In this post, our second in the series Dogs on Design, design critic and dog owner Sarah F. Cox met with Design Director of NYTimes.com, Khoi Vinh, to walk his dog while discussing the ever-changing business of design at the Times. Sarah's dog Raleigh, was disappointed to be left at home to work on her blog, Raleigh Pop.
It's 8:15 on an April Saturday morning. A bespectacled, lanky man with black hair in jeans and a jacket trails his dog down the path from the parking lot to the central grassy area of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY. Every day before 9:00 am dogs are allowed off leash, and no matter the pack-leader dynamics at home, it is the time of day that dogs lead and humans follow. In this case, it is a black lab mix that is dragging the Design Director of NYTimes.com.
Khoi Vinh and his dog, Mr. President, have been together since December 2002, when Khoi brought him home from the Newark Humane Society in New Jersey. Selected because he was not barking like the other shelter dogs, even today Mr. President displays a calm self-assuredness that fits with his name, picked out prior to his adoption. The sleek all-black dog has been known to shun affection and may seem a bit haughty or self-important. But these days, his owner is appreciating that he isn't needy; Khoi has a new human baby at home vying for his attention. At seven years old, Mr. President is often cat-like, content to sit on the couch and watch the humans.
On this early morning walk, it's apparent that Khoi is still adjusting to the interrupted nights of new parenthood. Coupled with the demands of the job, Khoi certainly has a lot on his mind, but he doesn't volunteer it. As his friend for over six years, design writer Steven Heller told me, "Khoi is a man of no wasted words." You might say he is efficient with them, and it is this efficiency that is needed on the job.
For a man spending his days in the Renzo Piano-designed Times headquarters, time does not run on a news cycle. Unlike a paper's art director, Khoi works on the platform of the website and its long-term enhancements. As he explains, "My job is not to design. It is to create the conditions under which good design happens," meaning that he goes to a lot of meetings. He became Design Director in 2006, and while he began his career as a graphic designer for print, he's been web-focused since 1998, the year he moved to New York. With the addition of Apps for iPhones and iPads to the repertoire of NYTimes.com digital products, he's had to stay ahead of the news. He was called out to California last fall to talk to Apple about a conceptual tablet product, before the company would confirm its existence to the public. In January, NYTimes.com became a launch partner for the iPad and developed the whole App in about two and a half months. As Khoi sees it, all these products: the website, the mobile App, and the now the iPad App, are really designed to facilitate conversation. "A newspaper is a document; it makes a declaration. But a site is living and breathing, thanks to contributors." Khoi should know a lot about the life of websites, since he founded Subtraction.com, his personal blog about design, in 2002.
But what has he learned about design from his park companion, Mr. President? Khoi laughs a little at this question before resuming his introspective, staid pose. "What you learn about your relationship with a dog is that it is more about your behavior than his. You get out what you put in. I don't want to draw a parallel between designers and dogs... but I did learn that your inputs affect other people's outputs." As the leader of a 13-person design team, Khoi is clearly top dog.
Currently, NYTimes.com is in the process of shifting its business model for the site from unlimited free use, to one with a pay wall that prompts the reader to subscribe. Khoi began working on this last spring before the official announcement last January; it is expected to launch in January 2011. The basic challenge is to revamp the website so that the user wants to keep clicking through after the prompt instead of turning away; the site will offer the first three screens for free. While Khoi can't discuss too many of the details, he explains that this is not a design overhaul but more subtle improvements in article pages with new features and functions. Basically he is building the hooks into e-commerce for the news business. Whatever Khoi implements at NYTimes.com, one of the most high profile of all news business sites, is likely to set a standard for others to follow.
As we reach the center of the park at the 9:00 am cut-off for off-leash roaming, Khoi calls out to Mr. President to turn back. The dog is visibly disappointed, dropping his tail and giving a forlorn stare of semi-defiance. Khoi explains that Mr. P (as he is sometimes called) is very goal-driven and refuses to go on walks just for the sake of walking. He needs a destination in mind to be happy.
As we turn around, Mr. P trails until he remembers that the water fountain is up ahead, and suddenly the pace quickens and his tail forms into a half curl. (It's not the typical lab-tail so Khoi thinks he might be half chow.) Reaching the dog water fountain, Mr. P happily laps up water as Khoi presses the foot pedal. When he is not after water, Mr. P's other goals tend to be food-driven. In the case of a picnic-littered park, "food" is interchangeable with trash. It's on this point that the staid, regal creature reminds me of another dog in the design world, my own dog Raleigh, a trash-crazed fox terrier also often found in the garbage. It's a bit humanizing to know that Khoi, with such a long resume of design accomplishments, still has not been able to figure out how to get his dog away from half-eaten food discards. Guess there is no App for that.