How They Got There: Interviews With Digital Designers About Their Careers by Khoi Vinh is the book that he wished existed when he was starting out. “As I realized that I’ve been going through a kind of protracted career reinvention myself, I just wanted this book to exist now, today—for my own edification as much as anything,” he says. Well, watch out what you wish for. Vinh has written, edited and published his dream book on his own and is “trying to build a database of customers who will buy stuff from me directly.” I asked him about this new entrepreneurial adventure.
What makes your book different from other interview/case studies?
There are tons of design profiles written all the time, but the parts that I always found most fascinating—a designer’s first big breaks or major turning points—rarely get explored thoroughly enough. So these interviews are exclusively focused on how these 14 designers have navigated their careers.
Creating books in this digital age is challenging. What were your challenges?
I had written a book before with a major publisher, and while it was a good experience, I wanted a more direct relationship with the people who bought this one. So I decided to bootstrap this one entirely on my own; I conducted all the interviews, paid for the transcription, hired an editor, designed the cover and interior, built the website, did all of my own marketing, everything. It was a ton of work, but the rewards are tangible: With this book I know who bought it, I retain all of the rights, and in fact the numbers for the first several weeks of sales are very close to the total royalties I made from my last book—over the span five years.
How did you select the people to showcase?
There was no formula. It was a mix of people I knew already and people whom I asked to be introduced to because I was familiar with their work. Generally speaking, I looked for designers who had achieved a reasonable level of notoriety, or they had started and sustained their own businesses, or had been part of businesses with interesting stories.
I also tried really hard to have a good mix of people: veterans and relative newcomers, agency designers and start-up designers, East coast and West coast. I thought a lot about getting a good gender mix; these things often too easily turn into showcases for white males. Ultimately though I flopped on representing designers of color; that’s a major shortcoming I hope to address in either a new edition or a sequel.
What surprised you about the people you interviewed?
Nobody I interviewed could have predicted where they are today at the start of their careers. All of the careers were heavily improvisational. That makes sense when you think about the people you know, your friends and colleagues. But when you look at folks like Geoff Teehan, who built a major design agency, he never really set out to do that—and what’s more, just before the book was released, he and his partners shut down his agency and he went to work at Facebook! The overall lack of intentionality in even these stellar careers was really eye-opening for me. I think that’s a really powerful message for readers of the book—you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going, so long as you’re doing good work.
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