A Cat With Gloves Off

Jan 1, 2011

A Cat With Gloves Off

The handsome gray haired gentleman with the enigmatic smile is me. And today I feel like explaining a few things about myself.
It’s a New Year, you’re already here, and maybe a little trip down memory lane on my end of the blog deal might spark some thoughts on your end of it, too.

The theme is this:

“The cat with gloves on, catches no mice.”
            —Benjamin Franklin

Which Means What?

I write about Web Fonts a lot. The change from fonts as “operating system resources” to “web server resources” is a very big one. As the year goes on I’ll continue to write about that. And I’ll be getting deeply involved in other ways, too. Announcements soon.

Back to the Spring of 2009. It was clear that as a publishing medium, the web had hit a wall. It couldn’t continue to evolve until web authors had control over fonts. Fonts are the fundamental units of design.
In the Spring of 2009, the issue finally came to a head: browsers were going to support @font-face. And miraculously, @font-face was already a part of Internet Explorer. Web authors didn’t have to wait. IE and its hundreds of millions of users could benefit immediately. Woweeee.
So, the only question at that point was what the nature of the standards-based implementation was going to be.

Jumping In

I jumped into the fray as a blogger and concerned web citizen because 1) it was the right time in my life for it, I wanted to write and had started Readable Web 2) I had been tracking screen readability issues privately for years, and 3) because @font-face seemed a ripe environment for innovation.
I had a background in web development and understood the issues. But also, and known only to me, really, I had a personal history of small innovations in both the world of atoms (my Career #1 was in the Fashion Industry) and the world of bytes (my Career #2, right here). And I believe, as did the late Peter Drucker and many others, that Innovation is a practice – like management or medicine. It can be taught. I’m a student of it. And if you apply the underlying principles and practice the craft you get results. Businesses can prosper. Sick patients can get well. And maybe, just maybe, them fonts might actually show up in your web page as intended!

Fonts on the web called for a new body of knowledge. It seemed like an environment primed for maximum impact from even the tiniest bit of innovative action. Nobody knew much, no matter how much they pretended to. (I really do think this way, folks. It’s not some weird pseudo-intellectual cover story. Heaven help me!) Anyway, I felt confident that I could contribute something of value. Instinctively it felt like a good fit.

And so, along the way there were my writings here at Readable Web, EOTFAST, the Mo’ Bulletpoofer CSS hack – which right now looks to play a more important role as @font-face develops – and my articles for AlistApart.
[BTW – EOTFAST was and is a particularly good example of the practice of innovation. An update to the EOTFAST package is coming soon. I’ll save the story for then.)

Still With Gloves On

Strangely, it was not until a few months ago that I allowed myself to seriously grapple with the business of making and manipulating fonts. Until then, I imposed upon myself a kind of “willful ignorance”. A bound copy of the OpenType specification sat on my shelf but was seldom opened. Professional grade software tools like FontLab were seldom used.

There were two reasons for this:

1) I believed that nearly everything about fonts needed to be re-assessed for its applicability to the medium of screens and web technology. I didn’t want to color my perceptions with Type Design 101 stuff that everybody swallows as an article of faith. Questioning “what everybody knows” is a part of the practice. What everybody knows is useless information.

2) I knew I would be writing about fonts for web authors who probably knew little about fonts. I needed to carefully “watch myself learn” because, to be most effective, I needed to revert, as much as is possible, to the point where I knew very, very little. I needed to preserve the ability to empathize. The longer it’s been, the harder it is to travel back to that time of innocence. And then you fall into the trap of, “Gee, I thought everybody knew how to use the “Merge Contours” tool in FontLab!” As if they would even own FontLab at a price tag of $650.00.

There’s a third reason, I should mention, too.
Best introduced by a quote from Charles Kettering:

  “A problem well-stated, is a problem half-solved.”
            —Charles Kettering

Sometimes it’s best to watch and wait until the problems that need solving become clear – to wait until you can set, at least in your own mind as a general feeling, the boundary conditions that the solution has to fulfill.
For example, it wasn’t totally, absolutely crystal clear until recently that TrueType would be – now and into the foreseeable future – the predominant format for Web Fonts. And an observation like that effects the focus of your investigations in a big way. Thomas Edison didn’t turn his attention to developing a practical incandescent light bulb until he was finished putting together all the elements of a comprehensive electric light delivery system. The conditions that the light bulb had to meet were brutally clear by then. Edison stayed away from working on the bulb for ten years. A great act of faith, it would seem, because without a bulb that would ‘burn’ for a sufficient number of hours, all his work was for nothing. But I don’t think he looked at it as risky in any way. I’ve found that once you have all the other parts of a system put together – nature, fate, the universe, God, whatever you want to call it – never denies you that last missing piece of the puzzle. It might be a bitch finding it, but it’s there. Just keep looking.
[Note: There’s been some corroboration for this view recently in digital tech – where it’s been found that you can actually count on “breakthroughs” as well as the other incremental predictors like Moore’s Law.]

Gloves Off At Last

These days I mostly spend all day every day editing fonts, honing my font making skills, learning new ones, and looking at fonts in my test bed of Windows GDI, Windows DirectWrite, Ubuntu (FreeType), Mac desktop, iPad, and iPhone (standard and Retina) and whatever else I can lay my hands on.
Patterns emerge. Solutions present themselves.

Ahhh, finally. A Cat With Gloves Off. Now where’s them mousies at?

Happy New Year!

Sharing Options:

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: