New York-based graphic designer Khoi Vinh has routinely been blogging at Subtraction.com for over a decade now, offering well-crafted, insightful posts on design, architecture, writing, film, and more. Formerly the design director at NYTimes.com, he recently launched the Lascaux Co. and the Mixel social collage app for iPad. He offered up a few moments of his time to answer some of our pressing questions on the visual web, Pinterest, Android's design choices, and more. Follow him at @khoi.
Mac or PC (and all-time favorite computer, make and model)?
I've been a Mac user since forever. My favorite model was probably the 12" PowerBook G4, which was the precursor to the 13" MacBook Air. I'd been wanting Apple to build a really small PowerBook for a long time, and they finally did for a while with that model. It wasn't slim, but it was small, which is almost always what I prefer in a laptop.
What phone do you use?
iPhone 4. And a Uniden cordless phone at home. I kind of hate talking on the phone in general, and talking on a cell phone is even worse, so I try to get on a landline as much as I can.
Have you gone back to the Kindle Fire since trying to use it regularly late last year?
I still use it pretty regularly, but really just for one purpose: reading The New Yorker on the subway. I find the form factor is pretty agreeable for (very) crowded subway trains. However, I bought my Kindle Fire out of a sense of duty; it seemed like the first truly viable Android tablet so I felt like I had to give it a spin. If I were suddenly a regular consumer again and I was faced with the choice of having to buy my own Kindle Fire or pay the extra money for an iPad, I wouldn't hesitate to go for the iPad. The Fire is just not thrilling in any way.
When reading on a digital screen, from E Ink to Retina Display, what do you most prefer? Nook? Kindle app on Galaxy Nexus?
I prefer a Retina Display, and I prefer it in my pocket, which is to say I prefer reading on my iPhone. I've read pretty long books that way, and while I agree that a bigger display might be nice, the fact that I have whatever I'm currently reading — whether it's a book or a document — with me is invaluable.
What are your top five most-used apps, any platform?
Do email and calendar count? Those are my top two, obviously. Beyond those: Reeder for RSS feeds, PDF Pen for signing documents, Photoshop for mocking up designs, Adium for chat, Echofon (desktop) and TweetBot (phone) for Twitter, Text Expander for being a typing geek, and 1Password for passwords and telling people how awesome 1Password is.
Who (or what) are you most excited about on the web now?
The visual web. I think what Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest have done for helping people express themselves visually is so great. They really represent a maturation of the web. Where once everything was text and task oriented, they're showing the way towards a much more expressionistic form of communication. I think you'll see a lot more in this arena — and it's no accident we built Mixel to fit this mold — and it's only going to get more interesting.
Who's doing the most interesting desktop app design these days?
I'm passionate about the Mac and what's possible on the desktop, and I think independent Mac developers are some of the most creative minds in technology... but right now the most interesting thing happening on the desktop, by far, is Apple's iOS-ification of OS X. They're clearly in the process of upending a decades-old paradigm for thinking about desktop software, and whether it's successful or not is going to be very interesting.
What about Pinterest appeals to you, and got you started using it?
Everything that I mentioned above about the visual web is probably truer for Pinterest than anybody else. But I also think they have really pulled off the simultaneity of consumption and creation to an astonishing degree, more so than almost anyone else. In Pinterest, consumers and creators are practically one; you almost can't be a consumer without creating in Pinterest, because the latter act is so ridiculously easy — and satisfying.
Anyway, for me, they solved a great problem: stashing visual stuff that I was fond of but didn't have anywhere else to put. As soon as I started doing that, I got hooked on curating my boards. I respect the hell out of a lot of contemporary social web successes, but I probably genuinely enjoy Pinterest more than any others.
How should media publishers deal with the fact that readers are increasingly getting news, links, and more from a range of sources filtered through social networks? Is anyone doing it particularly well?
I think news organizations have to get really, really serious about creating a social software product that leverages their product in a value-add way. This is basically what a few dozen startups are doing, and somebody is going to figure this out; if I were the owner of a news organization, I would put $10 million towards funding a few of my own startups to get a better shot at owning the winning solution. Because none of the existing 'old media' news brands are going to do it. Anyway, within a decade, we'll have a social news powerhouse brand that can sit comfortably next to the New York Times, Economist, CNN, etc. That seems inevitable to me.
Grids - a concept that's hardly cutting edge - were the hot new thing a few years ago in web design. What kind of lessons or parallels from design history can be applied - or do you already see being applied - to mobile design?
The biggest lesson that we can apply from design history is that grids are table stakes for being a good designer, but beyond that not particularly interesting in and of themselves. There is so much more to any kind of design solution, especially those on mobile devices, that knowing how to use a grid is just a start.
What do you think about Android's design path lately?
They are serious about design and I think that's fantastic. I wrote about this recently when they launched their Android Design microsite; clearly they want Android to have a good design culture. What's most interesting to me is whether they can retrofit their ecosystem to embrace design. As I wrote in that post, "the successful design platforms that we're most familiar with tend to be ‘born that way,'" and adding design later is an unproven strategy. Either way it's going to be very interesting to watch.
What's the best movie you've seen lately?
I think Stephen Soderbergh's Haywire was kind of magnificent. It has a threadbare plot, but it's great fun to see a truly talented director take on action movie clichés in thoroughly original fashion. Soderbergh cast mixed martial arts star Gina Carano as bruiser of a mercenary, and it's a wonder to watch her. Contemporary action films are so ridiculously enthralled with this downright stupid conceit of supermodel-like actresses kicking the shit out of huge tough guys — I mean, can Angelie Jolie or Kate Beckinsale really beat up anybody? — that it's startling and revelatory to see a woman who can actually do those things for real.
How do you stay focused?
Day to day and hour to hour, I don't think I do much better than trying to stay focused. But in the bigger picture, I keep my overarching goals in mind: in my professional life, I am trying to build something meaningful that I can feel very proud of. In my personal life I'm trying to be the best possible life partner to my girlfriend and father to my daughter. Those are not necessarily listed in order, but I filter every decision through that agenda, which helps me stay pretty much on track.
Could you have created Mixel without the iPad?
No, we really couldn't have. Apple brought everything together: they created a mass audience of people who embraced multitouch computing; they created the perfect device for creating digital art; they uncovered brand new use cases in engaging with digital media. There's no way Mixel could have happened on the desktop, and so when we set out to build it, we tried very hard to build something that was native to the iPad. What we hear from our users — that it makes people who don't have iPads want to buy one, and that it makes those who do have iPads rediscover their devices —seems to confirm this.
What books are you currently reading?
Out of Our Minds by Ken Robinson, which looks at the social imperative for creativity. The Art of Fielding, which is about a baseball and life — I think? I didn't read anything about it before I started it, which is kind of fun, and I'm about a third of the way through it.
Read more 5 Minutes on The Verge