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.+
Microsoft wants to buy Yahoo, as you’ve no doubt heard by now. To my mind, it’s a terrible idea to combine two foundering behemoths in an attempt at besting an even bigger behemoth like Google (and moreover to do so with only enough ambition to shoot for being number two). But the point, I think, is that Yahoo has failed. The company flew high for much of its life, but it would surprise no one to say that it’s been in trouble for some time.
Why is Yahoo in this position? I won’t pretend to have all the answers to that question, but I can say one thing: design apparently had nothing to do with it.
Design Is Good for Strategery
Designers and enlightened business thinkers alike are fond of touting the strategic importance of design, the competitive edge that a strong design sense can provide to a business. I’m a believer in that logic, but given Yahoo’s less than flattering position as an ailing company subject to the whims of stronger players, I have to ask: did design make a difference?
Because Yahoo had a very good design sense. Actually, Yahoo had great design sense. And it apparently didn’t help them.
Over the past few years, the Sunnyvale, California company has been responsible for or associated with some of the best design on the Internet. Its second-generation Yahoo Mail client was a beautiful and early example of how astonishing, desktop-like experiences can be reliably created within a Web browser. Its acquisition and subsequent even-handed nurturing of Flickr has successfully sustained that photo sharing site as one of the most elegantly and smartly designed social networking experiences anywhere. And its Yahoo Design Pattern Library, a publicly available playbook of Yahoo’s interface conventions and innovations, was a huge and influential gift to the digital design community.
All This Useless Design
Any single company capable of just one of these innovations is a design leader, but to have been responsible for three of them is impressive.
And yet, design hasn’t been the crucial factor in the company’s health. Even with these assets, the company finds itself the target of a potential hostile takeover, or even the subject of a kind of back-handed charity case, as Google attempts to thwart Microsoft’s acquisition, ostensibly to protect the competitive landscape.
In what ails Yahoo, design is a non-factor. Neither search nor online advertising, the real battlefields on which Yahoo, Google and Microsoft spar, are meaningfully impacted by how very good is Yahoo’s design acumen. Looking forward, whether Microsoft is successful in its bid to own Yahoo, Google is successful in torpedoing the deal, or some other chain of events determines Yahoo’s fate, it seems unlikely that design will play a particularly pivotal role.
By no means am I saying that design is without value. Rather, I just think it’s odd — and slightly disingenuous — of the champions of design strategy to fall silent when it comes to the failure of a company that’s very good at practicing it. Surely, if the roles were upended here, if it was Yahoo who was the dominant player, we would be regularly extolling the virtues of Yahoo’s design expertise. Perhaps we can’t expect design to save failing companies, but if not then perhaps we should be more judicious in talking up how design can make companies successful, too.+