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An Interview With Alex Buga

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Alex Buga - Web Design Superstar, as he likes to call himself. A man with passion for design, creative direction, photography, music and much more. His current position is as the Creative Director of a creative agency based in Bucharest. He's a guy you will absolutely want to meet in person after you read this Interview. Let's see why!.

1. Welcome to Nettuts+! Please introduce yourself! Could you tell us where you're from and when and how you got started in the field?

Hi, My name is Alex Buga, I'm a Senior Graphic Designer from Bucharest, Romania. I am also a partner and Creative Director at MB Dragan - Agency for tomorrow.

I started as a musician in the firstplace. My dream was not to become a famous superstar, but a music producer. That's the deal with the whole "Webdesign superstar" thingie, everyone seems to hate. It's more like an auto-irony, not an auto-brag. I'm not thinking of myself as one. As a matter of fact I know a whole bunch of guys that can be webdesign superstars by far.

Anyway, let's get back to the story :)
So as a musician, I wanted a cool website. I turned to my old friend Mihai Dragan – a great partner and friend – who was a developer/designer at a big software company in Bucharest, and now the founder of MB Dragan.
Mihai wanted to charge me a small amount of money for the website. You know… "C'mon man, you get paid for your gigs, what's a website worth for you?"

But actually I didn't got paid that much for my gigs, and I couldn't afford a website. So Mihai has put Flash in my hands. Having a programmer background from highschool, it was love at first sight.
I started to make cool stuff, and forgot about the music.

Then I realized that making websites is cooler than making music, because you have a lot bigger audience out there.
So I applied for a job at the agency where Mihai used to work, and switched several agencies until Mihai decided to make his own and invited me to join.

And that's how it started. I still make music, but just for my own fun.

2. You're personal website / blog design became very popular. It was featured in .NET magazine, many web design roundup posts, some of the most popular design galleries etc. In your opinion, what do you think made it so special and why?

Yeah, I was quite surprised when the guys at .NET asked my permission to feature my blog in their magazine. I was, and still am very honored and proud. It is one of my biggest achievements so far as a web designer, although they did put a wrong url next to the photo :)

I think everyone enjoyed it because of its simple layout and interaction, and because I took a different approach at a blog design. That combined with a wacky color scheme and some nice javascript effects made the perfect recipe.
I usually am very focused on small details. My own motto is "Small details make a big difference". Maybe because I wrote the whole thing myself, and have put a lot of love into designing it made it so likable.

If you put a lot of love, you get a lot of love. That's what I think.

"Small details make a big difference"

3. For a long time there was no portfolio section on your site. Then, you sold the complete design; your readers (including me) never got a chance to see some of your great work. What was the problem behind all this? Why did you sell the design?

Well… working full time at the agency, I never got the chance to finish my portfolio section. When I get home, I try to focus on other things but web, because otherwise I'll go insane :)

I love putting new and interesting ideas into my personal blog design, that's why I change my theme very often. So that's why I didn't cried when I sold the last one.

I sold it to a museum from Lisabona. I was intrigued by what they wanted to accomplish with it, and also thinking at a new design, so that's why it was rather easy to let it go.
Also, I wanted to invest in a Leica setup for my photographic work, so… I've said to myself "Why not?"

You can still see it in action right here, though.

4. You work as a Creative Director at an interactive agency based in Bucharest. What are your responsibilities? Would you walk us through one day at your work?

Yup, that's my job. And I love it!
You get to work with interesting and smart people, and although we're very young we take a very serious approach to our projects. We enjoy doing what we do. Few people are actually doing what they love and get paid for that.

My regular day at the office starts at 10am. After the regular coffee I check the tasks in the project manager application, make sure everything it's ok and then I start shooting my tasks.

Although it sounds boring, it's not. I actually enjoy what I do and every day it's not the same.

5. Have you ever worked for Google?

Nope, I've never worked for Google. I can't say it's a big wish of mine, but I do like their offices a lot!
I'd rather work for Apple as an interface designer. I love their style, and I think it would suit me well. Plus, I would work for the company that makes my tool of choice when it comes to design

6. Can you roughly walk us through your design process?

I usually get inspired by objects I see or encounter, by colors or shapes. If one of these objects is really interesting, I try to reproduce it somehow in my design.
For example, for my blog I was inspired by that beautiful font, Universal and some rummy chips laying on a table. And that's how it started.

The Mac OS interface also is a good example of inspiration for my work. I love their clean lines and usability.

Mostly I do my work in Photoshop and Illustrator, and then slice it and using a secret magic formula I turn everything in XHTML code. But I'm afraid I can't divulge that because it's a secret kept for generations :)

7. What are the biggest challenges that you face in web design currently?

The biggest one is developing for a multitude browsers. Most of them have a good rendering engine, and interpret code as it should, but some of them have their own personality. More or less. I'm not going into details, because everyone knows what's the worse :P

And then comes the challenge to convince the client what's best for him. Some of them come with their homework done, and let us deal with the rest. But some clients prefer to add their own touch to the final product. And that's not ok.

8. Are you a coder as well as a designer?

I introduce myself as a graphic designer. But I'm also a coder. I like to do my own XHTML code because I can make sure it's pixel perfect, and also I improvise along the way.
Having a background in computer programming has helped me a lot in understanding JavaScript, Flash ActionScript and PHP + MySQL.

And having a great framework like jQuery is awesome. Because you can do pretty neat stuff with a basic amount of knowledge. This is a good thing because as a designer you imagine interactions and animations different than a programmer. It really improves the product.

9. Judging by your Flickr account, you're a big photography fan. Do you do it professionally or just as a hobby?

Photography is one of my two biggest hobbies, after music. I don't do professional work in this domain. I just love to shoot stuff: beautiful places, people, objects, colors, shapes…
You mentioned my Flickr account. I'm a huge fan of Flickr. As a photographer it can put you in touch with others like you around the world. You can get feedback, advices, etc.

It's the only social network I really use a lot.
As a matter of fact, it was a Flickr buddy that got me into buying a Leica, so I pretty much trust my "virtual buddies".

10. Besides photography, you're also a musician. How did you get into music and where do you get the time to do all this work?

I'm very intrigued by how some objects are functioning. I always was and probably will be for the rest of my life. When I was a little boy, my uncle had two guitars laying around in the house and when he was not at home, I tried to understand how the heck they work. It seemed to me like voodoo when he was moving his fingers on the guitar neck and produced those beautiful sounds. When I grew up a little more, my grandfather bought me a small guitar and an accordion. I always was a self thought musician. I never took any classes. When I first discovered the Internet, it was like the Holy Grail of learning new stuff and I've tried a lot of music software.

At the moment I have a small studio setup which I rarely use. I don't have too much time on my hands to bang those drum pads on my Maschine or to rock my guitar as I would love, but I can still find some precious moments when I want to forget about the daily problems and stress and put all my soul into making all those sounds come together as a whole. It's a great feeling of accomplishment when I hear what I've created, and when others enjoy my work. I also have a Soundcloud account where I share my stuff.

11. What is "The Office Project"?

I'm glad you asked me about this one. It's one of our crazy ideas that has generated a great amount of awareness for our agency. We wanted to make a movie inside our agency, to show the world how cool it is to work with us. And we came up with the idea to use the Internet in our favor. So we took a remote controlled car, a wireless webcam and decided to let people control it through the Internet using a cool interface. So far so good, but it was a real challenge to connect all that stuff together.

My colleagues, Andrei - programmer, and Victor - Multimedia Designer, Flash Guru did all the hard work. They modded the car's remote control to connect it to a PC through a printer port. They created a server in Borland Delphi that listened to the commands from the web interface and talked to the car.

After that, Victor created a great Flash interface that enabled users to drive the car through our office while seeing a live video stream from the camera mounted on top of the car.
It was a great experience that I think no one has ever done before. People actually queued on the website to play with the car.

We managed to show the level of interactivity the Internet can bring to real life objects, and we gained a lot of awareness.

12. You also appeared as a speaker at DEV:WORLD. Can you tell us more about it?

You really had to mention that? :)
Yeah… I usually don't like speaking in public. Not because I'm ashamed or something, but because I don't consider myself an expert in what I do.

My presentation at Dev:World was an organized mess. I spoke about "Working with vectors in Photoshop – Non destructive editing". Although most of the people in the room were aware of all those stuff I've talked about, I had a few questions after the presentation was over, and some of the people really appreciated my 2 cents. I was very glad to hear that they included my techniques in their workflow.

13. Lately we see a bunch of so-called "cloned" websites. What do you think about the current state of web design?

It upsets me that people rip off like crazy without asking permission. And it sucks you can't do anything about it. They don't give a $h1t about your copyright.

When I was in my first years, I tried to copy exactly my favorite websites, but I did it for practice and fun. I never published anything like that. It really helped me a lot to understand techniques and effects but from there to ripping whole websites from CSS to the logo with your OWN NAME on it… it's a long way.

I've had 5-6 attempts of this kind. The funniest was with my previous design. I had an illustration with my head and signature and a guy actually ripped it and written his name under my face! That was hilarious.

I'm glad the design trends are back to normal after the Web2.0 Aqua madness :))
I see a lot of well crafted websites. People are really understanding the principles of Web Standards and Accessibility.

Now they take CSS & XHTML for granted but I remember back in the day when CSS Tableless design was a tabu subject. And everyone was making different themes to their website just to showcase the power of CSS.

Not that I'm bragging but I was the second Romanian in CSS Vault after Stefan Petre aka Eyecon, a guy that I've actually met recently, but who has helped me a lot throughout the years with Javascript and PHP.

14. Who are your top web designers in the world?

I don't have a list with my favorite designers, but I do love the work of some big agencies around the world.
I mostly enjoy the style, the colors the techniques of 73 DPI. Those Russians are good, man ! Damn good!
Then comes Fantasy Interactive. I love their attention to details. They're like obsessed with details and that's a good thing !

Then I like the work of my friend and ex-colleague Florin Hatmanu aka Graft - it inspires me a lot and I try to infuse elements from his style in my projects.

My friend Stefan Lucut - Now… he's a design superstar. He worked for the big names like Nike and stuff.

Veerle Pieters - I have no words. I don't know what she eats but man, she's like the Jimi Hendrix of design. Her well written tutorials convinced me to start learning Illustrator.

There are more, but these are my top favorites.

15. Quick Answers...

  • Adobe - Tools of trade. Not the best, but since there's no competition… what the hell…I'll go with the flow.
  • Pixel - my first web nickname :)
  • Romania - Great country, too bad It's not appreciated as it should be. I also think that the communist mentality has made a deep dent in the people's mind. And some thing will never change. That's why I want to move to England.
  • Mac - The Leica of computers :D Reliable, well made, freakin' expensive. Lately they're not so expensive anymore, but they've reduced the quality.
  • Kids - I'l probably have one or two. It would be great if one could download them and print them from the Internet. Who knows… maybe one day :)
  • Summer - Not my favorite time of the year. At least not since global warming has boosted my thermometer with some Celsius degrees.
  • FOWA - Great event. SXSW also. Too bad it was out of my reach, financially and geographically.
  • Native Instruments - Great software company. Great products. Great marketing :D They have an open job for interface designer in Berlin. I was tempted.
  • Love - I've found it. It's great, and it's not something one should let go. I think it's our purpose in life, as humans. Love and be loved.

16. How do you see the web in ten years?

Well, we see new technologies emerging very often. I guess it will all be wrapped around what really matters – Information, and the experience of getting that information.
I'm not sure how they'll do it, but certainly we'll see a lot of innovations. Look at Flash now, and compare it with how it was several years ago.

17. Do you have any websites or projects you would like to shamelessly plug to over 45,000 subscribers and 1 million readers every month?

Yup, I have some links but I prefer screenshots, because the actual websites have suffered alterations. Most of them by "unauthorized personnel" :))

Here's MB Dragan - Agency for tomorrow our agency's website, and some of the projects I've done.

18. Thanks again for providing Nettuts+ with this opportunity to interview you. Any final thoughts for our readers?

The pleasure was all mine. I'm very happy when someone is interested in my work.
And as a word or personal advice for your readers: "Keep doing what you love and do it with your heart. And there's nothing you can't do, only stuff you won't do."

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