CBC-net Interview: Khoi Vinh

Last week I interviewed Khoi Vinh for the popular Japanese design portal CBC-net. The interview was published in Japanese only, but here is the English for all the single-byte readers out there.

Khoi Vinh is the design director for The New York Times website. He is also cofounder of the design journal “A Brief Message.” A Brief Message differs from other regularly updated journals in that all entries are both brief and “art directed.” Its layout changes with each weekly issue, marrying evocative illustrations with short essays by prominent voices in the design community, in a clever combination of balancing strict grids with fluidity through CSS and other HTML techniques.

Until 2005 Vinh was a cofounder of the award winning NYC based web design firm Behavior. Behavior was responsible for such large-scale redesign as The Onion, which proved high style and high usability can be achieved with just the fundamentals of graphic design: strong typography; precise grid systems and clear hierarchy. His websites often use just a few colors and a few typefaces at a few sizes, yet they often support complex information structures and layout variations.

The community response to A Brief Message has been almost universally positive. Not only for the brevity and poignancy of the content, but also for the daring shift in mindset towards layout and narrative. Now that the battle for usability, web standards and accessibility has been largely won, this is undoubtedly a next step in the evolution of the web.

On Subtraction, you identify a mission for A Brief Message: to transcend “decorated databases” and bring art direction to the web. What inspired this idea?

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time, mostly because at The New York Times I work in an environment with both print and Web designers and the differences between the two job descriptions can be dramatic. But going back almost two years, I wrote a blog post about this topic.

A Brief Message is an experiment to see if it’s practical to bring some of the values of traditional graphic design online. That means working with illustrators and trying to remake each page so that it reflects the content that particular article is presenting – much like a printed magazine. It may very well not be possible because of the way the Web works. Either way, it’s worth a try, because if it’s successful, I think it will be influential in how this medium evolves.

Are there aspects of “the way the Web works” that you felt working against you as you tried applying these print design techniques to A Brief Message?

Well, by and large, the Web is not nearly as much of a medium for narrative as print is. Which means that people want to consume information online in as expedient and useful a manner as possible, which explains why so many people use email forwarding, RSS, and will link to the printer-friendly versions of articles. They’re essentially extracting the information that’s useful to them, and leaving behind the narrative presentation.

With A Brief Message, we’re saying there’s real value in the presentation (i.e., the illustrations and layouts), but we’re not being obstinate about it. You can get the full text of every Message via RSS feed (in Atom format, actually) and we’re keeping the coding very semantically correct by using CSS and non-obtrusive markup to implement the presentation. The content is what matters. So, as much as we’re invested in A Brief Message as an experiment for great illustration, I wouldn’t consider it a failure if ultimately our audience says that they only care about the content. I hope that’s not the case, but I’ll be happy if our content resonates with our audience.

You’ve written how the length and frequency of A.B.M articles allows you an unusually high level of attention paid to each one, quite a different working condition from your job at NYTimes.com. Can you describe how design work is different at sites as big as NYTimes.com?

If I had to sum it up: everything is bigger: more content, more variations, more people involved. It’s a lot more about building relationships with people so that you can work together to get things done. Learning how to work productively with people is the biggest design aid of all.

When you were first hired for the job, you described an affinity among your own strengths and the design challenges of NYTimes.com, specifically “lots of text, presented in as elegant a manner as possible and with a minimum of ornamentation”. Can you point to a recently designed project which really put your text-oriented design instincts to work?

Have a look at our work on the series “Choking on Growth,” which is a tailor-made presentation of a big investigative piece on China’s environmental situation. It’s a synthesis of image, multimedia and extensive reporting that, hopefully, creates a coherent user experience.

Looking into the future, do you see any changes in the way websites are made that might open up the door for the art directorial values of A.B.M. to be applied more regularly?

People tend to think that this is solely a technical challenge, that we’re waiting on just the right WYSIWYG tool that will allow us to lay out the Web the way InDesign lets us lay out a printed page. And that’s true, in part – I don’t yet see any technological tool on the horizon that will allow for that, but when it comes it will play a critical part in allowing us to take on a more art directorial approach to online design.

But the second, more crucial part is the economic viability of such a role. Right now it’s just not financially efficient to devote too much energy to art directing online, because everything needs to move so quickly and because businesses can’t wait for art direction to be done before publishing. We’re still in an economically early stage for online media; when an online business can bring in significantly more money per employee than they can right now, I think we’ll see a greater desire for the values that art direction brings to the table.

Do you have any future projects you’re working on that continue in this thread?

For sure, but I can’t talk about them now!

Thanks Khoi!

October 29, 2007