“I try to go to bed and literally just can't sleep through the night,” remarks Khoi Vinh, renowned designer and blogger. “I’m exhausted. I’m quite wired, actually.” What’s keeping him up is Mixel, a social collage app for the iPad which he launched days earlier. It's Vinh's first venture, the result of an 18 month process he undertook after walking away from a prestigious position as Design Director of NYTimes.com.
Mixel’s core concept is simple. Grab photos — from your iPad, from the web, from your Facebook profile — and assemble them into a rough, no-frills collage using rudimentary tools. No drawing, no shadows, no text. “Our big vision is to get as many non-artists as possible making art, and having fun doing it,” Vinh explains.
After you publish, anyone on Mixel can "remix" your creation, making a new collage from the original images you used, or to grab the components of your work and use them to start a new thread.
Social technology is the heart of Mixel, and also the cause of its first controversy. The app requires users to log in with a Facebook account, a dealbreaker for many. Some of the harshest criticism came from members of Vinh’s own savvy online following, particularly sensitive to issues of privacy and online identity. While the app was praised by many media outlets, Mixel’s iTunes rating is just three stars due to a glut of one-star reviews from users unhappy with Vinh’s decision.
Despite the challenges of a public product launch, Vinh remains enamored of entrepreneurship. “It’s really hard, really, really hard, but I have never been happier, career-wise, than I am now,” he says. “If Mixel turns out to be a complete flop, or it has a shockingly short half-life, I'll probably just start something else, and do it. I really enjoy this.”
Design is merely visual problem solving, after all, and the kind of thinking Vinh uses in his work carries over into making business choices. On requiring Facebook, he explains that the rationale is “not just getting access to your social graph... The one key thing for us is real names, and real names means a lot in this environment: true, verifiable identity.”
“It’s possible to fake a Facebook identity, but by and large people don't do that. And Facebook is also really the only viable option when you want to use real names in an environment like this... So we want to guard against abuse of other people's personal photos, and abuse of the reusable, revertible nature of the photos. And real names is a huge asset in that.”
This is how designers make decisions: narrow options, consider constraints. Whether intuitive or meticulous, designers use this process endlessly to make the thousands of tiny decisions involved in a design project. Design work is entrepreneur training.
Web designers mediate between content and user, just as CEOs mediate between product and customer. Even companies themselves are designed, carefully built and edited with purpose. And it’s not just about strategy. Design competency is now a prerequisite to launching a serious product on the web, so designer founders bring a critical skill in addition to their approach to problem-solving.
Vinh is uniquely suited to make the jump. His commitment to minimalism is reflected in the sparse but powerful featureset Mixel offers today, the trim and stable v1 which many start-ups strive after but few have the conviction to achieve. He’s assembled and run a team. And he had access to his own capital (to build a prototype) and investors’ (via his extensive network).
In many ways, Vinh has reached the summit of his profession. He’s co-founded an award-winning agency and led one of the largest sites in the world. That he’s chosen the difficult road of entrepreneurship shows that the way we work is changing, and self-employment is more possible and more desired than it was even ten years ago. A retirement plan is not the goal, doing great work is. “I really wanted to go and create something out of whole cloth, and really own it from end to end,” Vinh explains. “Why go and join another company when you can be the company?”