Khoi Vinh's Mixel, an Art-Making Tool and New Social Network

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With Mixel, the former design director of New York Times Digital is convinced that he has an app that can attract millions of amateur artists

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Are you an amateur artist who feels like professionals are always looking down their nose at you? Well, Mixel, a new iPad app developed by Khoi Vinh, former design director of New York Times Digital, and the co-proprietor Lascaux Co., Inc., is for you. Mixel, which rhymes with pixel, is an art-making tool that interfaces, as it were, with a new kind of social network, enabling you, me, and anyone who has a penchant for cutting and pasting -- making collages -- to create and share art. It is a gallery for amateurs where criticism is suspended and creative abandon is supported.

Vinh insists Mixel will trigger a visual conversation that gives everyone a voice.

Vinh long wanted to produce a digital product that would champion art in a nonjudgemental manner. As an obsessive scrapbook journal-keeper, he had been staring his idea in the face. The trick was finding the glue to bind collage-making and the digital world together.

"When I looked at the art apps on the iPad," he recently told me, "I wondered why I felt no passion for them, and why they weren't winning over non-artists -- the iPad makes art so easy for anybody to do, yet only professionals were using it in that capacity. One of my credos is that "anything that can be social will be," and it occurred to me that the iPad was the perfect place to do that; not only is it a powerfully intuitive art device, but it's a natural network device too. Once I had that insight, I just had to figure out the easiest, funnest, least personally risky path for amateurs, and making collage a social activity presented itself."

On the surface, I thought Mixel wasn't much different than the craft kits I used to get at Christmas time from relatives who had no idea what to give a pre-teen. Then I saw it in operation. While it lacks the complexity of Adobe software, that's actually a good thing for the casual user. And while it draws upon a lot of existing imagery, it allows for original photos and drawings to be uploaded and made available to all on the network.

Vinh advocates the inevitability of art sharing, which gives greater creative power, in this case, to untutored individuals. "Among social media's most powerful and consistent effects is that it turns skills and activities that were previously reserved only for professionals into things that everyone can take part in. Journalism and photography are just two examples," he insisted, "and art is just one of many areas that is waiting to be transformed."

One can argue whether amateur, or as Vinh says, "user-generated," content stands up to the quality produced by professionals, "but it's hard to deny that, in total, the results are amazing. Aiding and abetting amateurs is really about bringing into the world new outlets for creativity that people didn't have before," he says. "In my view, the more of that, the better for all of us, really."

Vinh insists Mixel will trigger a visual conversation that gives everyone a voice. His goal is for users to "have fun making art before they know it's art, in a sense. We want people to leave behind the notion that one must be a skilled draughtsman, painter, or rhetorician in order to make art, that art has to be a big statement that's suitable for hanging on a wall. Instead, we want people to think of art as something casual, fun, informal, quick, and easy, that anyone can take part in it."

So what Mixel traits take this product out of the realm of a primitive "MacPaint" experience? "Mixel is deeply social, which is game-changing," said Vinh, who argues that most people don't stick with art software not because they lack the skills, but because this software lack the social context that encourages users and makes it fun. "Mixel lets your friends and people you don't know join you in conducting visual conversations with collages. It makes art-making a social activity." He says "deeply social" because the experience is not voyeuristic. One can follow other Mixel users' work within the app, and the collage pieces have a kind of social life of their own, as they can be reused and re-cropped.

Story continues after the gallery.


Obviously, Vinh is trying to capitalize on the incredible proliferation of social networks. But there's more in his view: "I believe it's a fantastic cultural development that gives us all new ways to express ourselves and make connections that would never have been possible before. Of course, it doesn't come without caveats or downsides of its own, but few innovations do. It's very much like broadcasting or mass media: it's powerful and enriching, but it must be tempered with thoughtfulness and care."

Convinced there is a huge audience waiting for a virtual space to "pour their energies into the right creative outlet," Vinh's app is an investment that looks at large potential payback. "If you think about it, everyone -- all of us -- starts out doing this as kids," Vinh says. "If we can give that to people again, we fully believe that audience is tens if not hundreds of millions of people strong. A user base of that size presents tremendous opportunities for monetization, whether it's in-app purchases of software tools or subscriptions or hard goods. We have a lot of interesting ideas in this arena, but the first step is to start winning over that audience."

Mixel will be popularized through outreach to a broad potential interest group. "The great thing about this app is that almost anyone is a potential user," Vinh said. "The core thing, though, is to build a community of passionate, engaged Mixel users who will help spread the word."

Other than another novelty app, what will the "engaged Mixel users" receive in return? "We've really tried to create an environment that encourages positive content, that gives users every reason to post collages that are fun and adventurous and creative without being insulting or rude or pornographic." And then there is the "conversation" that excites Vinh. "Beyond that, I've seen social networks have some powerful, life-changing effects. My girlfriend was an early photo blogger, and she found a community of like-minded people from all over the world on Fotolog some years ago. Those people became lifelong friends for her; they attend one another's weddings and visit one another on trips; many of them have gone on to make careers in photography or change career paths because they were inspired by the social interaction they had on that network."

The proof is in the collaging. Vinh said he has many features planned for the inevitable updates. "The beauty of this idea is that the longer we think about the possibilities, the more possibilities arise." And whether amateur or professional, isn't art about endless possibilities?

Image: Mixel.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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