15 Questions for Leslie Harpold

The founder of Smug is anything but.

Leslie Harpold, writer, designer, web publisher
Leslie Harpold, Writer, Designer, Publisher, Inspiration.

1. What's on your business card?
Leslie Harpold
Creative Director, Fearless Media...
Which means I get to develop web sites for a living. I love it, because it lets me do so many different things, and pushes me to come up with new ideas and new kinds of ideas constantly. What my business card doesn't mention is that I also get to write a lot of articles and work on some of my more personal web projects for fun in my off time as well.

2. How did you start Smug, and why did you choose that name?
I went looking for something on the web that was about media, culture, didn't pander to the reader, but wasn't arrogant either. Something funny, that spoke to me as someone who had a life online and off. I couldn't find it, so I made it.
        My business partner Jack Smith and I sat down and talked it out, and he kept pushing me, saying "you have to do this" – so, I did.
        I feel awfully arrogant saying I started a magazine so I would have something to read, but it's true. There were a lot of good things out There at the time, but not all in one place. What I didn't see at the time was balance – people talking about what they didn't like as well as what they did. It's so easy to just take something apart and say it's lame. I wanted Smug to go a level deeper in it's articles – to see a bigger picture. I didn't want it to be geek only. There were mags about the net and a dearth of mags about offline things. I figured, hey, I have a real life online and off. Treat the reader like a whole person. Especially if that person happened to be a media junkie.
        Anyway, we picked the name for a couple reasons, the foolish one being that it was a 4 letter domain name that was available, and the second is the most misunderstood thing about the publication. The secret of Smug is that we are not Smug at all. We take on full culpability for our foibles and laugh at ourseves all the time. We have strong opinions, certainly, but we're not smug and self satisfied.

3. Did the various columns evolve, or did you brainstorm for months before publishing?
We brainstormed in advance. There are a couple great columns that i wish we had been able to make happen that never saw the light of day, but we basically came up with about 30 different ideas and started narrowing it down. Over time, they've changed a little, but the overall focus has remaind true.

4. Do you seek out contributors, do they find you, or do you mainly work with a core group of people?
Yes to all of that! We have a core group of writers, Todd Levin, Jack Smith, Joe Procopio, Sherman T. Biswick, Brian Thomas myself and our newest columnist, Josh Allen.
        We also have regular contributors, and the odd one timer here and there if someone has a single, stellar idea they pitch me. My favorite part though, is working with writers a few times, or on an ongoing basis, it's been such a treat to see them row and find their voice, become stronger writers. Then we have Mysterydate which is our celebrity column section, and that's always someone different. You know, it's a ton of work, but I can't tell you how much fun it secretly is.

5. Some of your content is clearly (and I think, pleasantly) controversial. Ever get any hate mail, psychotic reader mail, that kind of thing?
Naturally, but we actually get this really amazing, well thought out, sometimes long, passionate emails. Many people are like, "yes! thank you I never knew what bothered me about that before!" and of course, some people just spew vitriol at us. I appreciate both, because it means they read it and felt something.
        I still get a lot of hate mail about the Prozac ads piece, but largely from people who didn't read it; my objection was the method of advertising, not people with real problems finding a solution.
        My favorite piece of Smug mail came from a record exec (no names) who was unhappy we panned his latest record and retorted literally with "oh yeah? well, everyone at my label has a big dick and a bag of weed!" or the publisher of a swanky high profile site who responded to the mixed review we gave him by sending me a list of things people from other publications had said, all rolling over in praise. Like I would read either of those and say, oh, well there's a mitigating factor, I'm changing my opinion.

6. Hoopla would seem to be your spiritual junk drawer. Are there criteria for things that do and don't go in Hoopla, or do you just publish what pleases you there?
Spiritual junk drawer is the right word for it, certainly. I always refer to it as my play room. It's just my place to experiment. The sites I do for work have very specific looks and messages and Smug has a particular voice and theme. So, I let off steam and try new things on hoopla where I have room to fail, or be boring, or please only a few people. Or, more likely, tell jokes only I get. I test my own boundaries a lot – of privacy, pride; it helps me not take myself too seriously.

7. I love the cover design gallery, and obviously I really relate to "inflight movie." How often do you change Hoopla around?
I change it whenever I feel like it. At the moment, I'm updating Life Sentence almost daily, and the splash pages changes about once a week.

8. What was the impetus for J.A.W.S.?
Just Another Web Site, is what j.a.w.s stands for; I had such fun with that. I reached a point where I thought homepage thing was being taken a little too seriously. Between the mail I get from Hoopla that says "what the hell is this?" to every single this is my job, these are my friends, this is my job, these are my cats pages, to the diarists who tell you what they ate for breakfast, how many times their phone rang, all their tedium – I just thought it was all being taken way too seriously.
        It was meant as a spoof, since I've never had a page like that. Part of it was also me saying, if I did that, what would it look like? Mostly though it was to spoof the tone people use to introduce themselves into the world of online publishing. "This is of the utmost importance, here is a photo of my cubicle." Wow.
        Maybe I've been self employed too long, but someone gets this golden opportunity to step up to the mike, say whatever's on their mind, show the world absolutely anything, and they show us their cats. I love mine and all, but Leslie Harpold, cat owner, just isn't how I self-identify. And the links! I always crack up when people delineate their links - here are people I know, here are people I like (do you not like the people you know?) here are things I look at for work. Have you found the "secret" path at j.a.w.s.? I mean, essentially, all people are saying is two things. 1. Are you like me? and 2. do you like me?

9. Your design work is really beautiful, though you rarely talk about it. You don't impose a "Harpold visual style" on your various projects, that I can see. You seem to have a wide range, and to let the verbal content dictate the visual content or style. True?
Thank you, first of all. True, I try to do total design. I hate using buzzwords, but I try to be holistic about it, and think about total experience, where the design doesn't overpower the content and the content doesn't overpower the design.
        I believe that design is part of the content, so thinking about it that way, it naturally lends itself to balance. When I'm working for clients, I'm hired to represent them, not inflict my style on them. I think of my role as the filter, I am the filter they are choosing to present themselves to the online community through, so I try to respect them and their vision and gently facilitate the actualization of their own persona in the medium.

10. How did you start your web design company, and how is that going?
Jack is brilliant and we realized over time that although we had great ideas separately, when we tempered each other's vision, we were even better. We have different but complimentary skill sets - he's got years of experience in promotion and programming, and he really understands the processes and value of research as well as when to throw that out push in new directions. I do more of the client management and the conceptual work, as well as the development, the fulfillment end. But there are huge crossovers for both of us in every project.
        We've had clients who had very specific things they wanted and we also have had clients who said "go crazy, just do something fun". Work is never boring. There have bene unique challenges to every project, and we've been able to maintain great dialogue with our clients and come up with some really creative, very subtle solutions.

11. How long were you in advertising? What did you do and why and how did you leave?
I was in it for two years solid with some freelance visits back over the next few years. I was a lackey, then a copywriter. I liked it at first, I was surrounded with personable, smart, magnanimous people. I knew the whole time it wasn't what I wanted to be doing long term, but there I was, right out of college and people were taking my ideas and plastering them all over the sides of buses and putting them on television.
        Then that hint of maturity kicked in and said this is not abut my ideas at all. I started to see the way people became agency slaves, and I wanted something different for myself, if only a broader realm of experience. So, that lead me to writing and film production, and Topps all good practice for this medium.

12. What did you do for Topps?
I was in new product development. I worked on the non-sports projects. I was brought in to "make something for girls" because they hadn't really addressed that market, and I also worked on a handful of their licensed properties, until Desert Storm, at which pint I suddenly became the person who did the Desert Storm trading cards, by default. Not because I had any special experience, but because I was the full time freelancer, and no one else wanted to do it. I had no idea at the time they would end up being so popular. Desert Storm cards ended up being thebest selling trading card series of all time, including outselling any single year of baseball.

13. You've written for Afterdinner, Tripod, Stating the Obvious, Netly News, Requestline, glassdog, thefinger, smartypantsmag.com, Riotgrrl, and your own publications. Who am I leaving out?
Wow, you're thorough. All you missed is a bunch of print magazines, most recently Hermenaut. In the past I've written for Spin, New York Press, LA Weekly, Circus, Allure, Sassy and a host of others.

14. You seem to publish something new every day. I know you don't watch TV, but even so, where do you find the time?
I don't sleep. Literally. I am one of those people who only sleeps 4 hours a night so there are extra hours in my day. I actually manage my time pretty well. I'm a compulsive list maker. Writing conditioned me to deadlines. So, as long as I set deadlines for myself, I find I can get so much done.

15. I can't recall meeting anyone in this industry who doesn't know you. Do you network much?
I just meet people and try to pay attention. I don't intentionally "network," but it just happens sometimes.
        Look, I don't come from money or power, and I'm trying to build a business. When I meet people who are smart, and like minded, I think "here's someone I should know," not because of what they can do for me, or what I can do for them, but really, can you ever know enough smart critical thinkers?
        Eventually, after I have a meaningful bond with them, I think wanting to do things that would help either of us out professionally is a natural extension of real friendship. It's not something I demand though, that would spoil it. It's just about being fortunate to associate with people whose warmth and character I respect. Who happen to work in the same industry I do.
        Look, this is a time when a medium is in its infancy. Collaboration and the exchange of ideas are the way to go.

Bonus Round: What advice, if any, would you offer to all the self-publishers and would-be self-publishers out there?
Do it for fun, and most of all do something you personally care about. Most of all do it. Find your voice and then say something. The one cautionary statement I'd issue is do make sure you have something to say. I think everyone does, but I often see people confusing talking with having something to say. Once you figure out what that is, say it loud and say it well.
        Publishing something you think people want is how things get homogeneous and boring. Don't be afraid to shake things up a bit.

Leslie lives at:
smug.com         fearless.net         hoopla.com

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