With 35,000 subscribers and counting, Sidebar is one of the most important design publications on the planet. It’s just a daily email, linking five stories for you to read each day, but those stories are influential, and to many, serve as a barometer of where design stands today.
Now Sidebar founder Sacha Greif is launching a redesigned site. Its updates are Spartan, but Sidebar has always been Spartan. Aside from the layout makeover, Greif added deks–publisher speak for summaries–below the headlines of each story. And the design will accommodate up to one job listing a day. It’s Sidebar’s sole revenue driver, aside from occasional sponsored links.
Greif’s monetization efforts are fittingly casual, despite that newsletters have become the dark horse big business for publishers these days. The email newsletter began as a side project. Greif, a Frenchman who lives in Japan, prefers to follow his own passions rather than some prescribed career trajectory and would rather spend his day coding than maximizing his Influencer status in meetups and on social media. (And for the most part, those passions involve the programming framework Meteor, and one he’s in the process of launching now via the new Sidebar, Vulcan.)
With Sidebar’s relaunch, we chatted with Greif about his thoughts on everything from the way we consume media, to how the major players of the Valley have finally reached a reckoning with their own audience.
Co.Design: In 2012, nobody would have thought newsletters would be the force they are today. Why’d you start Sidebar?
Sacha Greif: At the time, I had another project called Folio, which was a marketplace to put designers and clients in touch. I had a really hard time driving traffic to it. Whenever I wrote about code, I could post to Hacker News. But there wasn’t an equivalent for design.
I thought I’d launch Hacker News for design. As for the original project Folio, I gave it away to someone else. So the side project ended up being more.
Co.Design: Why do you think newsletters have found such a foothold in the age of social media, when things should be easier to find? Co.Design‘s newsletter, for instance, is vital to our daily traffic.
SG: I think it’s the only truly reliable media that exists. With Twitter, you tweet something out, you might miss it. Facebook might change their algorithm. You never know who will see what. Instagram was fairly linear, now they’re using algorithms. As a consumer, if you want to be sure to know about something, email is pretty much the only way.
People are siloed on Facebook, Twitter. They don’t venture out to home pages as much as they used to. I remember, I used to have my daily bookmarks. Every day, I would check out 10 to 15 sites as part of my daily routine. I don’t do that anymore.
Co.Design: What was initial growth like?
SG: It actually took off pretty fast in the beginning. Definitely, getting to 30,000 subscribers was a lot faster than going from 30,000 to 40,000, or however large it is now. In the beginning, it was a new concept, so I saturated my sphere of influence [laughs]. Also maybe I haven’t been as active as I should have been to promote the site. From working on Sidebar, I ended up working on a lot of other side projects. That’s how I operate.
Co.Design: You don’t seem like a big self-promoter! And you obviously monetize Sidebar, but not nearly as aggressively as I’d think a lot of people would.
SG: I think part of it is due to me being easily distracted. I really enjoy building things, but when it comes to marketing them, and doing all that more pushy advertising and monetization, I get bored pretty fast. I don’t really track analytics. I don’t do A/B testing. There’s a lot of things I know I should be doing but . . .
I find the only way I can motivate myself to improve a project, or Sidebar, is to redesign it. I have a low motivation to go back to work on old code that by now seems all wrong. That’s why I’m launching a new version. I get a chance to give it a new coat of paint.
Co.Design: 2012, the year you launched Sidebar, is coincidentally the same year I started at Co.Design. And I don’t know about you, but for me, the way I evaluate a design has changed entirely over those five years. It’s not just about, “Is this a convenient or beautiful product that solves a real problem?” but about social consequences, dark patterns, the implications to our privacy–things like that.
SG: I think there’s a lot more awareness of these issues now. Especially with the political climate. A simple example: It’s very popular to set up an email sequence when people sign up for your service, and pretend like you’re a real human. But it’s just an automated sequence. I think this sort of thing is going to go away as more and more people are uncomfortable with that ambiguity. It’s kind of like the fake news thing. The first wave, people got duped by it. But there’s a reaction where the people are going to question the validity of sources more, I hope. And the same thing will happen with dark patterns, or even just deceptive practices. A lot of focus will go to questions like, “Is your data really secure?” “Is the company you’re dealing with being truthful?” “Can you explore your data?”
Co.Design: So the consumer is going to push back. They’re going to care more, not just get numb and care less?
SG: Another example is YouTube. There’s so much controversy with ads on violent videos, or Pew Die Pie, and I think it just shows that YouTube and Google weren’t ready to deal with any of that. Same with Facebook. And they don’t have any policies that make sense in place. They’ll do nothing and then they’ll overreact. I think that’s exactly the kind of thing people are, up to now, only a tiny minority of people cared about these issues. Now YouTubers have huge audiences. I don’t think you can treat them the same way. I think it will be the same thing for every big service like this.
Co.Design: What else is exciting you in design right now? What’s rocking your world?
SG: I’m really excited about all the new design tools like Adobe XD, Figma. Sketch is doing pretty well, Framer. I grew up with Photoshop, and for 10 to 15 years, that was the only thing you had, and nobody ever questioned if you could do something better, and nobody ever wondered why were we using something called ‘Photoshop’ to design websites. Now, I’m glad we’re moving away from that and using tools tailored for web, designing UX, and so on.
This interview has been edited and condensed.