Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn't like to give up easily. After working as a freelance designer and developer for 6 years, he co-founded Smashing Magazine, a leading online magazine dedicated to design and web development. Vitaly is the author, co-author and editor of all Smashing books. He currently works as editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine in the lovely city of Freiburg, Germany.
You can see him tweet @smashingmag
Don’t Be Afraid To Be Personal
When you start your own thing, you usually start small. Over time you grow, you evolve, you change, and hopefully stay committed to your principles and beliefs. That’s what people start respecting you for. But often you keep growing and you end up with a brand identity growing on you, becoming a corporate identity, eventually turning into a brand.
People often see companies as, you know, companies — with secretaries and meetings and teams and corporate events and fancy birthday parties. Companies do have good or bad reputation, but in both cases they often feel quite distant, almost unreachable, and so much bigger and larger than us, or their products that we keep using. We hardly ever see people behind those organisations though — we might find them on the “About page”, but what we remember aren’t necessarily those people and their stories, but the company’s branding and their values. That’s good too, but I don’t think that’s good for everybody.
As a person behind a company, I’d love our readers seeing the people crafting our little magazine every single day rather than a company running it. When I post a rather personal tweet or message, encouraging conversations or just asking for an opinion or thoughts or advice, I keep seeing the same concerns raising up every single time. People are wondering why we would post things like that, and complain that they have nothing to do with what we do and the industry that we cater for. It makes me surprised every single time. It makes me sad, too.
Surely there isn’t a place for everything everywhere, but it’s important for me — and I believe for many other brands too — to not be seen as a big corporate entity — lifeless, speechless, thoughtless, and perhaps even careless. It has always been very important to me to ensure that whatever it is that we are doing, we stay personal all along the way. We show ourselves with pride of what we are building, with a strong sense of ownership and connection to our little books and conferences and workshops. We aren't a large corporate entity, we are a community-driven project, and we are very small, too. In fact, there is something almost magical and appreciative of a little, hard-working collective creating values and products that (hopefully) matter — to other people, but also to us.
With Smashing Magazine, it’s me, Vitaly, Iris, Markus, Cosima, Melanie, Marco, Kristina and Inge and Nadja and Cat, and Andrew and Owen and so many fantastic editors and authors and proofreaders who make it what it is every single day. Our Twitter account is mostly written, edited and sent out by yours truly, but sometimes you will see tweets written and sent out by Iris as well. We monitor what’s coming in and reply to the questions or suggestions as fast as we can. We don’t use any smart tools for tracking you, we just see what’s in there, and we act.
Our Facebook account is mostly managed by me as well, but sometimes Markus and Iris write posts there, too. When you see a message from us, it’s not just news sent out by machines scheduled at a given time — it’s us curating what we think is interesting or right for the reader, and it’s us providing our personal recommendations. And that’s where our personality does have a place.
So if you see a rather personal message from any brand, perhaps you could consider that there are also people on the other end of the line, and it’s probably so much better to communicate with an actual person, with a personal, humane tone and voice, rather than a machine spitting out news and links every other hour. Even if they sent out mishaps every now and again, or misspell a word, or send out a wrong link — all of it makes tweets and messages and emails genuine and honest; personal and relatable. And that’s, I believe, is so much more important than consistent, perfect and machinery communication.
My name is Vitaly, and I am homeless.
There is nothing more liberating and sentimental than the sound of a closing door that you will never open again. As memories are flowing by, you turn your back from that door, you hold your breath for just a second and you walk away. At that point you almost sense the change in the wind flowing by. You let go; and knowing and feeling this change is an incredibly empowering, intoxicating experience.
My name is Vitaly, and I don't have a permanent home. I gave up my apartment in lovely Freiburg, Germany in October this year — without having another place to move into. Admittedly, it wasn’t a spontaneous, life-changing decision. Months earlier I found myself spending a lot of time traveling — running workshops and speaking, doing front-end consulting work and writing, editing, art directing and prepping conferences from cities all across Europe. At the end of the day, I was spending at most 5–7 days a month at what my colleagues (unlike me) used to call “Vitaly’s home” — frankly, a place where nothing waited for me except a lonely desk, an empty refrigerator, a few pieces of cloth and a shelf full of books.
I didn’t find happiness in Freiburg. I didn’t find solace when I needed it. I didn’t find understanding when I sought it. I didn’t actually feel lonely, but I felt alone in that apartment, in that beautiful, gorgeous little city on the very foot of the legendary Black Forest. I did find calmness and a relentless drive to create and think and craft and design and produce and play and experiment and fail and try again, but it was utterly exhausting at times, whirling up my working hours from early morning to late nights. The city was beautiful and warm, yet at the same time it was just as lifeless, calm and silent, wherever I went to. I wanted to move away. I just didn’t know where to move to.
Once I shut that door, I had nothing but a packed schedule with a few talks and workshops for the next few weeks, laptop, a few international plugs and a perfectly sized luggage bag, weighing just around 24.5kg — as I found out in my research, the perfect weight to still be accepted by most international airlines. I gave away most of my belongings to a homeless shelter, including unnecessary clothes and things I didn’t use. I gave away the things that I couldn’t use to my parents, but also to my friends and colleagues who could use them. The rest was packed in a few boxes, along with my most valuable belongings: personal documents, papers, photos, diplomas, sketch books, conference lanyards and a few hard drives — all the cornerstones of my adolescent and adult life, marking significant events throughout my life journey; the things that define who I used to be, who I have become and what I care about deeply.
Seeing how all those unique cornerstones fit within one little cardbox was astonishing; yet now, months later, when I look back, there isn’t even one little thing that I miss or wish I hadn’t thrown away. My past remains within my memories and my character and my thoughts and my little cardbox; it’s the present and the future that I relentlessly explore with a drive which is as ignited, powerful and versatile as it has never been before. The sheer fact that I don’t have any permanent keys to any apartment or office is empowering and liberating. This abundant liberty can be scary and unsettling at times, but it amplifies your reasoning and your passion, and it gives you milestones to aim for, and it also keeps you on your feet and prompts you to settle down whenever you are ready.
Putting together the luggage was an exercise of discipline and prioritization. Once you set a tough constraint to work within, you have to rethink what is really important, and put aside everything that doesn’t hold value for you. It’s a matter of looking at everything you’ve got under a magnifying glass, slowly, carefully, thoroughly, just because there is no way back. You have to decide what really matters to you. Getting rid of the things that you owned for many years and leaving them behind requires you to slow down, and to figure out who you really are.
I decided to run a creative experiment. No permanent apartment, one piece of luggage, and a lot of traveling — from country to country, spending my time with the people I care about, in creative environments, writing, editing, speaking, getting to know people I always wanted to meet, meeting people that I never thought I would get to know. Working from coffee shops and AirBnB places, in remote areas where I would find myself offline quite a lot of time — in just the right environment to get things done. Uninterrupted, undisturbed, heavily inspired by surroundings and the atmosphere around you.
I wasn’t alone. And, to be honest, it made all the difference. Having a person you care about so much close by shapes your focus. It drives you to places you’d never go, to thoughts you’d never explore, to experiences you’d never share otherwise. But it also helps you to stay afloat: to have a purpose and a goal right in front of you when you need it. And every now and again that focus — the reason, the point, the purpose, the end goal — pushes you to a working desk where you can spend an entire day sipping cappuccinos and getting work done — getting work done well.
That working desk can be pretty much anywhere: a little tourist station in a little Swedish village with 82 inhabitants and some of the best Northern lights on Earth, right next to a huge orchestra of fireworks across the Geneva lake, or in a little French restaurant just around the corner of the Parisian Montmartre. It really doesn’t matter where you are; what matters is whom you are with, and the experiences you share. Together. These experiences and conversations with people around are enormous catalysts for great creative work.
In fact, those last few months were the most productive and happiest months of the last few years of my life. I found more time to write and experiment with code. I started reading more again. I started writing more again. I rediscovered my curiosity in art history and stamps and calligraphy and cartoons. Traveling in trains, flying in airplanes, commuting in buses and waiting during layover times surprisingly were the times when I was most effective, and every now and again most creative.
Once you get into habit of working on the road, it’s becoming very difficult to procrastinate. In the end, even when I got detained by a police for a thorough security check, I found myself making good use of the time and, with a bottle of water, airport food and a lightbulb in front me, I was getting things done while waiting for the police verdict. Articles, chapters, workshop slides were all edited under those (eventually weird or, to put it differently, unusual conditions) in different cities, mostly in public spaces, usually with a cup of cafe latte right next to the laptop and an occasional piece of a carrot cake nearby.
I deepened my friendships and spent more time with people who I care about. I reestablished connections with my family. I explored unknown places and challenged myself to leave my comfort zone. And I never had so many valuable, rich conversations with fantastic, smart people within such a short period of time — people from our industry, but also random people you happen to meet in the cities, often by chance, and the stories they tell and the secrets they share and the memories that remain after those conversations. For me, it wasn’t about observing architecture or people though — I didn’t want to be a tourist; I didn’t want to be an observer; I wanted to explore and understand what living in a city is like for people who actually live there.
So as we were passing countries, we were looking thoroughly at the places where we could stay to live; just the “right”, affordable, beautiful places, with a good quality of life, good people, and obviously, good coffee, wine, cheese and a reliable Wi-Fi. Maybe this place doesn’t really exist, or maybe there are many places that would match those requirements, but by getting to know places and people and how they live, we might get just close enough to find a place that I would warm-heartedly call “home” after all. A place where you realize that it’s about time to stop, and settle down.
Freiburg → Vilnius → Bucharest → Oslo → Athens → Munich → Amsterdam → Paris → Freiburg → Kiev → Freiburg → Graz → Bath → Hamburg → Berlin → Malmö → Abisko → Rome → Moscow → Karlsruhe → Vilnius → New York → Whistler → Vancouver → Frankfurt → Saarbrücken → Hamburg → Brussels.
There are a few things I learned, a few things I failed at, and a few things I discovered:
- I said it once, I’ll say it again. The real value of traveling derives from authentic, genuine, open-minded conversations with people — people you know, and people you don’t know. Seek and embrace meeting people — you’ll learn something new every single day.
- Talking about being homeless does make for good (and sometimes awkward) conversation starters (not with police though), but it’s useful to clarify that you are homeless by design, not because you have to be homeless (probably a more adequate word would be digital nomad which I personally dislike).
- It could be useful to learn how to fold shirts properly and quickly, how to organize your backpack and how to iron your shirts. Again, if you can optimize your workflow and reduce the time you lose for daily-routine-tasks, the better. Also, don’t trust the foreign iron! Double check it before using it.
- Most hotels don’t pay attention to the comments you write in the comments area on hotel booking websites, so if something is important to you — e.g. a calm room with a good Wi-Fi, it’s better to call directly and make your request clear this way.
- If possible, make as many purchases ahead of time online as possible —shuttle tickets, extra luggage, tourist metro passes — to avoid stress, confusion and overly expensive tickets. This goes for train tickets from airport to the city centre as well as flight tickets (obviously). Make sure to have at least two–three credit cards from different banks with you — if you are traveling a lot, one of them will certainly be blocked by your bank because they’d suggest that the card is abused. Also, opening up a new account without a permanent residence can be very difficult, so before going this route, get a few cards prepared. Whenever you can, avoid purchases in foreign currency since you’d usually have to pay an international charge fee for using the credit cards abroad.
- If you happen to be travelling across Europe, get a plan with a European coverage (I am using T-Mobile with All-Inclusive package, 5GB for all EU countries) to avoid ridiculous roaming charges and be connected on the go.
- Tripadvisor and Foursquare can be quite misleading, and by following their recommendations you might end up spending a few hours in the queue full of (loud) tourists. Furthermore, the suggestions aren’t always reliable, so it’s much better to ask local people about their favourite places — and having somebody who could show you around is much better than any guide.
- Losing time is easy; being focused and disciplined is hard. To stay productive, I tend to dedicate a few days for sightseeing and meeting people, and the other days for productive, focused work in a coffee shop. Do ask the waiter if it’s OK to work with a laptop though first, and do order more than just one coffee — working the entire day with one cold cappuccino in front of you isn’t cool. Also, locate the router beforehand and make sure to find a place that isn't too close to the exit — having people permanently passing by close to you is the easiest way to get distracted.
- What often helps me get into the flow is exercising early in the morning before breakfast. Even if the place where you are staying doesn’t have a gym, you can always find a hotel nearby and pretend that you are staying there. Nobody will think that you are crazy enough to pretend that you are staying in the hotel to get into the gym.
- Finding a good Wi-Fi to sync large files can be quite a headache unless you are in Baltic or Scandinavian countries — make sure to search for open spaces and meet-ups taking place in the area you’re staying.
- When traveling in Europe, make sure to get an ultimate traveller’s charger (e.g. Skross World Adapter Pro) and a few backup cables and plugs: Italy has two different power sockets, Switzerland an entirely different one, and obviously so does the UK. Also, invest in a good portable USB charger and noise-cancelling headphones or ear buds — Bose QuietComfort 20i are pretty good.
- Traveling is expensive, but you don’t need a fancy hotel to stay; you can establish connections upfront on Twitter, and AirBnB has many affordable options, too. Besides, you can always get a reduced rate if you ask the host for a discount for a lengthy stay. Staying with friends is great for a few days, but if you are going to stay longer, you will want a calm, silent place for yourself.
- Packing-moving-unpacking-routine can be very tiring and annoying; moving every 3 days is very time-consuming, but staying at least for five–six days in one single place is just the right amount of time to start feeling comfortable around the place where you are at the moment.
- You can’t afford losing your luggage since it’s the only thing you have for quite some time, so it’s better to fly with airlines that care about you as a customer and will be helpful in case something happens. And of course, if you can, flying with a bag pack is even better.
- Most WiFi passwords in cafes are very weird and unreasonable, often printed in unreadable typefaces where you can’t distinguish between ‘l’ and ‘I’, but usually the passwords are the name of the cafe where you are staying, lowercase. In general, better ask the waiter to write down the password for you, and make sure to try to connect to the network while the waiter is around you.
- When flying, make sure to disable cookies and cache when booking tickets because many companies track your visits and increase the price artificially for specific countries. Also, it might be a good idea to spook your IP — especially if you are purchasing tickets from Switzerland or Norway. Google Flights is good for quick and smart search, too.
- Arriving at the airport 2.5h before departure gives you enough time to get through bag drop and security very quickly and get into the flow for a good hour. Also, Final Boarding Call is your friend — there is no point rushing into the plane before that. You can use this time to get work done. For the same reason, I prefer longer trips without interchanges to the quicker ones with interchanges.
- If you end up having more than 24.5kg in your luggage, the easiest way to reduce the weight is to take out your shoes and put them in a separate hand luggage. Most airlines would check what your total weight is, so if you have a lot of hand luggage already, make sure to get all hand luggage out of sight before bag drop, then drop the heavy luggage and pick up the hand luggage later before security.
- There is almost always a bus/train connection from the airport to the city center which is far cheaper than a taxi outside the airport. Do your homework and research your best options ahead of time to avoid disappointment and annoying surprises down the road.
- If you happen to be interested in things other people have learned from their traveling experiences, check the Digital Nomad eBook by Tomasz Nowak, Lessons Learned by Noel Tock, and a few recommended places to stay by Karin Christen.
Not everybody can afford being on the road all the time, and I was lucky enough to make it work just because I can get my work done from pretty much any place in the world. But maybe you can, too. Especially if you are freelancing, as long as you have a decent Wi-Fi and a lovely coffee shop nearby, you can keep exploring the world and the people crossing your path as long as you haven’t found just the right place where you’d like to stay for good.
Close those doors once in a while; prepare a plan B and move on; take the risk of seeing what will happen next. Nobody knows how it will turn out, but at least you’ll have it tried, and at least you’ll know exactly what is and what isn’t important in your life. And before you know it, once you’ve settled again, you’ll have gained a bag full of experiences, memories and hopefully authentic friendships that will stand the test of time for the years to come.
Having a proper working routine is comfortable. You have your tools, your methods, your process, and you know how to get in the flow. Every other morning you punctually wake up after your third alarm clock has rung and cruise with your eyes half-closed through your apartment to reach that shiny red button at your tea pot or your coffee machine. You are just on time, and the world is waiting for you. And you rush into your daily routine, ready to change the world, as you always do.
When was the last time you let the world wait for you for a while? Just as you regularly wake up at the same time, do you also regularly plan on shaking things a little bit every now and again? When was the last time you consciously left your comfort zone entirely to challenge the unexpected, the unpredictable, the unfamiliar territory, to confront yourself with an entirely new set of complex problems — and find just the right solution for them?
The beauty of good ideas lies in their unpredictability. You can’t schedule good ideas, and you can’t come up with just the right sparkle of innovation at just the right time. They come up when you don’t expect them, and often the best way to approach a problem is to leave it alone for a while, walk away, study something completely unrelated — in fact, as much as possible — and then get back, synthesize the ideas you discover in distant places and apply it in the right mix, in the right proportion in just the right context.
Routine is deadly for creativity. It’s deadly for innovation and challenging design problems, too, because it hinders spontaneous decisions, random experiments and weird ideas. So what about scheduling break outs of the comfort zone a few times a month? Perhaps you’d like to try leaving your code in a broken state before you finish off for the day, or motivate yourself to try unrelated new things every morning. Alternatively, instead of being as fast as possible with your design, what about being as slow as possible instead — integrating slow, intelligent storytelling in your interface? Take the time to explore how a problem can be solved intelligently without rushing into the design or coding stage right away.
If you love lettering, why not try painting instead? What about setting up your alarm clock at 5:26 AM tomorrow? Or perhaps read a comic book backwards? Maybe just take a slightly longer, perfectly inefficient and crowded route to your office? Get a dog. Or a piano. Or a newspaper. Ask total strangers in the coffee shop what they do for a living and what excites them most. Perhaps you’ll discover things that you wish you’d always known and rediscover passion for things that you felt you’ve lost forever. And most importantly, perhaps you’ll meet people who will change your life, or at least a tiny bit of it. Isn’t it worth getting out of the comfort zone after all?
Let go, and get back to what you like doing most with a new energy, new perspective, new outlook — and try out a new coffee, pencil, text editor and music every now and again. To find your comfort zone — and leave it a few days later.
A Story Of A Little Wooden Box
When I was a little kid, I believed that the world stopped moving when I was asleep. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, crawl out of the bed and sneak onto our balcony, looking for a little wooden box behind a big cardboard, in which I secretly stored my clunky early writings, drawings and, of course, love letters.
Right in front of the balcony, I would slowly, mischievously step on my toes, look outside and observe the pure, untamed, untangled emptiness and loneliness breathing outside, leaving not even a single leaf on a single tree untouched. I could almost sense how the world fades away, sleeping calmly and gently—and I would be the only person seeing it happening.
And then I’d look at my little wooden box. Just for a second. For a blink of a second, actually. Before I open it just to make sure that everything is still inside. Nobody in the entire world knew about this wooden box of mine, and that’s where I found my solace and happiness for years, storing everything from stickers, cards, notes, audio diaries, letters that were never sent and postcards that were never addressed all the way to elaborate drawings and throughly written, rewritten, extended and reedited versions of my little stories. Writing had been my way to escape and understand the unclear, the unknown, the unfair, the unconscious—the things that I just couldn’t make sense of. So every single time I didn’t understand something, I would hold my breath just for a second, look around to make sure that nobody was watching, swiftly grab my shabby sketch book with an attached yellow pencil and write it down quickly before I forgot it—and then run into the bathroom to grab blue scissors and cut the notes as soon as possible and put them in the right place in my little wooden box while nobody else saw it—hoping to find a meaning or a better connection as I become older and smarter. All these notes, all these mysterious fragments of my life, were my little discoveries and my little treasures that I hoped would magically come together one day to open an entirely new understanding of the world for me.
As it turns out, the world doesn’t stop moving when you are sleeping. One night, as I was sleeping with my sketchbook right next to me, a strong windy, rainy storm scattered all over the balcony, cracking down the cupboard with a little wooden box inside. As I woke up, I found my notes scattered all over the balcony, turned wet, torn apart, broken, misplaced, unreadable. I was devastated.
A few weeks later in school we had to write an essay about the most significant things and experiences in your life. I went to great lengths to describe my little wooden box and how difficult the experience was for me. As you probably can tell, I never was particularly good with commas or semicolons (or dashes or punctuation in general for that matter), so after circling in a number of occasional red marks and notes on the side, my teacher added a little note at the end of my essay. It was too elaborate to remember completely, but I vividly remember a few sentences that made all the difference in the world to me: “You might have lost the notes, but you haven’t lost the experiences. Connect them throughout the years and keep the memory of a little wooden box as a reminder of everything beautiful and amazing you’ve seen, experienced and discovered. This memory is who you really are. It matters. A lot.”
I kept tirelessly adding more notes into my sketchbook throughout the years, but I never stored them in a little wooden box at the balcony ever again.
Whenever we join a Twitter conversation or write/read a blog post or interact with our fellows colleagues at conferences, we always discover treasures that often are a perfect fit for our own, personal little wooden boxes. We never know if we can use a new discovery, and often we can’t make a connection right away, and if we don’t capture them, sometimes they fade away over time. The only way to grasp them is to make them tangible.
Different tools work best for different people. For me, adding notes in my sketchbook online and offline works best. I also use Twitter to give anything that I discovered a vivid manifestation, giving it a presence on the Web—not only to share it with followers, but also to bookmark it for myself for future reference and immerse into conversations that take place in the stream. That’s why every tweet follows certain conventions in terms of the structure and wording to avoid duplicates and wrong categorization. In fact, you can use Twitter’s search to filter your archive very easily as long as you have consistent writing in your tweets. (Of course, to avoid the “wooden box”-fiasco, I do store regular back-ups of the tweets, too—lesson learned).
Having a little place where we can store all those fragments of our experiences can be tremendously helpful. These fragments don’t have to be polished; we tend to think about blog posts as the perfect artefacts of our elaborate efforts, almost sculpture-alike artworks that require time and writing skills, but they could be just your random thoughts or ideas—perhaps just a few little things that you learned one day. #onething on Twitter, “One Thing A Day” on your blog, a little sketchbook note at a conference. Writing and speaking about your discoveries is also a wonderful way of capturing new ideas because it sets you off on the path of exploration and inherently forces you to make connections that you otherwise would have missed.
And sharing these little wooden boxes matters. A lot. Because you never know who will be inspired by the little fragments of your experience. You never know who will be embarking on their own, new journey once they stumbled upon yours. You never find out about one little girl who jumped into web design because she found a blog post that you wrote about the fascinating community and profession that you are a part of. Or that discouraged young front-end developer who was about to give up before he stumbled upon your Twitter thread. Or a designer tangled in massive redesign issues unsure about his career paths just before you spoke in front of him and explained how you work and what worked well in your last project. These are lives changed at its heart. (And if it happened to you, and a blog post, conversation or a talk made a difference for your life or career, please do take a few minutes of your time to send a little “thank you” email to the person that inspired or helped you. It will be much appreciated.)
And before you know it, you’ve made a huge difference, helping people you don’t even know to make better design decisions and potentially better life decisions, and hence filling their little wooden boxes with ideas and thoughts that enrich everything and everybody on the Web.
Don’t Let Them Steal Your Dreams From You
I was sitting in a crowded and deceptively spacious coffee shop, intoxicated with a lovely smell of freshly baked bagels and the infamous New York cheese cake. The place was buzzing with laughter, conversations, phone calls and music streaming out of headphones of people around me. I could almost recognize the tunes of people eagerly typing on their laptops as they were sipping their cappuccinos. And then I caught that phrase again. That poisonous, deceptive phrase that always comes up, and always brings down good ideas—swiftly, abruptly, abrasively.
“You can’t possibly do that!”
“This is just plain stupid!”
“It can’t be done.”
You know the drill. You are shining—no, you are burning—with your brand new idea, and you can almost grasp its significance and sense its potential impact, and as you envision it happening, you almost see how it will change the way you work, and perhaps even change the way your colleagues work, and perhaps even change everything in that beautiful, exciting world of yours, and so you can’t wait to take on a new journey to that something, big, important, substantial, something that matters, and in the high spirits of your immersive flight above anything and everything, you explain it to your friends or colleagues, and neighbours and total strangers—jumping all over the place, depicting the idea on drawing boards and filling the entire room with energy and kindled, flammable enthusiasm. You see your dream right in front of you, and you can almost touch it with your hands.
“It doesn’t work this way.”
“It has been tried, and failed miserably.”
“It’s just unrealistic! We’ve always done it the other way.”
And they kill it. They bounce back your hopes and dreams, they shatter your confidence and they shake away your ignited enthusiasm in a blink of a second. And you crash. You crash badly. You find yourself having to explain why perhaps eventually it might work after all, fighting the discouraging, devastating critique from people around you. And then you start seriously doubting yourself and your ideas. And then eventually that moment comes when you let it go, when your idea dies. Silently. Calmly.
Throughout all these years I’ve learned that some of the better design ideas emerge either through spontaneous conversations or through experimentation—often shaping and assembling itself as some sort of a puzzle: combining of a number of ideas from different sources. You might meet somebody in a coffee shop or a conference party, or you might accidentally stumble upon a problem that you’d like to be fixed. The latter lies at the very core of experimentation.
Good ideas don’t require proper planning or schedule; nor do they benefit from exhaustingly long meetings and conversations with management. They emerge from experiments, from playing around with things that you care about, things to which you have an emotional attachment. And quite often they need a creative chaotic environment to flourish and grow.
However, the path from an idea to a tangible product is full of failures, and it’s those inevitable, sometimes devastating failures that make you stronger and keep you going, and eventually—if you don’t give in easily—drive you in the right direction, just to finally pave the boardwalk to something that might turn out to be changing and defining your future.
Of course we all should benefit from the knowledge of others—people who trust themselves to actually follow through their weird, unrealistic, and sometimes stubborn, naive ideas. But we should be able to learn and grow from our own mistakes, too. If you are willing to experiment and tackle failures along the way, you have to be able to make your own mistakes. And that means making an effort to beat the odds—no matter how doomed that shiny new idea might initially look.
In fact, usually that initial creative spark sounds just so ridiculous, unreasonable and improbable at first, and often even worse after the first critical review. But sometimes it doesn’t matter. Yes, it just doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s your time to succeed where others failed, and risk your personal time to gain strength, experience and wisdom that others gained before you. Perhaps you are doomed to fail, but you might build something in the end that will lead you to success in the future as you combine that idea with the inspiration you’ll find in your cellar years from now.
We should risk, accept and embrace our own experiments, pushing the boundaries, trying out something new—something we’ve never done before, and especially something that nobody has ever managed to get right before. It doesn’t matter how silly, strange or plain ignorant an idea might sound at first, it’s always worth the time and effort to give it a try as long as your enthusiasm drives you to explore it further.
So the next time somebody comes to you and tells you that you can’t do something, or you will fail, or you should save the breath, perhaps a humble, short and impeccably concise: “Watch me.” would do. Perhaps tell them that you want to change the world forever. That you want to make things better around you—a tiny bit, every single day. Watch them gently smiling towards you, admiring your naivety and stubbornness, but don’t get discouraged and don’t lose that almost madman-like spark in your eyes. Do your own thing and make your own mistakes if you have to. Tackle your failures and conquer your weaknesses, recognize your instincts and follow your dreams—and don’t let anyone, anywhere, at any time, steal them from you.
I Want To Be A Web Designer When I Grow Up
I must have been a nightmare when I was growing up as a little kid. I was extremely curious and impatient, trying to make sense of that incredible puzzle that life turned out to be. I was listening, I was observing, I was making connections and I was exploring everything whenever I had a chance to do so. Once I was finished with crawling our modest apartment, my curiosity turned to numerous books and magazines which happened to be everywhere. Even before I learned how to read, I found myself spending hours flipping through pages that I didn’t understand. Every time I pulled that book or magazine from the shelf and browsed its pages, I was inventing stories and interpretations, trying to make sense of what I was looking at.
You see, we lived in a relatively small apartment in the Soviet Minsk, Belarus, with tall ceilings, squared rooms, a little kitchen and plenty of large wooden windows. I still remember the intoxicating, rich, wooden smell which kept drawing me to those windows—even when my mum cooked her delicious soups and meatballs and potatoes and chicken and cakes and cookies. I liked opening them and feeling the texture of the wood, and I loved the squeaky sound they made whenever I opened the doors. We lived on the third floor and a large, wide street was crossing the bedroom windows in our apartment, so being as curious as I was, I was always trying to peek in there to see what’s happening outside.
However, the window-sill was located quite high above the heating battery, so however hard I tried to stand on my toes, I couldn’t see anything but the wooden edges of the window’s frame. Obviously, this wasn’t acceptable, so almost every single day I would grab a chair from the kitchen and bring it over to the bedroom, then position it strategically against the window and climb up the chair through the heating battery. Whenever I wasn’t satisfied with the final result, I would climb off the chair again, relocate the chair appropriately to the left or to the right, climb it up again and iterate the whole procedure. Finally, whenever the sweet spot was found, I could then spend hours observing moving trees, walking families, red buses, dusty cars and busy strangers with suitcases running late to work.
One day when going through my regular grab-chair-climb-to-the-window-routine, I noticed my grandfather—a very smart, kind, passionate and hard-working geology professor who taught his craft at the university—watching me in the back as I was painstakingly carrying over the chair from the kitchen. He didn’t say anything, but I will never forget his kind, gentle smile that was telling me much more than any words could say. He pulled his hands towards me, grabbed me with one arm, pulled the chair with another and walked towards the bedroom. I remember looking at him and wondering how he could know my little secret, and whether I wasn’t careful enough to protect it in some way. Finally, he placed the chair next to the window and put me right on it, just at the right spot for me to lean over the window-sill and position my little hands to the cheeks and start observing.
It was a gorgeous, sunny, warm yet windy day. There was nothing special about what I saw outside the window, but the scenery alone, while being quite unspectacular per se, made me almost certain that something was about to happen outside the window, as if I was browsing through a huge book with pictures instead of the actual street. The wind was flowing over my hair and shoulders, and the window would close and open because of the wind. My grandfather left the room and came back a moment later. In his hands he had a thick stitched book which was quite old and yellowing, with torn edges and numerous coffee stains, without a proper cover and a dislocated spine. He put the book next to me and started explaining what it was and what it all meant. As I found out later, it was one of the many books he wrote a while back and although it didn’t have many images, it contained many notes and doodles added by him at work and at home. I probably didn’t understand a single word he was saying, but I really liked flipping through the pages and creating a story of my own. We spent the whole evening flipping through pages and observing the streets outside together.
Just before bringing me to bed, my grandfather pulled the book and put it against the window so the fresh, windy air could flow into the room. Even years later, after my grandfather has died, this book stayed there on the window-sill, letting fresh windy air into the room. Hardly one evening passed after that evening when I didn’t bring a book together with a kitchen chair to the bedroom window.
I don’t remember my first years very well, but I vividly remember this single evening. I also remember endlessly flipping through the books I didn’t understand and observing people I would never meet. And sometimes I think that in many ways it has defined my personality and sparked my interest and creativity, leading me to becoming who I am today. As I found out later on, my grandfather was an intelligent, patient man with a big heart and generous soul; he wasn’t light-hearted and liked challenging his students, but they loved him and kept writing kind letters even years after they finished studying. I could never be as generous, engaging and smart as he was, but one of my goals this year has been figuring out whether I could be a good teacher.
It’s not easy, but I am not taking this task light-hearted either. I love speaking in front of the students, and I love seeing this excitement in their eyes—the same excitement I had when I was studying. This igniting eagerness to learn and to master, to explore and to question status quo. The talks that I remember best during my studies aren’t the ones given by my professors but the ones presented by guest lecturers. Some of these talks have significantly influenced the direction of my life, and I can remember actually preparing myself for those lectures weeks ahead, studying biographies, articles, books and related talks.
They meant something to me—something that went far beyond just a talk given by somebody I respected. It was more about seeing a perspective of how things could evolve in the future and what matters in real life, in practice, beyond theory and the dusty pages of all those thick textbooks. Those talks encouraged me to do something valuable, to understand how the world actually works and find my place in it.
Now, years later, I am looking forward to challenging myself to do the same to other students. Starting in March, I am honoured to start teaching at a university in Odense, Denmark, and I can’t wait to look into the eyes of the students to see that same eagerness I had when I was younger. I know already that I will be spending hours and hours and hours thinking about what to add to the course, what to mention and what not to forget and what to discuss and what to point out and what to emphasize and how to make the best out of it. But it’s worth it, because for students this could be very similar to what I experienced—when flipping through pages at the window-sill or listening to guest lecturers at the university: a perspective on how the world works and where my place in it could be.
If you happen to know a student community group or teachers in a local school or university, perhaps you’d like to explore the opportunity of giving students an insight into your work. Share your failures, your successes, your design process, your workflow, your thinking and what design, development and user experience actually mean to you. You won’t regret the feeling you’ll discover once you see that kind, gentle, smiling face of a successful, smart designer or developer that you used to teach back in the day.