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.+
During the mini tour of New York design teams that I conducted several weeks back, one of the things that came up often was that most designers manage their work files through Dropbox, and not through ostensibly more sophisticated version control systems. Dropbox’s high quality synching and near ubiquity have improved life dramatically for design teams of all sizes, but it still strikes me as remarkably archaic. Any time you find yourself manually naming, renaming or moving around files—anytime you find yourself staring at a directory structure—you’re doing a job that the computer should be doing for you.
I have little doubt that even the folks at Dropbox would agree with this. They’ve effectively admitted as much with a number of their software projects and acquisitions, particularly the version control system Pixelapse, which joined Dropbox earlier this year and seems destined to be integrated into the core Dropbox service next year. That integration may eventually change the way designers work, but it’s not exactly true that Pixelapse was winning hearts and minds in vast numbers before the acquisition. Not a single designer I spoke with mentioned it.
As much as smart passive management of design assets and working files seems inevitable, I don’t hear a tremendous amount of clamor for it. Maybe we’re all just set in our ways, but people seem at least resigned, and more likely just plain comfortable with managing their files. It may not be what future workflows are built around, but for working designers, the future is hypothetical, and Dropbox works today.
What’s more, Dropbox does a superb job of making today work well for nearly everyone. I was reminded of this after deleting two huge directories from my Dropbox last night. When I woke up this morning, this email was waiting for me in my inbox:
For me, this handy note underscored the continued relevancy of Dropbox’s file hierarchy-centric worldview. Even in an age when the biggest operating systems in the world actively eschew file hierarchies, Dropbox is thriving—its service matters deeply to countless users. Why? In part it’s because the company works hard at making file hierarchies useful, that they focus on the outcomes of file management and not just on the files and folders.
We think of Dropbox as a service for synching our directories, but the real value they bring is in applying a level of thoughtfulness that no one really applied to files before. A lot of that is part and parcel with storing this stuff in the cloud, which affords many user benefits—including availability of one’s files to countless third-party apps. But a lot of it is very particular to Dropbox’s superb design of the user experience. Even as the clock is surely ticking for file management—I can’t imagine we’ll still be navigating directory structures in a decade, or even in five years—the company proves that attention to real user problems matters more than aging interaction models. This highly considerate, well-timed and pitch perfect email attests to that; and as it happens, I did change my mind this morning and decided to restore those directories I had deleted.+