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 Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair 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.+
It’s been almost ten months since I started my job at The New York Times, and I still regularly get asked how I like it, and do I really like it? The implication, I suppose, is that having founded and ran a little design studio would make a transition to a huge company with a century and a half of history challenging. Challenging, is a good word for it, yeah. But here’s the truth: it’s a terrific job, and I feel lucky for having it.
Part of the reason why I like it so much is that I’ve learned a lot — a tremendous amount — about a facet of design that I never thought was particularly interesting until now: work in a design group on the inside of a company. I spent over a decade on the outside, working in studios and agencies on the ‘consulting’ part of the business. Almost all of the projects I’d ever worked on lasted only a handful of months; I’d kick off a new assignment, design it, hand it off and then moved on to a new assignment — or just as often I’d move on to an entirely new client.
I always thought that was the kind of design career that I wanted, and that was the kind of design career that I would have forever. I may one day return to it, but I’ve really discovered that working in an in-house design team, if it’s the right one, has its upsides too.
The Customer Is Always Right
The most obvious one is that, rather than establishing fleeting professional relationships with clients, I’ve building and nurturing ongoing relationships with stake-holders. The peers and superiors with whom I work today are, more or less, going to be the ones that I work with tomorrow, and again and again. We’re all in it together, which makes for a huge difference.
That huge difference is something that I had almost no conception of when I was a consultant: at The Times we can talk about design in an honest, unguarded fashion, and we can focus on making the best decisions for our customers. I never realized it before, but as a consultant, I spent a large amount of time focused on my customers, the clients who hired me, privileging their approval or displeasure over that of the end users. Except on rare occasions, it was very difficult to be as open and direct about design with my former clients as it is with my colleagues today.
For me, this is like a quantum leap ahead in terms of what I can do with design. In spite of the fact that, in many ways NYTimes.com is more limiting than many of my previous projects, I have considerably more latitude in helping to shape products than I ever have before. The design group has a seat at the decision-making table.
Public Service Announcement
This isn’t just a post designed to pat myself on the back for tripping into this great position, though. I offer it as a little bit of encouragement to anyone considering taking a job with an in-house design studio. If you find the right situation — and, granted, there are probably far more bad in-house groups than there are good ones — it can be an enormously enlightening design experience.
As an aside for those not considering such a move, here are two more good things about my job that, I think, can serve as useful indicators how much you enjoy your own job: check your emotional temperature on Sunday evening, and again every weekday morning when you open your email.
Sunday nights are always a little bit depressing because they signal the end of two days of freedom. I still feel a little sad at around about dinnertime, but there were times in my life that I used to feel practically depressed about the idea of returning to work the next day, and the night before Monday was almost always a dispiriting time. If you truly don’t enjoy your job, there are few things more painful than the idea of returning to the fray after a brief reprieve. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t enjoy a third weekend day, but I can honestly say that it worries me not one bit that, come Monday morning, I’ll be making my way back to midtown Manhattan for a day of work at The Times. To me, that’s a sign that things are good.
A similar phenomenon that I noticed today while answering one of the dozens of emails that I received is that I have no fear of email, none at all. As a consultant, my email inbox used to be a dumping ground for irate clients and aggravated co-workers, where I was never quite sure if opening a message would mean reading through several badly formed paragraphs of accusation and abuse. I used to look at email as an application whose main feature was to tell me what I did wrong, but no more. I actually like my email now; it’s full of communiques from people who want my help, or who want to figure stuff out together. There’s still far too much of it, but it’s a much, much better experience. For that, I’d work just about anywhere.+