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.+
The actual art-making tools available in our social collage app Mixel are pretty basic, with no modes and no calibration options. We shipped them that way for a good reason: we didn’t want people to feel that Mixel is a software application that they have to ‘master.’ A few moments is all you need to learn how to use all of the tools in the app, top to bottom.
Some people say that the tools are primitive, especially the cropping feature, which is downright imprecise. That one in particular is something we definitely want to improve, and we even intended to make it more powerful before we shipped the app but we ran out of time. We also left it as it was because we saw something really interesting in our beta testing that informed our whole attitude towards creative tools: imprecision is liberating. No one who tried to use Mixel’s crop tool to cut out a foreground image from its background ever felt that they were somehow “not using it right.” The tool is so rough and inexact that people believe there’s really no getting it wrong.
For us, that was a powerful realization, and one of the key insights that helped us make something fundamentally different from all of the other art software out there. The hugely constraining limitations of our toolset in effect let people off the hook, unburdened them of the pressure to make things perfect. It lets users create mixels in a few minutes, casually, almost without time to let their inner inhibitions about Art-with-a-capital-A take over. That’s exactly what we were going for.
Knowing Your Own Tools
We were lucky enough to nail those tools down pretty early in our development process without spending a lot of time refining them. In fact, the vast majority of the design and development effort on the app was spent on building all of the social gestures that wrapped the creation tools — liking, commenting, sharing, reusing pieces and remixing mixels — and getting those key interactions right.
So the toolset as it stands today has been essentially the one I’ve been using for a good six months now, day after day. At the time we launched the app last week, I was pretty confident that I knew them inside and out and, understood the full extent of their limitations and capabilities.
That all changed when I saw people start pouring into Mixel late last week. Something unexpected happened then: I’d open up my iPad, fire up Mixel and see something made with those same tools I’d never thought of before, something ingenious or unexpected or just plain beautiful. And this would happen again and again, several times a day, every day since last Thursday.
People Get Ready
Here are a few examples of that. But before I show you the work, a side note: you can now link directly to the works themselves within Mixel (the app) if you’re viewing the sharing pages in mobile Safari. That is, if you’re reading this blog post on your iPad, you can click the thumbnails below to see each collage at full-size on the Mixel.cc Web site. From there, you’ll see a new button that says “Open this in Mixel.” Tap on that, and the iPad will open up the app.
Jeremy insists that Nicholas Kennedy Sitton should get credit for the technique he used to ‘collapse’ this street scene here. Still, Jeremy is the one that introduced it to Mixel. It’s just one photo, cropped, slightly reduced in size and rotated in place, over and over. The effect is mesmerizing.
Most of my own Mixels have been kind of overflowing with imagery, edge-to-edge within the canvas. But Ariel has been building a body of work within Mixel that’s delightfully minimal.
It’s pretty hard to get more than one straight angle when cropping an image in Mixel, but Graham somehow manages to get a shattered glass effect in the way he arranges his collage pieces. Look carefully at how he aligns contrasty shadows within an image with similar shadows within others to create the illusion of fault lines that run throughout the composition.
There’s no text tool within Mixel, which was a purposeful omission; we wanted to encourage people to express themselves visually rather than textually. But Chris essentially scratched out an alphabet using images. It’s beautiful but the best thing about it is, like everything else in Mixel, it can and has been reused by others.
At first I thought Paul pulled off the cloudy, atmospheric effect in this mixel with a transparent PNG of some mist or cloud forms. But looking closer at it, I realized the misty effect is just the same image of the moon, enlarged so tremendously that its edges become distinct.
This mixel by Luke blew me away when I first saw it. It’s also a great showcase for the new open-in-app button from our Web pages that I mentioned above, as it demonstrates an artistry that’s only viewable within Mixel itself. Once you open it to its full size, you’ll see what I mean.
It’s All (Visual) Talk
Finally, just to be clear: Mixel is not just about showing off your kung fu collaging technique. The core of the experience revolves around art as conversation. That’s best demonstrated in the many, many, many remix threads that are happening within the app right now — almost all of the ones I’ve listed above are parts of great threads, or will be before too long. Here’s my favorite remix thread that I came across this evening; it was kicked off by Ian Adelman with this hilarious identity cross-fertiization.
If this all looks like fun to you, that’s because it is. People are telling me that, in the few short days since it was released, they’ve become practically addicted to Mixel. You can download it here and get your fix right now.+