In an industry defined by frequent pivots and trend-based design, Tumblr has remained impressively consistent throughout its seven-year history. The past four years have been particularly stable: while the product has been consistently refined, Tumblr circa 2009 bears great resemblance to Tumblr circa 2013.
The man responsible for the product’s design direction is Peter Vidani. Under Vidani’s guidance as Creative Director, the product has grown into a social juggernaut while still retaining its design integrity. Tumblr currently hosts over 102 million blogs, is a major player in the social sphere, and is a key component of offline cultural events such as New York Fashion Week: despite all this, it still feels personal and intimate.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Vidani at Tumblr’s Manhattan headquarters, where we discussed design consistency, mobile apps, and the importance of learning from other products:
JK: You’ve been with Tumblr for several years now. How has it changed since you’ve arrived?
PV: The product itself hasn’t changed much the past four years. I think we got a lot of the features right in the beginning, and the challenge that we face now is to accommodate our enormous growth in users and new technology while still keeping the product really small. We come back to that a lot: making sure Tumblr feels small. We do that through consistency in design, by reusing elements, by putting as few things on the screen as possible, and by asking users to do as little as possible at once. By following these rules and this philosophy, you can grow and mature a product while still making it feel like a very simple thing to understand.
JK: You’ve gone from being in a design role to being both a designer and manager, heading up a whole team of designers. What has that been like for you?
PV: It’s great. There’s something I really love about designing alongside of people. It’s really healthy to have that feedback readily available to you, to develop a language that you can use among the team, to hand something off to someone that’s better at it than you would be. Managing and designing can be a challenge, but I work with people on my team who are more than able to own a project by themselves and need very little oversight along the way. Very little hand-holding. Very capable and very experienced people. So, I’m lucky there.
JK: Before you joined Tumblr, you were a theme designer, right?
PV: Yes. Before I started working here I was a theme designer, before there was even a theme garden hosted on Tumblr. There were very few of us doing it at first, so we could put our name out there on Tumblr.com. We got a lot of people using our themes. Tumblr hasn’t stopped growing since then, but it was a very fast-growing company, it was really exciting. I got a little bit of attention there, and then I started at Tumblr as a contractor doing themes while still living in Wisconsin, for movies and companies and then when I moved here I did that for a while before moving into the product.
JK: What aspect of Tumblr’s design are you most proud of?
PV: I think we have a pretty restrained interface. That’s really difficult to do. Every time I see another product, or a way that any of our peers in the industry is innovating, we immediately think how we could use that ourselves. It’s worked out for us to watch those ideas mature elsewhere, or sometimes put them in immediately ourselves, but having that restraint in what we put in front of users is something that I’m proud of.
JK: Facebook’s new newsfeed bears some resemblance to the Tumblr dashboard. What do you think of that?
PV: It’s honestly very flattering. If there are ever any similarities between a similar product and our own, it’s because it’s too new an industry for us to avoid copying each other from the outset. This is too new an art form for us to say “there’s one right way to do it,” or “this is the way it should be for the next fifty years.” We’re all very quickly innovating and finding out what’s right and what’s wrong, we’re changing the faces of these interfaces, because we’re iterating and looking at what the others are doing, and we’re all using each other’s products and coming up with something that’s much better as a whole.
In this example, with Facebook supposedly looking like Tumblr, that’s kind of obvious. I think it looks really good, and they got rid of a lot of the clutter that they had been building up before on their homepage. I think it was smart of them to make photos bigger and give more prominence to the avatars. I think they just cleaned it up as a whole. We shouldn’t feel ashamed about doing that, or hold it against one another, because we’ve all done it plenty of times ourselves. It’s good if it happens to you because it means you’re doing something right.
JK: In the past year or so, the Tumblr mobile app has gotten a lot more robust.
PV: We put out 3.0 in June, and then we had our iPad app come out right before Christmas, and then more recently we had a significant release with our camera.
When we launched we used an iOS web view, since the way iOS requires you to write code makes it really difficult for something like a Tumblr post to show up natively. There are so many things that a Tumblr post can be it’s not guaranteed to be a photo and text and a username. In the post field there’s basically the whole browser rendering capability block quotes, links, all this rich text and so for us to implement that natively is a huge challenge, but we did it with 3.0. That, to me, is when the app really started to feel comparable to the website. It was something where, on the weekend, if I was on the couch and I had my phone and I had my computer in the room, whichever was closer to me would be fine for using Tumblr. More often than not, it is my phone. That sort of legitimized Tumblr on the iPhone for me when it started to feel like an app and scroll really nice and look really sharp, and have those really nice transitions. Then, we had all this huge demand for the iPad app which we put out right before Christmas. We did something with the camera, double-tap for like, and Photoset creation.
JK: The whole experience feels very consistent.
PV: That’s kind of a goal for me this year: to unify every experience that you can have on Tumblr in terms of design in hierarchy, iconography, colors, and how the product feels. When we build the app compared to the web, should those things be different, or should they be the same? If you’re in line at a store versus at a desk, maybe somebody should be focusing on the phone rather than focusing on the web, and so we’ll think about the experience specific to the desk. I wanted to remove any inconsistencies that make the two feel like different products. I don’t want one to feel like an app and one to feel like a website, I want them both to just feel like Tumblr. You should have the same feeling and the same experience no matter where you’re experiencing it.
JK: What advice would you give to aspiring designers?
PV: It’s hard for me to say. Coming back to the other point, this is so new. I guess, because it’s so new, there’s more opportunity to come into it and say “this is what I think, this is what I believe is correct” because there isn’t a certain standard yet and there isn’t a defined aesthetic yet. I don’t know much about starting a company, and I don’t really know about starting a project from scratch, but I do know that when you’re first starting out you shouldn’t feel bad at all about copying or stealing from the people around you. That’s the only way I know to become creatively stronger. Just to pretend that I am somebody that I admire, and ask myself what would they do in a situation. I can’t sit down and say, “what would Peter do,” since I can’t answer the question because Peter has never done this before. Peter would probably just panic and leave the room because he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. But someone like so-and-so who’s working at Apple who I admire, they might do this, and then you start repeating that exercise over and over, and before you know it you’re mining the experiences from people you admire into something that is more your own, and you start inventing things yourself, and these people go from someone you admire to your peers because you’re alongside them inventing. Don’t feel ashamed at copying the people around you. Nobody’s going to call you out on it, because no one really cares as much as you do about that stuff.
JK: Who are some designers that you admire?
PV: I like Tim Van Damme, I like Mike Matas, I like Loren Brichter. Loren Brichter is the whole package; he did Letterpress. I would love to be someone like that he’s completely independent and writes the software himself. Letterpress wasn’t even written in the traditional manner, it was entirely in OpenGL. It’s like, to build this table, instead of going out and buying some wood he went out and grew a tree. That’s a terrible analogy. [laughs] He just took the hard road. I like those guys a lot. There are so many people whose names I don’t know. I love the app Fantastical, I love whoever’s doing Mailbox, Facebook does a lot of really good stuff, they’re really outstanding at staying consistent. I don’t know a lot of names, just apps that I admire, that I’d like to copy, that I become jealous of. Like, “I wish I’d thought of that.” Mailbox is one of them. It’s such a brilliant way to look at email.
JK: Dropbox just bought them.
PV: Dropbox too… they’re so good.
JK: What’s your favorite Tumblr blog?
PV: Sexpigeon. And I hired him. I like every single thing he posts. I always want to tell him, but I try to be cool about it. [laughs] What about you?
JK: I like Humans of New York.
PV: He’s been here a few times. We got to collaborate with him. My mom follows him, which is like a breach of something.
JK: You guys are big in the fashion scene now.
PV: Yeah. I believe this was our fourth Fashion Week. It works so well. One, we’re in New York, but also Tumblr is so perfect for something like that: it’s very visual and we have a hugely creative audience.
Thanks to Peter Vidani for taking the time to speak with us!