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.+
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.+