«Does my mom understand what I do?» – Interview with Khoi Vinh

Photo by: Amber Gregory License: CC BY 2.0

A big inspiration for me and a reason for why I write is a guy called Khoi Vinh. Growing up as an immigrant in Maryland, he worked his way up to being named one of “The 50 Most Influential Designers in America” by Fast Company.

More importantly: Khoi does not only work in multiple design disciplines, he also writes about it. His blog, Subtraction, has been around since the end of 2000, covering not only design topics but everything around technology, culture, and film – topics that Khoi finds personally fascinating. What I find fascinating about his work is how he finds a way to put these topics into the context of design, instead of just talking about the latest Sketch Plugin or a typeface he really likes.

Khoi is getting back on the big stage this year, giving talks at design conferences. I had the privilege to see him speak in Los Angeles earlier this year, pushing out really interesting theses like “Design is not well understood” and “Design can actually harm a product.” Statements that leave more questions than answers. I had to reach out to Khoi and speak to him about it:

Question: Hi Khoi! “There is no straight path for designers” is a sentence from your talk that really stuck with – and I think a lot of us can identify with it. Can you describe yours?

Khoi Vinh: I started out doing traditional graphic design. I worked at studios, bigger agencies, I co-founded a studio, moved to The New York Times, worked there for several years, went to do a startup, and then I stayed in startups for a few years before I finally went back to the big company – Adobe. Big companies, small companies, big companies, small companies and big companies again.

“When working in agencies or startups, designers’ problems were always in addition to the core business problems. At Adobe, that’s our bread and butter.”

Q: Definitely not a straight path. Lots of designers, including myself, would consider Adobe as the Holy Grail of design – the company that makes all the tools.

A: (Laughs) I wouldn’t say exactly that it’s a Holy Grail. It’s definitely a different kind of design to create tools – very challenging and very satisfying. It’s different than the expressive work you might see in design studios or agencies, and it’s different from the consumer-oriented work of startups. The great thing about Adobe is that if you like the world of design and you like creating things for other designers, there is no other place that can give you the opportunity to think about all the problems that designers are facing every day as your main job. When I was working in small companies or big companies or agencies or tech startups, the problems of a designer were always something you had to think about in addition to the core problems of the business. At Adobe, that’s our bread and butter. We get to think about these problems, and we get to think about design every day as our main job. That’s a real luxury thatI enjoy

Q: You are working on Adobe XD, building the tools that have been missing in the Adobe stack. How does that resonate within Adobe?

A: XD is a huge priority at Adobe. There is an enormous amount of focus on it and a huge commitment to getting it done right. It’s really exciting to build a design tool from scratch in a way that it can sustain us for the next several decades, the way Photoshop and Illustrator have done. We are able to go back and rethink everything we have done and build it again in a better, faster, more modern way.

“Ask questions about the larger context of the work that’s been done.”

Q: Running your own company, you’ve mentioned that design skills are not enough for that. Would you describe yourself more as a designer or as a business person?

A: I’m a designer – one who does a lot of the business side as well. But at the end of the day, I’m a designer. I think about the world around me from the perspective of design. The contribution that I make as a business person comes through the lens of design. I think about problems from the designer’s perspective.

Q: What is more challenging – running a startup or running a design studio?

A: A startup is much more challenging. It’s easier to find work as a studio and to keep the work coming than to build up a good business – this takes a ton of effort!

Q: How has writing about design for Subtraction given you a new perspective?

A: It’s been a very important part of my career. It’s been a great place for me to work out ideas in public and to make connections with other people. It opened lots of doors and created a lot of opportunities.

Q: Would you recommend designers to start their own publication?

A: Not every designer naturally enjoys writing. If you can push yourself to be a better writer, write regularly and be an active voice in the community, you will benefit from it enormously. It can be a real help to your career.

Q: Since you started writing for Subtraction, you’ve interviewed dozens of creative people – you even published a book with some of your interviews. Who was your favorite interview partner?

A: That’s a goood question! I really enjoyed the interview with Rochelle King from Spotify. I also liked the Conversation About Fantasy User Interfaces with Kirill Grouchnikov. It’s a lot about design, it’s a lot about film that I love, and it talks about design in a cultural context such as how it can influence the world around. I’m really proud of that interview.

“I wish there were more people challenging the status quo.”

Q: How about the more polarizing guys. How about Eli Schiff?

A: It sure was polarizing! Some people appreciated that I was trying to have a conversation with him. Some people were so offended by what he had to say that they resented the fact that I was giving him time. I understand both perspectives. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I definitely wish there were more people out there challenging the status quo. I think that is important work.

Q: Challenging the status quo. In your talk, you mentioned that design is not well understood by everyone …

A: … well, on a very simple level: very few designers’ parents understand what they do. Does my mom understand what I do? I think that is a good indication whether a society at large understands it. We’re designing products; if your mom doesn’t understand it, then people won’t understand it. As designers, we want to be more influential and help society and culture at large – with the measures we know. And the fact that most don’t understand what design is is a really big problem.

Q: What can we do to change that?

A: It is not a simple solution, but part of what I’m trying to talk about is raising the bar, getting better at talking about design,asking hard questions about it and being more rigorous and thoughtful in our discussion. This will improve our ability to describe what we do and to broaden the conversation to beyond just designers. There are some other things that we need to do, too.We need more visibility in media, we need more people who can represent design in popular media and we need more focus on design in all kinds of business, not just technology. It needs to happen on many different levels – but I think the way that we can start as designers is by being more thoughtful when we talk about design.

“If your mom doesn’t understand it, then people won’t understand it.”

Q: Does your family understand what you do?

A: I think I could do a better job explaining some of the things I do. A lot of the times when we try to understand something, we have to hear it from more than one source.It’s similar to the way that marketing happens. You hear from somebody else about a movie, and then you might read a review in the newspaper or hear about it on TV or the radio. Maybe you hear about it at a dinner from the next table. It’s this cultural awareness that helps people better understand things, and for something as complex as design, you need to hear from a lot more than just the person that you have in your family. You need to hear about it from a conversation at a party or read about it in an email. It needs to come from many different sources.

Q: Does that also mean we need to make design more approachable than we do, more mainstream?

A: Not necessarily the work, but the dialogue, for sure!

Q: You said that design can be seen as a reason for failure, with the example of Twitter hiring a lot of designers just before things went south for Twitter on a business side. Can you explain this thesis a bit?

A: It’s not that I’m trying to point out that things can fail because of design. But as designers, we need to assume responsibility, and be held accountable for the failure of businesses and products. It’s not serious to only talk about design when things are successful – and to blame technology and business if things don’t go well. Design is not a magical “push to make things better” button that doesn’t have any responsibility when things fail.

Q: Where is this happening?

A: There have been a number of design-led initiatives in the tech industry. There was a really prominent example a few years ago: There was a product from Dropbox, called “Carousel”. It was a beautiful, design-driven photo app and it got a lot of notice at launch but it ultimately failed. There are design teams whose biggest successes are based on emulating products from other companies—sometimes very closely. Why are we not examining issues like that?

Q: As designers, does that also mean we do not fully understand the psychological side of things?

A: There are many designers that understand the psychological aspects of design. There is a difference in understanding it at that level and being willing to ask hard questions about when things fail. Ask questions about the larger context of the work that’s been done. I think there are a lot of smart designers out there considering the psychological aspect of their work. It’s the bigger picture of their work, the macro trends that are not being seen.

Q: If you weren’t a designer, what would you do?

A: I’d like to be in film. Cinematography or editing – or even directing or screenwriting or something like that. I like film noir from the 40s and 50s. I like screwball comedies from the 30s. I like Italian Neorealism. I like dumb superhero blockbusters. I’ll watch almost anything. I probably should have done something like that, to be honest. Or writing.

Q: Thank you very much for taking the time, Khoi!

Don’t miss out on Khoi’s blog Subtraction – and make sure you buy his book, “How they got there”. This interview was done with the help of Nacho Revuelta – check out his work as well! How did you like the interview? Should I do more of this in the future? Tell me on Twitter - thank you in advance!

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →