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

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."

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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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