Design Ecosystem in Vilnius
🇱🇹 Nobody knows where it is but when you find it — it’s amazing
✍🏻 First appeared Phase magazine.
What Local Designers Say about Vilnius
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and the second largest city in the Baltic States, is a relatively small city compared to Istanbul, London, Moscow or Berlin,, but it’s cosy, compact and easy to explore with all the trappings and vibes of a modern and innovative European capital.
Mykolas Puodžiūnas, a product designer at Tesonet, shares: “Something I love about Vilnius is the fact that it’s relatively compact yet not so densely populated. We have plenty of green areas around the city and if you’re living in the city centre or surrounding neighbourhoods — you can reach everything you need by foot or riding a city bike. I believe it’s a great place for someone who’s tired of an overpopulated concrete jungle.”
Algimantas Jočys, a product designer at Trafi, adds: “Each time I return home from big cities to Vilnius, I’m a bit shocked by how neat and calm it is. At first, I dreaded this calmness, and now I love it. You can have lots of the same good stuff as in big cities — including world-class companies building digital products, but with less crowded streets, bars, events and more private space. At the same time, the New York Times ranked Vilnius alongside Copenhagen, Barcelona and Cape Town as a hip and well-managed place to live.”
Many local designers have lived and worked abroad, but ultimately they chose Vilnius as a home base for plenty of reasons.
Jonas Lekevičius, an indie designer, tells us: “Having spent some time living in London, Vilnius is clearly smaller in every regard. Where London is a never-ending landscape of thousands of startups, Vilnius is a lot more comprehensible. It’s quite possible to keep up with almost everything that’s happening and be connected to everyone building cool stuff. For now, I’m living and working on things here because of low stress, low cost and a lot of great friends around. It is quite likely that my projects and ideas might change this decision for me but, for now, Vilnius is delightful.”
“Previous to Vilnius, I worked in London for about five years. It’s a fantastic city full of every kind of opportunity you can think of. However, I never felt that I could make an impact there. I was nothing but one grain of sand in a city full of millions of talented people. The Vilnius design scene is quite young, but I can feel that I can make bigger influence/impact with my design ideas.” — says Arturas Leonovas, a design lead at INVL Asset Management.
Some foreign designers live and work here as well:
“I’m originally from Tel Aviv, and here I can see a very similar mentality, a small nation trying to stand out through hard work and brilliant minds. Vilnius is a great hub for technology and design. Although I’m new in the town, I see so many great ideas and amazing start-ups everywhere. One of my favourite startups, which I use every week, is MailerLite. I prefer their service to any other competitor, because of their great attention to user experience design. They are the best in their field.” — says Avi Itzkovitch, a designer and a founder of UX Salon.
The State of Digital Design in Vilnius
A fast and open business environment with world-class infrastructure, a well-educated workforce, high standards, and low operating costs are what make Vilnius attractive for both local and international companies. This has in turn led to growing demand for digital designers.
As Mykolas Puodžiūnas told us: “Vilnius is becoming one the best cities for FinTech companies in the region. So naturally, digital designers are currently in quite high demand among startups and an increasing number of international companies that find Vilnius to be a good place to open up a business branch.”
Even though Lithuania and Vilnius, in particular, have started to recognise the value of design lately, the fast-growing digital design ecosystem has a lot to offer designers looking for job opportunities who want to push their careers forward. As a digital designer, you can work for plenty of different companies: startups, product companies, traditional and digital businesses, design agencies, software development and ICT companies, or even public institutions.
Startups. The startup ecosystem in Vilnius is tiny, but progressive and active. There are many opportunities for young designers to get real-world experience here. For example, hundreds of Fintech startups are trying to go global. A lot of them in the early stages, with a few designers innovating in this space. Arturas Leonovas thinks that in ten years our designers will be well-known for their work on Fintech products.
Digital product companies and digital businesses. Even though the Lithuanian design culture is not world famous and is only starting to find its footing, local designers can be proud of a whole bunch of fantastic and well-designed products, like Vinted, Tesonet, Pixelmator, Trafi, Bankera, Oberlo, MailerLite, Trackduck (acquired by InVision), TransferGo, CGTrader, Hostinger, Veleza, and many others. Millions of people around the world use these products made here, and some don’t even realise that they are created in Vilnius.
Furthermore, as a designer, you have a handful of interesting international product companies here, like Wix, Genius Sports, Adfrom, Treatwell, Trustpilot, MobilePay, Harbortouch, and many others. An incredible number of top-notch designers work there.
Traditional businesses. Traditional businesses have started to understand the value of design recently. There are a few good examples of traditional businesses with solid design teams, like Swedbank, SEB, Danske Bank, Telia. Usually, others search for design agencies, freelancers, or software development companies with in-house design teams.
Digital design agencies. Digital design agencies are still searching for their identity. Some former web design agencies, like Idea, Kryptis, and Ad Fingers have started providing a full spectrum of digital creative and design services. Other notable and well-known web design agencies, like ZET x Nordcode, Mediapark x Gaumina, consolidated their services by merging. There are also plenty of ambitious newcomers, like monotwo, kemdu, Bitsens, Bettr, and many others. Traditional creative agencies, like New!, Not Perfect, Clinic 212, Folk, and Critical, are adapting to the digital world as well.
Rokas Petrošius, a creative manager at digital agency Adapt, says: “We can see a vast change in the mindset of the clients throughout the last couple of years. UX and UI design became the trends or, you might say, keywords that some of our clients are seeking. It is truly fascinating to see these changes. Certainly, the value of proper research and presentation is being perceived as essential. Focusing on users and their behaviour is a mandatory part of every successful digital strategy. We can see our UX professionals take product owner roles and bridge the gap between us, the user, the clients business logic and strategy. The change of mindset influences the ambition level, and we can see that on products that are being born in Vilnius and the rest of the world. Digital design is not only a creative subject in most client’s heads. It’s a part of their marketing and sales strategies as well.”
ICT companies. Vilnius is well-known worldwide for having both the talent and the infrastructure that growing or mature ICT companies want. In recent years, Fortune 500 and other high calibre companies such as IBM, Western Union, AIG, Nasdaq, Revolut, have established branches in Vilnius. Mostly, local chapters don’t involve designers in their processes, but there are a few very positive examples. This sector is very promising for designers.
Software development companies. Historically, software development companies were among the first companies that recognised the power of design and built in-house design teams. Companies like Metasite, Tieto, NFQ Technologies, Baltic Amadeus, Bentley Systems, Telesoftas, Devbridge, Visma, and a few others still have quite strong design teams.
Public institutions. Design for public institutions is an extremely young phenomenon in Lithuania and, in particular, Vilnius. Even though there are still no design teams in public institutions, the very first steps have been made. A few years ago, an initiative of designers and UX professionals created a framework for usability of e-government services. It includes web standards, usability guidelines, recommendations for ordering usability and design services, templates and documents for UX activities, etc. That led public institutions to start ordering more design and UX services.
Freelance / Remote work. As elsewhere, a segment of digital designers work as freelancers or serve major worldwide and Lithuanian brands remotely.
The Design Community in Vilnius
Although the field of digital design and user experience has been booming in Vilnius lately and the number of designers is growing, the design community in Vilnius is still quite small and not well-organised. There are a few silos here and there, but there’s no one unifying group that connects everyone. For instance, the two most significant Facebook communities of local designers have less than two thousand followers: a daily digest Interakcijos (1.3k followers) and a discussion group UX Lithuania (1.6k members). There’s no official data on how many digital designers there are in Vilnius. Locals estimate that there are about 400 designers.
Also, the design community of Vilnius lacks people who can lead in this area.
“Even though we have lots of skilled designers who care about the craft, we lack individuals who would take ownership and advocate for user-centricity at the highest level. That means influencing organisations, creating environments where innovation could flourish and establishing customer intimacy as a competitive advantage. Therefore, the design community as a whole lacks stories, lessons or mentorship that would inspire the new generation to look beyond the craft. Hopefully, this will soon change with a new wave of companies competing for innovation and recognising the true value of design.” — says Vytas Butkus, a design lead at Vinted and a lector at UX Academy.
On the other hand, while it may be difficult to find senior or lead designers, you can empower loyal and professional hungry young designers, with the right work ethic and attitude.
Because the whole country is starting to recognize design, there is a lot of potential to be successful and make a name for yourself.
Arturas Leonovas explains: “The most significant difference between Vilnius and other major cities in the world is that you can influence the whole design scene and even the design culture by being proactive.”
Also, the digital design field is emerging with new opportunities:
Greta Galubauskaitė, a lecturer and user researcher at Wix, adds: “I’m excited to see that new specialities, like user research, design of design systems, UX writing, and many others, are starting to emerge in Vilnius.”
And another important note about the local digital design community:
“As both the geography and population of Vilnius are tiny compared to more established cities in Europe, the interaction between different — and quite often more mature — fields of design and arts naturally happens more frequently in contrast to digital design communities in metropolitan areas, where they may successfully operate in isolated social bubbles. Thus, usually, we have to be interdisciplinary from the very start. We don’t see it any other way, as we simply would not survive as a closed community at such a small scale.” — Vytautas Gudaitis, a product designer at Vinted, shares his perspective on digital design.
Vytas Butkus adds: “Traditional design in Vilnius is more mature and naturally inspires digital designers to follow their example“.
Places to Meet Designers in Vilnius
Over the last few years, a few good meetups have appeared in Vilnius. You can see many new faces at these meetups, which makes locals optimistic that the community will grow rapidly.
Algimantas Jočys says: “Digital design is in a state of constant change — tools are changing, the process is evolving in every company I work with. Also, the industry is booming, with a high demand for skilled designers. I guess this change and boom is a catalyst for the design community — as there is genuine interest in sharing knowledge and experience. I believe, that in this sense Vilnius has a lot in common with other cites.”
“Vilnius has a digital design community that’s been growing steadily over the last several years. That’s obvious upon turning up to some periodical design meetup and seeing the crowd has probably doubled since the previous event.” — explains Mykolas Puodžiūnas.
Eivinas Norušaitis, a senior UX & UI designer at NFQ Technologies, says: “Even though the field of digital design is still quite young in Lithuania, I have seen an increase in various meetups such as FRESH (organised by Dovydas Vyštartas from Wix), or DeX (by Andrius Grigorjevas from Be&Do), where many people seem to turn up. There were also a few BarCamp Vilnius x Smashing Magazine (organised by well-known Vitaly Friedman and Arturas Leonovas) meetups and UX Salon Vilnius (organised by another well-known designer Avi Itzkovitch).”
Jonas Lekevičius suggests: “For a broader look at design, What’s Next, a conference of creative industries, and LOGIN, the largest innovation & digital culture festival in the Baltics, are inspiring.”
However, there are currently no massive events for digital designers. Last year two fantastic ladies, Helle Martens, co-founder of UX Copenhagen, and Kristina Daniliauskaitė tried to organise the UX Vilnius conference, but unfortunately, not enough tickets were sold, and it had to be cancelled.
Design Education in Vilnius
As mentioned in the previous articles, a fast-growing community needs resources and easy access to more knowledge. In this regard, digital design education in Vilnius is taking its very first steps.
Jonas Lekevičius notices: “Formal education is what you might expect for a traditional role. The Vilnius Academy of Arts is great for more traditional professions but might not be the best choice for people going for faster moving, ever-changing industries. As a private design school, Atomic Garden is a good (albeit expensive) choice for people aiming at creative or digital agencies. Leaders from those agencies teach the courses, so it provides learning as well as the opportunity to build relationships. One recent trend I am observing is that people are a lot more keen to expand horizons, travel and learn from people in other countries. Most conferences and even smaller events commonly have guests from abroad. A lot more designers are traveling to conferences in other countries.”
Darius Kisielius, a freelance designer, points out: “For those who don’t fancy an academic career or are more focused on learning practical skills, there are design courses in state-owned Vilnius College of Technologies and Design or smaller private Vilnius College of Design. It’s not a big surprise that one can find design-related studies in non-art schools: the Vilnius Gediminas Technical University has a Multimedia design and Creative Industries studies, the University of Applied Social Sciences offers Video Production and Media programme, and the European Humanities University provides students from Belarus and the region an opportunity to explore Visual Design or Media and Communications. However, art or design schools remain the top choice among all applicants, and their students are in greater demand among employers looking for designers.”
Algimantas Jočys explains: “Digital design is evolving very fast, so most of the formal education is lagging behind reality. To fill the gap, lots of academies and courses are popping up. Some of them do an excellent job covering the basics, but then you are on your own. Roughly a third of young designers I’ve interviewed or chatted about education have some experience abroad.”
Arturas Leonovas adds: “There is a desperate need for teachers with real-world experience. However, most people who could teach are still knee-deep in their work and are not ready to share their expertise full time inside a university, for example. It will get better in a few years, but right now there’s a vacuum for design education.”
A few courses and educational programs have appeared recently: UX Academy by Tautvydas Gylys, Vytas Butkus, and Sandra Zaidova, UX & UI course by Greta Galubauskaitė, and a few courses, like UX & UI Foundation, Adobe XD Basics, or Design Sprints, by Audrius Ališauskas, and a few others.
Tautvydas Gylys, a founder of UX Academy and a head of product at Trafi, shared his story: “While studying in San Francisco I had an opportunity to get a glimpse of what the full design process looks like and what value design could provide for building successful products. Back in Vilnius, it was quite challenging to find designers who would have had full experience from conducting user research to crafting UI to validating their solutions. So I decided to share some of the experience I had to encourage more designers to discover earlier stages of the design process. UX academy started as a few hours workshop which eventually turned into a four-week design course program. Over 3.5 years we completed 11 courses and had 132 attendees.“
Greta Galubauskaitė presented her study programme too: “More than one year ago I started training UX newbies for a BSC Foundation exam in London. Later, after coming back to Lithuania, I decided to redesign my course in substance, what’s more — to focus only on ambitious newbies through a motivating learning environment. So, I set up a course, which follows user-centred design principles and guides students through the essential UX tools and processes, like user research, information architecture, prototyping, different kinds of testing, visual design principles, to building a portfolio.
An ambitious audience wants to build a portfolio (which they do alongside the theory and practical activities) and become practitioners, rather than get a diploma. The audience desires to understand rather than recall. As a result, open-minded and engaged students of uxkursas.lt balances between active work and fun.“
Also, a few private schools, like Baltic Talents, Code Academy, Vilnius Coding School, Baltic Computer Academy, started offering studies, related to web design, user experience design, UI design, animations, etc.
Places to Work from in Vilnius
Vilnius has the fastest public Wifi in the world so that you can work almost anywhere, but if you like coffee as much as Lithuanians do, take a seat in any coffee house.
You can find chain coffeehouses, like Caffeine (former — Coffee Inn), Vero Cafe, Huracán Coffee, Caif Cafe, and many others on every corner. But, usually, locals prefer independent cafes, like TASTE MAP, Brew (Kavos virėjai), Bookafe, Italala Caffè, Elska Coffee.
“One hidden gem in the city is a cafe called Backstage Cafe. You can meet a lot of creatives there. The community is amiable, and you can say ‘hi’ to anyone.” — recommends Arturas Leonovas.
When you have to get work done, a cafe is not always the most suitable environment. Luckily, there are plenty of coworking spaces to choose from in Vilnius at a reasonable price: Rise Vilnius, AltSpace, Monday Office, Coffice, B Easy, Workland, Regus, and, of course, the biggest and most significant ICT startup hub in the Baltics & Nordics — Vilnius Tech Park.
If you don’t like to work in coworking centres, you might check one of many modern reading rooms in the Martynas Mažvydas National Library. Here you can find a start-up hub, plenty of creative spaces, like a recording studio, cinema, art or music labs, and a bookshelf, which includes the finest and most prominent books on digital design, information architecture, user experience, usability, human-computer interaction and design, and other related topics.
Jonas Lekevičius has a recommendation for those who are planning to visit Vilnius: “Above all, stay open-minded. People are very much eager to learn from your experience, and you will not have any trouble making new connections or finding opportunities — a lot of them might be created for you depending on experience. Enjoy your time here!”