Meet Steven Snell, the Man Behind Vandelay Design, DesignM.ag and Traffikd
This week I had the opportunity to interview Steven Snell, the man behind Vandelay Design, DesignM.ag and Traffikd. I visit all three of his blogs fairly regularly and find them all to be excellent resources for design-related and social media information. In particular, I have found DesignM.ag’s “Community News” area to be a consistent source of traffic for my own website.
In this interview Steven offers some really interesting insights into the world of Design Blogging. I hope you enjoy this interview and when you’re finished reading it, be sure to visit Steven’s websites and connect with him using the social network of your choosing. Also, feel free to offer your insights into the best tablet for design in the comments. Steven is considering purchasing one for himself for Christmas.
Steven, I really appreciate your participation in this interview. Can you begin by explaining a little about your background? Where are you from? How did you get your start as a designer?
I’m originally from Pennsylvania, but I’m currently living in New Jersey in the Philadelphia suburbs. My educational background is in business, not in any type of design. My final semester of college I took an elective course on web design because the subject really interested me, and that’s where I got my start.
That course was pretty basic. By the end of the semester we could build a complete (but small) table-based website with a basic understanding of HTML. We didn’t even touch on CSS. Following that course I did a lot of reading on CSS and other web design basics. Books by Andy Budd and Dan Cederholm were probably the ones that taught me the most. I would also follow along with tutorials online to learn new things.
At that point I had one family member’s website that I was maintaining and I thought I would try to pick up some other clients to make some money part-time. Now I no longer have a full-time job, but I still don’t consider myself a full-time designer. Part of my time is spent working on design projects for clients, but my time is also split working on my own websites/blogs, and in the past year of been doing a lot of freelance blogging as well.
I am always interested in learning how successful design bloggers got their start. How did you fall into the world of Design Blogging?
I started the blog at Vandelay Design because I knew my small portfolio site would never attract any significant traffic on its own. I didn’t really know anything at all about blogging or social media at the time, but I knew that having some articles on the site would give me a chance to draw some search engine visitors. That’s really the only reason I started the blog, just as a way to publish articles.
At that point since the blog was aiming to attract search traffic it didn’t really have much of a clear purpose in terms of the content. Articles were on various topics that I thought potential clients might search for when they were doing some research on building a site or hiring a designer.
Later on I started publishing a few posts that were more relevant to designers themselves as opposed to potential clients. At the same time I was starting to do some reading about social media marketing, and all of a sudden traffic started to come. It literally went from 20 visitors one day to 2,000 the next. From that point on I had a new purpose for the blog and posting regularly became a priority. As the traffic came I also started to get more inquiries for work, which was my original purpose.
There are a lot of design blogs out there. Why do you think that your blog has become so popular? At what point did you realize that blogging had really started to pay off for you and your business?
Well, I don’t really think of my blog as being very popular. There are so many others that have much bigger audiences. The success that has been achieved by the blog is due to providing content that readers want to see. After about six months of active blogging I had just over 1,000 subscribers and traffic levels were ok, but at that point I analyzed my stats for the six months and re-focused the content. Prior to that point I had been publishing posts on web design, blogging, and social media marketing. But when I looked at the stats over a longer period of time it was pretty clear that people responded better to the design content. So I decided to stop publishing the other stuff and build a focused audience of people who wanted the design-related content. That’s when things really started to grow exponentially.
I think the point when I realized that the blog had real potential for my business was when I started getting leads through the site as a result of blog traffic. Now it pays off for me in a different way. I still get the leads, but I have also decided to monetize the blog by selling banner ads. Early on I thought there was no way I would ever sell ads on the blog, I just wanted it to promote my services. But after a while I was spending more time on the blog than I could justify without directly making some income. Now I see the ad income as a way of paying myself for the time that I spend on the blog content, and generating design leads is not my primary focus.
What role has social media played in your blog’s success?
Social media has been one of the biggest influences on my blog. As I mentioned earlier, that was how I first started getting significant traffic. I didn’t really know anything about blogging, so I didn’t do much commenting or networking at that point, so traffic was non-existent before social media.
Although I had some minor successes with social media early on, my biggest hit came in September of 2007 (about two or three months into active and consistent blogging) with the post 77 Resources to Simplify Your Life as a Web Designer. That post was intended to draw Delicious bookmarks, but it also got submitted to Digg by a user that had some influence and it wound up on the front page. From that point on my blog has never been the same.
Tell us a little about your work flow. How much time do you spend blogging? Do you get much time to work on your personal or professional projects?
I’m still trying to work out a consistent schedule that allows me to do everything I want and need to do. In the past I would spend evenings and weekends blogging, but now that it actually makes money for me I give it more of a priority.
I generally mix in all different kinds of work (blogging for my own sites, freelance blogging, and design work for clients), so it’s hard to say how it’s allocated. The past few months I’ve been writing for Smashing Magazine, and those posts take a considerable amount of time.
I wish I had more time to work on personal projects. I launched DesignM.ag in July and I still haven’t been able to get some of the things done that I wanted to do right away. I have some other projects that I want to pursue, but I’m forcing myself to hold off until my other sites get the attention they need.
Ultimately, I see my long-term future as being more of a website owner than a designer. It kind of goes back to my background in business. My interest is in running an online business (or a few of them) and design has just been a part of that. I’m not a really artistic person that needs that type of creativity as an outlet.
Tell us a little about your workspace. Do you prefer messy or neat? Mac or PC? Do you work with a tablet? Single or dual monitors?
I prefer clean, but it doesn’t usually look that way. Right now I have a small office in my house and I also go to a local library to work sometimes just to get out of the house and get in a different environment. Usually I spend a good bit of the morning working on the couch with ESPN on the TV.
I use a PC just because that’s what I used in school and that’s what I’m used to. Maybe one of these days I’ll buy a Mac. I only use one monitor, again that’s just out of habit. I probably should try two. In some ways I like having one because I try to work with things like email, social media and Twitter closed to avoid distractions. I feel like with two monitors that wouldn’t work so well.
At this point I don’t work with a tablet, but it’s funny you ask. I’ve just been doing some research this week on different tablets because I thinking of getting one as a Christmas gift to myself and my business. Any recommendations?
Do you use any non-Adobe tools that you would like to share with us? Any Photoshop or Illustrator plug-ins that you find valuable?
I use BlogDesk (an offline editor) for writing and saving blog posts. I really prefer that to working in the WordPress dashboard in most cases. I also use Delicious every day for bookmarking. Those aren’t really design tools but they’re part of my daily work.
Are there any web services that you cannot live without?
I guess Delicious would have fit better here. I’ve been using Twitter a little more recently, although I wouldn’t say I can’t live without it. At first I hated Twitter, but it’s starting to grow on me. FreshBooks is my choice for invoicing.
Earlier I mentioned your personal and professional projects. Are there any exciting projects that you’re currently working on that you’d like to share with my readers?
I’m working on a re-design for DesignM.ag. The current design was done in a bit of a rush to get the site live and I was going to make some tweaks to it later, but I decided it needed something more significant. Hopefully that will be done around the start of 2009 if not sooner.
What would you consider your “dream” project?
My dream project would be to manage a small network of sites that could support me and my wife full-time with the option of doing client work on the side. That would include designing the sites, marketing them and developing content. Ideally I’d like to be able to hire some freelancers to help me with those things.
Which designers have influenced you the most? Are there any areas of design that you would like to experiment with?
I mentioned earlier that I read books by Andy Budd and Dan Cederholm, so I would say they were big influences because I was just getting started. I read other stuff too, but they were the most helpful.
As far as experimentation goes, I think designing album covers would be fun. That’s probably because I like music so that interests me more than other types of design.
What advice would you give to any aspiring designer or blogger looking to make it in the industry?
Take action. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started (and you could argue that I still don’t), but I was willing to take action and put in the time and effort. Blogging was extremely uncomfortable for me at first, especially writing for other blogs, because I don’t like the thought of other people reading what I’m writing. But I got over my fears and hesitations because I saw something I wanted. Now I have a fun job that allows me a lot of freedom.
Which do you prefer? iPhone or Blackberry?
I’ve never owned either. I hate talking on the phone and text messaging, and I’m usually within reach of a desktop or a laptop, so I don’t have much need for one at this point. My friends that have an iPhone always complain about it dropping calls and the battery dying too quickly, so that doesn’t make me want to get one. I have a basic Samsung cell phone and it does everything I need for now. I’ll probably upgrade in 2009 when my contract runs out.
(Editor’s note: The score is now 4-0-1. I am still waiting to interview a Blackberry user in the design community.)
Vandelay Design is the primary website and blog Steve. It is Steven’s oldest and most “successful” of all his sites.
A social media and Internet blog that Steven set up in February of 2008 that is updated weekly.
Designm.ag is another design blog that Steven started in July of 2008. Designm.ag was created in response to Steve’s desire to offer more services and features to his readers that might not be appropriate to display on Vandelay Design such as a gallery, community news, and a job board.
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