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. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Two mildly controversial and seemingly unrelated blog posts were written last week that you shouldn’t miss. First, on Tuesday, Armin Vit asked “Where are all the ‘landmark’ Web sites?” over at Speak Up. His contention is that we have yet to see examples of Web design in the fashion of “Milton Glaser’s Dylan poster; Paul Rand’s IBM logo; Paula Scher’s Public Theater posters; Massimo Vignelli’s New York subway map; [and] Kyle Cooper’s ‘Seven’ opening titles.” In short, Armin claims that the practice of design online has yet to produce its own canon of seminal and iconic works that can stand their own in the history books of the profession.
Then, over at our very own A Brief Message on Thursday, interaction designer extraordinaire Dan Saffer argues that making stuff is better than making stuff up. “It is in the detail work that design really happens — that the clever, delightful moments of a design occur,” he asserts. “Those are as important, if not more so, than the concept itself.” It’s a provocative argument that seeks to let a little air out of the notion that designers have more to offer as thinkers and planners than as craftspeople.
Naturally, I have an interest in pointing folks to Dan’s excellent article because of my involvement as publisher at A Brief Message (keep clicking on those ads, folks). But I refer to it here not just out of self-interest, but also because I think that, though uncoordinated, both of these posts actually tackle the same issue from different vantage points. Or, rather, I should say that Dan’s post, in a roundabout way, provides an answer to Armin’s post.
The Air Up There
Dan works at Adaptive Path, one of the most well-respected interaction design studios in the world, and he has successfully and deservedly cultivated a reputation as one of his discipline’s brightest thinkers. If you saw his “Learning Interaction Design from Las Vegas” talk at last year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival, you’ll agree with me.
It’s conjecture on my part then, but I’d guess that because of his position he breathes a rarefied vocational air. That is, he works in an environment where what’s expected of the best designers, by and large, is that they will ‘graduate’ to less tactical duties, away from the grind of doing design and towards a mode where they mostly think and talk about design. From that vantage point, it’s understandable that he should lament what might seem to be a mandatory relinquishment of craft; watching people get so good at what they do that they are expected to no longer do it takes a lot of fun out practicing any trade.
I don’t think he’s wrong here, at least insofar as it applies to designers who become managers; it’s very difficult, in this age, to continue to practice design while managing it, as well. In fact, in my own guidance to designers of a certain experience level I’ve often advised that one should avoid doing design work and focus on strategy and staff development if one is to really get ahead — words I’m reconsidering after Dan’s article.
Thinking about it now, I would say that Dan is absolutely right that the very best designers should in fact continue to be hands-on practitioners, if such a balance can be struck in their workplaces. Because if we take it as a given that our most promising designers currently don’t do that, then I think we begin to see why, at least in part, we have the situation that Armin laments — we begin to understand why we have yet to achieve those truly important milestones in online design.
At the Edges
From where I sit, this is what I see: the very best designers are leaving behind the work of actually doing design. Meanwhile, for younger and/or less managerially-minded designers, what I see is exactly the opposite: a preponderance of instructional writing and discussion, a preoccupation with tactical execution, a focus on tricks, tips and hacks. We have more than we could possibly want of sites that tell us how to do design; there’s always something new to learn, for sure, and that’s valuable, but a tally of available venues for discussing the why’s of design in this new medium adds up to a disappointingly paltry number.
I’d go so far as to say that the majority of the Web design field, by and large, is too easily motivated by technique, that the majority of us are thinking tactically far more often than we’re thinking strategically. And then, as Dan argues, we have a narrower but highly influential swath of designers who are dealing in the world of design ideas almost exclusively, who are billing at hourly rates so high that we couldn’t possibly be spending our days doing design when we could be spending them making clients feel better about design through sweet talk and PowerPoint.
What that leaves is an enormous and unfulfilled gap in the middle which, while it’s not entirely unoccupied, is sparsely populated. And that’s our problem. We don’t have enough designers who do both; we have a polarized industry right now, and the result, as Armin tactfully alludes to in his article, is that Web design is really boring. Sorry, but it’s true.+