is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
The long-awaited new design for Boxes and Arrows, the venerable online information architecture magazine, went live earlier this week and it’s… um, it’s different. Very different.
Of course, it’s hard for me to give an objective assessment of this new look’s graphical merits. Way, way back in August 2004, I pulled a feverish all-nighter (with my former colleague, Chris Fahey) to knock out a competing design that I hoped would be selected as the new face for the magazine. I’m still very fond of what we pulled off, but, obviously, our proposal did not prevail.
Still, I’d like to think that even without that conflict of interest, I’d have much the same reaction as I had when I first saw this revision: the new Boxes and Arrows lacks certain traits of executional elegance that I value in well-designed interfaces. I’m talking about some basic stuff here: consistency in typographic conventions, semantic clarity in graphical elements, disambiguation in interface constructions, continuity with prior branding art… it’s a mess, and it will win no beauty pageants.
Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda
Aside from some obvious disappointment in the fact that this new look and feel doesn’t exactly resemble our design submission (you’d never believe me when I say losing out doesn’t bother me much these days, but it really doesn’t), I’m most frustrated by the blown opportunity. Information architecture can be beautiful, and it should be beautifully presented.
The work products of an information architect — flow charts, maps, diagrams, schematics, etc. — aren’t meant to be paragons of graphic good taste. But, in their role as tools for the expedient communication of complex ideas, they often constitute an aesthetic of their own; in their expediency, in their earnestly objective prescriptions for subjective intangibles, there’s a kind of urgent and thoughtful beauty.
To me, that’s the way that the premier online destination for thinking on the discipline should treat its subject matter, especially when that subject matter is so good. Though not without its lapses in good judgment, Boxes and Arrows has, on the whole, been an editorially impressive venue for some truly outstanding writing in this field. It’s some of the best of this kind of writing to be found anywhere, and it’s been done on an all-volunteer basis for years, through the challenges of an economic downturn and the competition of a rebounded marketplace. Which is to say, it’s persevered, and it’s been very good.
So it’s regrettable to me to see that, rather than embracing visual sophistication, this design seems to shun it. Like a lot of the information architecture discipline, it seems to deliberately shy away from being visually graceful, as if eschewing formal beauty somehow validates the seriousness of the material. No matter what you want to say about this design, you can’t tell me that it’s the most elegantly appropriate, suitably flattering presentation of this subject matter possible, nor that it even tries to be. In spite of the way doing so might unbecomingly reflect upon me, I’m not going to be shy about saying this: the new Boxes and Arrows is visually unsatisfying, and I think the writing deserves better.+