Gridfolk: Interview with Rob Meek
This is a guest post from Ata Syed AKA thalamic and minimum, the eighth in a series continuing the “Focus on Fontstructors” tradition of interviews with members of FontStruct’s design community. Ata has been FontStructing since 2008.
Our eighth FontStructor is one who needs no introduction. We are all here because Rob Meek had the vision and wherewithal to establish FontStruct, back when Flash was the website king. It is the fruits of his labor we enjoy oh-so often. Without him none of this would be possible.
FontStruct logo by Rob Meek; Rob Meek picture FontStruction (tm Meek)
Where were you born? Where do you live? Is that your ideal place to live? Why?
I was born in exile, in a house on an island drifting off the coast of Europe, the youngest of four siblings.
Now I live in a flat in Berlin in Germany. I don’t know whether it’s ideal, but I feel lucky to be able to live where I live.
What is your educational background?
All my formal education was in Scotland. I studied English Literature and Film at Glasgow University, then later a post-graduate course in Electronic Imaging at the Art School in Dundee.
How did you get involved in programming?
I was fascinated by computers from an early age. In my mid-teens I inherited a small amount of money and used it to buy a BBC Micro Model A – a wonderful 8-bit computer of a type which inspired an entire generation of UK programmers. I still have it sitting on my shelf. It was my first, perhaps my only, profound hardware love. It had 16K of RAM, 8-bit colour and storage was on cassette tapes. You had to solder your own cable to connect computer and tape recorder. At that time, there was very little software available. You could buy a magazine and type-in programmes yourself, or write them yourself from scratch, which is what I did.
How many languages do you speak? How many languages do you speak if you include programming languages in the mix?
I speak English and German, and meagre smatterings of a few other European languages. I don’t have any innate linguistic talent. Like many people from the UK I came out of school with very little apart from a fear of speaking French, but I really love trying to learn new languages now – I’m currently doing a night-class in Latin. Best night of the week!
I’ve used many different programming languages over the years. I couldn’t really count them. I think it’s enriching to experience the world through the filter of different grammars and vocabularies, in both domains: human and programming languages.
How did you get involved with typefaces?
I didn’t have the slightest clue about typefaces or graphic design when I first came to Berlin in the late 1990s. I got a job working as a developer at a multimedia agency and quickly realised that I wanted to sit with the designers. I didn’t see myself as an engineer, and the designers just looked cooler. Also, they always seemed to get the best seats in the building – at the top, nearest the light – as if they needed sunlight for screen design.
Once I’d made the move, and I saw what the trained designers around me were doing, slowly it dawned on me how central this typography thing was to graphic design. For the first time, I also encountered people who actually made their own typefaces, and I had my first encounter with font-creation software in the form of Macromedia Fontographer. Pixel typefaces were also very big at that time, and I was drawn to them, to their systematic nature, and to grids, matrices and modular typefaces generally.
In 2001 I made the first of a series of typographic software synthesizers for modulating matrix-based fonts as if they were sounds, using an array of virtual knobs in a synth-inspired GUI. I’ve done other things over the years as well, but there’s quite a direct line from this synth series to FontStruct.
Can you tell us the story behind how you came up with the idea for fontstruct and what it took to deploy it as fontstruct.com?
The MEEK series of typographic synthesisers which I created between 2001 and 2007 were fun experiments, but ultimately, they were artworks and playthings. They were a bit like an extreme version of the filters palette from the FontStructor. You could filter and play around with existing fonts (and even create sounds with them in the case of the last version of MEEK FM), but you could not use them to create complete original designs. Part of the motivation for creating FontStruct was the wish to go beyond experimental toys, and to develop a genuine, creative tool for creating matrix-based fonts from scratch.
I also sensed the potential for a cloud-based digital font design platform. In the mid-2000s a first wave of browser-based design software was appearing: attempts to reproduce Photoshop and Illustrator in the cloud. Most of these ambitious projects failed and disappeared over the next few years, but I thought that font design, due to its relatively constrained nature and the small data payloads involved had more potential for success in the cloud.
An image from the original FontStruct proposal by Rob Meek
The final, crucial ingredient was my relationship with FontShop International and the people there. FSI has since been taken over and what remains of the company is barely recognisable, but they really were a very special organisation, founded and led by people with a real passion for design and typography. Every type business, indeed most businesses, will claim to be somehow driven by passion but in the case of FSI this was absolutely genuine.
I’d already worked on several projects for FSI, as a freelance developer and designer, and in 2007, after months of deliberations, I finally developed the FontStruct concept and pitched it to the FSI Type Board, which included Erik and Joan Spiekermann, Erik van Blokland, Stephen Coles and Petra Weitz. They green-lighted it almost immediately, and I will always be very grateful for that.
It would be great if you can talk of the programming aspect of getting FS going, how the UX/UI decisions were made, what functionality to add or leave out choices, etc.
I’ve written about some of the more unusual technical aspects of FontStruct – especially our use of the niche programming language Haxe elsewhere. Aside from that we use fairly conventional and unglamorous web technologies. FontStruct has certainly improved, technically, over the years but the budget is very, very low so we have to be pragmatic and patient, which can mean tolerating minor bugs and flaws for a long time.
MEEK FM synth series project on vimeo
In terms of UX and UI, the primary goal was always to keep things as simple as possible. Professional font design can be extremely technical, and desktop font design software intimidating – that was certainly my experience when I first tried using Fontographer, for example. With FontStruct, I wanted to enable users to simply build letters on virtual squared paper, without seeing or needing to understand specialist terms such as em square, postscript, character map, right side bearing or even Unicode – These are important terms and concepts for professional designers, but I wanted to protect beginners and just let them make letters.
As we’ve added more features over the years, I’ve tried to keep the focus on simplicity, and hide the more advanced functionalities, at least until the user presses the Expert switch. Sometimes I wonder whether the Expert button needs to be rethought, and a Guru level added with the most technical stuff in it. I don’t know. A lot of hesitancy about adding new features has been to do with this wish to keep things simple.
One feature which is regularly requested but which I have intentionally not implemented is any form of import, or auto-tracing functionality. It’s really great to know that all the designs on FontStruct originate entirely on FontStruct. This means fewer worries about licensing or copyright issues.
I know it is not your style to toot your own horn, but I think most of us would appreciate it if you uncovered some of the struggles keeping FontStruct going.
You’re right, I’m not an eager horn tooter – like you I think! But so far, it’s really not been a great struggle to keep the project running. Of course, when the site first launched, we had a proper budget, and other great people were helping out, such as Stephen Coles, Gustavo Ferreira, John Skelton and others, so it was a bit of a shock when FontShop reduced their involvement, and then later Monotype also. But that was more of a personal problem: the sudden need to find new ways to pay the bills. I’ve never felt that FontStruct itself was under any kind of existential threat.
The code behind FontStruct is reasonably efficient and stable. In the early days, perhaps you remember, things were constantly at breaking point, but now the site very rarely goes down of its own accord. The baseline running costs are really quite low, so we can survive with very little revenue. We have some steady income from advertising, a generous sponsor (GlyphsApp), and of course, starting this year, we also have the contributions from our wonderful patrons. All of this covers the server and storage costs, and there’s even some left over for actually doing work on the site. It would be great to have more cash of course, and to be able to employ or contract others – a UX designer for example! – and maybe develop some things more quickly, but generally I like the pace of things as they are.
Not only going, but growing FontStruct under the constraints you have to work with, how do you find the time and energy to keep up this progress?
Two things. Firstly I simply enjoy it. There are a lot of challenges presented by FontStruct and it’s design community which I enjoy trying to solve. The programming side of running FontStruct, especially developing the font generation library and the FontStructor itself are just plain fun for me.
Secondly, the FontStruct community genuinely inspires and encourages me to keep going. The commitment of the patrons is a huge motivation. I’m never programming into a void. If I add a feature, the feedback is immediate, and usually constructive and encouraging. Also, because I’m mostly the only one involved behind the scenes, work on FontStruct is very relaxing for me. There are no meetings, no real deadlines, no pressure to make money, no conflicts with co-workers – I have these things in the rest of my life, so FontStruct is a refuge in that way.
Working as mostly a self-employed person, how do you manage time? Do you do most of your work from home or do you have an office you go to? Have you set up defined start and end of day timing wherever you work? What structure have you given to the balance of work and not work? In other words, how are you so disciplined?
I’m not a model of productivity, and I don’t think I’m especially disciplined – I simply enjoy my work!
For me personally, a key to being productive is not to maximise the quantity of work time, but its quality. I’ve noticed that I can only do a maximum of about five or six hours a day of high-quality work – and then only in the mornings and up until around mid-afternoon.
So, I usually start working around 9 and finish around 4 at the latest. I also have one day in the middle of the week when I do something other than design and development, and I try not to work at all at the weekends.
Since I (mostly) enjoy my work, it’s hard to stop or take breaks from the computer sometimes, but taking those breaks, and working fewer and shorter days seems to be really beneficial in terms of productivity. Of course, I don’t know how far one can take this less is more approach!
One genuine productivity tip which has worked dramatically for me is a dietary one: Cut out all sugar in the middle of the day. I used to think it would give me energy. Now I know that the very opposite is true.
I have used shared offices, but I’m lucky enough to have sufficient space at home at the moment, and there are fewer distractions here – I’m not good with other people’s noise.
Rob Meek, working
What kind of music do you like? What kind of books do you read? Who are your favorite musicians and authors? In your opinion, what is the importance of being well read?
Right now, I’m listening to British and North American folk music – I like the female voice and harmony singing, and the fiddle – e.g. Women of Folk.
I’m currently reading A Man in Love by Knausgaard – the second in his series of autobiographical novels. I’ve never felt so close to another consciousness.
If I stop reading regularly – I mean proper reading, of long and challenging texts – and I have stopped at times over the years, I notice my mind becoming dull and flabby. Reading works for me, but I’m sure there are other ways to stretch one’s thinking. I think however you try to stimulate your mind, it should be pleasurable, and not only about self-improvement goals. Reading is more important than aspiring to being well-read (a shifting and unattainable target).
Did you design the FontStruct logo font? If not, who did?
I designed the logo. It was one of a few candidates. Obviously, there is quite a big reference to the old FontShop branding with the colour choice. I think it’s aged well enough.
Some of the early FontStruct logo concepts by Rob Meek
Let’s talk about some FontStruct stats. For example, can you tell from how many countries does FS have registered users? Who has published most fonts? Who has created most fonts (published and unpublished combined)? Who has commented the most? Who has received the most comments? Whose fonts have been downloaded the most? And anything else interesting that you can think of.
We have registered users from at least 226 different countries.
The top 5 countries in terms of registrations are the USA, UK, Brazil, France and Canada.
Patrick H. Lauke AKA redux has published the most FontStructions: 936
Regarding whom has created the most FontStructions: I probably shouldn’t say. I can say that they’re no longer active on the site (they were a lot of fun while they were) and they created well over 9,000 FontStructions!
Elmoyenique is the most prodigious commenter, with over 4,900 comments. He’s also the FontStructor who has received the most comments on his own designs.
The most downloads are of FontStructions published by: geneus1.
A couple of other stats:
1,979,690 FontStructions have been created in total, of which 71,590 (3.6%) are public – so there is an iceberg and a tip of it, although there are many empty and almost empty designs, and plenty of clones in there as well.
Of the public FontStructions, 92% contain a capital A, 46% an @, 46% a $, only 11% a €, 11% a £, and 9% a ¥.
Being so closely connected to the world of typefaces, what do you think is going to happen for typefaces and fonts in the near future? Far future?
How about semantically variable fonts, or semantic ligatures? The glyphs adapt expressively according to the shifting meaning of the written text.
Technology, machine learning, and AI — in your opinion, what do you think will be their impact on typeface design?
When I hear someone use the term AI, I feel nauseous. I don’t want to think about it!
I guess ML could be used for extrapolation work: You design a few letters and ML will do the rest.
Ultimately, I’m more interested in human craft and imperfection. Let the robots learn to sweep the streets, and sort the rubbish if they must. Leave the fonts to us!
What has been the most surprising positive aspect of FontStruct for you?
Many surprises, and many positive aspects. Above all, I never imagined that so many people would create so much, and reach such dizzying heights of sophistication in terms of modular font design. Working on the original concept 14 years ago, I was thinking only in terms of a tool for simple pixel fonts, and small, classical modular designs. The FontStruct community has taken things so much further, to the point that I usually have no idea how any of the leading FontStructors are able to achieve what they do. I stand before the gallery each day and hang my jaw.
Also, it’s been amazing to occasionally discover the influence which FontStruct has had on lives: For example it’s gratifying to hear from designers who discovered themselves and started out on their careers through FontStruct; even some leading type designers, such as Erin McLaughlin, who took some of their very first typographical steps on the site.
Finally, given that it’s an English language site, with a bit of bias towards the Latin script (I’m slowly working on that!), I love the fact that we have designers from every corner of the world sharing and discussing their designs on FontStruct.
How has FontStruct changed your life?
It is my life! Or at least an important slice of it.
Talking to the users of FontStruct in this oblique way, what is it that you would like to say to them?
Thank you! Without your effort and skill, FontStruct would be nothing but a dead pile of bricks. It is you, dear FontStructors, who built this strange and beautiful place.
All I can say is: Long Live FontStruct™
Thank you Ata, once again!