The Way We Design Now

Technology has both democratized design and made user response central to designers’ choices. At the same time, says Khoi Vinh, “true expertise is as rare as ever.”
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: How much of a graphic designer’s work takes place on, and off, the computer?

Khoi Vinh: You know, I would say -- well one of the designers in my group, any of the designers in my group probably would spent 80% of their time doing -- practicing design on the computer and about 10% of their time meeting and talking with their colleagues and sort of conversationally figuring out the problems that they are trying to tackle.  And 10% of their time just thinking through the problem and sketching and trying to work out ideas before the get to get their hands on in house.  And that's what I really try and promote is to try to work out as many ideas as you can on paper irrespective of the final medium so that you can think more clearly without all the sort of shortcuts, and also the tripping points that technology offers.

Question: In what ways is technology currently revolutionizing design?

Khoi Vinh: Well, I think that the single biggest thing that Internet technology, in particular digital technology as a whole has introduced to graphic design, certainly in graphic design, is this notion of behavior.  And I guess I would also say related to that is this idea of conversation.  I think the way design was practiced for most of the 20th century was very declarative.  A designer came up with a solution for a project and put it in place and shipped the solution and it landed in a reader or a customer's hands as a brochure.  They would see it as a poster, or as a piece of signage.  And that was sort of it.  That was the end of it.  

I think Internet technology has really upended that whole equation because in some ways a designer's work is never really done online.  Every "finished solution" that a designer presents is really just the first sort of volley in a dialogue between the designers and the publishers and the users; the people who are actually the intended audience and the people who really will validate the design by using it, or just by turning away and moving elsewhere.  So, designers from start to finish now in digital media have to think in a much more sort of thoughtful serious and humble way about how design audiences will receive their products.  And that's such a huge change that will take a long time to really work out; will take a long time for a designer to get comfortable with.  I mean, we've only really been doing it for about 15 years now and I think there's a long road to go for it.

Question: Are modern software and personal webspace democratizing design?

Khoi Vinh: Yes, in a sense.  I would say I think a lot more people are able to take on a design challenge than ever before.  And this was true 20 years ago when the desktop publishing revolution came about that allowed people with Macintosh's at home to produce professional-looking newsletters or publications for the first time.  So, there's a long march toward more democratization for design.  I think that's true.  At the same time, I think there's always something about design that is going to be very difficult for more than a small fraction of people to really get.  So, even though the means of production are more available than ever, I think the true expertise is as rare as ever.  I think even though more people can build websites today than even 10 years ago, I think there's probably even less really deep understand of how a good website gets built than there was even then.

Question: Does design evolve in a meaningful sense, and if so, what’s the frontier in design today?

Khoi Vinh: I think design does evolve in a meaningful sense.  I think if you look at design as a part of the continuum of communication, since even before Guttenberg.  Like go all the way back to the invention of writing.  There's always been this back and forth between conversations and sort of documents, or a declarative kind of communication.  So before Gutenberg, there was this really very strong oral storytelling culture where being able to relay stories from person to person was sufficient.  And then, with the introduction of printing and mass communication, suddenly somebody had a lot of authority invested in the idea of a single canonical expression of a document or a piece of communication. 

And as I said before, that's kind of the way that design works in the 20th century and I think now we're seeing the pendulum switch back to this idea where conversations are more important, if not more important than documents.  And I think design albeit a relatively young profession, but intimately a part of the whole communications arc is going to need to evolve with that and really learn how to accommodate a sort of conversational way of communication that just wasn't prevalent at all in the 20th century.

Recorded on March 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen