anybody do it all. “And in a way that reflects your brand,” Ben adds. “I think the Squarespace brand is really beautiful and brave. It has a strong point of view, which is especially rare among tech companies. My job is to make sure it stays that way and to constantly think about how we can use it to inspire and empower our customers.”
In between everything Ben does on a daily basis, he manages to sit down and entertain our curiosities in all things Squarespace and why he thinks “the web is the dominant cultural and economic force of our lifetime.”
Why do you do what you do at Squarespace?
Growing up, I didn’t know it was possible to have a creative career because no one around me did. It wasn’t until I got on the early web that I met people who paid their bills with their creative talents, and that gave me the courage to take that route myself. Today, I have a creative job at a technology company that makes it possible for other creative people to build their careers online. I get to live my dream by helping others live theirs.
What are challenges that come with working for this brand?
The main challenges are always to stay relevant in the zero-sum attention economy and to move at the speed the business demands. The first requires you to think broadly about new ways to reach people and tell your story; the second forces you to be decisive and execute quickly.
What do you think drives the evolution of Squarespace?
I think the problems we’re trying to solve are really interesting. Designing for the web is a classic example of creativity with constraints. There are always going to be things you want to do that the technology just isn’t ready for, so you constantly have to ask yourself how you can bridge the gap. We’re always imagining a future for the web that hasn’t quite arrived yet, and then figuring out how we can get people as close as possible to it today.
How about the trends you see coming up in creative systems and technologies?
I think responsive design was a big validation moment for Squarespace because it really drove home how complex the web was becoming. Even technically savvy people no longer wanted to invest the time in creating something for multiple breakpoints, so having a platform with native mobile styles built in was a game-changer.
Today, that trend is continuing with mobile making up an increasing share of web traffic. Our phones are essentially extensions of our bodies and every brand is competing for real estate there.
Let’s talk design. How are tech trends shaping design’s future?
Design has to cover so much surface area now. A brand system has to look good on the side of a building, but also as an Apple Watch icon. It needs to work in motion, as an interactive experience and in social channels. It has to be instantly recognizable in an increasingly crowded visual world. Technology is forcing designers to be more flexible and focus on fully dimensional brand identities rather than strict guidelines.
Do you think design is becoming the distinguishing factor when technology has advanced a long way?
Absolutely. As more commerce moves to digital channels, there’s an incentive to make those channels as frictionless as possible. Amazon’s 1-Click Ordering feature is a perfect example—it lets you buy a product without even really thinking about it. A good online commerce strategy is all about removing obstacles to completing the sale, but the downside is that everything quickly becomes commoditized. Design and brand storytelling are some of the last ways for companies to stand out amidst a sea of “buy now” buttons.
There is an emergence of designer- led companies. Should creatives be as much of a part of the business decisions as the visual ones?
I gave a talk at a design school recently called “The Kids’ Table,” which was about how creatives limit themselves by ignoring the business side of things. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have no idea how their companies make money, and while it can be tempting to opt out of those conversations, we’re ultimately not serving our customers or our careers by doing so. Good designers understand users and that’s always a valuable perspective to have in the room when business decisions are being made. Beyond that, if you don’t understand how to make money, you’ll always be reliant on people who do.
David Lee, the Chief Creative Officer at Squarespace, is a member of our leadership team and is deeply involved with the business. He’s a perfect example of someone who’s concerned with results, not just aesthetics. That’s the way we all need to be thinking.
How do you think the branding process has changed since you started in the industry?
Earlier in my career, the conversation really centered on a few elements: the logo, the word mark, the color palette. Now, brands are designing their own signature scents. They’re patenting UI interactions. They’re building playlists on Spotify. They’re dabbling in existentialism on Twitter. A visual center isn’t enough anymore. On the internet, no one knows you’re a brand — or rather, everyone knows, but the expectation is that you’re going to be as approachable and fully dimensionalized as a real human being.
What are the key elements to a great online presence?
You need the flexibility to create something bold and the consistency to apply it across all of your touch points. People aren’t just going to type in your URL and walk through the front door to your home page—they’re going to search for you and land on your About page, or follow a link from social and land on one of your Product pages. Wherever someone lands, they should know they’ve arrived in your brand’s world.
Squarespace is an all-in-one platform, which means every part of your online presence is connected. We have the design tools to help you stand out, but you can also apply the same styles that you use on your web pages to your email marketing. That’s key.
What do you think is Squarespace’s legacy in society?
The web is the dominant cultural and economic force of our lifetime and Squarespace has made it possible for anyone to participate in that and show up in the right way. Whether you’re an artist, an entrepreneur, a writer or a member of the independent workforce, you can get the attention your ideas and talents deserve.
Calling All Digital Creators
3 of Ben Hughes’ favorite websites that use Squarespace
Danny is a member of our creative team and just refreshed his portfolio site as a way to learn some of our new features. I love the contrast between stark minimalism and these moments of absurd playfulness. The Rainforest Café Brutalism trend starts here.
Alex Prager is an incredible photographer and filmmaker who I’ve followed for years, so I was delighted to find out that she’s a Squarespace customer. Sometimes, design is about getting out of the way of the content and I love how her site puts her images at the center of the experience.
As the Creative Director, what would you say are your major roles at Squarespace? How are these different from the rest of the jobs you’ve had at agencies or as a freelancer?
In a lot of ways, my responsibilities at Squarespace are similar to what I was doing at agencies. I’m still leading campaigns, building my team and trying to solve problems for the business. The biggest difference being in house is you’re doing all of those things so much closer to the decision makers. I get briefed on new product features by the people who actually designed and built them. I present work directly to our CMO and CEO. My life in agencies feels very slow now, by comparison, because of how long the feedback loop often took there.
What kind of advice would you give young folks in order for them to work for Squarespace?
When you’re coming up with a concept, you need to be able to temporarily forget about everything except what’s going to make an impact, but then you have to pivot and turn it into a real plan that can be delivered on a deadline. For a younger person, I think that means giving yourself the freedom to chase down your wildest ideas and being confident enough in your craft that you can clearly communicate what you find.
What would be the next step for Squarespace, say, in 5 years?
We’re actually in the process of rolling out some exciting new features that make designing a site even easier. We’ve already gotten a lot of great feedback on them from early adopters and I think they’re going to dramatically reduce the time it takes to design and maintain a website.
As for the future, we’re always asking ourselves two questions: How is the web going to continue to evolve? And what kinds of tools will ambitious people need to be successful on it? If we pay attention to both of those things, I think we’ll always have something compelling to offer our customers.
5 tools you use most regularly at work.
- Figma. It’s like if Sketch and Google Docs had a baby. We recently switched the entire creative team to it and it’s already helping us work faster and smarter.
- TextEdit. I take a lot of notes and make a lot of lists, and while there are definitely more sophisticated tools out there, nothing beats this no-frills macOS text editor.
- Keynote. I really appreciate the collaborative nature of Google Slides, but it just doesn’t offer enough design control for me. I have a master Keynote template set up with all of my grids and use it for almost all presentations.
- Premiere Pro. Sometimes you need to prototype a video idea to be sure you can get across enough information in the time you have. Roughing things out in Premiere has become a big part of how I refine concepts and scripts.
- Instapaper. I come across a lot of interesting articles during the day, but rarely have the time to read them right then and there. This Chrome extension lets me save them to a reading list that I can dig through later on my commute.