How did Smashing Magazine come into existence? How do we work, and what happens behind the scenes? What is our secret recipe for success? Our readers are asking, and Smashing Magazine is answering.
The Smashing Magazine story is not the classic story of two guys coming up with a great idea in the right place at the right time. It is a story of dedication, patience and hard work … truly hard work. During a conference that Vitaly attended recently, he was asked by an energetic young fellow about the secret formula of Smashing Magazine’s success. Trying to be honest and open-minded, Vitaly did his best to explain that there was no such thing, that it’s only a matter of being truly passionate and engaged in the work that you do. Vitaly pointed out the necessity of working hard, better than others, and, most importantly, never giving up if you strongly believe you are doing the right thing. After a couple of additional questions intended to glean more concrete and quantifiable insights, the young fellow abruptly walked off and faded into the crowd, probably feeling he had not been taken seriously.
The simple truth is that Smashing Magazine does not have a unique formula for success. We have certain goals and a certain understanding of how to achieve those goals, but the most important quality along the way has been a strong willingness to live up to the expectations of the design community, despite the time and money that requires. There is no clever, shrouded strategy behind it, and no puppet-master deciding which articles best fit this or that advertising campaign. Smashing Magazine is and always has been independent. The quality of each article is measured purely by the extent of its utility to our readers. We respect our readers and protect their interests. This is the main principle of our work, and we work hard to make sure that this principle is never compromised.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about Smashing Magazine’s birth is that we never actually sat down together to discuss the whole thing. We never threw up a whiteboard and brainstormed on a groundbreaking concept for a successful magazine with a solid marketing model. In fact, Smashing Magazine is the result of a random experiment, initiated by two like-minded Web workers with shared passion and knowledge, as well as valuable experience (Sven) and energetic motivation (Vitaly).
It all started in August 2006. Vitaly Friedman, a computer science student and freelance Web designer with 8 years of experience, had been occasionally writing articles for the legendary German online magazine “Dr. Web1”. The magazine had been known on the German-speaking Web design scene for over 12 years. The man behind the magazine’s curtains was former freelance designer Sven Lennartz, who had managed to make editing and maintaining Dr. Web his full-time job.
They both had obligations of their own to address: Vitaly doing freelance gigs and passing university exams in Saarbruecken (in south-western Germany), and Sven keeping up with Web design developments, discussing article ideas with authors and coming up with innovative ideas for Dr. Web from Luebeck (in northern Germany).
At this point, we had known each other for over two years but had never actually spoken by phone or met in person. Casual discussions about recent developments and ideas for new posts took place via the convenience of email2. It is no surprise, then, that the idea for a big collaborative project was modestly suggested via one of these numerous emails. To be honest, it wasn’t really a big deal for either of us. It was Sven, actually, who came up with the idea for an English-speaking online magazine for designers and developers; and once Vitaly suggested the name “Smashing” (“We smash you with the information that makes your life easier.”), we both decided to give the idea a try by setting up a basic blog, publishing a couple of posts and just seeing how it went. We had neither financial support nor any signed agreements at that point.
All big and small details of the project, including back-end, front-end and publishing considerations, were discussed via dozens of emails. accompanied by loud speaker systems and sketched notes, which is probably why most of those emails had interminable subject lines (“Re: Re: Re ”) and also why we needed so many emails to agree about anything. Interestingly enough, all of the building blocks of the new project were put together by Sven and Vitaly separately, in German pubs and local pizza places, during long walks and between (or during) university lectures.
After two weeks of preparation, the domain was registered, the server configured and WordPress installed. We adapted one of the first minimalistic WordPress themes we found, and there it was, ready to be used. The Smashing Magazine website went online on the 8th of September 2006. The magazine didn’t even have a logo then: we used the default Verdana headline from the WordPress template. The first articles were taken from Dr. Web, translated from German to English and then published on the newly born Smashing Magazine.
The first articles weren’t a huge success, of course, but we didn’t expect success either. We didn’t celebrate or conceive any big plans. We carried on with our own things, remaining patient and determined. Several months passed, in fact, before we achieved our first significant breakthrough.
Things progressed slowly; after all, we both had our own things to take care of. Initially, we agreed to publish two articles per week at most, using the content from Dr. Web as a baseline and producing new content on top of it; for example, we expanded the German articles and refined them for an international audience. Traffic grew gradually over the first couple of months, but we didn’t observe significant spikes in traffic until the end of 2006, when our stories (those early “list” posts) started hitting the mighty Digg’s front page3.
The first time our eyebrows raised was in response to the huge traffic jam caused by the article “50 Beautiful CSS-Based Web Designs in 2006”, which landed on Digg’s front page and gained over 3100 votes. Our server crashed a couple of minutes after that Digg effect, of course; after all, the images were over 150 KB each, and the dedicated server wasn’t exactly configured for this kind of traffic spike. A couple of weeks later, “53 CSS Techniques You Couldn’t Live Without” literally smashed us with over 5300 Digg votes. That was the turning point in Smashing Magazine’s development: from then on, our stories did pretty well in social media, delivering traffic and interest in ad spots. At that point, we knew we had to rethink our modest plans for the magazine. We also knew we had to finally meet each other… for the first time.
It wasn’t our idea to earn a living with this online magazine. We had no pressure to succeed, and we could afford to be patient and move the magazine in the right direction at its own pace. Experience in and passion for Web design helped us avoid errors and allowed us to keep doing our own thing. Once we realized that the design community was interested in our posts, we went further and made posts longer and better structured. We also included more images and illustrations; some readers complained (and still complain) that the length of our posts repeatedly slowed down their RSS feed readers and machines. Undeterred, we continued smashing our readers with huge posts. Some of these posts were so huge that they could easily be used for a standalone website, which is why we started offering our posts in PDF for easy printing.
Illustrations from all of Smashing Magazine’s articles. The detail shown here is part of a collage of over 650 images.
And, of course, more images meant an even bigger server load. To keep up with the growing appetite of our visitors, we had to regularly expand our server farm. Readers often discovered us through social media websites: we certainly could not have gained so many without Digg, StumbleUpon and Delicious. Because our articles were useful or inspirational, they were often bookmarked and recommended, which leveraged the power of social media to spread the word and bring us traffic. Frederick Townes, Neil Patel, Muhammad Saleem, Victor Battera, Dave (BlueNile), Tal Siach and other friends helped us better understand how social media works and how important these media have become on the Web.
By the middle of 2007, we were finally starting to run out of Dr. Web articles. By then, we were already publishing a mix of translated articles and original content: Vitaly wrote articles from scratch, while Sven wrote new articles in German that Vitaly translated into English. Smashing Magazine’s readers were quickly getting used to our trademark lengthy posts. Most Dr. Web articles didn’t fit this new style: they were much shorter, and some focused less on Web design but rather on project management, SEO and the marketing side of Web development. So, we gradually switched to producing original content specifically for Smashing Magazine.
We quickly found, though, that our command of the English language wasn’t as good as we had thought. More and more, our readers complained about grammatical flaws, spelling mistakes and unclear sentences. So, we started looking for a professional proofreader. Unfortunately, it took over a year until we finally got in touch with the right one, Andrew Lobo, who has been doing a great job editing most of Smashing Magazine’s articles (and also this book) since November 2008.
Our publishing frequency grew, as did our readers’ expectations. Late in 2007, we realized our audience had grown significantly, resulting in an extremely diversified readership. Meeting the expectations of these readers with only two to three articles per week was becoming harder. This was the time when we started engaging regular writers.
Sean Hodge and Mark Bloomfield were the first guest writers to help Smashing Magazine widen its horizon with new topics and formats. With them, we could publish four to five articles per week. Once those first guest posts were published, we started receiving inquiries from designers and developers across the globe. It turned out to be a good arrangement, because freelance writing is usually an intermittent thing that many designers can do between projects. When a new project comes along, the writers can just drop writing if they don’t have time for it.
And so we were permanently looking for new writers. It wasn’t an easy search, and it took us a long time to find authors who would write for us regularly. We looked passively (responding to email inquiries) and actively (searching for bloggers who have a deep understanding of design, usability and coding). We even organized a Smashing Author contest, in which our readers could send us guest posts; we published the most interesting ones, and the author of the best post (as selected by readers) was awarded an Apple MacBook Air. The prize (and its delivery) is a story of its own, because R. Christie, the writer of the winning post, “Top 10 CSS Table Designs”, lives in Indonesia.
Ironically, we never really found regular writers through the contest itself, but we did manage to attract the attention of many freelance writers across the globe. Within a couple of months, we had engaged a couple of excellent regular writers, such as Steven Snell and Jacob Gube. Later, other authors (Vailancio Rodrigues, Jean-Baptiste Jung, Chris Coyier, Kayla Knight, Inayaili de Leon, Noura Yehia, Aquil Akhter, Danny Outlaw, Cameron Chapman, Glen Stansberry and Matt Cronin) were writing for us. Our active searching led us to Chris Spooner and Dmitry Fadeyev, who are also contributing authors of this book. These new authors not only infused the magazine with innovative ideas but brought new life to it, too, making it possible for us to cover areas that neither of us are particularly knowledgeable in and freeing up our time so that we could write articles about topics that lie closer to our hearts.
But by covering topics that were new to us, we ran into the challenge of having to maintain the high quality of our publication, because we simply didn’t know if the write-ups we were getting were actually correct and incorporated the best design and coding practices. So in late 2008, we started asking professional designers and coders to consult on and edit some of our articles. For instance, PHP gurus Chris Shiflett and Sean Coates noticed some major mistakes in one of our articles on PHP, and we asked them to write a rebuttal. When it was published, we used the occasion to publicly apologize for our mistake and any inconvenience caused by it. Since then, we have approached unknown subjects rather carefully, trying to consult professionals before putting the articles online.
By 2008, our publishing schedule had accelerated to five to ten articles per week. (We used to take weekends off, but even that changed eventually.) Since then, we’ve received regular inquiries about writing positions and never missed a chance to try one out and see how it works. Between late 2007 and 2009, we had published articles by over 120 writers from all continents of the world. Unfortunately, we haven’t met any of them in person, but hopefully we’ll change that in future.
Of course, in addition to the Smashing Author contest, we have run other contests to give our readers an opportunity to participate and produce their own smashing content. In collaboration with our readers, we have released header graphics, textures, typographic templates and <hr /> lines as free downloads. As you would expect, the winners of these contests were awarded some very cool prizes.
Probably the most famous contest we’ve run is for desktop wallpaper calendars, in which designers across the globe send us their wallpapers every month, and we publish them before the beginning of the following month. Vitaly suggested the idea for the contest to Sven, who was skeptical at first. In fact, we intended to keep it going for only 12 months, but our readers wanted more, so of course we couldn’t stop.
Smashing Magazine’s 2nd Anniversary Poster, created by James White in August 2008
Sometimes we do giveaways just for their own sake. We’ve really enjoyed smashing our readers with useful prizes over the years. A couple of years ago, we never would have imagined that we would be giving away so many high-quality freebies down the road. Some of the giveaways are not commissioned by us but rather contributed by designers; in turn, we do our part to deliver huge traffic and great publicity to them. It’s a pretty good deal, in fact, particularly if the freebies are well designed – what you would call a win-win situation at its best (for both the designer and publisher). Elena Gafita’s WordPress themes and Jos Buivenga’s free fonts were the first freebies we released. Since then, we have released over 130 high-quality freebies from over 100 designers across the globe, and we are genuinely grateful for all the hard work that designers and developers put into them and for making them freely available to the community.
Of course, we have also encountered difficulties along the way. Over the course of three years, Smashing Magazine received over 44,000 emails and sent out over 17,000 replies (which averages to about 40 incoming and 15 outgoing emails per day). Because we were the only two processing these emails, we had to prioritize. So we made an effort to answer the most important emails immediately (otherwise they would wind up in the long queue beckoning for our attention), but many emails weren’t replied to in time (or at all). We tried to go through each and every email we received, but sometimes that was impossible. Meanwhile, we experienced three serious mail database crashes (thankfully, we had back-ups) and lost data from two over-heated disk drives. Because of this, a couple of nearly completed articles were never published: unfortunately, they never made it to our WordPress engine.
Another difficulty we encountered was the growing traffic of our magazine. In December 2007, after two Digg effects, a Reddit effect, a StumbleUpon effect and a huge Slashdot effect, all in a row, our darling Web host throttled our server for a couple of days and eventually threw us out. Apparently, the load was so high that the server gave up the ghost. We never found out exactly what had happened or why we were shut down. Apparently, our little blog caused significant performance problems on the server (even back then), drew too much traffic (we had a flat rate for traffic till then) and wasn’t profitable for the host. Not everyone knows that a project like Smashing Magazine can’t be hosted on a typical Web space or managed server. We needed more. Much more. And apparently dozens of terabytes of traffic are quite costly.
Our Web host wasn’t the only one that didn’t like us, though. For a while, Google didn’t like us either. We had been selling text links without the “no follow” attribute and were subsequently banned from the Google index in 2007. We removed the text links immediately, and a couple of months later we were back in the index.
Currently, our monthly traffic hovers around double digits in terabytes, and we have a customized server whose main base is in Germany, not far from where Vitaly lives. We have six servers permanently running to deliver images and content to our readers. The servers were configured and are permanently maintained and optimized by Rene Schmidt, who is also a contributing author of this book. He also takes care of the customized WordPress plug-ins being used on our root server to serve millions of page impressions per week.
As we write this chapter, Smashing Magazine contains 761 articles overall, plus a couple of pages. That’s not a lot, but those 761 articles have generated over 130,000 comments and trackbacks. Many of those comments we got in February 2009 during our hardware giveaway: we wanted as many comments for that post as possible, and we got them. At 8999 comments, WordPress crashed.
Although a new-born idea can take probably dozens of routes to becoming a success story, one thing is clear: success requires a hell of a lot of hard work (no big revelation, but worth pointing out nevertheless). Although some of our readers have claimed otherwise, we have always avoided convenient shortcuts that would have gained us more exposure from less thorough work (also known as “filler content”). Sometimes we deliberately chose the difficult path if it meant gaining exclusive, valuable content (for instance, when we prepared surveys and case studies that each took up to as many as 60 hours of work, a record we have found tough to beat).
Indeed, valuable content – or, more precisely, the process of writing, editing and publishing valuable content – has been the most important aspect of our work over the years. Content is certainly king, and in our case it turned out to be a real silver bullet. The truth is that Smashing Magazine has never had a breathtaking or visually appealing design: our headings used to be ridiculously large, our search engine wasn’t exactly killer for years and some design elements were inconsistently aligned and styled.
But none of that really mattered much. The look was never as important as the quality of its published content, either to us or our readers. While completely ignoring the visual design, we invested instead in usability, functionality and, most importantly, valuable and relevant content. This content is what has driven visitors back to our website over and over again.
One lesson we learned early on was the importance of saying ‘no’ to the enticing offers that inevitably spring up from all around. The moment you get the hang of whatever it is you are doing, you are immediately surrounded by dozens of sharks wanting a piece of your success and grabbing your attention with compelling offers. Actually, these sharks don’t even really know what they want from you, aside from a piece of your success and any “partnership” that would boost traffic to their own websites or put money in their pockets. From the very beginning, we decided to remain consistent and do our own thing – and do it properly. Avoiding distractions up front helped us prevent problems down the road.
If we had to identify the principle that has had the biggest influence on our work over these years, it certainly would be that we’ve gone to tremendous lengths to understand our audience and live up to its expectations. We continually listen to what our regular readers ask and complain about in the magazine, and we also monitor the conversations that take place beyond our magazine; for instance, in blogs, forums and social media. We continually analyze and prioritize the information that crosses our path, following
up on what is potentially useful and discarding what would not benefit our readers. Evidently, though, when your large (and particularly diverse) audience has built up high expectations, failing to meet those expectations becomes very easy. Readers always seem to remember those controversial articles that were really torn apart in the comments; references to those articles always pop up in the comments section, usually beside phrases like “Worst post ever.”
So to find the right direction for the magazine, understanding the needs and interests of our audience became particularly important. One of the simplest ways to gain this insight was to put ourselves in the shoes of our readers3. This was quite easy, in our case. Being Web developers ourselves, we decided to focus on content with the highest utility, as judged according to our own expertise. It turns out that thousands of designers across the globe have interests similar to ours, and our expertise has apparently been good enough for them. From the very beginning, this criterion of utility has been the sacred premise of our work; it has defined and continues to define the nature of the content we publish.
Our readers often ask how we manage to read their minds: i.e. publish an in-depth article at the very moment they are looking for resources on that topic. We aim to deliver content that is useful and usable, so it’s no wonder that we publish articles the same day that some designers and developers start looking for them. Bottom line: we found our audience, and our readers have found a magazine that has helped them in their daily work. In the end, it has worked out simply because we had (and still have) a good understanding of what our readers need.
For this reason we decided to try out Twitter in August 2008 (which was actually very late). We were aware of various life-streaming applications and wanted to try one out and see how it worked. To be honest, we were skeptical at first but eventually got used to it. We experimented with the service, trying to figure out how we could use it to better communicate with our readers. In the end, we came up with various ideas that are all intended to more tightly integrate readers into Smashing Magazine’s daily routine.
We now share useful pointers on Twitter, as well as (hopefully) innovative ideas and personal insights behind the scenes. We also invite our Twitter followers to actively participate in the decision-making process. For instance, our followers can decide which articles are published next and suggest interesting ideas for future posts. We also follow up on our readers’ dilemmas and questions in the “Ask SM” section of the magazine. Twitter has become our main communication channel with our audience and has allowed us to learn more about our readers, get them involved and better anticipate their needs and interests.
Smashing Magazine in its early days. This is how our design looked like back in October 2006.
At Smashing Magazine, quality control has always played an enormous role, probably taking up over 50% of the time of preparing posts. We see it as our job to advocate for the readers’ interests and to make sure that our published articles are correct, useful and well presented. This last point explains why most posts take over 20 hours to prepare, correct, edit, revise, update and re-edit again and again, as often as it takes to come up with truly smashing results.
Posts take such a long time to prepare also because they are usually the combined work of a large group of people spread across the globe. We often work with additional contributors from Russia, Australia, Asia and South America to ensure a diversity of voices and uniqueness of content. We also try to incorporate the feedback of our Twitter followers. The editorial team thoroughly reviews each submission and then, if it accepts it, revises and adds to the original article.
Good is often not good enough, and our authors often notice as much from the numerous changes, additions and (hopefully) improvements introduced by the editorial team, even after they have submitted what may be a fifth version of an article. There is no “optimal” number of articles that we aim to publish each day, and we don’t care how prominent the author of an article is: our goal is to deliver high-quality content.
Unfortunately, our judgment occasionally misleads us, and we do make mistakes, whether by asking an author the wrong question or providing readers with the wrong answer. But we are aware of the responsibility that we carry for every single word and image that we publish. We gladly welcome every bit of constructive criticism, and all feedback helps us become wiser and stronger and avoid similar mistakes in future. We also continually review our guidelines for quality, improving and reworking them whenever necessary. We learn from our mistakes and are honest enough to admit and apologize for them, and we strive to get it right the next time, which is an important part of our philosophy.
Some of the icons released by Smashing Magazine between 2008 and 2009.
What may look like a rigid, demanding workflow is actually quite a creative and productive environment. In our experience, the initial communication with an author is critical to getting a great article, so we always encourage writers to ask questions and share their problems with us. We often suggest interesting points and directions to take that may not have occurred to the author.
It is important to us that our contributors feel comfortable with the topics they write about and are excited by the content. To avoid any misunderstandings during the writing process, we give authors a set of templates and a style guide outlining our requirements and expectations.
In turn, we do not restrict an author’s creativity with deadlines. It’s up to the author to decide how much time she or he needs for an article and how much effort to put into it. We know enough to appreciate great effort and dedication, which is why time-consuming, high-quality articles are often rewarded with generous payment bonuses. One of the core principles of our work is to treat our writers fairly. We never hesitate to reward authors for their good work; for instance, by paying them a tidy bonus for finishing their 10th article for Smashing Magazine. We spend a sizable amount of money on our writers, and we know they deserve every cent they get.
We also pay attention to quality content that our readers are interested in. Permanently useful articles and resources are bookmarked locally and globally, tagged and evaluated (some articles are prepared over several months, with a new tool or technique added to each one every day). It takes time to see connections between topics, determine the best format for an article, write it all down and pass it along to the writer, or write it ourselves. When browsing Web designs (either sent to us or found online), for instance, we pay attention to the smallest details, such as the design of the comment form, the placement of buttons, typography, layout and the alignment of design elements. We store them all in a library of original and creative ideas that later form the foundation of new posts.
One thing is clear: filtering the huge amount of information we both receive via RSS and Twitter is time-consuming, but investing a manageable 30 to 60 minutes every day pays off. Discovering new feeds is essential, and removing irrelevant ones is necessary, too. Many ask us how we find new content using the same sources. Well, we don’t use the same sources. We talk to people, we use Twitter, we use a number of international sources (Vitaly can read and write in English, German, Russian and Polish) and our international contributors help as well.
Around the middle of 2008, we received a lengthy email from a graphic design teacher in South Africa, who complained about the lack of educational materials in his area. He told us that every evening for a couple of months, he would select an article from Smashing Magazine and prepare it to be discussed in detail with his students. It was one of his ways of teaching the main principles of good graphic design. Aside from a couple of old library books, Smashing Magazine was his only resource for the course. His simple reason for writing was to express his and his students’ sincere gratitude to the design community for its tremendous support, its freely available articles and its outstanding engagement and readiness to help.
This remarkable email got us thinking: the community hasn’t always been this way. With the rise of design-related blogs and magazines, you are never alone today as a designer; someone is always there to help you. As designers, developers, publishers and readers, we should all recognize that the design community has passed a significant milestone in its development. We may not have noticed it, but we have all done a great job of connecting ourselves, sharing our passion and spreading the word about best design practices and useful tools and resources.
Perhaps the most incredible yet overlooked characteristic of the design community is its friendly, enthusiastic spirit. Every day now, literally thousands of talented, hard-working folks out there gain new insights from their work, come up with brilliant ideas and then share their experience with fellows designers. Nourished by the gratitude of its benefactors and powered by the reach of social networking, the design community has produced an enormous variety of high-quality articles, resources and tools, available to everybody. Every single contribution supports the whole community, and the community supports these contributors via traffic and word-of-mouth advertising–the networking effect at its best.
The truth is that Smashing Magazine could not exist without these contributions. The most important element of the magazine is and always has been our readers. And the magazine could not have become what it is today without the strong support and engagement of our authors, hundreds of contributors and the millions of people who have visited and recommended our magazine since its launch. Our job is not only to contribute to the design community but to help maintain this fertile environment in which ideas are born, insights are exchanged and discussions take place, making the lives of designers and developers easier and richer. You are the ones who set the wheels in motion and made it all possible. Every contribution, even the smallest, made a big difference. And we want you to know that we recognize that and that we respect you and appreciate your support. We’ll do our very best to stay true to that in future.
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