Listgeeks Feature #6 – Khoi Vinh

Khoi Vinh is a highly influential Brooklyn-based designer and writer who recently spent four and a half years as the Design Director for NYTimes.com (after five years at Behavior, the design studio he co-founded in 2001).  Via Subtraction, the blog he’s maintained for over ten years, Khoi publishes his uniquely informed observations on topics including – but by no means limited to – user experience, emerging technology, design for the web, and popular culture.  His recent book, “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” (New Riders, 2010), both guides readers through the fundamentals of grid-based design and provides invaluable, practical instruction for designers contemplating grid-oriented projects.  Be sure to check out Khoi’s Listgeeks lists after you read the below interview, in which he discusses his forthcoming project, life post-NYTimes, and the future of reading:

Listgeeks: One of the things I find amazing about Subtraction is the wide range of topics you’re able to cover with genuine insight (architecture, pop culture, the future of print media, the role of technology in our lives, and graphic design, of course, among them). It’s hard not to wonder both a) how you find the time and b) why it is that certain things grab your attention and not others.  Can you elaborate?

Khoi Vinh: The answer to both is that curiosity is probably the strongest motivator for me. I just want to look at the things that pique my curiosity more closely and understand them better. The posts that I write are often as much about figuring things out for myself while writing them as they are about expounding some point of view I might have. I’m trying to dig a little deeper, turn it over and look at it from different perspectives, see what my readers have to say about it — all for my own benefit, really. I really believe that everything’s connected to my work in some way, too, so I enjoy bringing all kinds of random stuff back to the blog to see how it all mixes together and to find out what I think of it all.

When you’re curious, it’s not too hard to find the time to do this stuff. I won’t pretend it doesn’t take some self-discipline (there are plenty of times I’d rather just watch a movie than blog), but it’s not work, because that curiosity is such a powerful and compelling motivation to keep going. It’s actually pretty easy.

LG: You spent four and a half years as Design Director at the New York Times, and have since been working on a few different projects and consulting.  How has the transition been from the structure of that environment to your current routine?  Do you find that you think about the kinds of design/tech-related issues with which you’re concerned differently than you did when you were in that environment?

KV: The transition hasn’t been hard at all. I really enjoyed my tenure at The Times and I learned so much and met and befriended so many amazing people. I also owe a tremendous amount of whatever notoriety I can call my own to The Times, so I don’t regret a minute of it. At the same time, it was sometimes very difficult to get things done there, at least in the way that I wanted to do them — small, scrappy, very startup like.

When I left I knew I wanted to join a startup in some capacity but ultimately I decided to found my own with a partner. We’re building a social software product that’s really different and really exciting. I think it’s going to be tremendous. There’s not an obvious connection with this app and the work that I did at The Times, but believe me, so much of what I learned there — about what users want, about how technology conforms to that, about how business brings technology and design and users together — is at the foundation of this new venture.

LG: In our interview with Kevin Kelly a few weeks ago, he replied to a question about the future of real time collaboration by focusing on the experience of reading.  I thought it would be interesting to get your take on what he had to say, considering the substantial thought you’ve put into a variety of closely related topics in the last few weeks on your blog: “I’ve been thinking about reading lately. Reading is mostly done alone by individuals. But what if we shared the texts as we read? We might share the passages we spent the most attention on. Or share our comments and marginalia. What if we coordinated our reading in synchrony, like a real-time book club? What if we could share our underlined (highlighted on the Kindle) passages to particular friends? At particular times, say, when they get around to reading it? What if the text of what I am reading is “polished” by others reading it before me, in the way Wikipedia is? What if every book accumulates annotations from every reader, hidden until you ask for them? The possibilities go on and on. We are just at the start of socializing everything.”

KV: I completely agree with that. I think that the reason to pick up a Kindle or an iPad and read a book is it’s easier than lugging around a really thick book, but the reason to keep using it is that it adds something to the reading experience that can’t be found in print. I actually think we’ll see a whole new kind of writing — expository as well as narrative — that will acknowledge the social aspects of these new reading platforms. I think books and magazines and reading materials of all kinds are going to be very different within a decade or two. Remember, the 20th Century started out looking a lot like the 19th Century before it came into its own. Right now the 21st Century still looks a lot like what came before, but that won’t last. It’s going to be really exciting.

I also second Kevin’s sentiment that we’re just at the start of social software. The way I like to put it is: “Everything that can be social will be.”

LG: What do you feel has been the most exciting development related to designing for the web in the last year or two?

KV: There’s been a lot of exciting stuff: web fonts, responsive web design, the rise of HTML5, and tablets, to name a few. But nothing seems nearly as exciting as the way the ecosystem has matured and allowed all of us designers to command our own destinies like never before.

When I went to design school, the only business skill they taught me, the only business skill they thought I would need, was how to win and work with clients. It used to be that clients were the gateway to doing design work. In fact, in one of my first jobs as a young designer, I joked to my boss that, “The biggest problem facing designers is clients.” He thoroughly reprimanded me for that attitude (he was a bit of a jerk). But we’re in an age now — and it’s just beginning — where so much great design work doesn’t have to happen at the behest of clients anymore, where working for clients is no longer the only way to do the most interesting work out there. Designers are initiating their own projects or joining new ventures or starting their own; they’re finding ways to take these amazing skills they have to communicate and build experiences and using them to write their own ticket. That’s what I see here at Listgeeks, and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only going to get a ton more interesting in this realm, whereas working for clients is not necessarily going to get any more interesting going forward.

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