Making Your Site Look Like Mine

Even with all the email that I receive, I’m still the kind of person who finds it very difficult not to reply to a message that someone has sent me, especially if the sender has posed a question of some kind. As a result, I often find myself writing familiar replies to queries that come in over and over, from different people. These are generally earnest questions about the way I work, where I draw inspiration from, advice on design, etc.

I’m more than happy to provide answers and to give something back in my small way, but it’s becoming a harder and harder job to pull off. I have a continual backlog of emails flagged for follow-up, and catching up feels like a kind of treadmill sometimes.

So I’m going to start, here, publishing an occasional series of blog posts covering answers to some of those frequently asked questions. When I get around to it, I’ll collate them and post them in an evergreen spot on the site.

The question I want to tackle in this inaugural post is commonly posed something like, “Can I use the design of Subtraction.com for my site?” Variants include, “Can I make a WordPress theme (or similar template) from your design?” or, “I just redesigned my site and it looks a lot like Subtraction.com, do you mind?”

The answer to the first two questions is “no,” and the answer to the last is, “yes.” But with comments.


Thieves and Students

I used to get all worked up when I’d see Web sites with suspiciously similar designs to mine. (In fact, I’ve written about it once or twice.) I’ve always been offended by plagiarism, whether intentional or not; I take a lot of pride in the labor with which I’ve invested this site, and don’t really take kindly to strangers taking liberties with that hard work.

That said, I also feel that I myself owe a lot of my design ability to years of quietly, earnestly and sometimes blatantly emulating the work of designers much more talented than myself. Whatever talent I’ve gained as a result, it would just be selfish of me to condemn others for trying to grow their own talents in exactly the manner that I did.

The problem is that there’s such a blurry line between plagiarism and emulation that it becomes difficult to make unequivocal judgments on any given design that might bear some resemblance to mine. With a lot of effort and fortitude, I’m sure I could come up with a logical worldview that will allow me to argue convincingly whether a given design that resembles my site should be qualified as theft or homage… but that would take far more energy than I can muster.

The Official Policy

Instead, I now prefer to take a less stringent attitude. Here’s how I respond to people who pose these questions to me.

Generally, I ask that you refrain from reusing or repurposing the design of this site in any way — especially if you’re a business of some kind, or you intend to turn it into a template for other people to reuse, or into a product that will be sold or distributed.

On the other hand, I freely encourage you to borrow and/or learn from the site in any way you feel is appropriate, so long as what results at the end is a design that’s reflective of your ideas, and not simply a regurgitation of mine. That’s what’s most important to me: that the design not simply be an instance of paraphrasing my design ideas, but that it’s a product of your own ideas. That’s how we all learn.

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  1. Since you have a fair amount of people asking you these same questions, maybe the swarms of email could be decreased if you decided to put a link to this entry on your about page contact info :)

  2. It is a considerably elegant and admirable design. Of course, since I follow your updates with a feed reader, the design itself only registers with me occasionally. With several blogs I follow, wholesale site redesigns have gone completely unnoticed until I had some rare reason to click through (or the author posted about the redesign itself). Funny how syndication reshapes context (and control!)

  3. Hi, I’m a design student in Italy. During the courses I’m frequently exposed to Mr Vignelli’s early works. I really like his style and I think that his influence will be easily recognizable in my early graphic/web design works. As a consequence my first sites will be also similar to Subtraction.com, considering that your site is, as you noted, clearly influenced by Mr. Vignelli’s style.

    You’re right in defending your design against the shameless plagiarism attempts you cited but, in my humble opinion, Subtraction.com does not represent an entirely original and innovative design concept and, as a consequence, you have to accept that many black & white + horizontal stripes + grid sites will coexist on the web. In other words your design for Subtraction.com is beautiful but weak in that respect. Other weblogs are not so elegant but their design is stronger in originality and easier to defend against plagiarism: think about Veerle’s blog or Jason Santa Maria site…

    Moreover the elements characterizing Subtraction.com (black & white, horizontal stripes, the grid) are so universal that they are commonly used also by non-designers to organize information on paper. For many people they are a natural habit for expressing their ideas. In my opinion neither Kohi Vihn nor Massimo Vignelli can claim any right on such a general concept. Mr Vignelli seems well aware of that. Consider this excerpt from a recent interview to Mr Vignelli:

    We’ve noticed that you frequently utilize black bands: is that always part of your style?
    It’s part of my graphics; even when I write by hand I draw a stripe above it: maybe that’s where the black bands you mention come from. But the stripe also has some precise meanings: to separate what is below from what is above and to keep what is contained in that space together. It’s like a handrail, like a bar to hang things from: it helps organize the information; it has this meaning and we use it with this meaning.

  4. Khoi makes his living (I assume) selling his ideas and the output of his creativity, developed over years of attention to design issues. He doesn’t give away his ideas, any more than a chef gives away the time s/he spends preparing your meal. It’s not the raw ingredients you pay for, it’s the skill in combining them. Khoi has every right to protect his work from being copied, and if your attitude is indicative of those who write to him asking permission to steal his ideas, I’m not surprised he says no. If people can’t appreciate that time, disciplined effort, years of study and skill have gone into its production, and are demonstrating that lack of appreciation by asking to have it for free, they deserve to get what they pay for: nothing.

  5. I’d have to agree that I don’t think the design of subtraction is unique. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it, but I have a stack of books on modernist book design that look identical. Subtraction is a very ‘print’ based web design I think and that is probably what makes it stand out from the swath of designs that are web 2.0-ish and full of 3d buttons and reversed shadows. The use of a formal visible grid, sans serif type, and horizontal rules is at least 60 years old. If web designers want to find new inspiration for designs in a legit way they should make the effort go to the source as Khoi has.

  6. I’m impressed and I feel inspired by rigidly but well designed payment forms and related visual instruments of bureaucracy. This rapture started with some swiss payment forms I got sometime (some examples are here).

    When we designed our website, we wanted to create something that references this kinda visual language. Actually, it has gotten quite reduced — we basically left out many goodies like hand vs. machine font, stamps, micro arrows, dashed line circles etc. The idea was to keep it growing as soon as we’d find some time (what a sublime idea ;-)

    Anyways, when we sent a preview to our friends, one of them pointed us to subtraction.com and told us, some parts would remind him in a way. I think he was right, but I never saw any problem (although I delicately detest plagiarism); it rather felt confirming to see somebody else incorporating quite classic modernist design approaches, rather known from the world of print, to a weblog.

    Actually, I am quite happy this guy pointed me: I’m following things here since then and I enjoy the reading a lot. On the actual site, not with a RSS reader of course! ;-)

  7. Folks, thanks for the comments. Yes, I acknowledge that a lot of my design elements are fairly generic, or at least hard to claim as my own (e.g., black bands, etc.). And I can accept the fact that there will be many sites out there that bear some resemblance to mine — that’s the gist of what I was saying in this post. I’m not going to encourage it, but neither am I going to spend a lot of time begrudging others the use of this particular idiom.

  8. Hi Khoi, I have a question for you. Many web designers, such as Jeff Croft, frequently redesign their personal websites, as a form of experimentation. Your approach is more conservative. Are you convinced, as Mr Vignelli says, that “obsolescence is a crime”?
    Will we ever see Subtraction 8.0?

    In my comment I forgot to report that the cited interview to Massimo Vignelli is extracted from “Red Wine And Green”, a book on Italian graphic design. You can read a PDF version of the interview.

  9. I love this website for it’s full originality. It’s a complete design, everything fits in perfectly.

    As a designer you know damn well when and if you’re doing the creative work on your own or not. And you pretty much know when you’re inspired* by a great designer, or just stealing other people’s work.

    If you’re copying a site (which perfectly fits one designer’s use) it’s not gonna work for you – so you’ll change it and every single one of your clicks destroys a bit of it’s beauty and the value it had (especially to yourself).

    *5thirtyone.com: like the page, but don’t know wo was inspired by whom

  10. >5thirtyone.com: like the page, but don’t know wo was inspired by whom

    Most likely both were inspired by the International Typographic Style aka Swiss Graphic Design, the most important design movement of 20th century: Joseph Muller Brockmann, Karl Gerstner, Massimo Vignelli, etc.
    Do you know?

  11. Manuel: I’m not sure I have a good reason why I don’t redesign more often. In part, it’s because I still like this design and find it useful; it does what I need. So in that sense I’m not in a rush to redesign. Another factor is that my time is so limited, and redesigning will take so much effort I just can’t imagine where I’ll find the time. Suffice it to say, if I didn’t have a full time job, you’d probably see changes throughout the site more often.

  12. It must be hard to be in a position such like yours, having a design so often admired (and therefore, mindlessly copied ad nauseam by lesser talents). At least I can’t help but utter a mental “sigh” every time I get to see a site that clearly is a Subtraction clone, no matter how they stretch the whole “inspiration” excuse.

    Perhaps what is more annoying is that most so-called designers just settle for mere copying and don’t bother themselves doing a little research on where design approaches like Khoi’s come from. Namely the whole Bauhaus/Swiss Graphic Design legacy. Want to “design like Khoi”? Go find yourself a copy of Josef-Muller Brockmann’s book on grid systems. You’ll not only find the source where designs like this come from, but you will also be able to understand how and why this works and therefore, be able to create your own eye-catching, balanced, original designs.

    Most self-respecting graphic designers apply and understand the grid system concept. The only difference with a design like Subtraction is that such grid is much more evident on it, much in the way some electronics expose their innards rather than hide them as a style statement. But look at any design that has stood the test of time, and it will certainly feature a grid structure beneath it.

  13. I caught your grid presentation at SXSW and have been eager to put the things you talked about into practice. While not every grid-based website need look like Subtraction, a lot of designers (myself included) independently happen to be fans of Helvetica, black and white, and simplicity. How much shared DNA do sites need to have before they’re the same species? :)

    But that’s not what I think people are asking about when they want a WordPress template… there’s a huge difference (I hope) between taking inspiration from techniques of the Old Masters and a DaVinci Plug-in.

  14. “Most likely both were inspired by the International Typographic Style aka Swiss Graphic Design, the most important design movement of 20th century: Joseph Muller Brockmann, Karl Gerstner, Massimo Vignelli, etc.
    Do you know?”

    It looks a bit closer than that to me. Namely, the proportions for the header are almost exactly the same. I’d guess that one or the other was inspired. But who knows for sure.

    I’ve had a few instances where I’ve created something and come to find out someone has almost done almost the same thing. Enough for me to think that one must have inspired the other, except I know better.

  15. I was wondering, are you okay with people using the same grid dimensions as you? I’ve just started with grids and am having a bit of trouble with the calculations.

  16. Dear beto, you appear somewhat panegyric and condescensing. Why do you think there are lots of people wanting to design like Khoi? And why do you want to canonize the design? We don’t need holy sources design, be it the classics like Brockmann or contemporary desginers like Khoi.

    Besides that, I think that copying of design that you allege, would simply not work. I like the design of New York Times very much, for example. I could apply it to my blog (would be a very interesting experiment) – but I don’t think that the fine design of the NYT would automatically work for my very different body of information.

  17. Dear Vahid,

    I humbly suggest that you try find your own proportions. There is so much to discover. Then, despite of Khoi’s consensus, it perhaps would be a copy of design in any sense. Note that Khoi’s grid system actually is made of two grids overlaid…

  18. Khoi, your policy is very reasonable, no sensible person could argue with that, I think. Funnily enough, this post made me want to come up with a design that swipes some of your ideas; something I hadn’t been thinking of before ^_^ But at the same time, I recalled ideas of my own that I’d been wanting to put into practice for years. Maybe that’s the difference between a copy and an hommage: either you draw inspiration from something you see, or you abuse it to cover up your own lack of inspiration.

  19. @priit: Oh, I wasn’t going to use it in my final design, I wanted to use it as a base to figure out my own proportions. I understand what you are saying though, thanks. =)

  20. Emanuele:

    How rude it is to misspell the host name.
    It’s “Khoi Vinh” instead of “Kohi Vihn”, you S.O.A.B

    About 5thirtyone.com, it looks just like a duplicate version of Subtraction.com, even the copyright notice at the bottom.

    That’s a lot of time to spend on immitating somebody else’ design, why don’t we just save it for brainstorming or looking for inspiration – NOT plagiarism.

    Come on people. we’re all adult here, didn’t ma say plagiarism is BAD?

    BTW, Nice job on the grid presentation Mr. Vinh!

  21. Emanuele:

    How rude it is to misspell the host name.
    It’s “Khoi Vinh” instead of “Kohi Vihn”, you S.O.A.B

    About 5thirtyone.com, it looks just like a duplicate version of Subtraction.com, even the copyright notice at the bottom.

    That’s a lot of time to spend on immitating somebody else’ design, why don’t we just save it for brainstorming or looking for inspiration – NOT plagiarism.

    Come on people. we’re all adult here, didn’t ma say plagiarism is BAD?

    BTW, Nice job on the grid presentation Mr. Vinh!

  22. Ahh, good idea Neil, thanks! I’ve seen MailTemplate but hadn’t considered I could use it for something like this. I used to use both Mail and Entourage (don’t ask), but I’m now exclusively a Mail user.

  23. Khoi your site is very clean, well thought out, and always tasty. It is well worth study of anyone trying to get into the web development industry. This is one of the first sites I tried to emulate when I got started and in fact I learned a lot from the attempt so thanks for putting it out there. With that off my chest, why I keep coming back to this site has nothing to do with the black bands, sparse graphics, or even the crispy layout. It’s the writing that makes this site worth visiting. If there was anything here worth plagiarizing it would be your words. How do you feel about people taking the topics that you write about and using them as the subject in their own blogs? I bet that is more common.

  24. I have learned a lot studying the New York Times for my latest project. I hope that it’s not all too obvious. I cannot show the real thing but I made a raw sketch of what the Washington Post would look like with the principles we developed over the last months.

    If you, Khoi, wish to, I’d be happy to show you the real thing. The newspaper we are working for is not quite as super-fantastic as the NYT, but it’s big enough and I’m sure I’d be interesting for you to see what the Swiss guy in Tokyo is fumbling. More so, as conceptually we even might be a little tiny step ahead.

    Please drop me a line if you wish to see a screen or two.

  25. Ah, designers… In a given domain (jeans, websites) the amount of information needed to specify a design typically tops out at around 5 bits. And by the look of it, the two least significant of those get caught by the designer’s ‘OMG, my entire livelihood depends on 5-bit strings’ goggles.

    If the entire GNU OS can be given away, what makes dividing a menu bar into blocks worth anything?

    By the way: I didn’t expect you’d “Forget this information” when I hit Preview.

  26. KV you’re behaving like a typical primadonna art director. If you’re so so precious about his design then you shouldn’t be given people any design tips at all – in fact, perhaps you shouldn’t even have a site. That way, no-one can ‘steal’ your work – even if it’s not that original.

    Do the community a favour and get over yourself.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.