Co.Design

How Tumblr Created A Design Culture With No Design Team

Tumblr's about to grow its design staff to two. How can the company be design-centric, when so few designers work there?

Thanks to the Clients from Hell, the Rules for My Unborn Son, and the Sad Don Drapers, the blogging platform Tumblr is about to hit a major milestone: 10 billion blog posts. Yet as its user base swells, Tumblr itself has miraculously managed to stay relatively petite: Only 45 people are on staff, including a surprisingly tiny product team consisting of five people. And for such a design-savvy, image-driven platform, here’s the most surprising fact of all: Tumblr’s design department consists of only one designer, Tumblr design director Peter Vidani. "It’s really just me right now," he tells Co.Design, laughing. "So I direct myself."

That will change in the near future as Tumblr is hiring a designer and reportedly seeking a big round of funding, at a valuation of $800 million. While Vidani declined to comment on any of the financial aspects of Tumblr, he did provide some insight into the company’s design strategy -- and what they’re looking for in their #2 designer.

Tumblr’s personal dashboard for users
Where more established tech companies like Facebook and Twitter are just recently starting to attract big-name design talent to bulk up their design chops, Vidani thinks that Tumblr already is, and always will be, a design-centric company. He attributes most of this to the fact that he’s at the table with that five-person integrated product team, which he says acts like a "hive mind," bouncing ideas off each other, and making decisions as a group. "If marketing needs something designed, it comes through product," he says." Every facet, every feature needs to be looked at in the same regard."

A key tenet of Tumblr’s design aesthetic is obvious from looking at its interface: Simplicity. "We really enjoy seeing a small simple page free of clutter," says Vidani. "If we can get rid of anything, we will." While other blogging platforms might hype their range of constantly growing features, Vidani says, his team does everything they can to minimalize them, or, in some cases, remove them. "We think the users are smart, and don’t need things 'sold’ to them," he says. "Keeping this in mind gets rid of the clutter, like labels and chatty copy."

Another design goal for Tumblr is the idea of taking away the intimidation of blogging -- you know, the dreaded confrontation of an empty page. This is achieved with with smaller text fields and even a range of non-text options. "We don’t want to make you feel like you need to write three paragraphs and post a photo," he says. "You can just post a photo." The reason the "Create Post" button to publish a post is so big and shiny? They want you to feel good about pushing posts out in the world, as often as possible.

One of the many themes available for use.

This flexible, friendly format has made it a favorite for designers and other creatives, who have praised Tumblr for its visual focus. Tumblr has found a way to evangelize those designers by showcasing the thousands of themes, or customized skins that change the look and feel of their blogs, that designers have created for the brand. Tumblr curates two galleries of themes for their users: Featured Themes, exceptional free themes which are brought to their attention and promoted through the signup process; and Premium Themes, where Tumblr reaches out to talented designers to contribute themes, and they get paid for their work by users who download them. This is a win-win situation. "It’s the best way for a designer to get their names on the web in a short amount of time," says Vidani. "And it’s to our advantage to give users the best themes and designers we can."

Vidani himself started his web-design career designing themes, part of his roundabout career before his arrival at Tumblr, working in post-production for reality shows and then at the homepage manager start.io. He values the kind of experience that might come from working outside of or in curious corners of the tech industry. In looking for designers, he’s particularly interested in candidates who have some skills in illustrative and print work. "It’s a telling sign that they have experience in art and not just making buttons on the web."

Designers joining the team now could have the chance to build a young but established brand that still has a great deal of freedom. For example, the product team doesn’t do A-B testing or polls, says Vidani. Tumblr uses its own built-in audience of beta testers -- its own employees. Of course, with Tumblr’s incredible growth has also come growing pains. Users have grumbled about the site’s excessive service outages, which have caused downtime as long as 36 hours for the platform. While that’s not necessarily a design issue, it’s a potential challenge for a growing team.

Tumblr’s elegant, dead-simple CMS

As Tumblr’s traffic skyrockets to over 90 million monthly unique visitors worldwide, according to Quantcast, Vidani has been busy expanding the platform into mobile apps, like the recent release for Android. Several more new features -- top secret, of course -- are on the horizon, but Vidani assures Tumblr fans that even as they continue to grow, design is a prized value for the company, both inside and out. "We always say we’re making the best creative tools for the most creative people in the world," he says.

[Top image: A "generative painting" created by Field]

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18 Comments

  • Personia

    It's the beauty, simplicity and elegance that attracted my team and I to Tumblr. We saw the huge potential for future readers. Making our site look the way we want is a breeze, and really there's not much to do as stated by you saying Tumblr has excellent design. We can really express ourselves and brand on tumblr!

  • Love Tumblr

    Tumblr still reigns supreme as a personal blogging platform in my opinion, but when are they going to address the serious SEO issues the platform has?

    Until they do so, they will lose business clients to depend on search engine traffic for their blog (and all of the big blogs do).

  • Your thoughts

    Maybe Tumblr can help this blog. What is going on with your design?... If you can get rid of anything.. you should.

  • FreeFrog

    Good piece Alissa. I maintain three tumblogs and I must say as far as micro-blogging tools, Tumblr remains my favorite. The quality of tools/features is fantastic, but their basic UI is sometimes a bit random -- the recent UI changes helped. The only majorly confusing aspect is their "group blogging" feature, with really is a mess and I actually ended up accidentally deleting the main blog, not the sub-group blog because their delete feature was vague. Visually, the quality of themes from the community is amazing. I prefer to radically revise existing themes -- since I'm a designer, but tumblr coding isn't my thing except in small chunks -- and much prefer to buy themes off ThemeForest, because I then have sourcefiles to edit and can reuse them on different tumblogs.

  • Weather Zombie

    I do not yet have a tumblr account...i'm thinking that is an error on my part.  i need somewhere to spill my brains.

  • J Parham

    I love tumblr, it provides an instant visual notebook for me as a design student with instant link backs to a designers website. It is a very visual repository.
    The one thing I don't understand, why is there no way to search multiple tags? It is impossible to find relevant posts using the Tumblr search function, since one tag will bring up thousands of posts with no way of narrowing the search.

  • Carren_Jao

    Such a timely post. Planning to explore Tumblr myself and now I have a better idea what's behind it. Thanks!

  • Deepak Nayal

    Tumblr is yet another example of "simple is beautiful". This raises a very good point that though you should/can have a separate design team, every single employee in the organization should be thinking "design". And because design is about making things easier and better for users, all this maps to a user centric organization. At its core, that is what design is all about - users.

    Deepak
    http://www.olsup.com

  • Pickaweb Marketing

    i love  how tumblr is simple.. but sometimes.. it's too simple for me not to understand some components?

  • Caroline

    "The reason the "Create Post" button to publish a post is so big and shiny? They want you to feel good about pushing posts out in the world, as often as possible." 

    Simply brilliant.

  • Daniel

    Also surprising: they employ five people who take it in turns unplugging the servers every couple of days. 

    (I love tumblr, and it's done wonders for the world of bloggery, but the amount of downtime is ludicrous.)