In Depth With Vitaly Friedman: A Smashing Success

We’re continuing our interview series today, spending some time talking to Vitaly Friedman of Smashing Magazine. Vitaly has been one of the leading minds behind the web’s largest design blog, and is a fascinating web designer and entrepreneur.

We’ll be discussing Vitaly’s background, the early days of Smashing Magazine, taking a look at a typical day in his life, and investigating some of the design trends we’re likely to see over the next 12 months!

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Our Interview

You’ve become a well known figure in design circles due to your success with Smashing Magazine, but where did your career as a designer and blogger begin?

To be honest, it all started very unexpectedly for me. From a very early age I was interested in writing and have written a couple of short-stories and articles, so I always felt a strong passion and connection with writing and editing.

Towards the end of 1990s I also discovered the Web and I remember very vividly the times when I started experimenting with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer 5 (and table layouts – I used the transparent 1 pixel GIF a lot back then!). Over the years I then started to deepen my knowledge about web design and improve my skills.

Back then I read a lot about web design, arts, typography and usability, and I am still extremely grateful to the design community for all the great articles and resources that were published on the Web in the early 2000s. Maybe this is also the reason why I am doing the very same thing right now on Smashing Magazine. This is when I started freelancing and earning money by designing websites. For some reason it always felt right to me – I enjoyed the work and I found the process extremely interesting, so I kept improving my skills.

This was the time when I also wanted to give something back to the community. So I started writing and publishing articles on my personal blog.

At the same time, I was also genuinely interested in programming and computer science which is why I was studying computer science and mathematics in the University of Saarland, Germany. I have never attended a single design class, and learned everything on my own. However, I have recently found a few gaps in my knowledge which I hope to fill in 2010 by attending some design and graphics classes.

What were the main projects you set up in your early days as a designer, and how did these lead to the launch of Smashing Magazine?

The most important project was Web Developer’s Handbook, launched in 2005. This is a huge collection of resources for designers and developers, all put in one place. The reason for creating Web Developer’s Handbook was very simple – I found it quite difficult to find all the resources, tutorials and coding techniques I used for my freelancing work, and I wanted to have a single common place where I would have the direct access to these resources.

So it was more like a personal collection which was available to everybody. Sven Lennartz, the co-founder of Smashing Magazine, found me through the handbook and my articles and suggested that I write for his German magazine Dr. Web, which had served German-speaking designers and developers for over 9 years.

Of course, I didn’t know back then that just a year later we would come up with the idea to launch a new blog for designers and web-developers. In August 2006 we translated a couple of articles from German to English, prepared them for English-speaking audience and published them.

It was more an experiment rather than a planned launch of the new international design magazine. We had no idea what Smashing Magazine would turn into a couple of years later. Essentially, Smashing Magazine was supposed to be nothing other than a useful resource for designers and developers – a resource that we would refer to or use when developing our own websites.

Most blog owners have a realisation point, where they discover: “I can make a living from doing this!” – When did this occur for you, and what are the main factors that lead to Smashing Magazine reaching this point?

Because we never actually sat down and planned a strategy for creating a financially viable online magazine, we didn’t really discover that we could make a living from doing this. As we gained more and more visitors over time, the costs started increasing. We also noticed that our readers were becoming more and more demanding and that there was an interest in the community for what we were doing.

Because Smashing Magazine was a “side”-project for both of us, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find time for it. So the financial support was necessary for us to make sure that we can keep up with the growth of the magazine. This is when advertising started play a more important role, but it was never our intention to make a living from doing what we do.

Could you outline what your average day involves, from waking up in the morning to clocking off at night?

We are trying to be very flexible and avoid stress, pressure or deadlines in our office. Everybody is allowed to come and go as he/she wants, provided that the work is done on-time and fulfils our requirements. Sometimes the office is also open on weekends, e.g. if someone has been busy with something during the weekday, he/she can come in the weekend and finish the work. Because our work is essentially all online, it’s also OK to stay at home and work on the project. Instead of having formal meetings in the office, we often meet in bars, coffee shops or pizza places and discuss further projects or just brainstorm together.

Once I arrive in the office, the first thing I do is to launch my to-do-list and prioritise it. I select the most important things that I’d like to get finished by the end of the day. I often tend to be unrealistic, so I usually defer the last item on the day’s to-do-list, because I am fairly confident that I won’t get around to it.

After that, I launch my e-mail client and check e-mails. The important e-mails are replied to right away, the less important ones are moved to a special folder. If I don’t manage to reply to messages that are 3-4 days old, I relentlessly delete them. There is nothing worse than an overcrowded inbox which usually makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s important to be efficient in order to be effective. I keep the e-mail client running in the background all the time throughout the day unless I don’t want to be disturbed (e.g. when I am writing or editing).

Also, I open Tweetdeck and check a few selected Twitter accounts. I also open my IM client and start out slowly by reading, drinking a cup of coffee or talking to friends. Shortly after that, I close all unnecessary applications (e-mail client is always on), clean the desk and clean the desktop. The worst thing that can happen to your is that you are being disturbed and distracted all the time.

During work I like to reach the “Flow” stage when I feel really passionate and excited about what I do and want to make the best out of it. For this reason I love to work with music. It shouldn’t be disturbing so it can’t be a radio. It’s rather my favourite CDs, music I love most and music that I know by heart. Then I move the e-mail-application to the second display (so if I want I can look at it and see from an angle when something important comes in) and start writing, editing, researching, analysing, brainstorming, thinking, sketching, drawing, comparing, designing, looking up in my books and reading related-articles on the web. Each article takes a lot of time, and we publish very selectively to make sure that the quality of an article meets our guidelines.

Before the midday-break, we publish an article on Smashing Magazine and Noupe. Because the articles have been prepared at least one day before publishing, they can be published right away. Once the new articles are published, the ones for the following day are prepared and finished.

At some point during the day, probably after a midday-break, I dedicate 5-10 minutes to the incoming tweets and engage with our followers. Also, 5-15 minutes per day are reserved for Delicious and StumbleUpon. Every other day we analyze the quality of our tweets, comments and votes on StumbleUpon and revise our quality guidelines to meet the expectations of our readers.

I love to review my to-do-list in the evening, considering what I could or should do tomorrow and how productive the day has been. It’s always useful to learn from your mistakes and, if you had a bad day, you can learn from it. That’s OK – you need to have bad days in order to have better ones. As the day draws to a close, I love to meet my friends for a cup of coffee or just go to the gym to get a break from sitting in the office chair. Before going to sleep, I tend to either read or watch a short series. They make me sleepy and distract me which is good.

Every day is different, of course, as I love to be spontaneous and unpredictable. But this is how one of these days could look like!

Which hardware and software do you use on a regular basis – both for business and pleasure?

I am a fan of Windows, and love using two displays for the extra screen estate. I also love typing on my laptop because I am extremely quick on it and can get things done much quicker than with a usual keyboard. I prefer to keep things as simple as possible – so I don’t use any To-do applications or planning apps; simple text files work just fine!

Smashing Magazine seems to have reached the stage of requiring a full-time team to manage your publishing and growth. How many people do you have working for the site, and do you have an office space?

We have dozens of contributors around the world. At the moment we have nine employees who work either part-time or full-time. We have five people in our current office: me and my colleague Sven Lennartz, a secretary, an editor and a trainee. Our office is located in Freiburg, Germany.

There has been a great deal of debate surrounding the quality of discussion on design blogs recently. How do you try to encourage interesting, thoughtful articles rather than covering old ground?

Over the last 6 months we have been working hard to publish thought-provoking, creative, unique content on Smashing Magazine. We are experimenting with new formats (Interviews and a Global Web Design series), and we are working together with high-profile designers and developers for more engaging articles.

We avoid generic content and have been investing a lot of time and new resources into making sure that the content is original and top-notch. It’s to readers to decide if we are doing a great job at achieving this or not.

You recently released The Smashing Book, and took an interesting approach of asking different designers to contribute to different chapters. This seemed to work very well, but what was your reasoning behind producing the book in this way?

Our goal was to create something tangible, a physical object that would stand for Smashing Magazine’s quality and strengthen our branding beyond the online presence. We also wanted the articles all to be a very diverse, yet contain the articles written by our writers who really know what they are talking about.

Initially we were planning to write the book by ourselves, but decided that it would take too much time. We still needed to keep Smashing Magazine running, so we would have at most 1-2 hours for writing every day which wasn’t really feasible. Besides, it was simply impossible to find one single author who could write the book. So engaging our writers in the process was a necessary step. We are confident that it worked out well in the end!

Smashing Magazine regularly highlight new design trends and techniques – are there any in particular that you feel our readers should be watching out for in 2010?

We see many interesting things happening in web design right now. One very striking thing is that we are observing literally a revolution in web typography as @font-face and font embedding services like TypeKit are gaining importance and popularity at the moment.

We also see many very unique designs, with unique layouts and navigation schemes. It seems that designers are experimenting a lot and we will present some of our findings in one of the upcoming articles. Also, with CSS3 and jQuery, websites are becoming more interactive and feel more “natural” meaning that many designers are using well-known metaphors from our physical world making the navigation more intuitive and simple.

The results are more responsive interfaces and designs with natural mapping. We’re also observing the strong trend toward simplicity and transparency (not PNG transparency, but transparency on a more abstract, general level). We hope to publish an article about these and other developments in March, so please stay tuned for our updates!

Vitaly’s Sites and Projects

Here are a handful of the different websites, designs, and projects Vitaly is involved with. Click one to visit that particular site:

Smashing Magazine


Dr. Web Handbook

Video Interview

Smashing Magazine’s intern, Jessica, is currently running a video interview series with Vitaly. It’s really interesting, and certainly worth taking a look at.

Thanks for Reading!

A big thank you to Vitaly for taking the time to answer our questions. If you’d like to find out more about him, I’d recommend checking out his blog, or following him on Twitter.

I hope you’re enjoying out interview series – if there are any other designers you’d like to see featured, please feel free to let us know in the comments!