A conversation with the blogger and design director of the New York Times website at Big Think.
Khoi Vinh was born in 1971 in Saigon, Vietnam, and immigrated to the United States three and a half years later. He graduated in 1993 from Otis College of Art and Design, where he majored in communication design with a focus on illustration. In 2001, he joined several colleagues in founding Behavior, a design studio, which he helped manage and run for four years. Since January 2006, he has worked at The New York Times as the Design Director for NYTimes.com. Vinh also writes about design at his personal blog, Subtraction (Subtraction.com).
Khoi Vinh: My name’s Khoi Vinh, I am the Design Director at www.NYTimes.com, and I am also the author of a weblog at www.Subtraction.com.
Question: What does your day-to-day work as a designer consist of?
Khoi Vinh: Well mostly it’s about sitting in meetings. I spend a lot of time — the way I look at my job, I spend a lot of time trying to create the conditions for good design to happen and I don’t get an opportunity to do a lot of hands on work. Really, our mission in the design group is really to try and look at NYTimes.com, to look at the digital delivery of New York Times content and create a really great user experience out of it and build new features and functionalities. So, that just requires a lot of background discussions and negotiations and brainstorming and getting the right people together at the table. So, that’s largely what I do is try and get all those pieces in place so the designers who work in my group can then sort of set them up for a really great user experience on the website, and on our other platforms.
Question: How would you characterize your own style as a designer?
Khoi Vinh: Well, I think that — the way I put our sensibility at NYTimes.com group also nicely meshes with mine. I try to get a maximum of elegance with a minimum of ornamentation, so we’re trying to do as much as we can with as little as we can. So that means using as many native elements of whatever medium you are working in without trying to introduce other flourishes and making the most of those to communicate elegance and ease of use and efficiency.
Question: Has there ever been a characterization of your style that you’ve hated?
Khoi Vinh: Yes, and no. I think I sort of have a love/hate relationship with a reputation I have for being the designer who works with grids. And maybe about four years ago, four or five years ago, I wrote a series of articles on my blogs, Subtraction.com, that really talked about how online designers, interaction designers can benefit from a lot of the topographic grid principles that print designers have been using for decades offline, and that was really a big boost to my career, my reputation, and I’m still quite proud of it. At the same time, I often feel like that’s all people think of me for and if I want to talk about something else, then they kind of tune out. That’s not always the case, that’s maybe not a fair characterization, but from time to time, it happens.
Question: Is your personal workspace messy or orderly?
Khoi Vinh: I really try to keep my personal workspace as tidy as possible. I really believe there’s a place for everything and everything in its place, as the cliché goes. I really try to do that insofar as I can control it. I live with a really wonderful woman and we have a baby and a dog, so at the same time, I really have to temper that desire to really control that element with the realization that life doesn’t work like that. Like you have to have a balance and understand that as much as you would like to have absolute control over everything, it’s just not realistic.
Question: How has the New York Times website design evolved during your time at the paper?
Khoi Vinh: Well, when I came in, in 2006, they were in the middle of putting together a new redesign of the site and I helped them finish that off and get that launched. And since that time, it’s early 2010 now, for almost four years, we’ve been sort of relentlessly revising bits and pieces of the site, adding new functionality to it, manipulating her here and there to respond to different user needs, different business criteria and so forth. So, I think the change has been significant though very incrementally paced.
Question: Why does the design of the Times’ online edition differ so radically from the print edition?
Khoi Vinh: Well the very fact that it’s a different kind of medium altogether. It’s just like, occasionally you’ll see a magazine, or these days, a website like TMZ translated to a television show and by its very nature, it has to be reimagined for the new medium. It has to be designed or rethought in a way that is appropriate for the new medium. And that’s the case going between print and web, or print and any kind of digital medium.
I think the thing about the Internet is that it has so many characteristics that can be easily construed to be similar or almost identical to print that it can be misleading. You can think, well you just treat it the way you treat print. You’re dealing with pages, you’re dealing with type, you’re dealing with more or less static layout elements. It turns out that’s not really the case. I think the key difference between the web and print medium is, on the web or any digital medium, you’re dealing with this added element of behavior. Things have a behavior online, whereas in print, there is a single canonical expression for them, but online everything responds to different criteria or has inherent states to it based on that criteria. So, you have to design that in a different way. It’s a completely different dynamic even though it may look similar.
Question: What are some examples of how user behavior affects your thinking as a Web designer?
Khoi Vinh: Well, if you look at the front page of the printed edition, there is a very specific discrete set of stories that are applied there and you can more or less expect the print reader to absorb the stories that you have on that front page in the same kind of order and in more or less the same kind of fashion.
On the web, you really have no idea how they’re going to access the stories that you’ve designated the lead stories of the day. They could come in through “search” they could come in through a blog; they could come in through a news reader. They may never see the home page as we’ve designed it. They may actually bypass it entirely and go directly to the article.
So all of these things really play into how you think about the overall user experience in the design. You have to design a story that might appear on the front page of the newspaper for the website. You don’t have to design it in such a way that it can be self contained, that it makes sense if you never hit the front page of it. You know, our editors actually spend a pretty decent amount of effort retooling, rewriting headlines so that they make sense to somebody who comes in digitally because oftentimes headlines in print are meant to sit next to other headlines and sort of benefit from that context and we don’t always have that.
Our articles also, online, will change based on the platform, the technology that people are using to view them. So, they may see things differently in one browser, or one operating system and very differently on another browser, or even on a different kind of device. So, we have to think about the things we design to make sure that they apply appropriately to the very different states that they might be encountered in.
Question: For newspapers, is print design becoming obsolete?
Khoi Vinh: I wouldn’t say it’s obsolete. I think you still, more than people give print credit for; people still turn to the print edition as the canonical expression of what The Times said that day. It’s the paper of record, and the record, for now any way, is what is official in print. So, the work the designers put into crafting a really unique and powerful and I think a very effective presentation every day, I think is really important. I think if you took away all the designers and automated the process tomorrow, the end result would be really, really dissatisfying and disturbing to a lot of people. So, I think there’s a lot of value that print designers have.
Now, how long that kind of value that they create will be welcomed in the marketplace, I think that is very difficult to say. I think the economic pressures are pretty 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 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.
Question: Is there any trend in contemporary design that you wish would just go away?
Khoi Vinh: I think there’s a really selfish part of me that wishes I had the tools that I had today in the context of a designer practicing in the middle part of the 20th century when creating a single expression of an idea was the norm. If you had the power of today’s hardware and software and the networks available, you could create some really amazing, amazing sort of declarative examples of designs. Some really terrific design solutions that had at the same time the privilege of not being questioned the way they were in the 20th century. So, in a really selfish way, I wish I had that, but at the same time, what — I know that what keeps me interested in my job and in the medium in general that what makes every few months more interesting, or newly interesting every few weeks, is the idea that everything is changing, that the ideas that you think are sacrosanct and unimpeachable suddenly are up for grabs again. And I think that’s turbulent, but I think there’s a really refreshing sense of renewal there that always keeps me interested anyway.
Question: What specific design clichés or faux pas do you see other Web designers falling into?
Khoi Vinh: Yeah. I think we are in this era right now where every element in a webpage is rendered to within an inch of its life. I think if it’s a button, it looks like a physical button, you know, if it’s a mailbox that’s meant to signal a messaging functionality then the whole mailbox right down to the rivets on the hypothetical metallic housing is rendered. And I think there’s a certain beauty to that school of design and illustration. I’m hoping that it’s something that’s going to expire soon. I think it’s rather a little bit on the immature side, and I think there’s actually an interesting correlation with the airbrush art that was really popular in the 70’s where suddenly you had a new tool or a new interest in a tool that could produce like a new level of fidelity. And I think as technology and expertise makes possible these sort of amazing levels of fidelity to the real world, a lot of people sort of get sort of — what’s the word I’m looking for — seduced into that. And after a time, they get tired of it and they become a little bit more interested, I think at a certain level of subtraction and a new level of sophistication. And that’s kind of where I’m hoping design will move in the next few years.
Question: What is your favorite font?
Khoi Vinh: I guess if there was a desert island scenario and I only could take one font with me, I guess it would be Helvetica, though it has it’s limitations, I think it’s incredibly versatile and gets the job done and I also think it’s one of the typefaces that will really survive the test of time beyond the next several decades if not into the next century. I think there’s just something that really done right when that typeface is put together and not just that, I think the conversation that sort of grew around Helvetica in the past five years ago has 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 if pressed, that would be the one.
Question: Besides the Times, which publications’ Web design do you admire the most?
Khoi Vinh: Well, I think our colleagues over at The Guardian are doing a really great job with their new presentation. And I think the art director over there, he’s Mark Porter. Mark Porter at The Guardian is doing a terrific job with the new presentation. He’s a guy who came from a print background, he was art director for a newspaper for a long time and what I really like about that example is he was quite modest in coming to the web and really understood that it required him to really immerse himself for a year, if not for several years to get the medium and the results are really, really quite amazing. It’s a very nicely controlled, evenly sort of executed news experience over there that at the same time really respects user’s needs and goals and responds to them. I think that’s terrific.
At the same time, I think they have a different economic situation than the Times does, which I am quite jealous of. They don’t have to accommodate the advertising units that we do, so part of that is jealousy.
I also think over at NYMag.com, New York magazine’s site, I think Ian Adelman, the design director there is doing a really terrific job making a site that’s not that different from ours, but I think is infused with a lot more sort of playfulness than the Times is, and has just done a terrific job over the past few years creating a site that’s really full of character and I think really accurately translates the personality of the print magazine to the web without being slavish to the print side.
Question: Do you remember immigrating to the U.S. from Vietnam as a young child?
Khoi Vinh: Not really. You know, I was about 3 1/2 and so, I have very few memories of it. I have a few memories of being young here in the United States, but almost no recollections of being young in Vietnam.
Question: Has your cultural background or early life experience impacted your aesthetic in any way?
Khoi Vinh: Yeah. I think there’s a certain school of psychoanalysis that would say that the disruption that I experienced and my family experienced because of the war, because of having to uproot ourselves and relocate and sort of come to grips with an entirely different sensibility, or an entirely different order to the world here in the United states was huge and has a direct impact on my fastidious 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 to make sense of the world in a way that I think you can trace back to that early disruption, this idea of wanting to compensate for that really kind of traumatic experience and sort of seeing its impact on my immediate and extended family.
Question: What is “layer tennis,” and what has been your favorite match?
Khoi Vinh: Well, I’ve only been to the one Layer tennis match, which was a few weeks ago. Layer Tennis is, I think really a kind of genius game cooked up by a friend of mine who runs a design agency in Chicago named Jim Kudall. In the game, two players — two opponents, usually designers, sometimes illustrators, sometimes topographers, essentially volley back and forth a photo shot file and with each volley, they take what their opponent had done just prior and try to build on it and sort of add some more **** and elaborate on it and then turn it around and send it back over to the other player so that there’s this back and forth where each volley is really a challenge to the other player to do something better; to one up the other player. It’s a little bit esoteric and it’s probably more fun to play than to watch because unless the players are really in sync, it can sometimes sort of seem like two people coming up with random images and throwing it back and forth at each other. But what makes it interesting to watch and to play really is this sort of 15 minute stop watch on each volley, and that sort of takes design into a new dimension that it’s not typically associated with this idea of designing live, or designing in real time and people observing that.
And so, I had never really played it before and I had only seen the matches after they had been completed before. But I have to admit, it was really fun to play when I played it a few weeks ago. And I think what’s really good about it is it takes your design skills and makes you think in a different part of your brain in a brain that has to respond in real time and to think very free-associatively and to play and not to think about business constraints and technology constraints entirely.