Reversing the Tide of
Talk given by Matthew Butterick
at TYPO Berlin, 18 May 2012
firstname.lastname@example.org / @mbutterick
Watch the video (42 min)Photo © 2012 Gerhard Kassner
Hello everyone. Good evening. It’s wonderful to be back here in Berlin at TYPO. Would you please say hello to some special guests who are in the audience tonight—my three favorite people in the world, all the way from California: my wife, Jessica Coffin Butterick, and her parents, Lynne Coffin and Alan Schlosser. Thanks for coming. They’re lawyers, so please be nice to them.
You also know that we’re all being broadcast on the Internet, right? So hello to everyone on the Internet, or as I like to call them, people too cheap to buy a ticket. I’m kidding, Internet.
All right, let me ask you something. Has anyone ever told you that design is about solving problems? I’ve heard that. But I don’t like it. I find it inadequate, because to me, solving problems is the smallest part of what a designer does. That’s why I really think that solving problems is the lowest form of design.
Because what does design want from us, as designers? Does it only want a solved problem? I think it wants more. I think it wants us to take these items that are sort of mundane or boring on their own—like an annual report, or a website shopping cart, or a business card—and it wants us to fill them up. Fill them with ideas, and emotions, and humor, and warmth. Really everything that’s in our hearts and minds. Design wants us to invest these items with our humanity. And the problem that we’re solving—that’s really just the context where that happens.
How do I know? Well, when we do it right, design makes people feel enriched and uplifted, instead of depleted. Think about the words we use for the best-designed objects out there: oh, this thing is thoughtful. It’s attractive. It’s intuitive. It’s friendly. We always use words that describe human characteristics. But how do those characteristics get into these boring objects? Well, that’s what the designer does. The designer puts those there. So I really think that investing our humanity is the highest form of design. And that’s part of what makes design hard.
The other thing that makes design hard are the constraints that are being imposed by the problem we’re solving. Because we still have to solve the problem: meeting the functional requirements while only using certain tools. We can’t necessarily manipulate all the knobs that we’d like to. We have to make all this humanity happen in a small space.
Think about type design. What do you really have to work with, as a type designer? All you’ve got are these little two-dimensional black shapes that have to look like letters. That’s it. Yet when they’re in use, these little black shapes can trigger all these different emotional reactions in readers. And for me, the enduring fascination of type design is really that: the difference between how constrained it is in the technical sense, compared to the breadth of the expressive possibilities.
Take a look at this font I did, called Alix. Alix is based on an old IBM Selectric typewriter font called Prestige, which you see on the left. That is an actual sample that I typed up on my own IBM Selectric. And I’ve always been drawn to Prestige over a font like, say, Courier. Courier’s another IBM Selectric font. But Courier’s so damn boring. And when I look at Prestige, I see something completely different happening. I see the designer trying to rise above the constraints of this project. I imagine this IBM employee who’s been given this crap project to make a font for this horrible device where all the letters have to be the same width. But he’s not just throwing his slide rule in the air and saying, “Ugh, I can’t do anything.” There are all these great unusual details in Prestige that really infuse it with a lot of warmth and humanity that most typewriter faces don’t have. And even though there have been other digital versions of Prestige, they didn’t really capture this. So for me, this project of Alix, the solving-a-problem aspect of it was only 10%. We have a lot of monospaced fonts; we’ll have more in the future. The interesting part of the project was kind of diving into this aspect of it—the warmth, the humanity—restoring that to the design, and then also expanding it, taking it out over different styles, and so forth.
Let’s think more about technology’s relationship to design. Because I’m saying here that design wants to transmit humanity, so what does technology want to do? Some would say that technology is the opposite of humanity: technology wants to dehumanize. I don’t think that’s quite true.
I think it’s more accurate to say that technology wants to displace humans, like a boat floating in a river displaces the water. Technology wants to occupy our space.
And usually, that’s okay. We don’t want to act like machines. We want to free up our time so that we can be humans. That’s why we invent technology: so that we can delegate all these boring tasks. And technology is really at its best when we stand on its shoulders, and use it to explore all the possibilities of being human.
But there’s a tension. The tension is that as we invite technology into our lives to remove these burdens, technology invites us to relax, or maybe even be a little lazy. And sometimes that’s okay. I don’t like doing the dishes. My beautiful wife Jessica doesn’t like doing the dishes. So after dinner, we take our dishes and we put them in our wonderful German dishwasher, and that does the dishes, and Jessica and I can go have a drink by the fire. So that’s a good way that technology can make us a little lazy.
The problem arises when the laziness becomes a habit. The space available for our humanity starts to get smaller, starts to shrink down. And over time, we get acclimated to this state of affairs. What was a temporary compromise for the sake of convenience becomes our new standard.
And that’s really what I mean tonight by declining expectations. This idea of what happens when we defer to technology, instead of standing on its shoulders. What happens when we choose convenience over quality. Eventually, we’re going to forget what quality was like.
We see this often in the digital domain. For instance, with music. When I was a kid, we listened to vinyl LPs on the nice stereo speakers in the living room. Then we traded in our LPs for CDs, because it was more convenient to listen in the car. Then we traded in our CDs for MP3s on our iPods, because that was more convenient. At every stage, we’ve made listening to music more convenient. And that’s good in one sense. But as we’ve gained convenience, we’ve forgotten what some of our favorite albums sound like. We’ve forgotten how wonderful music can sound.
And I feel like it’s similar with design—that we can either stand on technology’s shoulders and expand what’s possible, or we can get seduced by technology, and limit design. And as we do that, eventually we’re going to forget what great design was like.
But declining expectations aren’t destiny. They’re a choice. So how do we fix them? By making better choices. For instance, we set boundaries on what technology we use, and how much. We insist on quality over convenience. And sometimes we even make things harder for ourselves. We do that so we can preserve some space for our humanity.
Web design & typography:
Victims of declining expectations
Let’s look at some examples of this problem, starting with web design and typography, which I consider to be the primary victims of declining expectations. Why do I say that? Well, a few reasons.
One, this failure of design leadership that we see on the web. I think that in any field of design, we usually expect there to be a large set of mediocre designers whose job it is to turn out mediocre, derivative work. But on the web, we see something more alarming and insidious, which is that the designers that we expect to be design leaders are also turning out mediocre, derivative work.
And I’d like to use newspaper companies as an example. Now, I think that newspaper companies ought to be design leaders on the web, because I’ve seen their newspapers. You have too. They look nice. The world’s leading newspapers—we know they have design staff, design budget, design standards. They care about design, right?
But then we go to their websites, and here’s what we see.
This is the Los Angeles Times. A fine newspaper. An awful website.
The San Francisco Chronicle. Also awful.
The Washington Post. Also awful. But notice something. Not only are all these websites awful, they’re also awful in exactly the same way. It’s amazing! They all have these horizontal tool bars across the top—clutter, clutter, clutter. They’ve got the logo in the upper left. They’ve got the big ad. Then they’ve got the story in the left column. They’ve got the Twitter and the email buttons. And then over on the right column, they’ve got all the other junk that apparently you need to have if you’re a design leader on the web.
Next, the New York Times. I mean, do you notice this? They’re all the same. The disease is not limited to the United States, in case you were wondering.
Here’s The Guardian from the UK.
And, I’m sorry to say, Die Zeit.
What are we going to do if the companies that are supposed to be design leaders are coming to the web, and just being completely lazy? What hope do we have? Who’s going to help us out here?
Another problem on the web is the incredibly slow progress of certain technologies. My favorite example being webfonts, which has earned me some enemies, but let me just tell you the deal.
In 1995—taking you way back—when I first started working on the web, there were no fonts. Everybody knew this was a problem. There were only two choices, which you see on the screen. One choice, on the left, was to turn all of your fonts into images. Not so great. And on the right, your other choice, which was just to use Courier and Times New Roman, and later Georgia and Arial—essentially just use the built-in fonts. That was the situation in ’95. Everyone knew it was a problem.
Okay, so time passes. Finally, the first major webfont services arrive in what year? 2010. Fifteen years—it’s an unforgivable delay. I was saying this to a friend of mine in the type industry, and he said, “Matthew, you have to understand—there were all these difficult technical issues.” Hold it. You know the Large Hadron Collider? Yeah, they built that in ten years. So you’re saying that it took you 15 years to do webfonts? Really?
And then he says, “Okay, you’re right. It did take a long time. But the important thing is that we have webfonts now.” Well, yes and no. We have them, but look at the cost we paid. This 15-year delay allowed declining expectations to set in. A generation of web designers learned to be satisfied with operating-system fonts like Georgia and Arial. Now they don’t have a taste for anything else. So even though webfonts have been widely available for a couple years, they’re still not being used that much. Those newspaper websites I just showed you—they were all mostly Georgia and Arial. There was only one webfont there, from Le Monde.
So then the friend says to me, “Well, Matthew, you just have to be patient.” When it comes to the Internet, you’ve got to be worried about anyone who tells you to be patient. Because here’s the thing—patience is just another word for “let’s make it someone else’s problem.” And if you’re going to be patient, you really have to think about who you’re relying on to do the work. Who is it? I’m going to be patient. Is it you?
These days, webfonts are mostly being used by hobbyists and design enthusiasts. Webfonts aren’t part of the mainstream of web design. And I say that with fear, because I know from my time in the technology industry that there are a lot of great new technologies that never get beyond that initial audience—the hobbyists and the enthusiasts—and that never cross over into the mainstream. So to me, the hard work of webfonts is just beginning now. This is not the time to be patient. This is the time to really put shoulder to wheel.
Another example of slow progress on the web: design stagnation. This site on the left—actually, both of these sites are from my TYPO ’96 presentation, if you can believe it. So I thought it would be fun to check in with Epicurious, see how they’re doing after 16 years. Because they must’ve really come up with some great ideas, right? So here you go. After 16 years, the Epicurious website. Boom.
Is that an improvement? I mean, I’m not going to sell you on the idea that the one on the left is great design. But when I look at that, I see—it’s like with the Prestige font, where I could see the IBM employee trying to exceed the limitations of the typewriter. On the left, I see the designer working: Struggling with the limitations of the web. Trying to rise above. Trying to infuse warmth and humanity into this ridiculous thing. On the right, I see nothing. I see soullessness. I see “Let’s just take all the crap that the newspapers do, and put it on our website. We’ve got the toolbar. We’ve got the crap on the right. Do we have the Facebook and Twitter links? Yeah, we’ve got those. Okay, ship it.”
Here’s another one. This is from my presentation at FUSE ’95. This is called Pathfinder. It’s sort of the central hub of the websites of Time Warner. Time Warner being the American media company—very large, very wealthy, essentially unlimited money, unlimited people. And now they’ve had 17 years to improve Pathfinder. Here we go. Yes.
And now people from the web-design community will say, “But … but … but …” But what? You can go all over the Internet all day and find examples like this.
It’s time for us to learn the lesson that the Internet is offering: the difference between patience and expectations. What the web has shown us is that patience alone is not the answer. Expectations count too. If you have patience, and no expectations, you get nothing.
Think about web companies, the big ones—Facebook, Twitter, Google, WordPress. You can imagine these services without video, and without pictures, and without streaming music and so on. But you can’t imagine them without text. Because—duh—the web is a typographic medium. But that said, none of these companies have done anything to improve reading or writing on the web.
At the same time, I can’t really blame them. They’re just meeting our expectations. We’ve accepted crap for a long time; they’re just giving us more crap. If Facebook thought that new fonts could make them money, they’d be doing them. And Google, they’ve released new fonts. They’re awful. But they’re just reflecting our expectations back to us.
When I was here all those years ago, I really felt like the web was going to be one of typography’s greatest moments. And instead it’s been a huge failure. I’m sorry to say that, but there’s the evidence. It’s not necessarily an irreversible failure. But if we give the web another 17 years without changing our expectations, we’re just going to get more of the same. And then at the end, we’ll have had 35 years of Georgia, and Arial, and Times New Roman, and Courier. And if you think it’s not possible, we’re already halfway there, so mark my words.
Starting to reverse the tide of declining expectations
So let’s be a little optimistic. Let’s move on to type design. Here’s an area where we’re starting to reverse the tide of declining expectations. There’s some good news here.
Let’s talk about type-design tools. If you’ve been at the conference, maybe you saw Petr van Blokland and Frederick Berlaen talking about RoboFont yesterday. But that is the endpoint of a process that started about 15 years ago when Erik and Petr van Blokland, and Just van Rossum (later joined by many others) were dissatisfied with the commercial type-design tools. So they started building their own. And now, that’s a whole ecosystem of software that includes code libraries, a new font-data format called UFO, and applications. And these are not hobbyist applications. These are serious pieces of software being used by professional type designers.
What makes all of this work so remarkable is that there are no professional software engineers here. There’s no corporation behind it all. It’s a group of type designers who saw what they needed, so they built it. They didn’t rely on patience. They didn’t wait for someone else to fix their problems. They relied on their expectations. The available tools weren’t good enough. So they made better.
And the great thing is that when we raise the bar for type-design tools, we can also raise the bar for type design. I’ll give you an example: my font Equity. Equity has this feature in it called weight grades. There’s the standard grade, grade A. And then there’s a slightly lighter grade B, which is designed to equalize the appearance of the font on non-PostScript printers that are used in, say, lawyers’ offices, because those printers tend to print heavier. Even though this is a really useful feature, it’s pretty rare among text faces. It was the first time I’d done it. [This text is set in Equity. The page uses the weight grade best suited for the device you’re reading on. — MB]
But here’s why. Equity was the first font where I used a lot of RoboFab and Python to automate the tasks that were tedious before, like keeping glyphs and kerning synchronized between styles, and doing thousands of quality-assurance checks. Remember what I said before, about how technology displaces humans, but then we get to choose what happens. Are we going to be lazy or are we going to work harder? So, I got Equity done faster than I thought I would. With the time I saved, I could have gone to the beach. But instead I said, “You know what, I’ve still got some stamina left. What’s a feature I can do here that I wouldn’t have done in the past?” And so I did weight grades. So that was a great moment of technology and human interaction. I stood on the shoulders of RoboFab, and I brought this new improvement within reach.
So that’s all good news. Here’s some areas of concern, though. One of which is new type designers. You’re all great people. We have a lot more people coming into type design, and that’s terrific. But it seems to me that we don’t have quite as many who are using these new tools, and figuring them out, and extending them. For instance, I was speaking to a recent design-school graduate. He said, “Hey, I design fonts.” And I said, “Cool. What are you doing with RoboFab and UFO and Python?” And he said, “Well, I’m not really into programming.” That strikes me as a really bad attitude for a recent graduate. Because if type designers won’t use the tools that are out there and available, type design can’t make any progress. It’s as if we’ve built this great spaceship, but none of the astronauts want to go to Mars. “Well, Mars is cool, but I don’t want to drive a spaceship. I like the helmet, though.” Don’t be that guy. Go the hell to Mars.
Another example—Google Web Fonts. Maybe some of you have seen my written critique of Google Web Fonts. I won’t rehash that. It’s true: many of the Google fonts are awful. But my biggest concern isn’t that. My biggest concern is for the type designers who participate, because they’re mostly young, they’re mostly inexperienced. These are designers who deserve training and mentoring to reach their whole potential. But they’re not going to get it releasing fonts through Google. Because as a font foundry, Google has no standards, no ethics, and no taste. It’s like training to be a chef at McDonald’s. What do you think you’re going to learn, except to reduce your own expectations for yourself? It’s not good.
And finally, I have some advice for those of you here tonight who don’t design fonts—which I think is only four or five of you, right? But you buy fonts, so you also have a role to play in supporting type design. And here it is.
We have an enormous number of fonts these days. I think FontShop sells 150,000. But what’s weird to me is that the entrenched classics are getting more entrenched than ever. Here’s the evidence: FontShop’s recent bestselling fonts, this is on a global basis. You know what’s going to be up here, right? This is the least suspenseful slide of the whole weekend. Okay, here it is.
Now, look, these are all great fonts—maybe nine of them, eight of them—but they’ve been popular for a long time, some of them for decades. And if we don’t give other newer fonts a chance, the future of typography is going to look just like the present.
So, all of you who buy fonts, if you care about the future of typography, you have to vote with your wallet. So support working type designers. Buy recently designed fonts. Use them in your projects. Give them exposure. I know you’re concerned about Adobe, that’s why you keep Minion on the bestseller list. But really, I checked with them. They’re going to be okay. They’ve got some other things going on that they think are going to be a real hit.
Declining expectations have taken an early lead, but…
Let’s look a little bit at digital books. This is an area where I feel like declining expectations have taken an early lead, but we still have time to turn them back.
This is my book Typography for Lawyers. This started as a website a few years ago. When I was approached to turn it into a book, the most important question I thought about was: What were the underlying qualities that made the website good? And how could I preserve those qualities, while also making the most of what a printed book could offer?
And I think that’s similar to the challenge we face as we go from printed books to digital books, which is: How do we preserve what’s good about print, while also using what’s good about digital? Obviously, we have to make a few compromises. In a digital book we’re not going to have paper. We’re not going to have a binding.
But what about typography? Is that something that we should eliminate from the digital book, along with the paper and the binding? Or is the pleasure of typography intrinsic to the pleasure of reading? Now, you’re designers, so you’re probably thinking, “Of course typography is important.” I feel that way too. But that’s really an emotional response. And we need to think about ways to translate that into action, because the companies that make the digital-book technology don’t agree.
Let’s look at Amazon and the Kindle. I know this is a timely issue for you, because the Kindle just rolled ashore here in Europe. This is a device that is all about lowering expectations. Look at this ad. It says the Kindle holds up to 1400 books. But that’s a book the way Amazon defines it, okay? The Kindle is a lot like the iPod. It offers a lot of convenience. But none of these 1400 books involved a designer. None of these 1400 books involved typography. Is that good enough?
I made a Kindle version of my book. For those of you who haven’t done it, a Kindle book is just a collection of little HTML pages. But it’s the HTML we had in 1994. So it’s really, really, really limited in terms of the typography and the layout you can do. That said, I was like the IBM engineer who designed Prestige—“I’m going to do the best I can with this project.” I think it’s one of the best designed Kindle books. But that still makes it one of the least impressive achievements of my career. Because it’s not saying much. That’s all we can do.
So you might ask, “Well, Butterick, why did you make a Kindle book?” Well, my customers wanted it. My readers bugged me about it. They said, “Hey, it’s convenient. I already have a Kindle.”
As an author, I can also see that it has benefits. For one thing, it makes my book available in more places, because there’s no shipping involved. It’s available at a lower price. It has functional benefits, like it’s searchable and cross-references are linked within the book.
But those should be benefits of any digital book. They shouldn’t preclude typography. So as a writer, that’s really my big objection to the Kindle. It forces me to reduce my expectations. At least if I’m making a printed book, bad typography is merely a choice. I can make it good, or I can make it ugly. But when I’m making a book on the Kindle, I have to make it ugly. Bad typography is a requirement, not an option.
My other big objection to the Kindle is what it’s doing to readers’ brains. It’s inviting readers to lower their expectations for digital books, and maybe for all books, and maybe eventually for all reading. The Kindle has been out in the US for five years. The typography has not improved during that time. And the danger is that this becomes the new normal. This is what readers expect books to look like. And for those of you who live here in Europe and think, “Oh that’ll never happen,” I tell you—in the US, Amazon now sells more Kindle books than printed books. And they have for the past year. So the Kindle really is becoming what a book is.
Let’s look at Amazon’s main competitor, Apple. Our friend Apple. iBooks is Apple’s digital-book app. To me, this is a much bigger disappointment than the Kindle, because Apple has traditionally had a cultural commitment to good design and typography. Amazon never did.
But here are screen shots of two pages from iBooks. And the reading experience is just terrible. And it’s ironic, because reading on the iPad can be really nice. Apps like Readability and Instapaper have proved that. Even reading PDFs on the iPad is great.
But iBooks is a throwaway. And think how especially weird this is given the high standards applied to the rest of the iPad. I mean, imagine if the iPad could only play back music in mono. People wouldn’t stand for that. Imagine if the iPad could only play back TV shows and movies in black and white. There would be riots in the streets of Cupertino all year. But readers and writers are tolerating iBooks. Why?
To me, the most chilling aspect of iBooks is the way it adopts the low design standards from—what? From the web, right? You look at iBooks and you see Georgia and Arial and Times New Roman all over again. It’s teaching us that bad typography is contagious. We allowed this huge typographic failure to happen on the web, and now it’s infecting books.
So when my publisher said to me, “Hey Butterick, do you want to do an iBooks version of Typography for Lawyers?” I said: HELL NO. I talked earlier about making better choices. This is a better choice. We have to take a stand against declining expectations. Because if we don’t contain them, they’re just going to keep spreading indefinitely. Like smallpox, like zombies—they’re just going to keep going.
How you can reverse the tide
So, let’s talk about how you can reverse the tide of declining expectations. Top four answers on the board. Something for everybody here.
Number 4: complain (nicely).
When your bratwurst is overcooked, you complain. So likewise, as a designer, when you come across products or publications that should be well designed, but aren’t, or that don’t meet your standards—complain. When I say nicely, I mean that you should always be polite, and respectful; you should make a logical argument about why typography and design is important; and you should complain to somebody who matters, who can change things. So complain to the author, complain to the publisher, complain to the CEO of the company. But don’t be silent. Because no one’s ever going to know unless you tell them.
Here’s a silly example. Earlier this year, I saw the fabulous action movie Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. And in the middle, I was completely stumped, because the subtitles were in Verdana. I mean, here we are in this $150 million Hollywood movie, and we’ve got the Ikea font. Verdana. So what did I do? Did I throw my popcorn down in rage? No. I went home, and I wrote a letter to the director of the film, Brad Bird. (I also posted it on the Internet.) And it escalated from there. But eventually, Brad Bird said that next time, he’d use a better font. So that was a really small victory for cinema and a really small victory for typography. But these things matter.
And it shades into the next item on the list, which is teach.
I don’t just mean being a professor at a university, though that’s great work if you can get it. Teaching is any time that you share what you know with others. And teaching is really powerful, because all of us are only going to be able to complete so many projects during our careers. But when we teach, we can expand our influence a lot farther.
The best complaining involves teaching, because people usually do things wrong not out of evil intent, but out of ignorance. So when you share what you know, you can persuade them to make a better choice the next time.
Teaching can mean training or mentoring new designers.
Teaching can mean writing an article or a book. My book—I wrote a book about typography for lawyers. Here’s a huge group of people who never thought about typography. The legal profession in the United States is actually bigger than the entire publishing industry. And lawyers are really a type of publisher: they’re always writing, they’re always creating documents. But now that I’ve written the book, thousands and thousands of lawyers do care about typography. All I had to do was share my enthusiasm.
Number two: vote with your wallet.
I mentioned this before. I don’t mean bribing politicians or something weird like that. When I say vote with your wallet, I just mean being conscious of how your spending decisions affect the world. I have it on the list at number two, but not because I think that spending money is more important than teaching.
But in a way, it’s more influential, because we make spending choices practically every day of our lives. And we have to be conscious of the fact that whatever we spend our money on, they’re going to make more of, and whatever we don’t spend our money on, they’re going to make less of. So it’s really important that we spend our money on the things that we think should win.
Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook—these companies have no moral compass. They search for profit. But the thing is, that makes it really easy to modify their behavior. Because if enough people withhold money and attention, they’ll behave differently.
I mentioned earlier the importance of buying recently designed fonts. This supports the future of typography by supporting working type designers. But the opposite is also true. If no one buys those fonts, then those designers are going to find something else to do with their time. We’re going to be deprived of their contributions. And design is going to be poorer for it.
And the number one, best, and most direct way to reverse the tide of declining expectations is to create better things.
Earlier, I had some unkind words about the Internet. But one thing I really like about the Internet is that it’s a great way of getting new ideas off the ground. So many great software tools and infrastructure out there. It’s easy to find people to collaborate with. It’s easy to find customers. It’s a terrific environment for being an entrepreneur.
And designers make great entrepreneurs, because we’re curious; we’re creative; we’re rigorous thinkers. Probably there’s a lot of you in here who should just quit your job, or quit school, and go pursue your own ideas. You can text right now if you need to—“Sorry, boss, I’m done.” Because maybe that’s where you’re going to make your biggest contribution.
And we see more and more designers making things. I talked about the type tools—the Van Bloklands, the Van Rossums, et al. making RoboFont and RoboFab and UFO. Oliver Reichenstein, who was here earlier, invented iA Writer, a popular writing app. Khoi Vinh, former lead designer at the New York Times, is doing an app called Mixel. And the design and engineering company Arc90 in New York are the ones who invented Readability. So impatience can be good, when impatience motivates you to take action.
What about me? Well, I’m impatient about digital books, so I’m going to be writing a new book this year. But I’m going to do it a different way than I did my last one. I’m not going to have a publisher this time, I’m just going to release it myself. I’m not going to sell it from Apple or Amazon, because they make me reduce my expectations too far. I’m going to invent some technology that cures bad typography. It’s really just going to be me, and my readers, and my idea of what a digital book should be like.
So, we’ve got a few minutes left. Let me do something a little different than maybe you’re used to. Because I imagine you’ve probably heard people like me say things like this at events like this. Maybe even this event. Maybe even earlier today. But then you go back to school, or you go back to work, and you ask yourself, “Well, why don’t I see more of this kind of design activity going on?” I mean, what’s the big obstacle to the growth of design? Is it clients?
And I’d actually say no—it’s the design industry. And I don’t say that to be cruel. But the design industry is a little like a small town. It can be very welcoming and nurturing in certain ways. But sometimes it can be hostile to those who want to expand the boundaries of design. Which is one of the things I’m talking about doing here.
And this has always been kind of weird to me, because historically, design had a rebellious, freewheeling, subversive spirit. But I look at today’s design industry and I feel like it has really successfully smoothed out the public image of what design is. It’s a service industry—like accountants, like lawyers. And like those areas, part of what the design industry is selling is a willingness to behave. We’re not going to give you trouble. Safety. And the service the design industry provides is—what? Well, solving problems. But solving problems is the lowest form of design. So we have this issue of what you might call conflicting incentives: what’s good for the design industry isn’t necessarily what’s good for design.
Your design heroes—whoever they are—were rebels. That’s how they became your heroes. They had new ideas, and then they faced adversity, and then they prevailed. But as the years pass, it’s easy to forget the struggles that went into some of this. Like the type industry in 1990—it was sort of an act of rebellion that some independent designers decided that they could make PostScript fonts that were just as good as Adobe or Bitstream, companies that had so many more people and so much more money. Or web design in 1995. When I was going out to San Francisco that year to start a web-design company, everybody said that I would fail. “Oh, the ad agencies are going to kill you.” “Oh, the big design and branding firms are going to kill you.” “Everybody’s going to kill you.” Well, that didn’t happen.
So my message is not anti-design industry. It’s really pro-individualism. Because each of you is a designer, but fundamentally, you’re not in the design industry. You’re in the industry of you. And if you want to spend time in the design industry, go ahead. A few years, a whole career—that’s fine. That’s your choice.
But what you should recognize is that there are a lot of ways to be a designer, and a lot of ways to use your design skills. What we think of as the traditional boundaries of design are enforced mostly by the design industry, and often for the benefit of clients. But nobody else cares. So you can go out and you can engage with those people. You can think creatively—not just about the work you do, but also where you do it and who you do it with. And eventually, maybe the design industry will catch up and give you an award. Or maybe they won’t. But that doesn’t matter. You matter. Your work matters.
The best way to honor your design heroes is to be a hero to the next person in line. So start this week. Be courageous. Take risks. Challenge ideas. Go the opposite direction. Raise standards. Make trouble. Invest your humanity. Because that’s what design wants from you. That’s the highest form of design. And we need it more than ever.