A conversation with the blogger and design director of the New York Times website.
Question: What does your day-to-day work as a designerrnconsist of?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Well mostly it's about sitting in meetings. I spend a lot of time -- the way I lookrnat my job, I spend a lot of time trying to create the conditions for goodrndesign to happen and I don't get an opportunity to do a lot of hands onrnwork. Really, our mission in therndesign group is really to try and look at NYTimes.com, to look at the digitalrndelivery of New York Times content and create a really great user experiencernout of it and build new features and functionalities. So, that just requires a lot of background discussions andrnnegotiations and brainstorming and getting the right people together at therntable. So, that's largely what Irndo is try and get all those pieces in place so the designers who work in myrngroup can then sort of set them up for a really great user experience on thernwebsite, and on our other platforms.rnrn
Question: How would you characterize your own style as arndesigner?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Well, I think that -- the way I put ourrnsensibility at NYTimes.com group also nicely meshes with mine. I try to get a maximum of elegance withrna minimum of ornamentation, so we're trying to do as much as we can with asrnlittle as we can. So that meansrnusing as many native elements of whatever medium you are working in withoutrntrying to introduce other flourishes and making the most of those torncommunicate elegance and ease of use and efficiency.rnrn
Question: Has there ever been a characterization of yourrnstyle that you’ve hated?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Yes, and no. I think I sort of have a love/hate relationship with arnreputation I have for being the designer who works with grids. And maybe about four years ago, four orrnfive years ago, I wrote a series of articles on my blogs, Subtraction.com, thatrnreally talked about how online designers, interaction designers can benefitrnfrom a lot of the topographic grid principles that print designers have beenrnusing for decades offline, and that was really a big boost to my career, myrnreputation, and I'm still quite proud of it. At the same time, I often feelrnlike that's all people think of me for and if I want to talk about somethingrnelse, then they kind of tune out. rnThat's not always the case, that's maybe not a fair characterization,rnbut from time to time, it happens.rnrn
Question: Is your personal workspace messy or orderly?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: I really try to keep my personal workspace asrntidy as possible. I really believernthere's a place for everything and everything in its place, as the clichérngoes. I really try to do thatrninsofar as I can control it. Irnlive with a really wonderful woman and we have a baby and a dog, so at the samerntime, I really have to temper that desire to really control that element withrnthe realization that life doesn't work like that. Like you have to have a balance and understand that as muchrnas you would like to have absolute control over everything, it's just notrnrealistic.rnrn
Question: How has the New York Times website design evolvedrnduring your time at the paper?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Well, when I came in, in 2006, they were in thernmiddle of putting together a new redesign of the site and I helped them finishrnthat off and get that launched. rnAnd since that time, it's early 2010 now, for almost four years, we'vernbeen sort of relentlessly revising bits and pieces of the site, adding newrnfunctionality to it, manipulating her here and there to respond to differentrnuser needs, different business criteria and so forth. So, I think the change has been significant though veryrnincrementally paced.rnrn
Question: Why does the design of the Times’ online editionrndiffer so radically from the print edition?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Well the very fact that it's a different kind ofrnmedium altogether. It's just like,rnoccasionally you'll see a magazine, or these days, a website like TMZrntranslated to a television show and by its very nature, it has to be reimaginedrnfor the new medium. It has to berndesigned or rethought in a way that is appropriate for the new medium. And that's the case going between printrnand web, or print and any kind of digital medium.rnrn
I think the thing about the Internet is that it has so manyrncharacteristics that can be easily construed to be similar or almost identicalrnto print that it can be misleading. rnYou can think, well you just treat it the way you treat print. You're dealing with pages, you'rerndealing with type, you're dealing with more or less static layoutrnelements. It turns out that's notrnreally the case. I think the keyrndifference between the web and print medium is, on the web or any digitalrnmedium, you're dealing with this added element of behavior. Things have a behavior online, whereasrnin print, there is a single canonical expression for them, but onlinerneverything responds to different criteria or has inherent states to it based onrnthat criteria. So, you have torndesign that in a different way. rnIt's a completely different dynamic even though it may look similar.rnrn
Question: What are some examples of how user behaviorrnaffects your thinking as a Web designer?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Well, if you look at the front page of thernprinted edition, there is a very specific discrete set of stories that arernapplied there and you can more or less expect the print reader to absorb thernstories that you have on that front page in the same kind of order and in morernor less the same kind of fashion.rnrn
On the web, you really have no idea how they're going tornaccess the stories that you've designated the lead stories of the day. They could come in throughrn"search" they could come in through a blog; they could come in throughrna news reader. They may never seernthe home page as we've designed it. rnThey may actually bypass it entirely and go directly to the article.rnrn
So all of these things really play into how you think aboutrnthe overall user experience in the design. You have to design a story that might appear on the frontrnpage of the newspaper for the website. rnYou don't have to design it in such a way that it can be self contained,rnthat it makes sense if you never hit the front page of it. You know, our editors actually spend arnpretty decent amount of effort retooling, rewriting headlines so that they makernsense to somebody who comes in digitally because oftentimes headlines in printrnare meant to sit next to other headlines and sort of benefit from that contextrnand we don't always have that.rnrn
Our articles also, online, will change based on thernplatform, the technology that people are using to view them. So, they may see things differently inrnone browser, or one operating system and very differently on another browser,rnor even on a different kind of device. rnSo, we have to think about the things we design to make sure that theyrnapply appropriately to the very different states that they might be encounteredrnin.rnrn
Question: For newspapers, is print design becoming obsolete?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: I wouldn't say it's obsolete. I think you still, more than peoplerngive print credit for; people still turn to the print edition as the canonicalrnexpression of what The Times said that day. It's the paper of record, and the record, for now any way,rnis what is official in print. So,rnthe work the designers put into crafting a really unique and powerful and Irnthink a very effective presentation every day, I think is really important. I think if you took away all therndesigners and automated the process tomorrow, the end result would be really,rnreally dissatisfying and disturbing to a lot of people. So, I think there's a lot of value thatrnprint designers have.rnrn
Now, how long that kind of value that they create will bernwelcomed in the marketplace, I think that is very difficult to say. I think the economic pressures arernpretty serious.
Question: What obstacles do you face in keeping the Times website elegant and readable?
Khoi Vinh: Well, I think the obstacles are the same as the opportunities, is the way we like to look at them. You have this really powerful technological infrastructure that can do really tremendous things. At the same time, it's never going to be as flexible as we'd like it to be. Just by nature of web technology. So, we can deliver news across the globe in a matter of seconds or minutes. And that's pretty amazing. And we can create really fascinating tools for our users to take advantage of. At the same time, those technologies don't allow us to retool the appearance with the presentation of every piece of content in exactly the way that we would like. There's a real inherent limitations to the tools. So, it's two sides of the same coin.
Question: What’s a specific design complaint you’ve gotten from readers, and how have you responded?
Khoi Vinh: Sure, we often get reader feedback of all types, whether positive or negative, no matter what we do. Let me think. There are times when things are really obvious to us and we really try to design them in such a way that we think will be obvious to readers and users who have only casual familiarity with the site. We'll get feedback that says they have no idea that what we intended was actually the case. And I'm trying to think of an example off the top of my head right now. We'll occasionally add an alternative use to the home page, new experimental presentations of our top content. Features like Times Wire, we had one called Times Extra, we had a social networking layer called Times People. And these are things we spent a lot of time trying to make as intuitive and as easy to use as possible, and sometimes we hit the mark and a lot of times people will ask us, what does this thing do that we have here. They have no idea, no understanding of it and it just sort of blows us out of the water that they can be so -- that what we designed could be as unintuitive as the reader might be interpreting it as. So, that always, I think, that's the hardest and most illuminating parts of the job is just really constantly reminding yourself that what's obvious to you is not obvious to the users.
Question: What’s a design solution you’ve introduced to the Times that you’re particularly proud of?
Khoi Vinh: Well, I'll tell you about a big project that we finished up on last year. We have a luxury magazine that comes with the Sunday paper called T. And that covers men's fashion, women's fashion, design, travel, living, that sort of stuff. Really high end luxury and we had a site that we launched in 2007, I believe, that we felt pretty good about it at the time, but it quickly became apparent that it was too expensive to produce and it wasn't really yielding the results that we were looking for. So, we worked most of last year, 2009, really overhauling that site and moving it away from what had been a presentation that was really centered around what appeared in print to a brand new kind of user experience that really emphasized what we say -- how we saw users interacting with the content. So, instead of showing all of the photography and the photo spread and feature stories as the sole main gateway to that site, we moved to a new kind of experience where the content is a bit more atomized. You can access it from many different ways and we're really emphasizing the blog and the site as the major access point because what we saw was that the users responded to our blog even though it was not the main access point. They responded to its timeliness and the brevity of the content. And so we completely oriented the site around that and that was something I really pushed for hard in late 2008, early 2009, and we were able to launch it last year.
Question: How much of a graphic designer’s work takes placernon, and off, the computer?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: You know, I would say -- well one of therndesigners in my group, any of the designers in my group probably would spentrn80% of their time doing -- practicing design on the computer and about 10% ofrntheir time meeting and talking with their colleagues and sort ofrnconversationally figuring out the problems that they are trying to tackle. And 10% of their time just thinkingrnthrough the problem and sketching and trying to work out ideas before the getrnto get their hands on in house. rnAnd that's what I really try and promote is to try to work out as manyrnideas as you can on paper irrespective of the final medium so that you canrnthink more clearly without all the sort of shortcuts, and also the trippingrnpoints that technology offers.rnrn
Question: In what ways is technology currentlyrnrevolutionizing design?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Well, I think that the single biggest thing thatrnInternet technology, in particular digital technology as a whole has introducedrnto graphic design, certainly in graphic design, is this notion ofrnbehavior. And I guess I would alsornsay related to that is this idea of conversation. I think the way design was practiced for most of the 20thrncentury was very declarative. Arndesigner came up with a solution for a project and put it in place and shippedrnthe solution and it landed in a reader or a customer's hands as arnbrochure. They would see it as arnposter, or as a piece of signage. rnAnd that was sort of it. rnThat was the end of it.rnrn
I think Internet technology has really upended that wholernequation because in some ways a designer's work is never really done online. Every "finished solution"rnthat a designer presents is really just the first sort of volley in a dialoguernbetween the designers and the publishers and the users; the people who arernactually the intended audience and the people who really will validate therndesign by using it, or just by turning away and moving elsewhere. So, designers from start to finish nowrnin digital media have to think in a much more sort of thoughtful serious andrnhumble way about how design audiences will receive their products. And that's such a huge change that willrntake a long time to really work out; will take a long time for a designer tornget comfortable with. I mean,rnwe've only really been doing it for about 15 years now and I think there's arnlong road to go for it.rnrn
Question: Are modern software and personal webspacerndemocratizing design?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Yes, in a sense. I would say I think a lot more people are able to take on arndesign challenge than ever before. rnAnd this was true 20 years ago when the desktop publishing revolutionrncame about that allowed people with Macintosh's at home to producernprofessional-looking newsletters or publications for the first time. So, there's a long march toward morerndemocratization for design. Irnthink that's true. At the samerntime, I think there's always something about design that is going to be veryrndifficult for more than a small fraction of people to really get. So, even though the means of productionrnare more available than ever, I think the true expertise is as rare asrnever. I think even though morernpeople can build websites today than even 10 years ago, I think there'srnprobably even less really deep understand of how a good website gets built thanrnthere was even then.rnrn
Question: Does design evolve in a meaningful sense, and ifrnso, what’s the frontier in design today?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: I think design does evolve in a meaningfulrnsense. I think if you look atrndesign as a part of the continuum of communication, since even beforernGuttenberg. Like go all the wayrnback to the invention of writing. rnThere's always been this back and forth between conversations and sortrnof documents, or a declarative kind of communication. So before Gutenberg, there was this really very strong oralrnstorytelling culture where being able to relay stories from person to personrnwas sufficient. And then, with thernintroduction of printing and mass communication, suddenly somebody had a lot ofrnauthority invested in the idea of a single canonical expression of a documentrnor a piece of communication.rnrn
And as I said before, that's kind of the way that designrnworks in the 20th century and I think now we're seeing the pendulum switch backrnto this idea where conversations are more important, if not more important thanrndocuments. And I think designrnalbeit a relatively young profession, but intimately a part of the wholerncommunications arc is going to need to evolve with that and really learn how tornaccommodate a sort of conversational way of communication that just wasn'trnprevalent at all in the 20th century.rnrn
Question: Is there any trend in contemporary design that yournwish would just go away?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: I think there's a really selfish part of me thatrnwishes I had the tools that I had today in the context of a designer practicingrnin the middle part of the 20th century when creating a single expression of anrnidea was the norm. If you had thernpower of today's hardware and software and the networks available, you couldrncreate some really amazing, amazing sort of declarative examples ofrndesigns. Some really terrificrndesign solutions that had at the same time the privilege of not beingrnquestioned the way they were in the 20th century. So, in a really selfish way, I wish I had that, but at thernsame time, what -- I know that what keeps me interested in my job and in thernmedium in general that what makes every few months more interesting, or newlyrninteresting every few weeks, is the idea that everything is changing, that thernideas that you think are sacrosanct and unimpeachable suddenly are up for grabsrnagain. And I think that's turbulent,rnbut I think there's a really refreshing sense of renewal there that alwaysrnkeeps me interested anyway.rnrn
Question: What specific design clichés or faux pas do yournsee other Web designers falling into?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Yeah. rnI think we are in this era right now where every element in a webpage isrnrendered to within an inch of its life. rnI think if it's a button, it looks like a physical button, you know, ifrnit's a mailbox that's meant to signal a messaging functionality then the wholernmailbox right down to the rivets on the hypothetical metallic housing isrnrendered. And I think there's arncertain beauty to that school of design and illustration. I'm hoping that it's something that'srngoing to expire soon. I think it'srnrather a little bit on the immature side, and I think there's actually anrninteresting correlation with the airbrush art that was really popular in thern70's where suddenly you had a new tool or a new interest in a tool that couldrnproduce like a new level of fidelity. rnAnd I think as technology and expertise makes possible these sort ofrnamazing levels of fidelity to the real world, a lot of people sort of get sortrnof -- what's the word I'm looking for -- seduced into that. And after a time, they get tired of itrnand they become a little bit more interested, I think at a certain level ofrnsubtraction and a new level of sophistication. And that's kind of where I'm hoping design will move in thernnext few years.rnrn
Question: What is your favorite font?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: I guess if there was a desert island scenario andrnI only could take one font with me, I guess it would be Helvetica, though itrnhas it's limitations, I think it's incredibly versatile and gets the job donernand I also think it's one of the typefaces that will really survive the test ofrntime beyond the next several decades if not into the next century. I think there's just something thatrnreally done right when that typeface is put together and not just that, I thinkrnthe conversation that sort of grew around Helvetica in the past five years agornhas really solidified it as a timeless classic. So, that's the one I would take with me. It's certainly not the only one, but ifrnpressed, that would be the one.rnrn
Question: Besides the Times, which publications’ Web designrndo you admire the most?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Well, I think our colleagues over at The Guardianrnare doing a really great job with their new presentation. And I think the art director overrnthere, he's Mark Porter. MarkrnPorter at The Guardian is doing a terrific job with the new presentation. He's a guy who came from a printrnbackground, he was art director for a newspaper for a long time and what Irnreally like about that example is he was quite modest in coming to the web andrnreally understood that it required him to really immerse himself for a year, ifrnnot for several years to get the medium and the results are really, reallyrnquite amazing. It's a very nicely controlled, evenly sort of executed newsrnexperience over there that at the same time really respects user's needs andrngoals and responds to them. Irnthink that's terrific.rnrn
At the same time, I think they have a different economicrnsituation than the Times does, which I am quite jealous of. They don't have to accommodate thernadvertising units that we do, so part of that is jealousy.rnrn
I also think over at NYMag.com, New York magazine's site, Irnthink Ian Adelman, the design director there is doing a really terrific jobrnmaking a site that's not that different from ours, but I think is infused withrna lot more sort of playfulness than the Times is, and has just done a terrificrnjob over the past few years creating a site that's really full of character andrnI think really accurately translates the personality of the print magazine tornthe web without being slavish to the print side.rnrn
Question: Do you remember immigrating to the U.S. fromrnVietnam as a young child?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Not really. rnYou know, I was about 3 1/2 and so, I have very few memories of it. I have a few memories of being youngrnhere in the United States, but almost no recollections of being young in Vietnam.rnrn
Question: Has your cultural background or early lifernexperience impacted your aesthetic in any way?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Yeah. rnI think there's a certain school of psychoanalysis that would say thatrnthe disruption that I experienced and my family experienced because of the war,rnbecause of having to uproot ourselves and relocate and sort of come to gripsrnwith an entirely different sensibility, or an entirely different order to thernworld here in the United states was huge and has a direct impact on myrnfastidious desire to put the world in order. And I wouldn't argue with that. I think there's a huge -- there's a huge desire in me tornmake sense of the world in a way that I think you can trace back to that earlyrndisruption, this idea of wanting to compensate for that really kind ofrntraumatic experience and sort of seeing its impact on my immediate and extendedrnfamily.rnrn
Question: What is “layer tennis,” and what has been yourrnfavorite match?rnrn
Khoi Vinh: Well, I've only been to the one Layer tennis match, whichrnwas a few weeks ago. Layer Tennisrnis, I think really a kind of genius game cooked up by a friend of mine who runsrna design agency in Chicago named Jim Kudall. In the game, two players -- two opponents, usuallyrndesigners, sometimes illustrators, sometimes topographers, essentially volleyrnback and forth a photo shot file and with each volley, they take what their opponentrnhad done just prior and try to build on it and sort of add some more **** andrnelaborate on it and then turn it around and send it back over to the otherrnplayer so that there's this back and forth where each volley is really arnchallenge to the other player to do something better; to one up the otherrnplayer. It's a little bit esotericrnand it's probably more fun to play than to watch because unless the players arernreally in sync, it can sometimes sort of seem like two people coming up withrnrandom images and throwing it back and forth at each other. But what makes it interesting to watchrnand to play really is this sort of 15 minute stop watch on each volley, andrnthat sort of takes design into a new dimension that it's not typicallyrnassociated with this idea of designing live, or designing in real time andrnpeople observing that.rnrn
And so, I had never really played it before and I had onlyrnseen the matches after they had been completed before. But I have to admit, it was really funrnto play when I played it a few weeks ago. rnAnd I think what's really good about it is it takes your design skillsrnand makes you think in a different part of your brain in a brain that has tornrespond in real time and to think very free-associatively and to play and notrnto think about business constraints and technology constraints entirely.
Recorded on March 3, 2010
Interviewed by Austin rnAllen