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    Collages with Friends: Khoi Vinh Launches Mixel

    When Khoi Vinh left his prestigious post as design director for NYTimes.com in July 2010, it wasn't for an even better title at an even bigger company but to pursue something all his own. After four years leading the visual and interactive experience of one of the top 100 websites in the world, he wrote a book on the grid-based design principles he applied at the Times, and he became an entrepreneur. He was no longer motivated to be a designer for hire but to be the one calling the shots—the designer as CEO. As he wrote in a blog post called “The End of Client Services” just this past July, “I came to the conclusion that if I wanted to design great user experiences then that old model of being a design contractor or a studio or an agency would not work. Instead, it’s necessary to be a part of the company that owns the product, to be in a position where I can continually work on and improve the product without the artificial constraints of a services contract… [And why] join a company when you can be the company?”

    Lascaux Co. is that company, which Vinh founded with his partner Scott Ostler (creator of dump.fm, a real-time visual chatroom), and Mixel is their first product. Mixel is an iPad application that turns the usually private act of art making into a social experience. By art they mean digital collages—called mixels in the app’s parlance—that are crafted from images users pull in from the web, their own iPad or the Mixel library, which is populated by everything that other Mixel users have posted. Having spent a little time with the app (thanks to a loaner iPad provided by Vinh), I can attest to how quick it is to learn, how fun it can be to make “artwork” and how easy it is to get hooked on the prospect of having your mixels “liked” (in Mixel your collages can even be “loved”—users can select five mixels a week to bestow with this honor). In the days leading up to Mixel’s launch I met with Vinh for a demonstration and answers to a few questions.

    How did you decide to create Mixel?

    Vinh: When I left my job last year, I figured I was going to join somebody else’s start-up or start one of my own. So I started developing this idea and hired an engineer to build a prototype for me, and it was actually very different. I used the prototype to gauge the interest of investors, potential partners and users. And then I got enough positive feedback that I thought, OK, I’m really going to do this. Then I started looking for a technical co-founder, someone who could actually build it. And I met Scott [Ostler] at the end of last year and we formed a company in February and we started coding in March. Over the summer we raised a seed round of venture capital, and that kept us going for a while. [Lascaux has raised $700,000 to date.]

    Why collage?

    Vinh: We started out thinking of painting and drawing, and what we found was that drawing a line is very personal and people find it very personally risky, they feel like, I’m being judged on whether or not I can draw a circle, and nobody can draw a circle, right? So everyone feels insecure about it. We had to create a way for them to express themselves visually without making them undertake the scary task of rendering something, so that’s why there’s no painting or drawing tools in here. There might be at some point. We have some ideas about how to make painting and drawing tools that still feel really easy and democratic but mostly as an embellishment to the collage. We might at some point add sound or multimedia or animations, so you could collage animations—that would be phenomenal.

    We also have no text tool. A lot of designers ask for that. But what we saw was that when you’re able to communicate with typing in text, then people stop thinking in a visual mode and they start thinking in a captioning mode. Like, they get a picture and they come up with something funny to enhance that picture. We want to ignite the circuits in your brain that center around visual creativity and visual communication, so we left out text tools. People are finding text and cropping it out and assembling stuff, and I think that’s fine, it’s still a different part of your brain. It’s not so easy to come up with something, people riff on other works in there because that’s what’s available to them. But the majority [of mixels] do not have text.

    What materials can you use to make mixels?

    Vinh: You can search for any image on the web [the image search engine is Bing]. Because you’re authenticated with Facebook, you can grab all your Facebook photos. If you have photos on your iPad, you can grab any of those photos. You can use multi-touch gestures to manipulate [any image], it’s super responsive and fast. Layer things, flip them, duplicate them, crop them, use your finger to draw whatever crop you want. Part of what we’re doing is, the crop tool is actually very primitive. I think we’ve always wanted to improve it but what we’ve found is it’s actually quite liberating because people feel like, well, nobody’s going to be able to do it perfectly, so I don’t have to get a perfect crop. We want a very easy, casual environment. So, it takes no time at all to create something fun.

    The secret sauce is that every image you add to the canvas is actually getting uploaded to the server, and the server is keeping the original copy, even though you’re cropping and manipulating it. It creates this framework of what we like to call object-oriented art. So you can actually sort of touch the art the way you can’t on a photo-sharing site, where everything is a flat JPEG. You can open up any one of these [images on Mixel], tap it to explore it, and you can see it’s not a flat JPEG, it’s just a series of database calls. So these are objects. This is made by David [taps on one user’s examples] so you can’t make any permanent changes to it, but you can sort of poke around and see how it’s put together. You can move stuff around. Even David can’t change it because he’s posted it publicly.

    Can friends create a mixel together?

    Vinh: It’s not really collaborative in that way. It’s like you create something and then you post it. But it is social in that you really have a sense, because these are just database objects, the server knows every time it shows up in a collage and it can tell you that. So you tap on this strawberry and it says that this piece is used in 32 other mixels. You can tap on “view uses” and you get thumbnails of every collage in the system that’s using this strawberry.

    We’re trying to engender visual chatter. We want people to think of art not as something that has to be so expertly done and formal that it’s suitable for hanging on a wall, but to think of it much more conversationally and social and casual. It’s a conversation that anyone can jump in. So even if this was done by the most expert collage artist, anybody could go in here, pick it apart, see how it was done, learn from it, remix and basically talk back to the artist, give them their own take on it.

    What about copyright on source images?

    Vinh: There will definitely be some people that complain, that’s for sure. But we think we have a pretty good fair-use argument. If you look at Tumblr or Posterous or these other sites, they’re violating copyright on a mass scale. The works are not altered in any way. People are just pulling these works in, irrespective of the original copyright holders’ wishes. People in Mixel are actually creating derivative works, new works, and adding value to it. Because it’s not just reproducing what’s done, it’s using it for a new purpose. Sometimes satirical, sometimes for comedy, sometimes just for artistic expression. But we will comply with the DMCA, so we will take down anything… But this is really a case of, you have to do it, try it, and ask for forgiveness later, otherwise it would never get out there.

    It’s also more private than a website like Flickr that anybody can get to, even a search engine. Here you have to have the app. There’s not one view that shows you everything. And the sharing page is somewhat private too, it doesn’t give you access to the whole network. It’s a bit less public.

    Is there a way to retain and display information about the source for each image?

    Vinh: We’re collecting that on a server, but we’re not serving that back to the user, not in the interface. I think we will at some point…

    Part of the beauty of this is, when you tap on one of these things, it’s not a flat JPEG like on a file sharing site, so you can tap on something and maybe get a little pop-up that shows you meta information like where it came from, maybe a link back to that site or maybe a little piece of marketing or advertising “get a deal” on this or that. Every collage becomes a potential foundation for a lot of interactions. So if you’re promoting a Captain America movie, when you tap on this you might get a link to a movie site or discount movie tickets. Let’s say, fast forward to the holidays, and now they’re promoting the Captain America DVD, and we can go back retroactively repurpose this real estate, so to speak. There are a lot of ideas around the meta information that we could do. If it’s a movie or for a brand, we have ideas for creating these brand-safe arenas within the network, so that everything that goes in there can be moderated and approved, and the brand can see how people mixed stuff up and made something new out of it. That’s for a little bit further down the road. First we have to amass a big audience with just the core tools and teach them this new activity.

    What will you charge for the app?

    Vinh: It’s free. Nobody’s really sitting around saying, I’m really looking for a social collage app. We could get a decent number of people to pay $.99 or $1.99 for it, but that’s just not a big enough business for us and for our investors. The opportunity is much bigger. We think it’s a digital photography-sized opportunity. The impulse to snap a picture goes back 150 years, maybe, but the impulse to express yourself visually in some way, and collage is just a technique for that, that goes back to cave paintings, even. So we think everybody out there starts out doing this kind of thing as a kid, and the reason they stop, I mean some of them generally don’t enjoy it, but I think a lot of people stop because society says, you’re not good that, you should stop embarrassing yourself. So they basically lose the social context that encourages them to be doing it. So we think this can bring that context that makes it really fun and rewarding and low risk. We think we can turn a huge number of non-artists into casual collage artists, and we can build a huge audience that way. And we have a number of different ways that we think can monetize that audience. So that’s why it has to be free. Because somebody’s going to do it, if it’s not us, somebody’s going to turn the iPad into this incredibly democratic, incredibly popular art-making tool, combine art and social on the iPad and build up a huge audience for it. It’s sort of like one of these inevitable things. We want to be that company.

    Mixel is available for free in the App Store, and a Facebook account is required to join. For more background on Mixel, see Khoi’s introduction on his blog.

    Ed note: Two corrections were made to this article post-publication. The first, we originally stated that Lascaux raised $700,000 in venture capital this week; that is actually the amount of funding raised to date. And second, the image search engine was originally stated as Google Images, but it is Bing.

    Update: Mixel posted a FAQ page about its Facebook log-in requirement. 

    About the Author: 

    Sue Apfelbaum is a freelance writer and editor with a focus on design, art, music, film and culture. From 2006 to 2012 Sue was the editorial director for AIGA, publishing critical, inspirational and educational content about design on the AIGA website and developing programming for AIGA's webinars. Visit http://about.me/sueapfelbaum

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