Talk giv­en by Matthew But­t­er­ick
at TYPO Berlin, 18 May 2012
mb@mb­type.com

Reversing the Tide of Declining Expectations

Pho­to © 2012 Ger­hard Kass­ner

Solv­ing prob­lems is the low­est form of de­sign. Why? Be­cause de­sign wants more from us as de­sign­ers—it wants us to in­vest our hu­man­i­ty. Tech­nol­o­gy, on the oth­er hand, wants to make things easy, and cre­ates in­cen­tives for us to with­draw our hu­man­i­ty. There­fore, as de­sign­ers, our job is to stand on the shoul­ders of tech­nol­o­gy, and not mere­ly ac­cept its short­cuts. When we do that, we not only di­lute our own work, but we also re­duce our ex­pec­ta­tions of what de­sign can be. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, the slow progress of web de­sign and elec­tron­ic books per­fect­ly il­lus­trates this prob­lem. All is not lost—we can re­verse this tide. But we need to start mak­ing bet­ter choic­es.


(You can also watch the video of this talk.)

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.

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.

Le Monde.

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.

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.

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.

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. [It took a lit­tle longer than ex­pect­ed, but in July 2013, I re­leased the book: But­t­er­ick’s Prac­ti­cal Ty­pog­ra­phy.—MB]

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.

Thank you.