Since co-founding Smashing Magazine in 2006, Vitaly Friedman has become one of the most influential figures in web design and development. The magazine boasts almost 550,000 followers on Twitter and more than 100,000 newsletter subscribers, and its articles frequently serve as a springboard for top designers and developers to hash out the latest trends (witness this article on “epidemic” design trends that collected 124 comments in just a few days). Vitaly is also a popular speaker on web design topics. He’ll be delivering a talk on “responsive redesign” at the Future of Web Design conference in London in mid-May. We caught up with Vitaly from his Freiburg, Germany offices for a brief interview.
Future Insights: You obviously read a ton of content. Are there any web development or design trends (good or bad) you’ve spotted lately that most of us aren’t aware of yet?
Vitaly Friedman: To be honest, I am a big opponent of trends. I think that way too often trends are regarded as bulletproof solutions, respected and universally accepted for the simple reason that they are innovative and widely used (think of drop shadows or text shadows, for example). We tend to adopt trends too quickly, often getting carried away by their originality rather than understanding their purpose. This is why I always encourage my friends and colleagues and our readers to stay away from trends. Understand them, yes, but don't take them for granted and always consider the rationale behind them rather than their visual appearance.
What I am personally most excited about is the evolution of design thinking in Web design. With the advent of responsive Web design, we are moving away from our rigid way of thinking about Web design to a progressive, future-friendly approach. We are learning how to design responsively and how to approach problems and issues from a different perspective. Rather than designing boxes, we are now designing content first and then wrap the "layout" around our content design (Andy Clarke articulates it very well in our upcoming Smashing Book 3). For me, this is the vital and fundamental change in Web design that we've experienced in our craft since the birth of the Web.
Which articles typically get the most traffic? Do you seek out similar articles once something is a “hit”? Are these articles the ones you would expect to be popular?
The most popular articles are the ones that are controversial and the ones that round-up useful links from the Web. Actually, it's quite obvious that they work well because they either address a large audience or provide value and hence save time. However, a couple of years ago we made a decision to move away from pop stuff and provide reliable, first-class quality content for professional designers and developers. Sometimes our articles entertain, more often they teach, but our basic principle is very simple: every single article that is published on Smashing Magazine has a value, a purpose and a meaning. We think of our work as tangible, long-living artifacts that will remain and serve their purpose even years after they are published. This is why we often publish education articles and very practical articles. But Smashing Magazine is also a platform for the community to raise their voice and share their thoughts and ideas with the community. This is what our Opinion Column is for.
The magazine is focused on great design. Are there things in your life (cars, toasters, instruction manuals, TV shows, etc.) you enjoy despite poor design? In other words, do you care about all design as much as web design?
To be honest, I am an obsessive, crazy person when it comes to design. I can spend hours watching an extremely boring documentary just to observe how well the title design works. I tend to buy books which I like not because of the content but rather because of the editorial or interior design they have. And I do collect instruction manuals, occasionally :)
You don’t write as much for Smashing Mag as you once did. Was your goal always to be more of a publisher than a writer?
No, absolutely not. I love writing and I wish I was able to find more time to writing and studying design as our authors do. However, as an editor, I spend a lot of time developing ideas together with our writers which is fantastic because it provides a very fertile environment for creative thinking. Even if it means Skyping with an author until 3am just to discuss the direction of the article and where I feel the gap is. I have promised myself to write more, and I am going to make everything possible to be writing more this year.
And it was actually never my intention to become a publisher; it's just something that I jumped into, something that I wanted to do. I must admit that I am very happy that I did it.
What (or who) are the resources you go to first for design information or inspiration?
Because Russian is my native language and I love exploring what foreign Web designers do, I tend to visit Russian blogs (habrahabr.ru) as well as Hacker News, Brainpickings, FastCodesign and a plenty of UX Design and front-end blogs.
Do you see web design and development coming closer together or is that just a myth?
That's a very interesting point. I believe that both designers and developers should have a solid understanding of each other's craft. Rather than making a distinction between Web designers and Web developers, I would rather make a distinction between the more grained areas in our industry: e.g. graphic designers, programmers and server optimization experts. I am afraid that the terms "Web designers" and "Web developers" have become too vague today to be used meaningfully because they can mean very different things.
The design/development community is known for being very vocal. Does that make things difficult for you?
No, not all. We have a strong vision and solid principles that we always rely on and we do our best to make sure that these principles are always followed. So there isn't really a lot that can hurt us. We always appreciate and respect critical comments if they are constructive. The only thing that bothers me a lot is that many designers and developers still see us a "list/round-up" blog. We have evolved a lot since then, and many things have changed, so it's just wrong to put this label on Smashing Magazine any longer.
Now that you’ve built up a sizeable community, do you feel pressure to “monetize” it? How do you approach advertising, data privacy, and other issues?
No, not at all. I am not a marketing guy and I never studied business or marketing. I love what I am doing and my only purpose is to be there for my family, have enough to support it now and in the future, and produce something useful and valuable for other people to use. A couple of years ago a teacher from Africa wrote me an email thanking for the content that he's been using for his design classes over a year. Because there were none education books available, every single day he went to school, he used one of our articles as a topic and discussed it with his students. Things like that are what keeps me going every single day. I am not in it for the money.
However, we rely on advertising which of course pays the bills. All our authors are getting paid for their work, and so do technical reviewers, editors, proofreaders and eBook producers, so it sums up to a fairly sizeable amount of money. We need advertisers and appreciate their support in keeping the site alive and flourishing. We also care a lot about data privacy. We respect our readers, followers, subscribers and customers. And we would never compromise their trust with any illegal or shady activities.
What’s next for Smashing Mag? Are there any exciting initiatives on the horizon?
Well, we have a couple of exciting projects for this year. The most recent one is the upcoming printed Smashing Book #3 is definitely the best book we've produced so far. I sincerely believe that it is a valuable, cutting-edge, high-quality printed book that any Web designer should have on their bookshelf. Essentially, it's what I mentioned in the beginning of the interview. It is a professional guide on how to redesign websites and it also introduces a whole new mindset for progressive Web design. In this ever-changing Web design industry, the book challenges you to think differently about your work and will change the way you design websites forever.