Listgeeks Feature #6 – Khoi Vinh

Khoi Vinh is a highly influential Brooklyn-based designer and writer who recently spent four and a half years as the Design Director for NYTimes.com (after five years at Behavior, the design studio he co-founded in 2001).  Via Subtraction, the blog he’s maintained for over ten years, Khoi publishes his uniquely informed observations on topics including – but by no means limited to – user experience, emerging technology, design for the web, and popular culture.  His recent book, “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” (New Riders, 2010), both guides readers through the fundamentals of grid-based design and provides invaluable, practical instruction for designers contemplating grid-oriented projects.  Be sure to check out Khoi’s Listgeeks lists after you read the below interview, in which he discusses his forthcoming project, life post-NYTimes, and the future of reading:

Listgeeks: One of the things I find amazing about Subtraction is the wide range of topics you’re able to cover with genuine insight (architecture, pop culture, the future of print media, the role of technology in our lives, and graphic design, of course, among them). It’s hard not to wonder both a) how you find the time and b) why it is that certain things grab your attention and not others.  Can you elaborate?

Khoi Vinh: The answer to both is that curiosity is probably the strongest motivator for me. I just want to look at the things that pique my curiosity more closely and understand them better. The posts that I write are often as much about figuring things out for myself while writing them as they are about expounding some point of view I might have. I’m trying to dig a little deeper, turn it over and look at it from different perspectives, see what my readers have to say about it — all for my own benefit, really. I really believe that everything’s connected to my work in some way, too, so I enjoy bringing all kinds of random stuff back to the blog to see how it all mixes together and to find out what I think of it all.

When you’re curious, it’s not too hard to find the time to do this stuff. I won’t pretend it doesn’t take some self-discipline (there are plenty of times I’d rather just watch a movie than blog), but it’s not work, because that curiosity is such a powerful and compelling motivation to keep going. It’s actually pretty easy.

LG: You spent four and a half years as Design Director at the New York Times, and have since been working on a few different projects and consulting.  How has the transition been from the structure of that environment to your current routine?  Do you find that you think about the kinds of design/tech-related issues with which you’re concerned differently than you did when you were in that environment?

KV: The transition hasn’t been hard at all. I really enjoyed my tenure at The Times and I learned so much and met and befriended so many amazing people. I also owe a tremendous amount of whatever notoriety I can call my own to The Times, so I don’t regret a minute of it. At the same time, it was sometimes very difficult to get things done there, at least in the way that I wanted to do them — small, scrappy, very startup like.

When I left I knew I wanted to join a startup in some capacity but ultimately I decided to found my own with a partner. We’re building a social software product that’s really different and really exciting. I think it’s going to be tremendous. There’s not an obvious connection with this app and the work that I did at The Times, but believe me, so much of what I learned there — about what users want, about how technology conforms to that, about how business brings technology and design and users together — is at the foundation of this new venture.

LG: In our interview with Kevin Kelly a few weeks ago, he replied to a question about the future of real time collaboration by focusing on the experience of reading.  I thought it would be interesting to get your take on what he had to say, considering the substantial thought you’ve put into a variety of closely related topics in the last few weeks on your blog: “I’ve been thinking about reading lately. Reading is mostly done alone by individuals. But what if we shared the texts as we read? We might share the passages we spent the most attention on. Or share our comments and marginalia. What if we coordinated our reading in synchrony, like a real-time book club? What if we could share our underlined (highlighted on the Kindle) passages to particular friends? At particular times, say, when they get around to reading it? What if the text of what I am reading is “polished” by others reading it before me, in the way Wikipedia is? What if every book accumulates annotations from every reader, hidden until you ask for them? The possibilities go on and on. We are just at the start of socializing everything.”

KV: I completely agree with that. I think that the reason to pick up a Kindle or an iPad and read a book is it’s easier than lugging around a really thick book, but the reason to keep using it is that it adds something to the reading experience that can’t be found in print. I actually think we’ll see a whole new kind of writing — expository as well as narrative — that will acknowledge the social aspects of these new reading platforms. I think books and magazines and reading materials of all kinds are going to be very different within a decade or two. Remember, the 20th Century started out looking a lot like the 19th Century before it came into its own. Right now the 21st Century still looks a lot like what came before, but that won’t last. It’s going to be really exciting.

I also second Kevin’s sentiment that we’re just at the start of social software. The way I like to put it is: “Everything that can be social will be.”

LG: What do you feel has been the most exciting development related to designing for the web in the last year or two?

KV: There’s been a lot of exciting stuff: web fonts, responsive web design, the rise of HTML5, and tablets, to name a few. But nothing seems nearly as exciting as the way the ecosystem has matured and allowed all of us designers to command our own destinies like never before.

When I went to design school, the only business skill they taught me, the only business skill they thought I would need, was how to win and work with clients. It used to be that clients were the gateway to doing design work. In fact, in one of my first jobs as a young designer, I joked to my boss that, “The biggest problem facing designers is clients.” He thoroughly reprimanded me for that attitude (he was a bit of a jerk). But we’re in an age now — and it’s just beginning — where so much great design work doesn’t have to happen at the behest of clients anymore, where working for clients is no longer the only way to do the most interesting work out there. Designers are initiating their own projects or joining new ventures or starting their own; they’re finding ways to take these amazing skills they have to communicate and build experiences and using them to write their own ticket. That’s what I see here at Listgeeks, and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only going to get a ton more interesting in this realm, whereas working for clients is not necessarily going to get any more interesting going forward.

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Listgeeks Feature #5 – Jason Forrest

Jason Forrest is a Berlin-based American electronic musician who also runs two record labels (Nightshifters and Cock Rock Disco) and recently launched a fantastic Web-based television network called, appropriately, Network Awesome.  His new album, “The Everything,” representing a bold move into increasingly less sample-based/mash-up territory from that on his previous full-lengths (including his most recent, “Shamelessly Exciting,” in 2005), was released in Europe on April 15th (Staatsakt), and comes out the first week of May everywhere else. Be sure to check out Jason’s Listgeeks lists after you’ve read the below interview.

Listgeeks: Let’s start with your most recent non-music action: How did Network Awesome come about?  

Jason Forrest: Network Awesome began as a way for me to “get involved with TV.”  I researched and conceived it over a 8 month period last year.  I connected with my partner Greg Sadetsky in late November and 10 days later we had a working version.  Two weeks later we launched the site – that was on Jan 1, 2011.  In many ways Network Awesome is a way to enjoy watching TV again!  So much mainstream media has corroded over time and yet there is so much amazing content that the mainstream seems uninterested in.  Everyday we work our hardest to share what we think is amazing stuff to watch and – oh yeah – Network Awesome is free and you can watch it everywhere in the world.

LG: Which three or four shows/films that you’ve featured so far best embody the concept of the network, from your perspective?


JF
: Last week we had an AMAZING live blues show from West German TV in the mid-60s. The producers placed incredible blues musicians in a train-station-as-stage-set surrounded by a few thousand mod Germans having the time of their lives. Super incredible stuff.  Earlier in that week we had Pete Dev/Null collect this great and very fun collection of early 90s Rave videos.  And we are deeply, deeply obsessed with The Prisoner.  Easily the weirdest TV series ever on air, it set the bar higher than shows like “Lost” could ever get to. It’s totally mod, incredibly well written and just captivating on so many levels.

LG: A recent Pitchfork review (of the Utopia EP) suggested that, on the musical front, you might be moving towards, “something resembling maturity.” Do you think the new album (listen to a stream here) reflects a shift along these lines?

JF: Yeah, I think that Utopia review was actually amazing because the writer really got where I was coming from. “The Everything” is most definitely a more mature version of what I did in the past, but that said, it’s still fun! It took me about 6 years to finally pull it together, and in the process I was inspired by a lot of different things like Morricone and Noise Rock. You can kind of hear a 50s vibe in some of the tracks too. It goes all over the place but still holds together, somehow.

LG: It feels like “Raunchy” kinda meshes your past obsessions with something a little darker, sonically.  How much of the composition of your recent stuff is sampled Vs. self-generated?

JF: Yeah, that’s a great question. Basically I use samples a ton still but the sample size has shrunk over the years. Now, instead of sampling a whole hook or few bars I just sample one note.  It’s allowed me to compose the songs more freely and they shed a bit of context in the process. It’s pretty much just all “me” at this point.

LG: You’re one of those rare people who seems to be able to juggle 4,000 things at the same time: running two record labels, making your own music, playing shows, collaborating on videos, promoting art/music, and now working on your network.  How do you find the time to do so many things so well at once?  Do you think living in Berlin helps to make it all possible?

JF: Yeah, I’m a busy guy for sure!  What I’ve developed over the past two years is more confidence in doing something the first time directly.  For example, I do the design work and a lot of the commercials for Network Awesome, and most of the time I do them very quickly and rely on my gut. I think it’s actually made the work more creative.  I do think Berlin helps in an abstract way. It’s relatively inexpensive and the quality of life here supports creative types in a way that NYC never did. That said, they are just really, really different places.

LG: What are you most excited about in terms of technological development?  Which tools/apps created in the last few years have most inspired your work?

JF: Two years ago I actually made an innovative iPhone music app, which I am still proud of, but I actually have become a bit skeptical of the iOS lately. I think touchscreens are the way to go but the existing iOS and app structure has become too large and restrictive of late.  I’m not that excited by hand-held devices, in fact I use my iPhone less and less. To me content has taken more precedence than technology this past year.  If anything, what I am the MOST excited about is the amazing generosity of people as it relates to technology.  I mean, every second you have millions of people sharing their videos, images, and music online for people to enjoy. While “The Internet” has become many horrible things, it also has become a very giving place, too.

Jason Forrest on Listgeeks
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Listgeeks Feature #3 – Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly is a man of intensely varied passions and wide-ranging interests – interests that have morphed and broadened over the course of a distinguished, innovation-obsessed career.  Kevin played an instrumental role in launching Wired Magazine in 1993 (serving as its Executive Editor until January 1999), having worked as the publisher and editor of Whole Earth Review (a “journal of unorthodox technical news” years before countless blogs would claim a similar mission) prior to his time at Wired, from 1984 to 1990.  Often tagged with the “futurist” label, Kevin has authored three groundbreaking books, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Economic and Social Systems (1994), New Rules for the New Economy, (1998) and, most recently, What Technology Wants (2010). Each of these books has increased our understanding of the implications and consequences of technological development in new and different ways.  Among his numerous other areas of interest (a complete bio is posted here) Kevin spends his time on the All Species Foundation (which he co-founded) and the Long Now Foundation (of which he’s a board member) when he’s not curating films (check out www.truefilms.com, a website which chronicles his interest in “documentary films, educational programs and non-fiction cinema”) or giving a talk, or hanging out with his wife and kids, or losing himself on a long walk in the woods.  Be sure to check out Kevin’s Listgeeks lists, “Favorite Walk-Intensive Destinations,” “Favorite Documentaries,” and “Things I Always Have with Me” after you read our below discussion with him about his latest book, What Technology Wants.

Derick/Listgeeks:  First, allow me to say that I found the book incredibly inspiring – I love the way you managed to merge the story of technology with the story of evolution, and then point out how they’ve always essentially been interwoven parts of the same whole.  I haven’t been able to interact with the countless gadgets/technologies around me in the same way since I put the book down, which I consider a good thing.

Kevin Kelly:  Thank you for your kind words and encouragement.

LG:  One of my favorite sentences in the book is on page 215, where you write, “We willingly choose technology, with its great defects and obvious detriments, because we unconsciously calculate its virtues.”  There are obvious (and not-so-obvious) downsides to adopting new technologies, but I certainly feel the “unconscious calculations” you describe when selecting a new technology.  I’m curious about how this plays out with your own process of selecting technologies – are some decisions easier than others? Do you fret over certain choices while others happen almost thoughtlessly/intuitively?

KK:  I generally don’t fret much; that is simply my temperament. There are always costs, and downsides, to our choices. Of course with technological choices the downsides may not yet be visible to us collectively, so we need to keep our eyes open. I am a possibilian. I think if we adopt new possibilities — new technologies — while maintaining as many of the old as we can then we will distribute the risks and keep it easy to modify our behavior if needed. So if kids play video games but still play outside, or read the Kindle and read paper, that’s good. These expanded horizons can only benefit them. Same goes for adults. I think there is something immensely powerful about my ability to video conference from my kitchen and then immediately go hiking in the woods. It is true that sometimes, or maybe even often, a technology we are trying out does not live up to its promise, or solicits more harms than we like. But I have not found it that difficult to abandon technology when this happens. The main thing is to have no regrets about abandoning stuff in our own lives. It is not a moral choice, not a matter of good and evil. It is a compromise. The hardest part is articulating to ourselves what we are trying to optimize our lives for. If we can determine that, then I think we can make the calculated trade offs in the tools we use.

LG:  From my perspective, one of the most fascinating sections of the book is “Mutualism” in the chapter “Technology’s Trajectories.”  You claim (on page 314), that, “For the next 10 to 20 years, the socializing aspects of the technium will be one of its major traits and a major event for our culture.”  As fascinating as the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms has been (especially at the moment, in light of the very recent political developments in Africa and the Middle East), it does feel like we’re literally at the very beginning of realizing the potential of real time, transparent collaboration online.  What types of potential innovations and developments in this area do you find most compelling at the moment?

KK:  I think the potential for mutalism exists in almost everything we can think of. One could take any institution, any device, any process, any verb today, and ask, what would happen if we had 5 brand new ways to do this collectively? For example, I’ve been thinking about reading lately. Reading is mostly done alone by individuals. But what if we shared the texts as we read? We might share the passages we spent the most attention on. Or share our comments and marginalia. What if we coordinated our reading in synchrony, like a real-time book club? What if we could share our underlined (highlighted on the Kindle) passages to particular friends? At particular times, say when they get around to reading it? What if the text of what I am reading is “polished” by others reading it before me, in the way Wikipedia is? What if every book accumulates annotations from every reader, hidden until you ask for them? The possibilities go on and on. We are just at the start of socializing everything.

LG:  You cite health care, throughout the book, as one of the areas most continuously altered by technology as it develops.  Generally speaking, we’ve seen a gradual transition – as a result of improved technologies – from doctors/experts collecting and reporting health-related information to us as individuals to individuals themselves having the ability to monitor their own health, and make their own decisions about what they find.  I wonder if we’ll reach a point where technology will essentially be able to “guarantee” a certain degree of longevity. What’s your take on this typing of thinking?

KK: I do think there is a long-term movement towards decentralized and personalized health care. But I think the complexities of longevity are so huge that I am not expecting technology will ever be able to guarantee it. Whenever life is involved, no guarantees can be made.  If we could make life predictable, farming would be a matter of pushing buttons.

View Kevin’s Listgeeks Profile
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Listgeeks Feature #2: Russell Leetch from Editors (www.editorsofficial.com)

Editors formed in Birmingham, England, in 2002, and have seen their profile increase dramatically with each of their three successive album releases.  Their most recent album, “In This Light and on This Evening,” (2009) topped the UK album chart (as did its predecessor, “An End Has A Start”), even as the band transformed its sound from layered, guitar-driven indie rock to a more synth-based/industrial sound.  Listgeeks caught up with the band’s principle listgeek, bassist Russell Leetch, as the band head back into the studio with Mark “Flood” Ellis to start working on the material for their fourth album.  After you check out the below interview, be sure to have a look at Russell’s lists: Favourite 80s Bands, Favourite 90s Bands, and Favourite Meals of 2010.

Listgeeks: Sonically, it seems like the band made a pretty big transition from “An End Has a Start” to “In This Light and on This Evening.” Is a similar kind of revisiting the sound of the band happening with the fourth album?

Russell Leetch: Whenever listening back to our previous albums there are always annoyances or things that we may have not liked or wanted to have improved on. It is only with hindsight that you can look at these and move forward. Once we have completed a record we usually tour for an extensive period of time and the songs change again . . . so it is after this period when we start thinking of making a new record that suggestions of who we are going to use and what we may want it to sound like come into play. When we were making “An End Has A Start” we were going for a more polished, fuller sound, which we achieved but maybe pushed a bit too far for a second record. With the third we really wanted to move away from having 30 guitar tracks on a song and for people to hear the band playing in a room again. With the latest record we are rehearsing the songs so they are ready to record when we go into the studio. Studio time can be expensive and it is usually best to have the songs fully rehearsed and ready to go before getting into the studio and changing them in there. At the moment  things are sounding heavier than ever. When the band plays in a room there is always a dynamic to having strong individual parts and usually at volume – this is really prominent at the moment. We are pushing all elements that Editors consist of and that’s the best way of making a record.

LG: Has working with Flood (Depeche Mode, U2, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nine Inch Nails), both on the current project and the third album, pushed the band to develop new ways of incorporating synthetic sounds or different types of technology into the making of the music?

RL: Absolutely. Flood is well known for his work with bands incorporating synthesizers, and is very good at triggering the mode of a song by using a synth to create a rhythmical force or something as a drone for building a song around. When we made the first record it was a straight forward “rock” set up – guitars, bass drums and a micro korg! Now we use Logic running a variety of different things, whether it’s a drum pattern to free up Ed or having a synth keep the chords. We all have individual keyboard set ups and Ed tends to play the majority of his parts using an electronic kit – this really can shape the songs in different directions, especially when rehearsing. Modern bands have so many opportunities now to create such great music for not many pennies!

LG: Do you think an awareness of your audience plays a role in how you approach making albums? When you’re working on new material, is there a sense of what might work better sonically in larger venues and festival environments?

RL: I think to an extent you know what’s going to really work when you rehearse it, you feel the energy as a band first and this is what will be passed on to the audience. I don’t think we are ever far off what’s going to really excite the audience. Whenever you’re recording you try and make what’s best for a record but there is always going to be a thought about what happens live.

LG: Finally, the bass plays a prominent role in the sound of Editors, with songs often reliant on what you do with the bass as a melodic force.  Is it difficult to know when to bring a more melodic/upfront approach to your playing on a track, rather than approaching things in a slightly more traditional/supportive way? Does it just sort of come intuitively? Peter Hook (former New Order) and Carlos D (former Interpol) both come to mind as players who have also straddled this divide with style in the past . . . whose work do you admire when it comes to the bass guitar these days?

RL: I think myself and Chris take turns in supplying extra melodies to a lot of our songs. Prior to the start of the band I wasn’t a bass player and more of a piano player/guitarist. I think this has often led to there being more melody rather than root notes and basic rhythm from the bass guitar. Bass can play such a vital part to some songs without people even noticing it, and it’s taken me ages to realize this. I really enjoy Hooky’s bass playing – he really carries a lot of Joy Division’s work.  Pretty much all the riffs come from him and I like that. I have always liked Carlos from Interpol as there are lots of intricacies in his playing – more than I would ever play but I do admire how strong personalities approach their instruments, it’s what makes great bands. My favorite contemporary rhythm sections are Radiohead, The National and Elbow.

Listgeeks Feature #1: Craig Robinson (flipflopflyin.com)

Craig Robinson, originally from Lincoln, England, is a Mexico-City-based artist and illustrator. Craig’s been making (mostly pixel-based) pictures and animations on computers since 1998, and has recently done great things for clients as diverse as Kidrobot, Bloomberg Businessweek (see his November, 2010 cover here), and the Observer Music Magazine. A self-professed listgeek, lover of baseball, and Beach Boys fan, we’re pleased to have Craig as our first featured contributor. Check out his Favourite Aerosmith Songs, Favorite MLB Team Caps, Top 10 Favourite Ways to Get Drunk, Ten Favourite Cities in the Americas, and – perhaps most importantly – Ten Things That Keep Me Awake at Night. Craig’s new book, “Flip Flop Fly Ball: An Infographic Baseball Adventure” (Bloomsbury) is out in July, 2011, and the accompanying Website is here. He blogs with singular wit and enormous honesty here.

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