14 Questions With Smashing Magazine’s Vitaly Friedman

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of interviewing Vitaly Friedman, CEO and Editor in Chief of Smashing Magazine. I asked Vitaly 14 questions about himself, the Smashing Magazine site, the books the company publishes, and finally the recent conference they hosted.

I’ve has the pleasure of working with Vitaly for a few years now. He’s one of the nicest people in the industry and someone I’m glad to know. He and Smashing Magazine deserve every bit of success that comes their way. I think you’ll understand why as you read Vitaly’s answers below.

Vitaly Friedman cartoon with the Smashing Magazine logo

About Vitaly Friedman

1 — Thanks for agreeing to this interview Vitaly. I’m sure my readers will know your name (they’ll certainly know Smashing Magazine), but I wonder how many of them know the person behind the name. Do you mind sharing a little bit about yourself when you’re not working on Smashing Magazine?

Thanks for the invitation, Steven. Well, to be honest, I don’t think that many readers know my name. I don’t like to sneak my nose into too many things, and prefer to focus on the quality of my work, and usually it’s just one-two things that are very close to my heart. It might sound cliché but I truly love what I do every single day, so that the “work” at Smashing Magazine doesn’t really sound like work. It’s my passion, it’s who I am, and it’s what I am supposed to do.

Outside Smashing Magazine I tend to read a lot; I love music and I love talking to strangers. I love to get all these unique insights about people who experienced all kinds of things in their life. It gives me perspective, it helps me understand what else I could do, what else I can learn and what people who surround me mean to me. I love jogging because it clears my head. I love walking and observing things, people, buildings. I love traveling to a random bus stop in a random city and walking there to see how people live, what they are like. All these things are essentially my personal journey of discovery. I love playing with things, be it tools or ideas, and I love building things thoroughly and carefully.

2 — I understand before you were running Smashing Magazine you were a freelance web designer. How did you get started as a freelancer and how did you find the experience? Do you miss anything about freelancing?

The answer is very simple, Steven. I accidentally discovered my interest in the Web back in the day and I knew that I wanted to do something with it. At the same time I needed money so I turned my hobby into the freelancing work. I was studying at the university at the time, so I had a couple of university projects and small client work. Over time I just didn’t have any time for freelancing work any longer. I don’t miss freelancing per se, but I do miss the feeling of building something from scratch. This is why I keep inventing little tools and helpers that our team works with.

Actually, I always wanted to be a hardcore PHP developer, but it turned out that I was a pretty mediocre PHP developer and it wasn’t good enough for me. I fell in love with Web design in late 90s; the idea of publishing something that almost everybody out there could read always fascinated me. However, the reality was tough, and I didn’t like table layouts, so I felt out of love. It was CSS Zen Garden when I rediscovered my passion for design. I spent days and nights learning, testing, experimenting, finding and understanding stuff. At some point I just wanted to put it all into practice, professionally.

About Smashing Magazine

3 — At some point you made the transition from freelancer to running Smashing Magazine. Can you tell us about that transition? Was it time to get out of freelancing? Were you more interested in creating content?

this “signature” — value, substance, quality — follows us everywhere. We embed it into our personality and everything we do.

Now that I think about it, I think that actually I didn’t really have a decision to make. I just knew that I wanted to keep working on Smashing Magazine, and I knew how much I enjoyed every single day of working on it, every article that we published, every rewarding comment we received. That was it. I didn’t actually have a chance to turn away from something. I just had to keep going. I left freelancing where it was, and continued using my skills in a different place.

This transition went very smoothly. I always enjoyed reading and writing and developing some sort of ideas — my world was a blank canvas and the pen was my tool. I always wanted to write. Editing has become kind of an…extension of it. With Smashing Magazine, I had the luck of working with some of the brightest people in the Web design industry, and develop ideas with them. I couldn’t have dreamed about this back in the day. I just wanted to play and put something useful on the Web. I never knew that people would actually find it useful or helpful.

4 — Smashing Magazine has become one of the must read sites for the industry. Did you ever imagine how big the site would become? Has its success surprised you?

Not at all. Of course we looked at numbers and figures and traffic and analytics tools, but it was never a point for me. I never wanted to grow exponentially, I never wanted to fall down. And I definitely never wanted to stagnate, so experimenting with something new and integrating innovation into my regular workflow was very important. I am not surprised on how big the site has become (well, “big” — we have just 1600 articles actually…) but I am surprised about how supportive our community is. I often find myself talking to people who truly appreciate what we do as individuals, the amount of work we invest into every single article, and the involved editorial process that we have installed. Having built something that has become very meaningful and important to some people is a wonderful gift for me personally since this is what makes me truly happy. This is the actual point of my work.

5 — Since the day I subscribed, I’ve noticed an emphasis on quality with the content at Smashing Magazine. What made you focus on quality when so many others put the focus on quantity? Is there a process in place to ensure that only the best gets published?

To the first question: I don’t know. Before SmashingMag, its co-founder Sven Lennartz had been working on the German online magazine Dr. Web, and quality and editorial principles have been a very important asset of his work back then. For me it was important to make sure that my signature stands for something. It wasn’t about the money or recognition or certain achievements, but rather it was very important for me to make sure that every single thing that I do means something. Whenever I did something, it had to be…right. It had to have this sense of substance that I mention every time I speak with an author or editor or anyone else who is in any way involved with Smashing Magazine. This is where this attention to quality derived from. It’s very important to me to be proud of the work I do, it’s much more important than attention or finances.

In fact, we do have a quite involved process when it comes to publishing articles. Some authors tend to spread horror stories about our editorial process which isn’t really true. It’s very important for us to develop an article together with the author. We don’t just take articles, we invest a lot of time into reviewing, editing, double checking, rethinking and reconsidering the points raised in the article. We took the notion of being slow to the very heart of what we do. Once the author decided to write for us, we respect and honor his/her time and work which is why we invest time and provide thorough and detailed feedback. Sometimes we are slow, perhaps a bit too slow, but I think that quality requires time, patience and hard work. Some articles don’t make a cut, and that’s OK. We would never compromise our editorial principles for the sake of an author — doesn’t matter how famous or well-respected he/she is in the industry. The name doesn’t matter. The content does.

6 — One of the great strengths of Smashing Magazine is the variety of authors and topics covered. How do you find authors to write for the site? Can anyone contact you? Do you discover them? Are there any requirements before we see someone as author of a post?

We have a fantastic team that is always very supportive and friendly and is always on lookout for people who could share something that would provide value to the community. Personally, I read a lot, probably around 20-30 various articles appearing on Twitter and in blogs every day, and I am always very critical about what I read. We all tend to trust and agree way too quickly; beautiful layout and typography blind us sometimes, but we should be way more critical.

However, if the points raised are valid and the author does a good job of articulating his or her ideas, that’s always a good foundation for articles in the future. We always give everyone a chance to write for Smashing Magazine, but we always clearly state our requirements and expectations. We also always make it clear that writing an article with us is hard work. It’s not something you can do over a lazy Sunday, it requires commitment and dedication. It sounds very harsh, but in practice it isn’t like that at all. Usually during the writing process the author learns something along the way as well because we don’t let them write what they like, but challenge them to consider other points of view as well and argue and prove that they are right. So in the end once the article is published, the author has learned something along the way as well. And if the author is willing to work, so are we.

About Smashing Books

7 — A few years ago Smashing Magazine began publishing books. Can you walk us through the decision-making process for getting into books? Why the decision to publish print copies in additional to digital?

We are always looking forward to new challenges, and publishing a printed book was one of them. When we started out, I had no idea of what publishing a book means, what the process looks like and what efforts it would require. Sven published a couple of books in the past, so I had something to learn, quite a lot actually. Back then we wanted to create something…physical and tangible, an artifact of time, something that would exist beyond the scope of the digital. It could have been a printed magazine, or a small booklet, but we wanted to create a solid printed book. Essentially we just wanted to try out something new and see how it works. This is how printed books came to be.

8 — Even though the books are written by a number of different authors, there’s typically a theme to them. How does that come together? Do you start with the theme or do you start with some of the chapters and allow the theme to evolve from the content?

Well, we have a variety of the different book “lines” — the printed Smashing Books 1 and 2 don’t really have a general topic, they are rather a review of existing practices and techniques in the Web from the different areas of Web design. We also have books such as the Mobile Book or Smashing Book 3 that have a general line throughout the chapters. Usually we try to find an interesting, new concept and editorial direction and see how far we can take it. Some ideas get developed, discussed, modified, thrown into a paper bin and developed again. We had it all in the past.

For the articles, we usually ask authors about the topic they’d like to write about, but for the books we are focusing on the concept first and then search for potential candidates to write the corresponding chapters.

9 — How do you decide which authors to ask to write a chapter? Are they always people who’ve previously written for the site? Is it more that they’ve written about the theme of the book?

For the printed books, we tend to avoid working with authors who we’ve never worked with before, just because we think it’s very important for authors to understand what Smashing Magazine is like, what it means, what our audience is like, what is the editorial work with us like. So if we think about having an author for the book, we usually ask him or her to work with us on an article for Smashing Magazine first which is kind of a gateway to book publishing later on. There are exceptions, usually when we find exceptional people (not necessarily well-known in the community) whom we fully trust because the level of quality they deliver in their articles is just astonishing.

In the end, the book has to be right just like every article published on the site. So there are usually lots of revisions, lots of rebrushed illustrations, lots of editing and proofreading phases. For us, making a book is a story of its own. For our recent books we’ve worked with over 50 people per book (yes, 50 people), including all authors, reviewers, illustrators, editors, research assistants, tech reviewers, proofreaders, designers, print experts and so on. That’s a lot of communication. The Mobile Book, for example, took over 8 months of production. Most books don’t take that much time to be produced.

10 — Having had the honor of writing a chapter for SM #2, I know a little something about the process for writing and editing a chapter. Would you mind describing some of that process? Who chooses the chapter’s subject? You or the author? How much assistance do you offer in structuring the chapter? Who edits the work and how do they go about it?

By the way, Steven, it was a fantastic chapter — thanks for writing it!

We always have a concept. I think it’s often underestimated, but having a thorough, well composed concept is very very very important. We know the direction in which every chapter should go, but we don’t know the specifics. This is where authors can play the role and define the chapter entirely. We do provide editorial guidance and we have technical reviewers who help as well, but it’s up to the authors to define the outline and the actual content of the chapter. We always help with research, illustrations, and other editorial work, but it’s very important for us to make sure the author is respected and feels comfortable with the work. Which is why, for example, we have this internal principle of “the author decides last”, meaning that whatever we do, the author’s decision weighs at least as much as ours. We thoroughly select our authors and so they have all the rights to present their points in the way they see fit. They aren’t supposed to write what we like.

So far I edited all chapters in all Smashing Books we’ve published; the last books were co-edited by my dear colleague, our senior editor Iris. You might think that a chapter is edited once, but in our case each chapter is edited 3–4 times before it goes into proofreading after which it’s being sent to authors for the final Okay.

Usually it all starts with an idea. We develop and discuss the direction for the book, define the areas that we’d like to cover, think about the atmosphere and the context in which we’d like to set the book, and start thinking about authors who would fit the book nicely. Once the deadlines and milestones are set, we search for reviewers. Everybody who is in some way involved in this process receives a honorarium, and it’s not an option. We honor the work and time of every contributor, and it’s not about the person willing or not willing to get paid, but about the actual fact of honoring the work and time invested.

We see the editorial process not as a simple delivery -> review -> production process, but a permanent review process, meaning that authors can submit drafts for review any time to both technical reviewers and us (the editorial team) to get feedback. They don’t have to submit final drafts, but rather unfinished drafts. So no wonder that in the end we have around 10 drafts of each chapter, from the very first brief outline to the very last finished chapter.

About Smashing Conference

11 — You recently held the first Smashing Conference. I wish I could have attended, but I’ve started watching and enjoying some of the recently released videos from the conference. What made you decide to host a conference and what has the experience like?

Thank you so much for your kind words, Steven! Well, the conference was again one of those things that we just wanted to try out. At that point I attended many conferences and was fascinated by the community spirit I discovered there. It was…truly remarkable. It felt just right to try to create a conference of our own. And oh yes, the experience was amazing.

With Marc Thiele, the organizer of beyond tellerrand conferences in Germany, we’ve put our whole heart and soul into building a memorable community event that would deliver value to everybody involved. We had selected a medieval venue built back in the 15th century, and we tried to create an event with a high value, an event that would matter. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to welcome so many talented speakers and attendees to our home town, it’s been a truly fantastic experience!

Actually, this “signature” — value, substance, quality — follows us everywhere. We embed it into our personality and everything we do.

12 — All the news I read about the conference has been positive. I can’t remember reading a single negative thing. I assume the same level of quality went into the conference as has gone into everything else you’ve done. Does a conference present additional challenges to maintaining that quality?

Well, just like with books, hosting a high quality conference was very important, so we asked speakers to submit their talks in time, so that we could provide some guidance of the direction of the talk, and ensure that level of quality that we expected. Running such an event while working on a printed book and running a magazine was difficult, but I don’t regret any second of our time invested into it. It was worth it hands down!

13 — Given how well this conference seems to have gone I assume there be more. How often do you plan on holding a conference? Will it be an annual event? Maybe something more frequent? Do you think they’ll be hosted in different locations around the world at some point?

Well, let’s keep it a little secret for now. What I can tell you now however is that we are planning another Smashing Conference this year, again, and we’ve already started working on the line-up for it. The rest will follow soon (@SmashingConf).

Thanks Vitaly

14 — Thanks again Vitaly. One last question as we approach the new year. What are you looking forward to in 2013?

Thanks Steven! I am looking forward to more conversations about how we work, and what we learn every single day. 2012 has been a fantastic year for this kind of thing, and I am always curious to see why some design decisions have been made and what was the entire process along the way.

Fortunately, I’ve seen many such “case-studies” appearing in blogs and portfolios recently, so I can’t wait to see what our fantastic community will come up with, how these concepts and techniques will be developed and what process will be used to get there. It’s exciting times, Steven, and I am sincerely thankful for being able to play a part in this.

More interviews with Vitaly — As I was preparing questions for this interview I came across several other interviews with Vitaly which you might enjoy.

Thanks again Vitaly.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

4 comments

  1. love this. learning more about the man behind the mag… helps others appreciate how a simple concept done with excellence creates amazing results.

    thanks for doing it. he’s right, vitaly doesn’t always poke his head out.

    • There are a few interviews out there with Vitaly. I searched for some when trying to think of questions to ask him. You’re right though. There aren’t a lot. I feel honored that one of his interviews is right here.

      I agree how the push for quality does produce amazing results. I’ve been able to witness some of it first hand and can attest to how much Vitaly and Smashing Magazine in general care about quality.

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