Vedran Židanik has been a designer for 12 years, of which he has been intensively researching and designing digital products such as mobile applications and websites for the last 10 years. In his design beginnings at Proximity, BBDO’s sister agency, he collaborated with some of the leading domestic digital designers, and this collaboration continued at Kombinat, an award-winning design team of which he was one of the founders. He continued his career at the digital agency Five, where he soon took on the role of lead designer, working with clients such as Squarespace, Napster, Ministry of Sound, Rosetta Stone, Microsoft, T-Mobile and Real Networks. As a designer at a development agency, his mission was to bridge the gap between design and implementation, help the agency transition to a greater focus on design, and share knowledge and experience with a growing community of digital designers through workshops and lectures. He continued his career in Seattle, where he developed digital products of the Real Networks design team as its head. Then he established the Supernormal studio, under which he develops digital products, introduces design systems and organizes design teams for international clients such as Rover, Numbrs, iinfluence and others. He has won several awards, including the first prize at the Exhibition of Croatian Design 1314 for the digital platform Flaster.
OM: At the Exhibition of Croatian Design 1314, you won the award for the self-initiated project Flaster (Vedran Židanik, Elvis Mehmedović, Martina Nemčić, Tomislav Grbin) in the same category in which you are a member of the jury this year. The idea of your app was to create a platform for citizens who want to see positive change in their city. How can digital design involve people in bringing about social change? What do you think is most important in creating such a platform?
VŽ: Given how we access information today and how much we do it through digital platforms, I would say that digital design is key in the process of catalyzing social change. We can see this at the local level, but also in the examples of major changes in America and around the world, where cell phone recordings on social media play a key role in the fight against racism and police violence. Hyperlocal journalism and the liberalization of information, topics that Flaster addressed, have led to a new level of transparency and allowed people to participate much more directly in creating or fostering change. The challenges for such platforms are also evident, since they make the spread of misinformation, pseudo-scientific theories and similar dangerous information easier than ever before. The communication platforms and tools we use today were created when it was not yet completely clear to anyone how crucial they would become for the functioning of society. Facebook and future similar platforms will have to take their role seriously and accept responsibility, and in the future be fundamentally (re)designed to reduce the possibility of abuse. This is a civilizational, not just a technological challenge.
OM: Although Flaster could help patch up many of Zagreb’s streets this year, we can’t find it in Croatia today. Why couldn’t the app come to life? Did the obstacles you encountered motivate you to create a version of it for the U.S. market?
VŽ: Flaster is a project we embarked on out of love for the city and the enthusiasm that carried us when we saw and heard the reactions after the launch. People accepted the platform, constantly reported problems and offered solutions, it was all over Croatia and beyond. We imagined the application and communication on it in both directions – citizens report problems, offer solutions, and city services accept them, solve them transparently and provide feedback. Of course, this was our first experience in trying to work with cities and city services, without which the platform would not make sense. We were a bit naive in thinking that cities would simply embrace a (free) platform that makes it easier to communicate with citizens, but the exact opposite happened. We were in negotiations with several cities, but in the end nothing happened, so we gradually lost our enthusiasm. Some local representatives explained to us that we started just before the local elections and that though Flaster was a great project they did not know if they would still be in their positions in a few months to push the project further.
By going to America, the motivation to continue working on Flaster, renamed PatchUp, returned. At one of the startup gatherings we participated in, someone brought something to our attention we hadn’t considered before – cities don’t want such transparency because it would expose the failures, sluggishness and incompetence of public administrations. In America, the project did not eventually develop beyond the initial MVP and collection of patches (there are more than we expected in several parts of America), but we did not regret a moment invested in it. After all, you never know, times are much different and more dynamic now. It certainly makes sense to refine the project in a slightly different direction, release it once again into the world and leave it in the hands of active citizens, thus helping them to connect, enter into a dialogue, identify problems and shape common solutions. Perhaps that is the future of Flaster.
OM: Many years of experience as a freelancer are behind you, but you also have a lot of experience working for successful international agencies, including the Croatian-American Agency Five, where you worked as the lead designer. How much of your experience working for large agencies has taught you discipline, teamwork, and business skills? Would you recommend such an experience to younger colleagues who are just entering the world of digital and interactive design?
VŽ: I think working in digital agencies is an important experience for every designer, particularly at the beginning of their career. Design is an inclusive activity in which good communication, learning how to work within multidisciplinary teams, organization and respect for the process, coping with estimates and deadlines, understanding business decisions, people’s needs and much more are of the greatest value. All of these skills can be acquired in other ways, but larger and better digital agencies offer it all in one place. Various circumstances in recent years have led designers to work more independently today. Despite some shortcomings of agency work, I would still recommend designers to work in agencies for a while, and then maybe in companies that develop their own products. In my opinion, this is an ideal start to a career because in agencies I can develop my scope and range, while by working on products I can go more in-depth. After these experiences, designers are ready for any future challenges.
“Digital products are like a living organism. They need to be constantly worked on, refined, fed with information and improved.”
OM: What is more pronounced in the field of design you are engaged with than in any other field is the constant variability. If you recall your own beginnings in this business, can you tell me how much the industry has changed? What is needed to maintain quality, how to stay relevant and interesting to clients?
VŽ: Like any branch of design, digital design is evolving in line with changes in the environment and technology. What is specific to digital design is that digital technologies are evolving faster than anything else we have known so far. What may have changed for the better, perhaps more due to market needs than due to greater education or sensibility, is the understanding of how important good interface design is. Owing to influential methodologies such as the design sprint, the design process has become much more transparent and inclusive. Today, clients are involved in the process from the beginning, actively participate in making informed decisions and shape the product this way, and the biggest focus is on improving business operations. It will always be relevant and interesting for clients if you solve their problem in an elegant and creative way and help them achieve their goals.
Not only has the industry changed, but the industry is changing and shaping the world – but is still little known. For example, design has been presented to the world through various film or documentary forms for decades, but digital design, although it is the most widespread and popular form of design today, has only recently been covered in more detail on Netflix, alongside other fields of design. The documentary film Abstract, by presenting Ian Spalter, chief designer at Instagram, the design of digital products was first presented in such a way, which tells me that the importance of the industry is finally being recognized in the mainstream as well. I hope that there will be even more of this, and especially that there will be even more criticism and questioning of the industry from outside because I consider this healthy for its development.
OM: The job of a user interface designer involves at least a minimal knowledge of other disciplines that help him or her create a product whose focus is on meeting user needs. Among the aspects that need to be considered are psychology, ergonomics, programming and others, but the designers themselves emphasize that their job is to solve problems and create accessible and simple interfaces. How much preparation and research does it take before you start designing a site or application? What is your favorite stage in the entire process?
VŽ: This, of course, depends on the project. Sometimes more, sometimes less research and preparation is needed. This is another aspect that has improved over time. Of course, my favourite thing is to finally start designing the interface, but I equally enjoy talking to users (which there is often not enough of) and developing the end product itself since this involves collaborating with program developers and resolving issues during the implementation. Psychology plays a big role in the research and development stage of the user experience because the design must be functional and predict user behaviour on the website or application and help users move through them easily and comfortably, with as little frustration as possible.
Feedback on digital products comes very quickly, everything is measured and, fortunately, it is easy to iterate and refine the product if we know how to translate the data we obtained into specific steps. In addition, digital products are like a living organism. They need to be constantly worked on, refined, fed with information and improved. This is precisely why, as digital designers, we also have a great moral responsibility to users; we need to create the time we need to deliberate the products we develop thoroughly. The process is ongoing and involves listening to, and reading and learning from a wide variety of sources; as soon as you get the assignment, you need to start thinking about a solution that will be useful, accessible, inclusive and that will add value to someone’s life.
OM: The fact that it is now self-understood that other disciplines are involved in the daily work of UX and UI designers highlights the factor of interdisciplinarity, now increasingly emphasized in the world of design. The knowledge of a user interface designer is needed not just in the digital, but also in the “analogue” world – what we would call product design, even though mobile applications and websites are also products. How important is it for you to collaborate with experts from other fields?
VŽ: Cooperation with experts from different fields is crucial. Designers today, especially in digital design, encounter so many different projects that it would be impossible to create a quality product without the cooperation of experts from other industries. Usually, such knowledge is gained in the research stage of the project, most often in conversations with clients who already have certain knowledge and experience relevant to understanding the problem at hand and finding the best solution. Digital design is open to everyone – the project often involves copywriters, writers, psychologists, engineers, illustrators, animators, various film artists and musicians. It is rare to find a branch of design in which the design process is as open as in digital design. This goes to the extent that modern design tools allow multiple people to work on the same site at the same time. Just as it is frightening to share your written document with someone else who can comment on and edit it (via Google Docs, for instance), sharing the design process with others – designers and non-designers alike – is equally frightening at first. However, such openness in the long run helps designers learn that it is okay to show, not only the end product, but also the process, and leads to fewer misunderstandings and better results.
OM: Today, digital designer education is more accessible than ever. It is often pointed out that higher education institutions find it difficult to keep up with everyday changes in the profession; so many designers have to find additional training “on the fly”. How important is university education in technical fields for successful digital design? Do the schools give priority to the work experience?
VŽ: It is, unfortunately, true that higher education institutions lag behind the needs of the market. Design studies, not only in our country, are often too sluggish, they cannot cope with the needs of designers and the market. This is why in digital design, more than in other branches, there are many designers who are – either completely – or partially self-educated. Outside of Croatia, there are examples of schools that might be able to cope better with these challenges thanks to more contemporary modular programs that give students more choices and can change faster.
My study program was in the field of technology, but my interests have always been at the intersection of design and technology, so I also had a natural curiosity that has brought me into the world of digital design, which is located at this very intersection. The role of technical knowledge, such as programming, is secondary in my opinion, but still very important. Technical education has helped me a lot in my work, especially in communicating with developers and understanding the possibilities and limitations they face. In addition to this, when someone notices an interest in and understanding of what they are doing, a different atmosphere of collaboration is created. The same happens when someone who is not a designer shows interest in and a sensibility for design. On the other hand, expecting a designer to be able to develop a product she or he has designed is unrealistic nowadays, even potentially adverse. Taking a step back from implementation allows designers to make decisions for the benefit of the user, rather than on the basis of their own technical constraints.
OM: Often, client education is crucial for creating a good product and placing it on the market. How much are you willing to give in to the wishes and requirements of clients? Do you try to explain to clients why a different approach is better, both for them and for the product?
VŽ: Design is always a compromise, but it’s important to show clients why something is good or bad. Today, there are processes we use to educate clients, but also to demonstrate the impact of our solutions and decisions. If the design is approached in a good way, the process is extremely inclusive and transparent and this makes it easier to work with clients. It is very difficult to convince someone of something with just one’s own opinion because – everyone has one. This is why design sprints and similar techniques are used in digital design, as part of which prototypes are created that are tested on potential or existing users. The results are usually recorded and analyzed so that everyone has insight into the quality of a solution.
OM: Among your most successful works is the LaLa Lunchbox application, which received very positive comments shortly after its release. The idea of creating healthy eating habits in children is developed through meal planning options. The application had to be adapted so that children and parents can use it together. In such cases, when the target group consists of a community of different generations, what is important to focus on? What do you consider the most important factor that made this app interesting to children?
VŽ: Designing for different age groups has its own specificities, and when these have to be combined into one product it is even more challenging. It is important to understand who will use the app and how. It is important for children that it is fun, otherwise it will not be interesting to them and they will lose interest. It is important for adults that the application helps them solve a problem in the shortest time possible, that it is simple and that it fits into their, usually chaotic day. In the case of LaLa Lunchbox, the app used game elements in the basic interface for kids, and in the background offered a simple shopping list for parents, with certain additional functionalities that make it easier for them to buy groceries and plan meals for kids. The product was based on the know-how of a client who studies children’s nutrition, and even the characters I illustrated had to get the children’s stamp of approval, which was not easy, so I had to change them several times before they were accepted. 🙂
OM: After the experience of working in the USA, in 2018 you established your own studio Supernormal in Croatia. Given your American experience, do you feel a change in the way you do business after your return to Croatia?
VŽ: When I was working in agencies and as an in-house designer in Croatia, I worked mostly with American clients, so, in a way, I was already familiar with the American work culture. However, it was only by actually living and working in America that I witnessed this culture directly and, I must admit, I got accustomed to it easily. The atmosphere of respect, esteem and celebration of diversity is something that we certainly lack. Also, I am much more sensitive to the challenges that women face in the business world today, I am much more aware of my male and white privileges, and I am actively working to be a loud and proactive ally to women and other minorities in the industry. If America has taught me anything, it is that I cannot wait for things to change on their own, but that I must actively work on creating the change myself. I have my male privilege and it is my responsibility to use it, in my business and private life, in a way that will empower those less privileged. As for work, the challenges of clients are quite similar, and the people I work with in Croatia are equally, if not more talented, creative and motivated.
OM: Despite the growing popularity of interactive design and digital media design, it seems to me that the general understanding of what you do is still at a very low level in Croatia. This seems to be all the more true when it comes to interaction design, and when English compounds are used, which are difficult to translate into Croatian while meaningfully conveying the true meaning of the term. In your experience, what is the real perception of interaction design in Croatia? Is the situation any different in America?
VŽ: I think you are right, the understanding of interactive design is still poor. It’s certainly getting better, as I already mentioned – it is gradually entering the mainstream. Still, when you mention that you design software, the first thing that people think of is programming. I don’t know why the perception is so skewed, perhaps it speaks to the design community’s lack of openness to the mainstream audience.
Even in the design community, digital design is the least represented, not to mention the schools. Perhaps this is why we do not have suitable translations for many English terms. Designers will quickly embrace the term they use in their daily work, and as these terms are often not studied or used in academic circles, designers have nowhere to hear the Croatian version. It’s hard for me to say what the perception of interactive design is in America because America is incredibly different, and I lived in Seattle which is a bubble and where almost everyone works in the tech industry. This America is, of course, a mecca for digital designers, whereas the schools, even the “weaker” ones, prepare students much better for the real needs of the market. I believe this is because schools are expensive and anyone who invests so much money in their education expects that the chosen school will equip them with all the skills needed for an incredibly competitive job market. Also, schools want to respond to the needs of the market so they create good programs that will attract students. All together it seems very practical, logical and accessible, which is what design should be, unlike the often elitist approach I notice here.
OM: According to a recent Eurostat survey, young people in Croatia were named the most digitally literate in the European Union. Nevertheless, the skills examined in the survey should be considered basic. What do you think about the general education of primary and secondary school students when it comes to IT? Should additional steps be taken to train young people to work in the digital 21st century?
VŽ: My impression is that the computer literacy level of young people is average. In a way, although they use software more than any previous generation due to their use of cell phones and mobile apps, of which they use very few most of the time, I think they lack a more advanced computer literacy. When I got my first computer, I had neither a cell phone nor Internet, but it was these limitations that led me to research and learn things I might not otherwise have to. Young people today may be lacking this in general because the technology is commodified to a maximum degree. In the short term, however, I think that the school system is too sluggish to be in line with the development of technology, so young people are still left to themselves and the Internet and their curiosity and resourcefulness. Perhaps the solution is partly in extracurricular programs (such as the after-school enrichment programs in the US) which, in cooperation with schools and approved by the Ministry, should be implemented by qualified organizations. Children and young people certainly need to be trained to work in the 21st century, but for that to happen, we must first put in positions of power people who have entered the 21st century themselves (compared to what we have today) and who are generally capable of recognizing the challenges young people face today.
“Digital design will only continue to strengthen, and what I see as a challenge for designers is the conservative and closed society in which they live and work.”
OM: This year you are one of the members of the jury of the biennial Exhibition of Croatian Design 19/20. Since this interview takes place while submissions are still coming in, can you tell us what you expect from the submitted works? What do you consider to be good design?
VŽ: I hope the number of submissions is much greater than in previous years, especially when it comes to digital design. I feel like digital design designers have always been a bit neglected by the Croatian Designers Association, which is why they don’t easily participate in competitions. This is not something that happened by design, it’s just that the circle of people around the Association has always been more focused on graphic and even industrial design, and less on digital design. I would often hear fellow designers say they have a very negative attitude towards digital design, believing it to be less valuable than other fields of design. This, too, is changing. Recently, representatives from the industry were invited to a meeting to discuss ways to involve digital design in the activities of the Croatian Designers Association more, which is a great start and I think we will see a lot more activities like this in the future. Sometimes we seem to ignore that digital media is just that – another type of media that has its own specificities, limitations and values, and that quality design in this medium is just as valuable as any other.
OM: There is often talk of the marginalization of culture and the arts, particularly in the challenging year that is still ahead of us. What would you single out as the biggest problems that designers face in Croatia today? What do you see as the future of Croatian design?
VŽ: Even in this challenging year, in my experience and looking at the market, digital designers have had more work to do than ever before. This year has revealed many of the problems we have as a society, but it has also accelerated digitalization and brought it closer to what we expect from a modern state. What I recognize as a potential problem is not marginalization – in digital design I do not believe that there is any conscious marginalization going on. The problem seems more to be that due to insufficient knowledge the industry is left to its own devices to develop and regulate itself – this is precisely why we have this (as indicated above) meta-language, not fully understood by people outside of the field.
Digital design will only continue to strengthen, and what I see as a challenge for designers is the conservative and closed society in which they live and work, and I think this is very pronounced in software design. Today, digital designers work a lot on foreign projects, but they have a Croatian perspective that is still not inclusive enough, so we lack sensitivity to different people and their needs. Digital design in the world is undergoing major changes and designers are required to be much more involved in the current problems of society. I think this can already be seen in the employment process of top companies, and it will certainly be even more pronounced in the near future. Designers from smaller, more conservative backgrounds, such as Croatia, will be in a weaker position. We can counteract this to some extent through a wider education and self-education, with the aim of increasing empathy for as wide a circle of people as possible. The core of design as a discipline is empathy, and empathy is nourished by new ideas, knowledge and experiences.