Ward Nicholson

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Work has begun on the FontCompass website

Earlier this year, in mid to late January, I finally bit the bullet: I decided to begin work on the long-haul endeavor of turning my private FontCompass universal typeface classification system into a website. Since then, most of my spare time has been devoted to it. Not that I have had nearly as much extra time as I would like. (Does anybody, these days?)

FontCompass began life a number of years ago. Initially it was a project I began putting together to organize my own font library just to speed my graphic design work, and I took the first steps sometime around 2005 or 2006. I’ve written up the basic idea here, but essentially the project was to serve two purposes:

  • To quickly identify typefaces used in customer logos for which they could not furnish me the original artwork, to enable speedily rebuilding them (assuming the fonts needed were present in my library); and
  • To locate typefaces with just the right “look and feel” I wanted for a design project. Since I was trained primarily as a typographer early in my career — and am to some degree a layout artist but not an illustrator or artistically trained graphic designer, which limits my “arsenal” — injecting some typographic allure is a key aspect of my approach to design. Without that, I don’t have a whole lot to offer that’s unique, so FontCompass helped tremendously.

After a year and a half of spare-time work, I had completed the task of classifying all the fonts in my own library, and the creation and buildout of the FontCompass classification scheme itself was also essentially complete. Mostly I used the system for my custom car tags business, Leeward Productions, rebuilding customer logos and designing tags. But it was readily apparent that FontCompass could also provide considerable value to other designers, as well as advertising agencies, if it could somehow be made available to them.

The huge problem of huge scale

A serious difficulty, though, was that for such a system to have real value for others, it would have to incorporate much larger numbers of typefaces than those that constituted my own library of fonts. While some professional graphic designers may have decent-sized personal font libraries of their own these days, many do not, and even if they do, there is a huge universe of fonts beyond that, which dwarfs any individual’s own collection. Designers like to know about what else is out there too, and will often license new fonts if the project or client warrants it.

The problem is finding the right font, the needle in the haystack, among a veritable tsunami of choices today (to mix a couple of metaphors). There is just an incredible amount of dreck to wade through to find the good stuff. Even without all the dreck, there is still a lot to trawl through. FontCompass would have to deal with the need to provide easy passage through that huge ocean, and arrive at the desired destination font(s), to be worth its salt.

While I had no doubt about the utility of such a project — after all, I have been using the system as it stands for 10 years now already — the very idea of it was daunting: How would I possibly be able to make headway classifying the much larger universe of fonts on my own in any sort of timely fashion?

How reliable will the internet be as a platform in the future?

I’m someone who has been very much influenced by the insight that our industrial civilization is in the initial stages of long-term decline (see: peak oil, peak everything, etc.). I have therefore had my doubts about the long-term viability of the internet itself due to looming depletion of the energy resources and minerals undergirding its technological underpinnings.

My outlook has often been something like this: With the internet a required, underlying linchpin for a typeface classification system like my own to get wide exposure and use these days, and if despite current appearances the internet’s days may be numbered, perhaps sooner rather than later, why risk putting in time on a long-term project like this that might require many years to complete? Or perhaps even founder on the sands of time without ever seeing the light of day?

Our civilization is already experiencing the initial throes of tumbling down the rough and bumpy road of net-energy decline, with the economic crisis of 2008 being only one among a number of recent notable events in the ride. And with the cheapest and easiest-to-extract fossil fuels now gone, with only costly and difficult sources remaining (and nothing remotely comparable to take their place on a net-energy basis anywhere on the horizon)… Well, let’s just say that that hadn’t done much for my motivation to pursue a website project like FontCompass with perhaps a 10-year time horizon for a reasonable degree of completion. Not to mention the chunk of time it would take out of the rest of my life for a decade-long span of years like that.

A shift in motivation in changing times

Eventually, early this year, though, something got into me and provided a turnaround in motivation. I am still not sure exactly what, except that it was a combination of things. For starters, FontCompass is one of only a couple of “big ideas” I have ever had, at least as they stack up in my own corner of the world. (The first being the Beyond Vegetarianism website discussed in my Back from Radio Silence post series, which made some waves in the communities of vegetarian and paleo diet practitioners in the early days of the web.)

Because of that, I began to feel, more and more, that I did not want to find myself looking back one day, and potentially being faced with the regret of never having tried to bring FontCompass to fruition on the larger scale I believe it deserves. You get to be nearly 60 years old, as I am now, and your outlook on life at this stage gradually begins to change. You start taking a harder look at your life and whether you really did anything worthwhile beyond just your own personal sphere. Also, the project is a chance to perhaps make my mark on the world in some fashion, even if that might turn out to be but a small dent.

And, despite my continuing view that the internet’s days are as numbered as the days of fossil-fuel abundance that undergirds all of our high-tech civilization, those days could number considerably longer than one might think. As the years have begun to pass since I first got wind of the peak oil meme soon after the financial crisis of 2008, I have noticed that, yes, some predictions based on the looming specter of energy depletion have come to pass more or less on schedule. However, numerous others have been delayed by the unpredictability of events — even if they are, in my view, still obviously headed our way in the longer term. Or the predictions themselves may even have changed. (For more info about this topic, including some links to overviews and primers elsewhere on the web, see my post, The Personal Impact of Industrial Decline, Here and Now.

The prospect of a perhaps-lengthy decline of our current civilization isn’t to say that there couldn’t be some serious bumps on the way down (long-term decline doesn’t necessarily mean “smooth”), which I expect there will be. And they could be quite disruptive from our own self-centered viewpoints. And disruptions to the internet anywhere from short-term outages to long-term failure could be among those bumps at some point. But who knows exactly when: 5 or 10 years down the road? 25? 50? No one really knows.

What I do know is that the sooner I start with attempting to remake FontCompass into a large-scale website, the better. And it gives the project a certain amount of urgency, given my view of the world. However, the above contingencies completely aside — even if that were not my worldview and even if none if it comes to pass — more practically, the age I’m getting to be now means there is less time left in my own life to make things happen as well. This has all made me look at potential ways to expedite the process.

The risk of stolen ideas

In the past, I have tended to be an all-or-nothing type of guy, in terms of not wanting to release something before it is “ready.” The real beauty in the FontCompass system, to my eye, is its completeness: the overarching scheme by which everything is organized, both in whole and simultaneously in the details that make up that whole.

At the same time, my biggest fear, and another thing that has held me back now for some years, has been concern that if I do not release it as a complete, finished system — if I give a “sneak preview” of the scheme it comprises in conceptual but unimplemented form — the idea might be stolen out from under me.

Holding me back have been these thoughts: How to begin? Where to begin? Do I work on it in private like a gnome growing ever more wizened with the passage of time before releasing it? That could take years, perhaps many years, if my own spare time is the only resource I have available to devote to it. On the other hand, if I seek out help, or reveal much of the system, might that open it up to someone stealing it out from under me? Taking the risk of doing that, until I have a better vision of how best to oversee the unfolding of the project, opens up the possibility of having the idea stolen by those with more resources to apply. Strictly private development under wraps until release, or working with others: How do I crack that nut?

To risk sounding a bit presumptuous, to me the idea behind FontCompass is kind of like the proverbial paper clip or Kleenex, or the stapler, the Phillips-head screw (who was that Mr. Phillips, anyway?), or Velcro: like these were, in retrospect an obvious enough idea or invention in concept that some in the font industry will probably be saying that they could have thought of it themselves, or even that they did think of it already. (Most especially the blueblood typophiles out there who have been saying for years that a universal type classification scheme isn’t possible — or can’t be done or isn’t practical in terms of how it would work — will be the very ones claiming they already thought of it.)

Early on, frankly, I myself was actually somewhat surprised that someone else hadn’t come up with a similar system and released something like it already. Even now, I am still somewhat surprised. Because the idea behind it is, really, to my mind, not that difficult. It’s more that people just for some reason cannot see it, in part of course because almost no one believes it can be done or would be worthwhile to do.

Through the brainstorming tunnel

Then in January, I started getting motivated to see what I might be able to do to implement things, not only in terms of the mechanics of translating the FontCompass system into a website, but strategies to speed the rollout. Finally giving the go-ahead to the motivation in and of itself released a huge flood of ideas, and I immediately went through a couple of weeks of highly intense brainstorming.

It was like being thrust into a tunnel akin to that you hear talked about in near-death experiences, except without all the drama. A light at the end beckoning me toward it, faster and faster, and being thrust into a current of pure joy pulling me into its center.

In fact, once the pent-up beast of motivation was unleashed, these two weeks were the most intense weeks of brainstorming I had ever experienced in my life. I joked with my wife it was like experiencing a succession of ongoing multiple orgasms, even though everyone knows it’s only women who have them, but go figure!

Almost nonstop, idea after idea after idea, sometimes keeping me up at night to the point I couldn’t sleep because of the entrance or pursuit of another idea I did not want to lose by letting myself drift off. With a notepad on the nightstand by the bed at the ready for exorcising any newly arriving brainstorming demons, so I could thereafter perhaps fall back to sleep (“to sleep, perchance to dream”!), without having lost either another good idea or forfeited too much more precious slumber.

One thing at a time, all in good time

One of the ideas was quite simple: the way to avoid having the FontCompass system stolen out from under me would simply be to release it one section at a time. Instead of feeling it had to be “all” (as in all-or-nothing) to be of value, just recognize that even released in smaller sections, one by one over time, it could still provide significant value and be quite worthwhile.

Simply begin with the sectors of the font universe that are most in chaos (due to the huge torrent of font releases in recent years) and most in need of organizing and classifying. Releasing just those sections, to begin with, could be both very helpful to other designers and also attract potential volunteers for the project, and/or jump-start crowd-sourcing of font alphabet samples.

Perhaps a very obvious idea, but for someone like myself who tends to see and conceive things in “wholes,” and usually dislikes having to break them up and thereby compromise the integrated nature or power of the idea before showing it to others, it has been something of a new way of thinking.

It has been exciting to find that after the initial, enrapturing two-week phase of “in the flow,” “feel the buzz” brainstorming, so far everything I have tested for actual feasibility in the weeks since has functioned pretty much exactly as envisioned, as far as the required website nuts and bolts. (I don’t want to go into any details of this, because doing so might itself be “giving away the farm,” in my mind, or at least some of it. But the brainstorming included virtually all of the practical details for how the entire FontCompass scheme will be implemented in terms of website architecture and layout, website software and coding, etc., and everything so far has proven out.)

Getting beyond “holding back”

Part of me now wishes I had started on this back around 2007 or ’08 or ’09, by which time I had the vision of potentially taking it public someday and putting it out there on the web. However, at the same time, I’m trying not to be too hard on myself.

For one thing, at that time, I had not had any experience with WordPress. It took my personal blog site here to plunge me into that, and without that thorough hands-on experience, hands-deep in the guts of reworking much of the theme-level CSS for wardnicholson.com here, it’s possible I might not have had the “raw material” needed to call down the brainstorm for the FontCompass website that descended on me this January. Because WordPress is the platform FontCompass is being built on, to keep it both “off the shelf” so a generalist (if a geeky one) like myself can utilize it, and also standards-based for better future-proofing.

Also, making the decision to take the plunge now has been growth-producing internally. It has caused me to wake up to the fact one can be too modest, and hold back too much. I recall my mom saying to me a number of times when I was a kid, who as an introvert wrestled with shyness: “Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket!” she would upbraid me.

Only now am I finally seeing the simple, strong wisdom in that. While there have certainly been a few times in the past I broke out from under the bushel basket for limited times — Action Linkage and Beyond Veg, for instance, as well my brief foray into advertising copywriting before RSI cut that avenue off (see the Back from Radio Silence series for the story on those) — eventually I would lose faith and crawl right back under it. Now I can see it is time to overcome the habit of succumbing to that temptation and tendency of the introvert personality, once I recognize something is important enough.

I no longer wrestle so much with shyness, but the habit pattern of holding back and sitting on “big ideas” like FontCompass, and withholding them from the public sphere for fear of being seen as having too big an ego, I now see as something it is time to get past and transcend. I have never cared too much what others thought about me, in general, the idea being, “What do they know, anyway?” Why not, then, “just do it?!”

The challenge, and power, of an idea almost no one but yourself believes in

Beyond that, though, here’s the dilemma and the challenge: Imagine that you have been working with a prototype “lab experiment” in your own work, some “big idea” of your own that almost no one but yourself believes is possible. This is what FontCompass has been till this point — fully implemented on my own computer, and for 10 years now. You know it works, and works well, because you use it almost every day. The naysayers to ideas like this just don’t know what they are talking about. But you can’t show them yet because it has to be made into a large website first (even if released in “smaller” sections to begin with).

Also imagine that for most of that 10 years, you have envisioned the prospect it might one day become something the entire world of graphic designers could also use and benefit from. All along, you have conceptualized the system and repeatedly refined things during that time so it will work for other graphic designers, and not just yourself. But for various reasons — the time required, motivation, practical obstacles in your own life, other more pressing work to be done, the ongoing daily warfare of life you fight just to keep your own little boat afloat — you believe it might never be done.

That is where I have been for all of this time. And even still, even now that I have started on the website, it still might not ever reach fruition. It is that big a task.

The “tension” you are stretched by begins with the fact that you yourself have already experienced the vision of the finished product in its fullness and completion, albeit on a smaller scale. The creative work, or at least the vast majority of it, has already been done — for some time now. For you it is already a reality you have lived and breathed for years.

Crossing the gulf

But there is a huge gulf still to cross. In one way, it is very simple and straightforward: “Just” a matter of “going through the motions” of transcribing the mechanics of it into website. And the laborious, nitty-gritty work of classifying a huge number of typefaces and slotting them into the database fields that will form the superstructure of the website. It will be a huge slog of data-entry work.

It “just” needs to be taken to another level so that others can see and use the system. This other level is easy in concept and not so difficult in execution. It’s “just” that it’s an absolutely gargantuan task. Even crowd-sourcing certain aspects of the work, it could take some years.

The latter aspect of the project is something I do need to give more thought. It’s both an “intangible” but is also practical, as it involves people. FontCompass as a website will probably simply take much too long if I attempt it all myself. I have considered what aspects of the project I should be able to crowd-source, and even how to do so (and that I plan to do). Beyond the mere mechanics, though, lies the rub: How to enlist the help of others while retaining ownership, control, and confidentiality of the project — a separate aspect that will have to somehow mesh with the first.

Time for the “lone wolf” to seek out others, perhaps

To this point, I have always been something of a “lone wolf” in how I accomplish things, as a long-term self-employed person. Beyond Veg was somewhat different from my established modus operandi in that I did gain experience working with volunteer collaborators, and it went very well. But Beyond Veg was not a money-making venture — it was a totally volunteer effort just to put ideas out there, to “influence people,” and plant seeds of change in the dietary world. And of course it provided an ego boost to those of us involved as well. But without money in the picture, there were no worries or cause for dissension over ownership and so forth.

In ventures of this type, you typically need one or two very close, trusted associates to share the most important key tasks, even if you also depend on volunteers outside such an “inner circle.” The details of how this might work and be administered, where the project is intended to be a money-making venture for me though I would still be working with others, is the challenge. (Although I should say that how the site itself might be “monetized” has mostly all been brainstormed, at least roughly.) What may come to hold this all together, though, rather than monetary incentive, is the forging of connections between those of us who are largely motivated by the opportunity to bring an idea like FontCompass to fruition that has not been done before.

Is the endeavor of a “big idea” like this worth it? Will I ever “get there” with it? I don’t know.

Perhaps it may turn out to be a quixotic quest, but at least I have discovered I need to try.

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