I want to begin this post with a hefty congratulations to Khoi Vinh, former Design Director for nytimes.com for his release yesterday of his long-awaited startup, Mixel. It looks as beautiful as it does promising, and ever since he spoke about his departure from the Times, I knew he would go on to do (somehow) even more amazing things. I can’t wait to see how it shapes up for him.
PrefaceKhoi Vinh has been a seminal figure in the design community for the past several years, and has helped bring an awareness of grid principles to web design. His book Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design was published last year and stands as a beautifully designed text that spans the historical and the practical in the world of grid-based design. Since I discovered his work some time in 2009, Khoi’s design work, writing, and design theory have been a strong influence on me as I have explored these themes in my own work.
Two days ago, Khoi made a brief blog post describing a short film in which he explains the aesthetics of grid systems and their personal value to him. The video, directed by Raafi Rivero, contains a cinematically gorgeous interview with Khoi and is an original interpretation of the traditional Q&A-type bit.
You can see the video below:
Removing SubjectivityI was so drawn into the film that I almost missed a few things Khoi mentions about the value of grids in graphic design. One of his ideas in particular stunned me.
In a fast-cutting sequence, Khoi builds his thesis:
“I’m trying to remove all the decision making from graphic design…get more and more objective…The grid is a tool for me to impose order and logic and law…there’s a framework.”This scene fades to white just before he gets to the real flesh of his argument, and in a single utterance, takes my breath away.
“If you remove all subjectivity, you get some essential truth, some core idea that’s not clouded by inaccuracies, or approximations, or subjective feelings.
Design is All About Subjective FeelingsI felt shut out. I’ve connected to Khoi’s work for so long not only on an aesthetic level, but on an emotional level. The rationality of his work makes me feel understood, makes me sane. His work has a certain clarity that I find compelling because it shuts out distractions and serves as an aesthetic haven for me when I get overwhelmed by being bombarded by poor type and layered images in the thousands of marketing messages shoved down my throat daily. Khoi’s clear and precise communication is a veritable sanctuary of uncluttered, straightforward communication.
For human beings, emotions are innate. Research in affective neuroscience has repeatedly shown that all normally developed mammals demonstrate emotional tendencies that arise in conjunction with the same instinctual drives that help them know how and when to, say, gather food (Jaak Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). This means that mammals have evolved with emotional instinct that have been as necessary to their survival as nourishment.
As a method of interpersonal communication, therefore, design is all about subjective feelings. Why should we attempt, through the imposition of order, to negate that which makes us truly human? Humanity is messy. Design, if done well, speaks to the human condition. To design, or indeed to create any art, so as to neutralize our emotional response robs us of the capacity to relate to it.