Static wireframes and Copenhagen booksellers

Belarussian Vitaly Friedman was one of the speaker’s at this year’s ColdFront conference. He has a long career as a web designer behind him and is today editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine. Here, he speaks about the trends that are dominating the developer community right now – and why he likes to study old books and Japanese web design.

Vitaly Friedman, who is originally from Minsk in Belarus, moved to Germany to study computer science in the 1990s. Here he developed the deep passion for typography and design that he would later draw on as a freelance designer and developer. Although he flirted briefly with back-end development, he was – he claims – so terribly bad at it that he quickly returned to his beloved world of front-end.

In 2006, Vitaly co-founded the online publication Smashing Magazine, which focusses on web design and web development. Today, he shares his knowledge by writing articles, holding workshops and participating in conferences. He is also the co-author and publisher of a number of books on web design in the Smashing Books series.

Performance, performance, performance

According to Vitaly Friedman, if there’s one topic that’s hot in the developer community right now, it’s performance. Which is good, he emphasizes. Because we need to be focussed on how quickly a website loads and presents content to the user. For example, on e-commerce sites.

“I’ve seen many studies which prove that if you can shave just a few hundreds of milliseconds off response time by tweaking a bit here and there, conversion rates increase considerably. But in terms of content, this focus on performance causes challenges in relation to the architecture you build, just as it also raises some purely physical challenges in relation to placement of servers.

erformance is about getting priorities right; content over presentation, and make it accessible to all visitors—as quickly as possible. And that’s something a lot of people are working on right now,” explains Vitaly Friedman.

From wireframes to systems

In addition, he also sees a tendency in the design community that is well on the way to shaking up the traditional design process.

“Traditionally, the process for designing something like a product page for an e-commerce page has been to start by designing three or four mock-ups of the product page in static wireframes, with headers, footers, product presentations, ratings, and so on. You show these mock-ups to the client, who then decides on a design, which you then use as the basis for the next phase of development,” says Vitaly Friedman.

“Now everyone is talking about moving away from designing pages to designing systems instead. This shift will have an incredibly large influence on the way we build and design websites in the future,” he concludes.

The demand for responsive design

One of Vitaly Friedman’s main points in relation to the transition from page-based design to components-based design is the demand for responsive design that is a set of techniques that allow content to scale and adapt for different screens, on a wide range of devices. Very often, this can include mobile phones, tables, desktops, laptops and TV screens. The realities of this user environment makes life difficult for designers, who have to show their clients how a website will look on all of these different devices. This takes time, and time is money in a development phase.

“Whereas previously you only needed to show the client three different mock-ups of a page – just how it would look on a desktop – today, you have to prepare three different mockups — one for every “major” form factor, like mobile, tablet, desktop. This can mean up to fifteen mock-ups per development phase. This makes the workflow between designer and client much too complex,” explains Vitaly Friedman.

“So what web designers are trying to do now is to systematize the design phase into categories. In other words, the designer attempts to identify the most important components on the website first, and different versions of these are shown to the client. When the most important components are in place, you go on to the next components, and in this way, you gradually build up the entire site. It’s a completely different process than if you show the client the entire page with all of its components at once.”

Vitaly Friedman explains that the look of the key components often gives the designer (and the client) a visual direction to follow in the rest of the process. And what’s more important, fewer expensive mock-ups are necessary. At least in theory. Because in reality, according to Vitaly Friedman, this system-based design process is far from common in the business, even though many people agrees that this is the most effective approach.

“There’s no standard framework for this kind of development, no one has found the key to a perfect responsive workflow yet. Add to that the fact that over the last ten to fifteen years, we’ve gotten our clients used to looking at mock-ups of the preliminary results in all design processes. It takes time to change their mind-set,” says Vitaly Friedman.

‘Mobile first’ in Japan

In addition to his work as editor and creative first-mover in a variety of developer forums, Vitaly Friedman also helps businesses of all sizes with all kinds of usability and front-end challenges. To solve these challenges, he often finds inspiration on Chinese and Japanese websites.

“I don’t speak a word of Chinese or Japanese, but I love looking at their web design. From a European perspective, Japanese websites can appear extremely complex, because they’re so colorful and content-rich. But at the same time, it’s interesting that the Japanese have a distinctly ‘mobile first’ strategy, which means that all of their websites are developed with a primary focus on mobile users. We can learn a lot from that in Europe. I also like old movie posters, street signs, libraries and book shops when I’m looking for inspiration. You can find really beautiful fonts and unusual layouts in a book shop. So if you see someone standing in a book shop leafing through books for hours on end, it’s probably me.”

In-house training

Besides being the editor-in-chief on Smashing Magazine, Vitaly also runs in-house training and consultation for UX/front-end and performance optimization of responsive websites.

Smashing Magazine

Was founded in 2006 by
Vitaly Friedman and Sven Lennartz.
This online magazine is a great source of useful and innovative information for both web designers and developers.
You can find Smashing Magazine here: