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.
I’ve written here before about my Fake TV, one of my favorite device purchases from last year. It’s a simple, compact box covered with multicolor LED lights that emulates the effect of a television illuminating a dark room. The idea is to deter prospective burglars by giving the impression that someone is at home.
That same concept is at the heart of Kevin, a new device being funded through this just-launched Kickstarter campaign. Taking its name from Macaulay Culkin’s character in the immortal “Home Alone,” Kevin is what you might call a “smart fake TV.” That means it’s a wifi enabled, internet of things-y, fancy schmancy design object with richer, more varied, and more intelligent light emulation routines than my Fake TV. It also takes the illusion even further by including a variety of ersatz audio—there are sounds that give would-be intruders the impression that the family is home, having dinner, rooting for a favorite team during a big game, enjoying a movie, or even exercising strenuously. Everything can be controlled through Kevin’s mobile app (which looks copiously illustrated in the de rigeur tech aesthetic I wrote about a few weeks ago). This video demonstrates Kevin in action:
The basic technology at the heart of Kevin—programmable LEDs and playback of prerecorded sounds—is straightforward enough that it seems like a relatively low-risk Kickstarter gamble. Its network capabilities also suggest that buying several of them would make for a pretty convincing solution for an entire home; you can imagine programming three or four of them to simulate a fully active household. Kevin also sports a much, much more attractive industrial design than the hideous Fake TV; it looks as good as any Sonos or smart speaker, at least in the press photos. But, at about US$200 each, Kevin is also roughly many times as expensive as a Fake TV. If that doesn’t discourage you, you can back the campaign at kickstarter.com.
Here is an excerpt from an article I contributed to Fast Company’s Co. Design and just published today. It’s titled “Design Discourse Is In a State of Arrested Development,” and it digs into the issue of how we’re talking about our profession—and how we’re writing about it.
We are lucky to have designers actively sharing knowledge, but we’re starved for good journalism and criticism. In some ways, we’re even averse to it. Our tendency is to focus on techniques and tools, and to ignore the deeper questions. And it’s not just that we’re unwilling to examine our failures; we’re just as likely to focus only on the superficial aspects of our successes, too.
This is largely a function of what has become design’s overriding imperative, the one qualification that defers all others: conversion. Did the design turn a visitor into a subscriber, a reader into a prospect, a casual user into a registered member, a shopper into a customer? Did the design induce the user to click again? And, ideally, again and again? If the answer is yes, then nearly everything else is shunted to the side.
And it’s here that those questions about design’s larger meaning in our society and culture go unasked. Amid all the focus on clicks, no one bothers to wonder: Is what was designed actually in the long-term interests of its users? Does it model healthy or unhealthy interactions and behaviors? Does it strengthen the long-term relationship between the brand and its customers? How does it contribute to the way people relate to technology, media, and to one another? Is the design aesthetically good or bad? And why?
It’s a good summary of my thoughts on this current situation and I encourage you to read it. The full article is at fastcodesign.com.
John Lee Hancock’s “The Founder” is not a great movie, but after watching it on a plane a few weeks ago, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. It tells the genuinely interesting story of how entrepreneur Ray Kroc, entertainingly if unexceptionally portrayed by Michael Keaton, transforms Mac and Dick McDonald’s innovative one-location burger stand into the defining brand in fast food. Hancock’s direction is unfortunately unabashed about the script’s painfully expository dialogue and rarely digs particularly deeply into any of the film’s characters. Nevertheless, there are some interesting ideas at work here, particularly for designers.
The most apparent is a first act sequence in which the McDonald brothers recount how they essentially invented fast food. Frustrated with the inefficiency and commoditized nature of their traditionally operated drive-in restaurant, the brothers decided to drastically narrow the breadth of their menu offering.
To that end they also drastically overhauled the way those items were prepared so that customers’ orders could be fulfilled in a mere thirty seconds. Dragging their kitchen employees along to an empty tennis court, they used chalk to map out possible arrangements for the restaurant’s various cooking appliances and prep stations, essentially user testing their way to the most efficient layout and an accompanying “assembly line” approach to food preparation. You can get a preview of how Hancock recreates this process in this short “Anatomy of a Scene” video from The New York Times:
The brothers may not have immediately recognized that their innovation would change the way the world thinks about food (for better or worse) but they at least understood its value enough to brand their unique workflow as “the Speedee Service System,” and then to christen their first mascot, a burger-headed cartoon figure also named Speedee, after it. That method is also what drew the interest of Ray Kroc who partnered with the brothers and undertook the franchising of the McDonald’s brand and its revolutionary approach, effectively turning it from a local restaurant into a global phenomenon.
Therein lies the controversy implied in the film’s title. Late in the movie, Kroc introduces himself to another character as “The Founder” in a moment loaded with dramatic irony. As viewers we of course know that the McDonalds brothers were the “real” founders of their burger restaurant. The moment is meant to crystallize Kroc’s betrayal of the brothers’ legacy and it symbolizes the point at which Kroc usurps the company, essentially snatching it away from his two business partners.
As viewers, we’re meant to ask, “How could Kroc even think of himself as the founder when he wasn’t there in the beginning and he didn’t invent anything?” Hancock is unambiguous in crediting the McDonald brothers with the traditionally understood traits of founders as genius inventors or a preternatural innovators. Kroc, by contrast, is portrayed much less sympathetically, as a businessman who has low regard for the brothers’ founding vision. In some ways, the movie also implies that Kroc would not have been successful without McDonald’s. Before encountering the Speedee system, it shows him working as a traveling salesman, chasing elusive entrepreneurial dreams with middling success.
Yet there’s another, less idealistic interpretation of these events that’s worth examining. Kroc may not have been the originator of everything that became McDonald’s, but it’s clear that he saw its larger potential and that he undertook the work that was necessary to turn it into a huge corporation. The McDonald brothers had in fact tried to franchise their restaurant, but failed miserably. It was Kroc who turned the concept into a real, thriving business—a Herculean task of its own. It may have been the brothers who started that burger stand, but there’s a reasonable argument that it was Ray Kroc’s own hard work and sacrifices that truly “made” the company. The McDonald brothers founded a restaurant called McDonald’s. Ray Kroc founded the McDonald’s empire.
To Hancock’s credit, he does allow for this reading; he shows us that Kroc’s mantra is persistence, that he believes an unwillingness to give up is the key element in succeeding in business as an entrepreneur. We see Kroc listening to motivational recordings extolling the values of persistence early on, as a traveling salesman in a cheap motel room, without much in the way of success to show for his efforts. And then we see it again at the very end of the film, as Kroc stands in front of a mirror in an expensive tuxedo, rehearsing a triumphant address he’s about to deliver to an audience. The text of his speech echoes the recordings he listened to early on. It’s a key moment that demonstrates the importance of that concept in the realization of his ambitions.
As a designer myself, I’m naturally drawn to tales of brilliant insights and breakthrough designs, and it was fascinating to learn that the origin of McDonald’s was in part the story of inventive design. And, given the way the McDonald’s brand has changed over the years and become a signifier of questionable quality on a mass scale, it’s tempting to look upon Kroc’s achievements as a betrayal of a pure notion of design.
But setting aside the movie’s bias towards the brothers and what we know about the company today, what’s clear from watching “The Founder” is that the work of building a business has a value of its own. For me, this is the most interesting idea from this movie: that there’s always a tension between creation and business, and that ideas, for all their power, sometimes—often—realize their potential only through persistence.
While researching ideas for a Lego-themed birthday party for my Lego-crazed twin boys I came across these clever display letters, custom-made by this Etsy shop. They’ll create any letter for you, though the ones on display spell “C-SPAN,” for some reason. Anyway, an unexpected and impressive overlap of my kids’ interests and mine.
At the beginning of each month I recap the movies I watched the previous month. You can find December’s log further down this post (with some comments on P.T. Anderson’s “Phantom Thread”) but before we get to that here is a wrap-up of everything I watched in 2017. According to my Letterboxd diary that came to a grand total of 191 movies. That beats my 2016 total by five and averages out to just under sixteen a month, a pace I credit to my continued adherence to a largely television-free diet. I’m going into my third year doing this now and I don’t miss TV much at all, especially as eschewing it has afforded me the time to watch and re-watch so many great or obscure or fondly remembered movies that I’d never be able to otherwise. Television is a waste of time, people.
I tried to make a list of the top ten movies of 2017 but when I did so I realized that I didn’t really see ten films that I would consider truly great, just a lot of pretty good ones. That said, there are some notable awards contenders, including “I, Tonya,” “Ladybird,” and “Call Me By Your Name” that I haven’t been able to log yet, and it’s reasonable to say that at least one or two of those would’ve made the list. Nevertheless here are the top six best films from 2017 that I saw.
You can see the running inventory of every 2017 movie that I saw and how I ranked them in this Letterboxd list. For more insight into how I spent my movie time in 2017, have a look at this “annual report” of my movie watching activity. It includes this grid of posters from all 191 movies.
I also saw twenty films in December, making it out to theaters four times. The highlight was “Phantom Thread,” the latest by P.T. Anderson and, reportedly, the last screen appearance that Daniel Day-Lewis will ever make. Anderson’s films tend to be about the courts that men of power convene around themselves and this is one of his best explorations of that milieu. It’s hilarious and chilling and rapturous and deeply, deeply messed up all at once. Don’t read anything about it; just go see it.
For the record, here’s the full list of everything I watched, including December’s twenty movies.
If you’re interested, you can peruse the 186 movies that I watched in 2016 in this blog post. You can also follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com. Here’s wishing you a happy new year of movie watching!
In late December The New York Times published “The Year in Illustration,” a round-up of the dozens of commissioned illustrations that adorned their pages in 2017. Most of the work is really great and a little of it is not so great, but in any case this overview does a valuable service in highlighting just how much illustration is a part of the organization’s writing. These highly idiosyncratic, unpredictably organic, invariably witty artworks add a vital dimension to Times journalism by facilitating the conveyance of complex concepts, both in current events and the world of ideas.
I found this one particular graphic from the overview worth noting. It shows, at a high level, the richness of approaches to illustrating a single subject, albeit a widely influential one: Donald Trump.
The expressiveness on display here is impressive, especially just for a single subject: we have pieces done with watercolor, pencil sketches, vector drawings, collages, cartoons and more, plus almost every hybrid of the above.
In fairness to other art directors, this level of variety is about par for the course for editorial illustration and there are tons of other publications that could boast a similar heterogeneity. But it’s worth comparing this range with the kind of illustration we see in digital products. For some time now, I’ve been collecting screen shots of illustration usage in apps, web sites and related collateral on this Pinterest board. Here’s a snapshot:
Even at reduced, thumbnail scale, it’s pretty evident that the range of expression here is much, much narrower. Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive inventory, but over the past year or so that I’ve been maintaining this board, I’ve tried to capture every product-related illustration that I can find. In my experience, the vast majority of them are quite similar in their aesthetic: the colors range from primary to bright pastels; the figures are cleanly drawn and almost always rendered with vectors; the details are highly abstracted and shading is geometric if it appears at all; the compositions are generally minimal and only occasionally feature very limited background elements.
Step back and you might mistake these as excerpts from a children’s book, except that they depict grown adults doing ostensibly grown-up things. One could argue that they effectively infantilize their intended audience, as if the drawing style is predicated on the assumption that users of digital products can stomach only the most child-like and, maybe, most computer-like visuals.
It’s not even that I dislike this aesthetic, either. Sometimes this look can be quite beguiling, and if nothing else it’s more often than not expedient—it’s not a style of illustration that gets in the way of the users. But it is worth taking a step back to examine the way our products use illustration and trying to understand why we’ve all settled on this particular approach.
The simplest answer, of course, is that it’s the most economically pragmatic method of adding a moderately more human element to digital products. The style is simple, it’s efficient, and it can usually be done in house. It probably wouldn’t be far off-base to assume that a lot of these illustrations were done not by professional illustrators but by product designers who also have some illustration talent themselves. They designed the app and while they were at it, it was faster and cheaper to just have them create the illustrations too.
And that may be the unifying thread that ties all of these illustrations together: they can all be executed with the tools that a designer has at his or her disposal—a vector drawing app and an image editing app. There’s none of the unexpectedness that editorial illustration prioritizes and that professional illustrators spend years mastering—no photostats, no Rorschach patterns, no sculptures, no halftones, no unruly blotches of ink or paint. Everything in these illustrations is very carefully controlled and moderated, with nothing left to chance. That, whether intentional or not, says a lot about these products.
To be clear, I’m certainly not arguing that illustrations for products should even look like the kind of editorial illustration that The New York Times commissions. Product illustrations are there to make the user’s experiences easier; editorial illustrations are there to make the reader’s experience more interesting—even more challenging. But looking at the former and the prevalence of a single, monocultural aesthetic that seemingly almost every startup and tech company and would-be industry disruptor out there has adopted, it’s worth wondering if there’s some other voice—or even a different modulation of this same voice—that could be appropriate. Not all of these have to look so interchangeable with one another. In fact, it might actually be desirable for some brands to look, y’know, distinctive and unique.
The first of January is when we all resolve to adopt better habits but this new year may mark an entirely different way to think about our relationship to plastic, whether we like it or not.
Starting today China, which has long been a massive consumer of the rest of the world’s plastic waste, will no longer accept more than half of the plastic that it formerly imported. Until now, China has had a huge appetite for the plastic bottles, forks and other disposables that other nations toss away unthinkingly, recycling that waste into raw materials used to create the similarly disposable Chinese goods the rest of us can’t stop buying.
That appetite has now been halved and the consequences are likely to be nontrivial. China’s goal is to reduce pollution and improve the health of its citizenry. In the near term however, the many countries who have long relied on China as a kind of dumping ground for its plastics may see their pollution levels rise. In fact the market for recyclables is likely to suffer substantially as China now turns to manufacturers of new plastics for what it needs to continue to create new goods. In short: more new plastic will be produced, and less old plastic will be recycled.
The silver lining may be that first world consumers begin to focus more on reduction and reuse rather than just on recycling. We have for too long allowed ourselves the convenient out of being able to toss an unlimited number of goods into a green or blue recycling bin without thinking about whether those goods should have been used to begin with, or whether they could serve some useful secondary purpose.
For designers, this is an opportunity here to reframe the way problems are solved. Designers of physical goods, particularly, may soon need to emphasize the sourcing of materials and the sturdiness of their solutions, optimizing for environmental impact both in the creation and the useful lifespan of what gets designed. There are likely to be downstream consequences for non-material designers too; to some extent design has always been able to assume a constantly refreshing supply of surfaces onto which our designs can be applied, whether digital or analog. In a world where a major portion of those surfaces can no longer be recycled or even manufactured in the first place, the way we think about what a good design solution is may change drastically. It’s hard to argue that this more holistic view on how we all conduct ourselves is not necessary but whether we’ll rise to the occasion or not is of course an open question. It’s a new year, it’s up to us what we make of it.
It’s the end of the year and I’ve been on holiday since before Christmas. With this much time on my hands, I tend not to think much about work; instead I’m watching a lot of movies and thinking a lot about film. This afternoon I did a quick survey of several “best film posters of the year” lists, and compiled my own inventory of the posters that I thought were most worth commenting on. In no particular order…
“Human Flow” Probably not surprisingly, a contemporary artist—the inimitable Ai Weiwei—made a documentary about the global refugee crisis and hardly anyone noticed. Its poster image is graphically striking but I wonder if it’s too benign or even neutral, rather than upfront about the scale of this issue.
“Downsizing” Alexander Payne’s high concept comedy posits a world where you can miniaturize yourself in order to help preserve the earth’s resources and enjoy its bounty without guilt. It’s an intriguingly unexpected concept for one of the smartest directors working, but its generally terrible reviews dissuaded me from venturing out to theaters to see it. Nevertheless, this teaser image is a total winner, a graphical riff on film posters themselves.
“Better Watch Out” This horror thriller about the holidays came and went without much fanfare. Its marketers may have done better to stick with this teaser image and its efficiently descriptive imagery of a bloody Christmas sweater for the entirety of the marketing campaign, rather than the utterly generic posters that were ultimately rolled out.
“I, Tonya” This biopic about notorious figure skater Tonya Harding is at the top of my list to see in spite of the fact that I have virtually zero interest in the sport or the subject. Its main poster images are fine but I really took to this one which echoes the illustrative style of tween books from the 1980s—this almost looks like it could have adorned a Judy Blume novel.
“It Comes at Night” There are a number of teaser posters on this list, which is cheating because they don’t have to do the heavy lifting of the final release posters. They can just hint at what’s to come, which is a much easier creative challenge for the designer. It’s even more unfair to choose posters for horror films whose very nature is to be mysterious and reveal relatively little. Still, this teaser for director Trey Edward Shults’s bunker thriller “It Comes at Night” is worth a closer looks. Its simple, classically centered composition does so much with so little, and the perspective effect created by the progressively larger font lines is genius.
“Mother!” People hated this film but this gorgeously illustrated cover is a triumph. Had I not heard so many terrible reviews, I’d have gone straight to the theater on this image alone.
“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” This legal drama looked totally unappealing to me but its poster is delightful. It offers just the right amount of details—the unruly hair, the old-fashioned Walkman headphones, the thick glasses—to convey the film’s emphasis on character. And its simple Helvetica title typography, reversed out of star Denzel Washington’s silhouette, underscores the notion of an internal struggle. Expertly done.
“The Beguiled” You don’t see wildly expressive typography nearly obscure the face of a big star like Nicole Kidman very often, and even less do you see it running sideways—along with all of the type one the poster. All of it is beautifully woven together though.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” This image is a fitting companion to the poster for director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous film, “The Lobster.” Like its predecessor, this new movie’s poster is minimal and collage-like. I’m particularly fond of the way Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell’s garments appear to turn into the musculature of the upside down head of Barry Keoghan; it’s a beautiful kind of visual punning. You don’t see a lot of consistency between the posters for a director’s films unless they’re explicitly part of the same franchise, but I think it’s really effective here for the Lanthimos “brand.” If the visual similarities are an accurate indication, I would imagine “Sacred Deer” is just as messed up as “The Lobster” was.
“The Post” I was already a sucker for newspaper movies. But the poster for this one, which shows Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks ascending the stairs at what I’m guessing is the Lincoln Memorial, hits all of my design joy buttons—an almost abstractly square composition with big, bold Helvetica type. It stunned me when I first saw it, though upon closer examination, I’m not sure the lighting on the figures is particularly convincing and I’m also not sure there are that many steps placed that steeply at the Lincoln Memorial. Typical Hollywood!
“The Shape of Water” There are other variants on this poster for Guillermo del Toro’s retro fantasy thriller that use this same illustration against a richer, blue background, but I prefer how delicate and almost ephemeral this one looks. Lovely.
“Thor: Ragnarok” I had high hopes for this movie; I’m a big fan of director Taika Waititi and I had hoped he’d be able to bring some much needed style to the Marvel Universe. And while I did find some thing to like about this movie—its overt visual homages to original comics artist Jack Kirby are a treat—I found it to be a mess. In some ways, this poster is a perfect embodiment of the movie; it’s wonderfully bright and alive but overstuffed and conveys no story or single unifying idea.
“Phantom Thread” I like the idea for this poster better than its execution. Its watercolor illustration is in the vein of the mid-century fashion world that P.T. Anderson’s new film explores, which is fitting. The movie itself is gloriously well done, but this drawing is hardly a commensurate work of art.
“Ingrid Goes West” It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to design a poster for a movie about the Instagram culture as a riff on the Instagram grid. But this poster avoids slavish imitation and goes for something more interesting—it’s a Hockney-like photo grid but not made of photos, but rather of a pastel-like rendering of star Aubrey Plaza’s face. I was charmed by it.
The prospect of watching the truly magnificent Frances McDormand take no prisoners in a revenge drama was the only thing that got me out to the theaters last month. There’s a lot of that in Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri,” and it’s a treat. Unfortunately it’s not enough to sustain this movie that really has no idea where to take its premise and resorts to maudlinism more often than you’d expect. Thumbs down.
Otherwise, November was a decent month for watching movies. Here are all twenty-two that I managed to squeeze in.
“Girls Trip” I had high expectations; I was disappointed.
“Arrival” Rewatched this along with Villeneuve’s back catalog. I liked it more than the first time.
If you’re interested in two guys from the pre-Snapchat age talking about what design used to be like, well have I got the podcast for you: Dan Cederholm, the amazing co-founder of the amazing Dribbble, had me as a guest recently on their Overtime podcast. We talked about how they don’t make digital design stuff like they used to anymore.
You can listen via Apple Podcasts, your favorite podcatcher app, or over at simplecast.com. You might also watch this short video beforehand just to kinda of prepare yourself.