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.+
This morning I woke up and dressed myself all wrong. I don’t know why, but I dressed like an idiot. I put on a short-sleeved, collared shirt that, once I arrived at the office, seemed entirely inappropriate for the workplace; a pair of light brown corduroys that somehow seemed more ill-fitting today than anytime I’ve worn them before; and a pair of black, Chuck Taylor All-Stars-style sneakers more fit for a playground than a meeting room.
If I recall vaguely amid my early morning brain fog, my intention was to fancy the whole ensemble up a bit with a pair of the dress shoes that I keep at the office, but when I got there I was reminded that I kind of hate those shoes. I thought maybe I’d add a blazer I keep in the closet and sort of cover up my shame, but all of a sudden this blazer, which I’ve had for a few years, made me look as big as a house. So I resigned myself to going through the day looking like some kind of “Leave It to Beaver” reject stuck in design school. Pick me for your artsy kickball team!
Dress the Part…or Not
Come to think of it, I’ve long felt conflicted between ‘dressing like an art director’ — which means casually and vaguely ‘alternative’ — and dressing like I work in a real, grown-up office. Earlier this summer I decided that, far too often, I tended toward the former and resolved to come to work in a more composed state. I’ve been trying to do that. But some days, like today, I just mess up, which is really kind of the danger of today’s relaxed dress codes (more on that in a moment).
I’m willing to bet that this is a conundrum that lots of designers face daily. For sure, if you work on an in-house design team, there’s likely to be at least some unspoken pressure to dress in a more business-like way than designers employed by studios; pressure to suppress the tendency that many (but admittedly not all) designers have towards a less straightforward wardrobe. But even studio employment, as I recall, poses the challenge of how to dress for visits from a client or to a client’s office — last-minute, impromptu visits being particularly uncomfortable if you arrived to work that morning looking like you were ready for nothing fancier than a game of “World of Warcraft.” It happened to me many times.
On the other hand, there’s an intangible kind of authority that designers often benefit from when they dress in an unorthodox fashion. I’ve been amazed in the past to see design directors I’ve worked for show up at important client meetings in collarless shirts, jeans and sneakers — and still command a kind of respect that one wouldn’t assume possible without at least a presentable jacket.
I always thought to myself, “Is it because he’s dressed like a designer? And can I get away with the same thing?” I’ve made some fitful attempts at raiding that bohemian cachet, but I just don’t think I can pull it off. If you see me ‘dressing like a designer,’ it’s more out of laziness than anything.
Even as a function of laziness, I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. While a casual wardrobe can be comfortable, it just turns the morning dressing ritual into an unnecessarily complex calculus… one that often leads to mishap if not disaster, as it did for me this morning. As an alternative strategy, I’ve often thought to myself that if I should invest in six or seven well-tailored suits and just wake up every morning knowing exactly what I’d be wearing that day: a suit. It would make my mornings in front of the closet much less confounding, and I’d probably get out of the house a lot more quickly. A suit every day, that’s the way to do it. Take the decision-making out of the morning. Short of that, I guess I’ll just have to dress a little nicer tomorrow.+