Back in July when Betabeat talked to design guru Khoi Vinh, the former design director for the NYTimes.com, Mr. Vinh criticized publishing companies whose approach to the brave new world of the tablet was limited to replicating a magazine experience within an app. Building an app, he said, only makes sense when there’s real utility: “I would build social features and sharing that really resonate with people.”
Well, Mr. Vinh’s stealth project made its debut in the App Store today and it appears he’s done just that. Mixel is a free collage-making app aimed at democratizing the creation of art the same way smartphones with cameras and apps like Instagram and Picctu have turned us into a nation of photographers.
This summer, Mr. Vinh and his co-founder Scott Ostler of Dump.fm, picked up $600,000 in funding for their startup, called Lascaux, from betaworks and Polaris Ventures. Since March, they’ve been working out of Dogpatch Labs in Union Square. We stopped by Dogpatch last week to talk to Mr. Vinh about why he felt compelled to venture into Startupland, how Mixel is avoiding IP issues, and how he plans on mainstreaming art-making into a new category of activity.
“I noticed that this is really the perfect art-making device,” said Mr. Vinh, explaining the genesis of his idea as he fiddled around with his iPad. “For the first time in computing history you’ve got an ideal, super-powerful art-making device in the hands of mainstream consumers. Because no one ever bought Wacom tablets before and even Photoshop had a limited audience because of how technical it was.”
Mixel, on the other hand, gives users intuitive tools for playing around with photos from the web, Facebook, etc. You can crop, scale, duplicate and basically remix images into a collage that then becomes part of a conversation with other users. They in turn can see how you put a particular Mixel together and take images that you used and add their own. Click on any particular image within a collage and you can see all the other Mixels that used that same image. That kind of functionality means social is more deeply integrated than just the usual following and liking and ability to share Facebook and Tumblr, although Mixel has that too.
“When I looked at all the art apps in the App Store, I thought they were all great and really powerful, but I also realized that they were all single-player, they were not social,” said Mr. Vinh. “Unless I’m already convinced I can make art, whether I’m a professional artist, designer, or committed hobbyist—only those people are going to stick with these apps. All the barriers for non-artists remain.”
“Our thinking is that we can combine social with making art, so we can renew that social context, so that you’re encouraged, so that you’re having fun, so that it’s very low personal risk, so that it’s very rewarding—you can create a whole new category of activity . . . and turn all these non-artists into people having fun making art before they realize that it’s art,” he explained. Basically, time warp back to elementary school art class.
As we sat on a stool in Dogpatch, Mr. Vinh casually created a few Mixels with photos of trees and head shots from the lead singers of Hall & Oates. That’s sort of the idea. “We want people to make this stuff really quickly. We don’t want them laboring over crops—really simple, fast tools is what we’re trying to do.”
It’s easy to see how the app would be a big hit with bloggers and Tumblrs, although Betabeat was admittedly disappointed the app doesn’t yet have drawing. Mr. Vinh explained that’s partly to maintain the integrity of the images. “We want to create a really family friendly-environment, so you have to sign in with Facebook and use your real name. We’re leaving painting and drawing out of it for now, because we don’t want people defacing the content. Even though you can cut it up, you can’t really mutilate the images. We have some ideas about how we can add brushes in the future, but now we’re focused on collages.”
Hence the PG-rated promotional video:
Mr. Vinh said the reason behind keeping the images positive didn’t have to do with copyright issues, although he thinks he has a great argument for fair use because Mixel users are creating new works and adding value. “But we’d also comply with the DMCA—a takedown approach. We filed all the papers and stuff so if somebody has a complaint about their images in here, we’ll take them down. That’s definitely going to be something to watch as we scale the business. But if we try to square every copyright, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do this at all.”
Another tool left out of the app is the ability to add text, although we saw crops of images of text as Mr. Vinh gave us a tour of the app. That was a purposeful decision to take a different approach than, say, 4chan or LOLcats. “What we saw was when you have the ability to add text in the same editing environment as you’re composing an image, the vast majority of cases people stop thinking visually and move into a captioning mode and think of a funny line to add to a piece instead.”
Mr. Vinh said they decided to keep the app free to use because they think the potential is huge, “But no one is sitting around and thinking: ‘I need a social art making experience.’” The focus now is on building an audience, but a freemium model, in-app purchases and working with brand marketers are all possibilities for monetization down the road.
Whether or not the app takes off, Mr. Vinh, who paid $10,000 out of pocket to build a demo and even flew out to Palo Alto to get feedback from Sand Hill Road, has no regrets about venturing into the startup world. At the Times, he said, “What frustrated me was that sometimes the final call on user experience or details of a product were made by some project manager somewhere who is not qualified to do that, but they’re in charge of the schedule. I realized the only way I could do this was if I owned the final product, meaning, I built it from scratch, I built the company around it.”
“I definitely wanted to get into a startup and I definitely admire the startup culture,” he added. “But I feel like the core motivation is there’s a product that I wouldn’t be able to build any other way.”