Sunday in the Park With Khoi Vinh

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What makes the hot designer of the new iPad app Mixel tick?

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On a frigid Sunday morning, shortly before 8 o'clock, Mister President was reluctantly convinced to go out for a walk. Mister President is the dog adopted nearly nine years ago by designer-entrepreneur Khoi Vinh. The black Labrador-mix makes his way from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn over to Fort Greene Park about three or four times a week, but has not kept particularly active on Twitter. He's only tweeted once in the past year, after vigorous activity at the close of the '00s.

As Mister President's spokesperson, Vinh admits his shortcomings. "Back when I didn't really understand Twitter, I thought it would just be funny to do it," he said, adding, "That's also back when I was single and childless. So I had a lot more time for those kinds of idle pursuits." 

Vinh, the former Design Director for NYTimes.com who ushered the newspaper into viable digital life, is also the creator of a newly-launched iPad app, Mixel, a dedicated app for making collages. It recasts the white iPad screen as a sheet of scrap paper from a second-grade craft closet, with which art is made in a low-stakes, compulsive mode. Mixels are intended to be completed in minutes--which looks about right, upon a scroll through the gallery--to allow for "visual chatter."

Over the past year, Mixel has risen to dominate Vinh's pack of side projects. Most notable among them is his design blog, Subtraction, where he cheers or criticizes emerging digital ventures, muses on loftier aesthetic ideals, or posts pictures of his 2 year-old daughter, Thuy. She, like Mister President, has her own web presence; Vinh seems like someone who maintains a ghastly number of Tumblrs.

He sat on a park bench, looking out at dogs playing on the grass. Mister President was parked beside him. It had been a long week for the designer. Mixel appeared on the App Store to an encouraging amount of buzz. Vinh tried to explain how he tends to his artistic temperament. "My side projects have always been about design first and foremost. And trying to intellectualize design in some way, trying to bring my design perspective forward--" Mister President snoutily interrupted him. "He's bored," Vinh said, as he removed the leash. "Okay. Don't make a mess." The dog ran off to join the local dog circuit. He sniffed, he played. Dogs chased each other. Vinh watched.

Mixel is his latest attempt to bring his approach to art to the masses. The app is built for copying and riffing rather than originality, so that "every image in Mixel sort of has a social life of its own," Vinh explained. "A picture of a dog gets picked up, reused, socializes with other images. So you can follow that around and see how these ideas moved. We think that's really powerful, and it sort of teaches you a lot about visual expression and art, sort of following things around."

All the world's a collage, dogs or faces or trees appropriated over and over again, in spliced and re-sized renditions that can be redesigned and redistributed endlessly. If, as Khoi says, the hardest thing about collage is not having enough material to work with, Mixel offers unlimited scraps to satisfy those able to pluck just the right ones from the pile. But Vinh isn't concerned with that level of artistic judgment.

"It used to be that when you would sit in a classroom or at home with your friends drawing or cutting up magazines, the context was very encouraging. Like, 'That's fun, keep doing that,'" he said. But the rigors of adulthood take all that away. "Society basically tells everybody else you should stop embarrassing yourself." Only the perfectionists survive.

Vinh's design tendencies are undeniably sharp. He has a crisp aesthetic that favors a clean blueprint to let playfulness stand out against simplicity. When he was an undergraduate at the Otis College of Art and Design, a small art school in California, Vinh thought he wanted to study drawing and painting. But then, "I realized that all the problems I was interested in were really design problems. And the computer was really the gateway to design. " He taught himself how to code on nights and weekends, but even now, he says, "I wouldn't even flatter myself by calling myself a bad developer." After working at agencies before, through, and after the Internet boom, he started at the Times in early 2006.

A few months after arriving at the Times, Vinh posted on his blog about illustrations on the internet. There aren't enough, he complained, and for that matter, hardly any drawings to speak of on Subtraction. "My ability to create pictures by hand is in a state of arrested development," he wrote. "It's been far too long since I've done it seriously enough to be able to produce anything satisfactory when I sit down with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. That's something that I need to resolve, but not today."

There was much too much to do at the Times. "I came on board at the Times at a stage when they realized they needed to improve the user experience of their products in a major way," he explained. The pressure was on to produce content that engages readers not only in its storytelling, but also in terms of changing consumption styles and reading platforms. He changed the look of the website by using white space more effectively, standardizing fonts, and eliminating clutter to make the homepage sleek. A March 2005 edition of the NYTimes.com is an unpleasant vestige of clunky web design. Once Vinh took over, a March 2007 version is virtually indistinguishable from the now-handsome site. The Times also introduced its paywall during Vinh's tenure, as well as blogs, apps, and other projects tailored for a digital audience.

He learned that "digital content is weird," he told me. "There are no clear, absolute rules." This lack of restriction presented an opportunity for Vinh to design his own way of doing things to suit new habits of media consumption. The Times needed this--and still does--but oriented toward journalism in particular, at a moment when his mind was beginning to wander.

"I have been lucky to have some great jobs, but they haven't always been 100% satisfying. And just having the side projects really helps keep me interested." He left in July 2010, with the intention of stepping out of the journalism bubble. 

After all, Vinh has never been a Times subscriber. After he quit his job there, he had a "holy-moly moment" when he realized he didn't need to read it anymore. He never buys the paper. His diet of start-up blogs and industry sites left little room for general news-reading. It does remain the newspaper he turns to, however infrequently.

As he left the Times, a new opportunity emerged from the technological muck: the iPad. Vinh, like many designers, was drawn to tablets as a new creative platform. But while a general chorus of app-builders harped on the potential for passive reading or consuming, Vinh focused on functionality and social interaction. In the iPad, he also saw a distinct mode of design-making, both in terms of engineering and in fostering what he imagined as a user's dormant artistic sensibility. He wanted to combine art with the social graph on a tablet. Along with developer Scott Ostler, he started a company called Lascaux, named for the site in southwestern France that is home to prehistoric cave paintings. "From the very beginning, we knew the company was going to be about art and trying to get people back to that really deep rooted human impulse to express yourself visually," Vinh said. Out of Lascaux, came Mixel.

When Vinh started showing the first prototypes around, he received feedback suggesting the app might best suit kids. But his target was always an audience of grown-up doodlers and unrealized artists à la digital cameras' expansion of photography. His two year-old can move images he pulls from the stockpile around the screen, but she can't compose any work of her own. "So now I feel bad that I haven't made a tool easy enough for a two year-old to understand," he said. Maybe when she's older--five, he suggested--Thuy will get the hang of it. She does like to draw and paint, and Vinh and his girlfriend proudly joke that "she has sort of the OCD characteristics of a designer."

Across from the bench where Vinh sat was a narrow ditch of mud, tempting the wandering noses of pets toward the crevice between the path and the grass. Vinh kept looking back at it anxiously through his thick-rimmed light-gray glasses. Then came the inevitable, agonizing sight of a dog running uninhibitedly into the sludge. "AAh! Don't you drink that water!" his owner shrieked, as Khoi laughed nervously. She yelled, "Oh! Look at your pores. OMG."

Mister President left the park in the same black coat with which he had entered, unsplattered, having avoided the mud altogether.

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Betsy Morais is an editorial assistant at The New Yorker.

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