Khoi Vinh: Designing the Conversation

by MFA IXD April 1, 2009

Khoi Vinh spends a lot of time thinking about designing for different audiences. As Design Director of NYTimes.com, it’s his responsibility, in part, to keep the needs of hundreds of thousands of users in mind, not to mention the internal constituents and teams he works with inside the organization. Off-hours, he publishes Subtraction.com, where he discusses design, technology, business, and culture for a changing conversation, as Subtraction has been going for over a decade, over a gazillion years, really, in internet years.

We had the opportunity to talk with Khoi as he is beginning to plan his course, “Designing the Conversation,” which starts later this year.

School of Visual Arts: You publish a popular blog called Subtraction.com. How did Subtraction get started (and what is behind the
name)?

Khoi Vinh: I originally started the site — over a dozen years ago now — as a way to promote the freelance design work that I was doing at the time. And, of course, to have a place to experiment and learn about what it means to publish online.

There’s no one reason why I chose the name “Subtraction;” I liked the arithmetic connotations; I liked the allusion to the concept of design being a process of taking things away, and maybe more than anything, I liked the way the word sounds and reads.

SVA: Since you started writing for Subtraction.com, how has your approach to creating content for the site changed?

KV: In the first few years, I treated the site in a very analog fashion; not so much as brochureware, but as a place to sporadically publish design work and creative explorations, and very much in a one-to-many paradigm, in which there was really no feedback from the site’s visitors. It was very visually oriented too — lots of large images,collages, and visually playful typography.

design is delivered.” In your experience, what do these changes mean for the roles of designers?

KV: It means something different for different designers. For those already steeped in social media, it means learning how to provide a kind of narrative guidance in the experiences we construct so that users get the most from a design. For those coming from analog media, it means learning  how to embrace the medium and rethinking old conventions.

In both cases, we’re looking for the sweet spot between the author/editor/designer and the user, a balance that allows audiences to make use of content and tools in the way that makes the most sense to them, while also satisfying the creative urges that have always compelled designers to create terrific products and experiences.

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Many thanks to Khoi for taking time to share thoughts on the changing conversation with us and more than a decade of design writing for audiences on Subtraction.com. You can see the complete Subtraction.com here.

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