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.+
There has been some changing of the seating chart at my office recently, and in the process, I’ve seen some of my colleagues — art directors on the print side of the organization — moving the contents of their flat files back and forth along with their seats. Watching them do this in the background, I realized that since we first took up residence in our our new building last year, I’ve barely paid attention to those file cabinets, which store critical samples of printed pages and reference material in wide, shallow drawers. But for a print designer, they’re critical tools.
In fact, I realized, it’s been years since I’ve paid attention to or felt the need for flat files at all, to say nothing of ‘traditional’ art supplies of any kind. This is what it means to practice design on the Web, I guess. On the digital side of the business, we’re admittedly still a long way away from a paperless office, but we’re getting there. I rarely ever print out my own work these days, and I’ve made it a habit to throw away nearly every single piece of paper handed to me by colleagues before the end of that same day — and I can’t recall a single time that practice has made it harder for me to do my job the next day.
The Nearly Paperless Office
There are some things that I see print art directors doing day in and day out — like actually printing out their work for review — that I just never do. What’s more, when I think back to the days when I worked at a design studio, I can list a whole host of tasks that are no longer among my daily activities: not only printing out just about everything I did, but also assiduously trimming it, sometimes assembling it, mounting it, flapping it, packaging it, and shipping it or carrying it to clients, too.
That’s what I like so much about digital design, I guess. From very early on in the genesis of a design solution, we have the luxury of working directly in the medium for which the solutions are intended. The leap from a wireframe or a mock-up of a Web page is not so very far compared to the leap from a layout in InDesign to fully printed page. In digital media, that journey from idea to execution, while not necessarily always more expedient, just seems physically much shorter, and less encumbered with messy paraphernalia — there’s very little call for rulers, erasers, brushes, paints, cutting implements, and a rainbow of adhesive substances that gently poison the respiratory system.
Smells Like Design Spirit
However, I’m not gloating. While I’m not sure that I long for the world of physical cut-and-paste rather than digital cut-and-paste, exactly, I do feel like something is lost to me now that I hardly ever engage with art supplies anymore. I spent a lot of time in art supply stores in my youth, both as a student and as a learning professional, and it saddens me somewhat that it’s been years since I’ve set foot in one. Ostensibly, I have nearly everything I need to do my job on my desk in the form of my Macintosh, but like Paula Scher once said about her computer, “It doesn’t smell right. It should smell like an art supply. It smells like a car.” (Was she the originator of this quip? I thought for sure it was Paul Rand, but I couldn’t find any evidence of it.)
Nostalgia aside, there’s something else about this gap in materials that nags at me. I’ve more or less based my current career on proving out the hypothesis that there is a meaningful commonality between ’print and digital,’ for lack of a better label for that dichotomy. I really do believe there is much to share between the two disciplines, but some days I despair that the differential is greater than I can bring myself to admit. I despair further when I realize that, to acquire the raw materials for their respective crafts, a print designer and a digital designer don’t even shop in the same store. Like politicians, any of us can claim fraternity with anyone else, but what it really comes down to is: where do you shop for what you need?+