This week I talk with Gabrielle Wee, who’s done loads of creative coding work here on CodePen but like so many other creative people we talk to, her creativity explodes into so many other areas like illustration, photography, drawing, and even gardening. Plus a desire to share those techniques. Her path has led her to be working at Apple, a dream job.
Some advice from Gabrielle: doing work that she was personally interested in, rather than pandering to any recent trend, was much more fun and led to more clear success. Also: be curious and inspect element.
- 00:28 Guest introduction
- 02:50 Personal website with fancy domain name
- 04:26 CSS Trickery
- 07:59 Putting code out into the world for the first time
- 09:23 CSS Nest Dropdown animation
- 11:48 What’s the job trajectory to working at Apple?
- 15:51 Sponsor: Jetpack
- 17:18 What else was on your path to getting a job?
- 20:13 Where does your art training come from?
- 25:33 Making Pokemon in code
- 26:45 What about Daily UI?
- 28:49 Making gradients you think you can’t pull off
- 31:27 Closing advice
Jetpack has some good news. All backups are now in realtime, whatever plan you are on or buy. If you already have daily backups on your plan, email them them to get on the new system. The blog post has details. Real time backups are amazing, because you can back up to very specific moments in time (say, right before a certain post was edited) rather than the more broad sword of having to pick a day.
[Radio channel adjustment]
Announcer: Today, on CodePen Radio.
Chris Coyier: Hey, everybody! CodePen Radio #345. I have another super special guest this week that I'm excited to talk to you. I am pleased to present Gabrielle Wee. Hey, Gabrielle! How ya doin'?
Gabrielle Wee: Pretty good. Pretty good. Happy to be here.
Chris: Yay! Thanks! You've been -- you know we've known each other for a while - way back in the New Orleans days, the good ol' days. [Laughter]
Gabrielle: It feels like forever ago.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. It really was a past era, I believe. I don't know. I don't know.
No need to talk about sad stuff now. We have so much happy stuff to talk about. You've been a CodePen member for a long time, wonderful designer and developer, now at Apple, which is cool. We won't talk about that a ton, but I do have, like--
Chris: --some minor follow-up questions to ask you, but I promise -- and, audience, of course, we can't get anything super Apple-y, but why would we? There's so much other stuff to talk about anyway, like what you like and things that you've done.
You're on CodePen at Gabrielle Wee and on Dribbble and on Twitter and all the places you expect to find a plugged-in--
Gabrielle: Not quite Twitter.
Chris: No? Did you give up on it?
Chris: I've been staring at the Gabrielle Wee handle on Twitter for five or six years now, and it has not budged, so I am Gabrie Wee on Twitter and Gabrielle Wee on everything else.
Chris: Ugh! Oh, I see. It's just missing the Elle.
Chris: Yeah, your pinned tweet is hilarious about feeling introverted online as well as offline. [Laughter] Yeah. I feel you there.
Gabrielle: You know I feel like introverts blossom so well on the Internet, and I can see so many awesome people just posting and talking a lot. It's just that I feel as awkward online as I do in person.
Gabrielle: Maybe a little more these days. [Laughter] I'm always happy to talk to people, but you know.
Chris: That is a unique place to be. Yeah. It doesn't mean that just because you're in front of your computer that your introversion just slinks away immediately.
Gabrielle: Not for me. [Laughter]
Chris: That's an interesting place to be. Then it'll kick you over to your -- you have, basically, the coolest personal website URL possible because it just so happens that .ee is a TLD, as they're called.
Chris: Which I have no idea, so it's gabriellew.ee.
Chris: What is EE? Is it some remote island chain like .io is?
Gabrielle: I think it's Estonia, and I had to purchase it specially with an Estonian contact that the domain provider provides for me, so it was a whole process to get it but worth it because now I can just have my name as my domain.
Chris: Oh, it's the best thing ever. Estonia, that's cool. That's cool. You got it, got your hands on it.
Yep. Yep. Yep, and just because -- I don't know. We can actually get into front-end design and development shortly. I promise.
Chris: But I notice on your website (I think I want to steal) on how you have a Discord and iMessage link. iMessage, in particular, is cool, I think, as a way to get somebody to be like, "Yo, just text me," without necessarily having to chuck your phone number on there if you didn't want to.
Gabrielle: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
Chris: I never see anybody do that, and I love it.
Gabrielle: Yeah. Honestly, I do best in one-on-one conversations. Being able to text somebody or being able to talk to someone on Discord has been the easiest way for me to talk to people online.
I think it was only the last website redesign that I realized you could actually use the SMS prefix in the URL to also do iMessage, so that was a happy find.
Chris: Oh, yeah, how you can do mailto: for email.
Chris: You can just go sms: for texts.
Chris: Hot tip, people! This episode is already loaded with all the best front-end development tips.
Gabrielle: You got it.
Chris: All right, so getting into some front-end design and dev stuff, there's some stuff I feel like you're famous for, in a way. It's always kind of some combination of really nice design but also CSS trickery, cleverness, in a way. You have a bunch of those ones. Maybe you're most famous is the direction-aware stuff.
Gabrielle: Oh, yeah.
Chris: That was a number of years ago now, so maybe you're bored of talking about it. But it's pretty clever.
You kind of have a blog post going all into it, but it's kind of like putting these -- I don’t know. You probably use pseudo-elements, but that occurs to me that you only get two of those, so how do you get all four? You'll have to read the blog post to find out, people.
Chris: Then it was teaching people about how the tilde selector works in CSS, right?
Gabrielle: You're like, "You hover over this, and then the tilde selector can select another selector." Do you want to--? I feel like I'm mouth blogging a complicated concept of yours.
Gabrielle: I think--
Chris: That got pretty hot for a minute, didn't it?
Gabrielle: Yeah. There was a lot. I think there's a lot of controversy over it because I used a lot of extra elements in there to make it work, but that's what it is. It is CSS trickery and finding ways to do things that you shouldn't normally be able to do with CSS.
I think I was working at a startup at the time and we were being really encouraged to explore creative coding and different ways to do things. I had never used selectors, like the tilde or plus--
Gabrielle: --in code before.
Chris: It's like general sibling combinator. [Laughter]
Gabrielle: Yeah, and I discovered--
Chris: As it's deliciously called.
Gabrielle: It was like a lightbulb came on. I was like, "Oh, I could use this to do all these things." I think that was also around the time that I discovered CodePen, so they kind of came around the same time, which was a happy coincidence.
Chris: Oh... Yeah, that's amazing. Isn't that interesting how one character in CSS can open your brain to all new possibilities? It's one of the amazing things about CSS is that these little things exist in its syntax that, just by themselves, unlock a whole lot of stuff.
The way that this works is you hover your mouse over the top of it and it somehow knows that your mouse has entered via the top and does something design-wise that makes sense, depending on where it came.
Gabrielle: I think what I did is I had four anchor links positioned in different spots: the top, bottom, left, and right. Those anchor elements are on the same level as the actual visual cube, I think it was.
Chris: Right. Right. Right. Right. There you go.
Gabrielle: And so, if you hover over one link, it changes the transition and the direction of the transform. And so, basically, I could have a different transform for each link.
Chris: Yeah, which means the hover off just runs that animation in reverse, too, which is pretty darn satisfying.
Gabrielle: Oh, yeah.
Chris: Yeah, just super cool. Is that what you mean? People are like, "Oh, you have four links just for one link? Grrr..."
Gabrielle: Yeah, and that it was bad code and all those things. That was very interesting because I think I was used to anonymous people being very mean on the Internet, but that was the first time that I felt like -- I felt like I had done something special, and putting it out there was very vulnerable. It was a little scary, at the time, especially because I felt like I was new in the Web dev scene. Survived.
Chris: Well, I'm sorry that happened. That sucks.
Gabrielle: But the CodePen moderators were really awesome at protecting me, I guess.
Chris: Yeah. It seems so stupid that that's necessary to have happen, especially because -- I don't know -- that they're wrong. Really? You're like, "Okay, sure. There are four links. But they could just be spans and one could be a link. Or, for three of them, you could put an ARIA attribute to have them be skipped or something." It's not -- as far as coding fouls go, these days it's so much worse.
Chris: People are yelling at people for using divs for buttons. That's bad. That's actually bad, this one little experimental cube.
Gabrielle: Exactly. It's a Web experiment. You could take the concept of that and make it into something workable for the accessible Web, but it's an experiment. You can try it and play around with it and see what comes of it.
Chris: Yeah. I've seen that happen on other of your work. For example, you have this CSS nested drop-down animation, which feels like spiritually in the same kind of vein, right? It's a beautiful-looking menu. It has some cool animations tied to it, and it just so happens that the whole thing works with CSS, so it's just rife with cool CSS trickery. Then as part of that Pen, it's like, "Oh, hey. Look. Things happened since I first put this out. Here's an ARIA accessible version of the same thing, like an evolved version of it where we thought about the accessibility a little bit more." That's awesome, right? That's like the system works.
Gabrielle: Yeah, totally, and I think (at the time that kind of dropdown) I was specifically using it on a friend's website that I was helping, a designer that I was helping, code their website. Finding ways to make it accessible became really important after I realized, "Oh, this is going to be live. This is going to be on somebody's website that people are going to look at." So, I definitely decided to go back and see if I could make it accessible.
Chris: Yeah. Right on. Let's see. What's the trickery here? Oh, it's like the checkbox hack, right? You click on the link.
Gabrielle: One of my favorites. [Laughter]
Gabrielle: [Laughter] To be fair, I feel like a lot of the interesting work that I was doing was during 2017, and it was during a time that I was working at a startup. Then I left, and I had four months where I was not working. And so, I feel like that was one of my most creative periods of time just because I was hungry, and I was hungry to make things and show that I could do really interesting things with CSS. Not that I'm not still doing interesting things [laughter], but I think that was just a special time in my life.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, shortly after that, there's a Pen where you made some Apple-looking notification things that just mimic what you see, whatever the OS was a couple of years ago. I forget what it was.
Then did that have anything to do with the fact that you work at Apple now? I know we were going to avoid Apple, but I'm curious--
Chris: --because we're not talking about what they're doing, anyway, but I think there are probably people out there that think of that as a dream job. I kind of do. I've been a lifelong Apple fanboy, so it'd be interesting to know what the trajectory is from not working at Apple to working at Apple.
Gabrielle: [Laughter] Honestly, it was the same way for me. Working at Apple was a dream job for me. I think I had contracted at Apple previously. That honestly had nothing to do with me becoming Apple full-time. I was just really excited about the notification stack and being able to imagine what it would look like in dark mode.
But, yeah, that had nothing to do with the job itself, the direction aware effects. That actually got me the contracting job at Apple because the company that contracted me out was like, "Hey, show us what you're really proud of," and I was like, "Well, I wrote this blog post about how you can use CSS," and they really loved it. That was how I got that first job, which then helped me to get my full-time job eventually. It was thanks to CodePen.
Chris: Nice! Well, it was thanks to you and Medium, in this case. [Laughter]
Chris: Well, congrats. That's cool. Listen up out there, anybody who happens to be listening to the show, because there are just so many people in that, like, "I need my big break." You know? I want a better job. I want to work somewhere prestigious. I want more for me," which is good. Stay hungry. You deserve it. You can get there.
I don't know. I'm just happy when stories like that work out. It's like, "Oh, I learned some cool tech stuff. I wrote about it. I published it for everyone to see, and then good things happened to me." I see it happen enough that I want to share that with people.
Gabrielle: Oh, yeah, totally. It was a dream come true for me, honestly. At the time, I was really hungry, but I also really wanted to make things that were mine and not necessarily trying to pander to any particular style or anything. It was when I was doing stuff that I was really passionate about that the good things started to happen. You know?
Chris: Yeah! That's nice to know. That worked out better to just be like, "I'm just going to be me."
Gabrielle: I actually had a lot of trouble finding a job previously to that. I applied to - I don't know - like ten job listings every day for those four months and nothing was coming through. I was like, "Well, maybe I should lower my expectations, or maybe I should do startup work again. I'm not sure."
Chris: Interesting. This wasn't a luxurious break for you. This was like, "Oh, crap. I need a job." [Laughter]
Gabrielle: [Laughter] Yeah. Yeah.
Gabrielle: My major wasn't in computer science. I majored in video game design and all the stuff that I learned with CSS and coding, that was all stuff that I learned on my own. So, I felt a little isolated, I guess. Being able to have a community online to bounce ideas off of--
Chris: Oh, interesting. But you found a way to be really plugged in.
Gabrielle: Yeah, totally. I just dived straight in. I was like, "Oh, these are really cool people. I'm going to follow them and see what they do, and I'm going to do my own thing. Hopefully, someone will notice." [Laughter]
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, that's awesome. It's almost like advice from -- I just read a lot of children's books, being a dad of a toddler, that's a lot of, like, "Be yourself," action as a theme, you know?
Gabrielle: [Laughter] Yeah.
Chris: But it's true, yo. Listen up. [Laughter]
[Guitar music starts]
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[Guitar music ends]
Chris: You were hungry, but you're doing a lot. What's the rest of the sauce, like where to be, who to talk to? Not quite like that, but what are all the things that you did in addition. It's not just this one blog post, right, or this one example that you did one time? There's a path that leads up to that.
Gabrielle: One of the things that I haven't really talked about online, but I feel like enough time has passed, is that the startup that I was working for actually died and they were no longer able to pay me. At the time, I left a little bit -- I left prior to anything else happening, but I did go without pay for a short amount of time. Then I quit, and I was feeling very, very alone, I think, because I was kind of this weird hybrid of design/developer and not quite either and didn't really have a community that could help me.
Once I started using CodePen and then finding out, "Oh, I can talk to these other really interesting designers and developers on Twitter and Dribbble," and just kind of seeking out that contact. It was very scary, especially as someone who very much identifies as introverted because I was basically showing up on people's Twitter feeds and being like, "Hey, let's be friends. I would really like to pick your brain. Maybe we could collaborate or talk about things."
Chris: Whoa! Bold!
Gabrielle: It was very scary. [Laughter] But it turned out really great in the end, and I was able to make some really awesome connections with people. Not even necessarily for job opportunities, but just to be able to bounce ideas off of and talk about code and CSS and all the things that I love about the Internet.
Chris: Yeah, that's great. I mean I'm sorry about the bummer parts of it, but it's cool that you were able to pick up and do that and then found success at the moment of when you decided to do your own thing. Pretty rad.
Gabrielle: Yeah, and that the conference that we met at, the conference that we met at, the CSS Dev Conf, I think--
Gabrielle: It was really awesome to meet all those people in person. I'm bummed that COVID has prevented that but being able to meet you and Sarah Drasner and some of the other really awesome people that I've talked to online and interactive with online but never seen in person.
Chris: Yeah. That can be part of the story, too. Isn't it? Right? The in-person stuff.
Gabrielle: Totally. [Laughter]
Chris: Where did the--? So, you have no -- if your background isn't computer stuff at all, is there some design or art or something behind it? Your work does have an aesthetic quality to it that's better than average, let's call it; very good.
Gabrielle: [Laughter] Thank you. Appreciate it.
Chris: Well, it's like the CSS menu thing, right? It's a nice-looking design. You could have used your CSS chops to build a menu like that that just has no styling at all because the point is - I don't know - you click the thing and the menu expands off the side. But the CodePen secret sauce is always something clever and interesting and it has maybe some trickery or interesting interaction or something. But it has to look good, too.
Gabrielle: Yeah. Totally.
Chris: Otherwise, it's kind of like nobody is going to stand up and take notice if there's no aesthetics to it. It's kind of that one-two punch of design and development. Where do your design chops come from?
Gabrielle: I always wanted to be an artist when I was little, and my entire family, they're all accountants. My dad was an artist and then he became an accountant later on, so I didn't really have a reference for what I wanted to do.
When I went to college, I kind of bounced around majors for a while because it's like, "Oh, I want to be an artist, but people are telling me that that's not feasible unless you're super insanely talented, and I don't know if I am that, but I do like being creative, and I like making things."
And so, I kind of fell into video game design, which is where I learned a lot of the animation techniques that I use in my Pens. In addition to that, I learned how--
Chris: Oh, interesting. I see you have some Monument Valley-based Pens, too. Was that part of your video game? That wasn't the startup, was it? Isn't that Us Too Games?
Gabrielle: It was not the startup. I just saw the -- I think I saw the game on some awards. I can't remember. I think it won quite a few awards, and I was transfixed by it because I loved the clean, beautiful design of the game.
Gabrielle: And I loved the way that the things looked. And so, I was like, "Well, I can probably make that with code. That doesn't seem too difficult." In the end, it was a little bit difficult because it's an isometric view and I wasn't quite doing that. But I managed an approximation of it, and all of those are just kind of an homage to the game, which I really love.
Chris: Yeah. Me too. It deserves every award it got. That thing was crazy. I loved that game.
They have this new game for Apple Arcade called Luna. It's like a little girl running around an island, like saving the environment thing. It's so good.
Gabrielle: Oh, Alba, I think.
Chris: Alba, yeah.
Chris: I've played it through twice now. [Laughter] I just love it.
Gabrielle: I have that game, too. I love most of the games that have come from that studio. Also, one of the designers, Ken, Wong, I've been in contact with him.
Gabrielle: All the stuff he's been doing, and so that was a really nice connection that I made because I managed to -- I was coding the Monument Valley totems.
Chris: Yeah. Nice. Your design, it comes from pure desire.
Chris: I want to be an artist when I grow up and maybe a little, like, "Ah, man. My pops wanted to be an artist, too, but he wasn't able to, so I'm going to."
Gabrielle: Yeah. Yeah, it definitely came from that.
Chris: A little history, I guess.
Gabrielle: I think finding the creative outlet for what I wanted to do because I didn't feel like my drawing, that my talents in drawing or in video game design and all those things, I didn't feel like I could maximize my potential in those things, I guess. But I was finding that the way that I was most creative was through code and not through the other mediums that I'd been trying.
Chris: Nice. So, code -- or at least the CSS stuff -- is kind of a combination or something between two worlds.
Gabrielle: Yeah, definitely.
Chris: I don't know if that's the right way to say it either, but I always thought that front-end design was fun for me because it was this way to be -- I don't know. For lack of better terms, left brain and right brain.
Gabrielle: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: You get this analytical, like, how can I convert this design into code? Coding has this very rigid feel to it. But yet, the code that you're writing is a loop in which to move something or adjust colors or animate something, which is so right-brained. Yeah, it's like design and nerdery mixed together, and I love it.
Gabrielle: Same here. Same here. I'm actually working on a CodePen right now that I started in 2018, but I'm finishing it now.
Gabrielle: [Laughter] I think it's on my profile, still. I created these Pokemon sprites with only CSS and divs and a lot of clip paths. They were modeled after this game that came out a while ago called Pokemon Quest, but the sprites were very kind of Minecraft-looking and very easy to duplicate in code, so I was coding them. I'm currently working on making the first 151 Pokemon in code.
Chris: Wow! 151? Can you get one done a day?
Gabrielle: I try and get at least one or two done every time I sit down at my computer, so I'm hoping that I can have it done by the end of the year, but we'll see how it goes.
Chris: Nice. You should stream one, or is that not introvert-friendly? Probably not. [Laughter]
Gabrielle: I've actually thought about it. Maybe not having to talk but just streaming or at least recording the process of it and showing people how I do that. I've always thought that might be an interesting thing to do.
Chris: Oh, it definitely would, I think. How does Daily UI factor into all this? You were kind of a big part of that or interested in that for a while, right?
Chris: Is that another vibe where it's like the Pokemon thing where you do it consistently?
Gabrielle: Well, I was looking at -- I think, at the time, I was looking for things to code, and I was kind of in a weird spot where I wasn't as comfortable in my own style yet and thinking of things. And I was like, "Oh, well, maybe I'll try different ways of coding things."
The first thing that I did was I would find Dribbble animations, and I would replicate them with SVGs and CSS and animation. Then the next thing that I was trying was the Daily UI challenge, which I think is primarily a design challenge. But I was like, "Oh, well, I can design it myself, code it myself, and then the design aspect can go on Dribbble and the code aspect can go on CodePen." That's what I was doing at the time. I just wanted to create something all the time, but I didn't quite have the outlet figured out yet, and so that was a nice in-between for me.
Chris: Yeah. That's nice. I talked to Aaron Iker last week, who has a really similar story. I've heard this from a lot of people that there is kind of an interesting Dribbble-CodePen crossover in that they're still different and different things go different places, but a lot of inspiration comes from things posted on Dribbble that are just begging to be coded, essentially.
Gabrielle: Yeah. It was interesting because I felt like there were all these things that I couldn't quite replicate from Dribbble, like circles or specific kinds of gradients that were very custom. It was an interesting challenge trying to figure out how to do it both in Photoshop or Sketch or Illustrator and in CSS.
Chris: Yeah. Nice. That's funny you mention gradient because I came across a Pen of yours that's how to make a gradient that you wouldn't think that you could maybe pull off, where there's basically a different color in each color, a four-quadrant gradient.
Gabrielle: Oh, yeah.
Chris: Yeah. That must have been you trying to figure something like that out.
Gabrielle: Yeah, it was actually a problem. It was a problem that I had come across that wasn't related to my CodePen experiments. I was like, "Oh, I feel like I could probably make this, but I don't know. But I'll try a few different ways." And so, I was trying different ways of trying to make that gradient, and it ended up with a solution that you saw.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes I'm curious, like, "I wonder if that's easier now or not, like, can conic gradient do that now? Kind of, but not really, but maybe." [Laughter] It's funny how things change over the years and you kind of revisit them and wonder.
Gabrielle: Sometimes I have to, I guess, actively keep up because I think, working at a full-time stable job, sometimes I get a little lazy in figuring out the newest technologies, and so I have to keep going back and specifically looking up, "Oh, what came out this year? What is usable this year? What can I use in my current work environment that I hadn't previously?"
Chris: That's funny. Look, there's some irony to that that being really active and doing lots of work, even at a dream job in a place that's known for design and stuff, to some degree you're still heads down in the work that you don't see the tech change.
Gabrielle: Yeah, definitely. I have to keep -- I guess it's not that I don't know that things are happening. But you're right. I'm so heads down in my work, which sometimes it takes a long time, and I'm working on the same thing for a long time, so it's nice to kind of break out of that for a little bit and go on the Internet and see what's happening.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I didn't mean necessarily you specifically, but I have just heard that from people over time, like they catch up with CSS and then they're at some job for three years or are looking for a new job. I think that's when it occurs to you the most because you're at your most self-conscious of, like, "Do I actually know enough to get a new job now?"
Gabrielle: [Laughter] Oh, yeah. Totally.
Chris: "Am I too behind on what's happening?" Yeah. So, I guess we could end with advice, either along those lines or anything else you have for somebody who might want to be inspired by you, as they should be, from somebody who has done all kinds of cool work in their career. How can you become like Gabrielle?
Gabrielle: [Laughter] I think the thing that has sustained me over the years is always being curious about things and how they work. If I see something cool on the Internet, I'm like, "Oh, that's really interesting." Inspect element. Go look at how they built it. Go look at the code and try recreating it yourself. Then try creating something new. Kind of having that mixture of recreating other people's work so that you understand how they did it and also looking for ways that you can make your own work shine, I guess. Just a lot of research, a lot of curiosity, a lot of poking into code and seeing how other people code. That really, really helped me a lot.
Chris: Oh, that's great. Curiosity and research.
Chris: That's tremendous. Anyway, thanks so much for your time, and best of luck with everything. I hope to see you again soon. Maybe we'll find an excuse to get back to New Orleans.
Gabrielle: That would be amazing. Thank you so much, Chris. I really appreciate this time that we were able to have this conversation.
Chris: Hey, likewise. All right. See you soon.
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