Mixel: Art and Soul

Last week, I was thrilled to see the launch of Mixel. If you aren’t familiar with it, go grab the iPad app, and while it downloads, take a look at this video explaining how it works.

Because I’ve been lucky enough to see Mixel evolve over the last year, I thought I’d take a moment to explain some of the back story and perhaps to explain why I’m so excited about its launch. Oh, and the requisite disclosure bragging: I’m an advisor to Mixel, so obviously I’ve got a vested interest in its success. But more interesting than that fact is why I’ve been such an advocate for this little app.

A First Glimpse

Though I’ve known Khoi for about a decade (back in a time when things like tweaking blog templates were discussed in polite company), we hadn’t ever really gotten a chance to sit down and talk at length until last fall. It was just a few weeks after Khoi had written this wonderful piece about his daughter’s then-impending first birthday and the implications it had about his obligation to try to do something ambitious and new. As my wife was expecting our son Malcolm at the time, his advice and perspective was especially resonant to me.

My perspective on Khoi’s work had been that I could obviously tell why he was such a well-regarded designer, but that someone known for strictly-regimented grids in the context of work for an institution known as the Gray Lady was hardly going to surprise me with something unexpectedly colorful. Then Khoi took out two iPads in the coffee shop where we were chatting. He showed me a very first, early rudimentary version of an app where you could make illustrations on one iPad and they would be visible on the other. It was, in all the superficial ways, nothing like today’s Mixel. But in the profound and substantive ways, it captured everything. This app was fun, delightful, open-ended chaotic and clearly inspired by the joy of being a parent and wanting to give your child a way to be creative and express herself.

I was struck by how exciting the potential was — though Khoi’s series of posts about magazines and media on the iPad are the definitive works on that topic, this wasn’t yet-another-digital-magazine. This was an app with soul, that was joyous to use. It evoked all of the things I’m obsessed with, from creating startups to enabling remix culture to encouraging people to collaborate with others in a community. I couldn’t wait to see what it would become.


Getting Dumped

A few months later, at the NY Tech Meetup, I saw a demo that truly delighted me. The team from Dump.fm gave a crazy, entertaining, slightly off-kilter demo of their site. In contrast to the polish and clear business value of some of the other apps that were shown, the Dump guys were visibly proud of their credibility with artists, and unabashedly entertained by the idea that the now uber-popular Deal With It meme had been born on their site. The video of their demo shows how much fun they were having:

When I heard a few months later that Scott Ostler, one of Dump.fm’s cofounders, was joining Khoi in creating the app that was to become Mixel, I was even more excited. So many of the right elements to enable something really creative seemed to be falling into place.

Off The Grid

As Mixel got ready to launch, I had just caught a wonderful short film made by Color Machine, with Khoi discussing the implications and goals of the grid-based design for which he’d become best known.

Strikingly, though, there was a recurring message of filtering out “cloudy emotions” in the film which seemed to contradict the rest of the narrative, which leans heavily on Khoi’s having been inspired by comic books and other wildly evocative media. My take was a bit like Nick Cox’s response, which responded to the off-hand mention of the grid being used to reduce the influence of “subjective feelings” by saying:

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.

But I had had the advantage of seeing Mixel since its earliest stages. I knew that Khoi and Scott were about to transcend the limitations of the grid that people were familiar with, and as I said in my comment to Khoi, “I’d question whether you’re really trying to remove the cloudiness of emotions, or whether you’ve merely focused on grids as a tool for emphasizing the most important emotions in an experience.”

The Thing That Matters


Now that Mixel is available for everyone to try, it’s become evident that this was the evolution of the design work that Khoi had been doing for so long. Where he’d been known for black-and-white, regimented grids, Mixel’s logo alone shows sweeping washes of color following fluid curves. Where Khoi’s name had been most associated with the sober, detached tone of the New York Times, Mixel was showing the sheer joy that comes from playing with your child and a box of crayons. Where so much of the conversation about the future of iPad apps had been about how a “lean-back magazine reading experience” was going to evolve, here was a hands-on, let’s-just-see-what-we-can-make place to play that had no rules and wasn’t striving for pixel-perfect results.

In short, Mixel is fun, and has heart. I’ve been incredibly impressed by the clarify of vision that’s been carried through from more than a year ago until today, where it already feels like one of the most meaningful apps that I use, by providing a place where I can watch my friends just having fun. Of course, there will be fixes and updates to make — I know the team is going to accommodate people who prefer not to sign in through Facebook, and address those concerned about attribution for images.

Most of all, I hope people will appreciate seeing an app that is inspired out of a real, wonderful emotion, instead of some sterile business plan identifying “opportunities in the market”. I’m incredibly proud to have played even a tiny, tenuous part in the creation of Mixel, and congratulate Khoi and Scott on its launch. But you should try it for yourself to see why Mixel is so special.