We’ve covered Typecast quite a bit here on The Industry, and it’s easy to see why: They’re a great team, and they have a great product. Plus, they were acquired by Monotype back in October. If, for some reason, you haven’t heard of it, Typecast is a web app for creating browser-based typography in your browser. Oh, and it’s great, in case that wasn’t already clear.
When I was up in Belfast for Build Conference, I sat down with Paul McKeever, director at Typecast, to chat a little about the Typecast story, the acquisition, the importance of a formal education in design, and Justin Bieber. Strap in, folks, this interview is a big one.
Hey Paul, thanks for joining us on The Industry. So, tell us the Typecast story. How did the app come about?
Before we were Typecast, we were a design and development agency called Front. We did consultancy with clients, helped them figure out web strategy, and then built their projects. Our team of about 14 people had worked together for a number of years, and things were going very well.
But then we started to get an itch. We wanted to apply those skills for ourselves and to test some ideas that we’d had. We were already working on a lot of side projects, and trying to fit them in around our client business. So we decided that when people on our team had spare time, rather than taking on projects that weren’t a good fit, we’d put them to use on things that we found valuable.
I think it was more of an aspiration than a concrete plan, but during that period we built some open source plugins for ExpressionEngine and put them on GitHub. We also built a time-tracking extension to Basecamp that generated reports for us – these sorts of things.
So Typecast started as a side project between client work?
That’s right. In late 2010, we were kicking around an idea for web typography. We had just finished our first client project that used web fonts, and there had been a lot of friction in the handover – designing something in Fireworks, then building a prototype in HTML and CSS, and having to rethink all of the type decisions that were made. The process of styling the prototype felt really laborious and difficult. There were also some issues with the rendering of the typeface because we initially used a font that didn’t render well on Windows. It had been picked on a Mac. The client wasn’t happy. When it was over we kind of said to ourselves, “Maybe there’s an opportunity here for us to improve how we hand things over at build.”
And that was really the genesis of Typecast. It was about finding a way to make our process better as an agency. Quite soon after, at the Build conference actually, we got talking to Tim Brown from Typekit. We ended up hanging out here in our studio for a few hours – just talking about general issues with web typography, where the web was going, and the challenges of working with type on the web. We didn’t talk specifically about Typecast, but I think this enthusiasm for web type coincided with our desire to work better. Two of the guys on our team – Chris Armstrong and Jordan Moore – were super-enthusiastic and they went off and said, “Okay, well, let’s see what we can do.”
At first it was just a Basecamp thread, with people kicking ideas around. Then someone built a little HTML prototype. By spring 2011, Chris was passionate enough that he asked to make it a side project. He’d just come of a busy six-month client project and had a gap coming up, so we arranged time for him and a small team to work on just this. We all thought it was really exciting, and we invested a lot of time to see if it would go anywhere. By early June of 2011, they’d turned some of the early ideas into working prototype, which we named Typecast.
When did you know it could be more than just a tool for your agency?
That June, we went over to the Ampersand Conference in Brighton and hung out with some of the people there who were interested in web typography. The reaction was really cool – “I’d love to see something like that.” “Maybe you could do these other things too!” That’s when we knew it could be more than just an internal tool. We saw that others would find it useful, and that it was very much in line with the trends that people were seeing on the web – wanting to see things in the browser, but not necessarily wanting to write all of the code for a piece of design; wanting to work more quickly and more iteratively; and wanting feedback earlier in the process. These were all challenges that we were looking at, and we discovered that they were much more widespread than our office. Everyone was thinking about them.
Is that when Typecast became your full-time focus?
Not quite. That summer, we moved about half the team into building out Typecast. We also threw away our prototype, because it was built on string and jQuery, and it didn’t really have the technical foundations to go anywhere. So we decided to start from scratch, and that’s the point at which we were really started building Typecast as a product. Then, it took us until about November 2011 to get a private beta up and running.
A year after you spoke with Tim Brown at Build?
That’s right. Our story is punctuated by the Build Conference. Build has been pivotal in our growth from a design agency into a product company. Andy has done us a tremendous favour by bringing in world-class speakers and creating this atmosphere where everyone shares ideas. It really helped us take inspiration from elsewhere and believe that this was possible.
At last year’s Build, we got to talk to Erik Spiekermann about what we were doing. He arranged some introductions with others in the type industry who he thought might be able to help. He was absolutely first-class. We’ll always be grateful for that. But it wasn’t just Erik, A whole raft of people at the conference gave us input. And actually, the majority of them weren’t well-known or celebrities. They were practicing designers – people who worked in small agencies or in-house somewhere. They took time to try out the app and tell us what worked. They went away, tried to use it on a project and gave us real feedback. That was really important to us.
Although we were running this private beta, and we had people registering from all over the world, actually having that face-to-face contact was so important. Josh Brewer, for example, one of the speakers at Build last year, came and hung out with us for a couple of hours, walked though the app, tried it out for a few things, and gave us some direction for areas that he found difficult. We did that repeatedly, over the course of the last year. And that really was the reason why Typecast moved in the direction it did. It changed the emphasis from being about our ideas to being about what designers wanted.
You ran in private beta for nearly a year. Why for so long?
It was mainly because we had no idea how long it would take to get it to a useful state! We thought maybe six months, and that seemed a good period of time for a private beta. Also, we wanted to iterate really quickly, and we were a little bit nervous about going out and saying “Hey, this product is finished!” when we knew ourselves, from the feedback that we had already gotten, that the size of the roadmap was pretty daunting. We knew that doing a private beta would have some downsides, and that people would find it frustrating not being able to register immediately, but it meant that we could get better feedback on the things we were working on. It also let us focus our efforts on feature development, UX, testing and support, because we didn’t have to divert our energy to telling the story about why you would use Typecast.
What does a typical day in the Typecast office look like? Has it changed at all since the acquisition by Monotype?
No, I wouldn’t say it’s changed much at all. Jamie and I are still running the exact same team with the exact same internal structure. We have our product roadmap, which we’re constantly updating, and we’re just getting on with building that out.
Only a few things are different. For instance, I have a boss now, and that’s a good thing. It means that I have someone who can give me direction in terms of things that are happening elsewhere in the industry. We also get to draw on the company’s resources. Monotype is doing a lot of smart stuff in research and development. Some of those ideas are going to influence the direction we take with Typecast and shape what’s possible in the future.
You’re one of those few companies that really gets the importance of being human – You guys are all on Twitter, and you regularly connect with the community. How important do you think this has been to you success, and do you think it’ll be a struggle to maintain this following the acquisition?
Being part of the community is important to us, and I don’t think our behaviour is going to change. It’s part of our DNA as a company. We supported and sponsored Build and New Adventures back when we were just a design agency, because we wanted to see those things happen. There wasn’t really a commercial rationale. We just thought these were smart guys who were doing good things on the web and we wanted to see more of that.
We’ve also built things like ExpressionEngine plugins and The Goldilocks Approach To Responsive Web Design and given them away. Just last year we built responsive.is, which is a little tool for testing how sites perform on different devices and showing clients how responsive designs work. We could’ve said “Well, okay, maybe those are products and we should commercialise them.” But we thought there was better value in doing something that more people could benefit from.
I think the more you give away and help others, the more relationships you build, the more help and goodwill you get in return. We’ve always tried to do that, and now that we’re Typecast, we’re thinking about how to continue with that approach.
How would you define success for Typecast? For a lot of startups, the goal is to just get acquired – Was that the case for you, or do you have a bigger goal in mind?
I can tell you, it was definitely not our goal to be acquired. That has been an interesting by-product of what we’ve done.
Jamie and I started Front as a design agency, back in 2000, and we thought we’d always remain an independent company. We were in this for the long haul, and we still are. We’re about doing things that will last a long time. And as young guys (actually the whole team here is young), we still have most of our careers ahead of us. So being acquired just wasn’t part of our philosophy.
Because we were a small company, we invested a lot of time and money in Typecast, and when an opportunity came to become part of a bigger company, we took that. But I think had we set out with that idea in mind, it would never have worked. The series of steps that took place to produce a great product with the right momentum and the right roadmap, to be in just the right place at the right time, to launch a public beta and immediately be able to partner with Monotype – you could never have predicted that or forced it to happen. It was just fortuitous.
But I do think it’s going to be an interesting step for us. Becoming part of a bigger company can be a good thing. It’s an opportunity, and we have to make to make the most of it. It’s funny, 10 years of being an independent agency, then two years of working on products – the direction can change very quickly.
Bit of a hypothetical here: If you had been offered an acquihire, would you have accepted?
No, that definitely wouldn’t have happened. What really convinced us that Monotype was going to be a great home for us was that Typecast being successful matters to them. They want to see more use of type on the web, to make it easier to work with type on the web, and for designers to see type as being an important part of the design process. So, Typecast failing or succeeding has an impact on the company. That really matters to us. We want to be somewhere where our work has impact and to do something that’s meaningful. And, you know, I don’t think – in fact, I can tell you – that we would never have taken an opportunity where the product was going be closed down so our team could be moved on to other things. That happens a lot, because it’s a gracious way of moving on, but we weren’t at that point.
And then the flip side of that: If, suddenly, you all got fired by Monotype, what would happen? Would you go back to being a design agency, try to build another project, or go your separate ways?
Okay, so, that’s never going to happen! But I don’t know if I’d have the appetite to go out and start something again. I mean, this has been a huge drain on all of us, so I’d probably go on holiday to get a break. It takes a lot of energy and effort to build something from nothing, even if it looks easy from the outside.
Um, I’m not sure it does. I can imagine it’d be pretty difficult…
Ha, well, it is! I believe the way to become successful is to come in every day and take one item from your list of 100 things you have to change and work on it till it’s better. If the dozen people on your team do the same, you can change a lot of stuff. You can add features and talk to customers. You can do a whole lot. But you have to do it consistently, and that takes a lot of energy.
Do you think Typecast will still be around in, say, 5 years? If so, can you predict what it’ll be like?
I really hope that it is. Five years is a long time on the Internet, so you can’t really predict what will happen. But we have a roadmap that stretches out for years, so we definitely see that kind of lifespan in Typecast.
We want Typecast to be the way that designers work with type on the web, because we want to make everyone’s life easier. We also want to see the product be commercially successful, because we’ve invested a lot of effort. Plus, we feel a bit of a responsibility to show that great ideas work, and that they can be commercially successful, to build a case for others to come out and make new tools, and show that, actually, these are the kind of opportunities that are worth pursuing.
Now, for my Build interviews, I decided to add a fun little feature that would only work with in-person chats: A quickfire round. With the emphasis very definitely on the word “round” – Speed rarely factored into it. Essentially, each person picked 5 playing cards, with each card assigned a certain topic. Then, they had to speak on those topics for as long as they wanted, with quite interesting results…
The relevance of a formal education in design
I think both paths work. I benefited from a formal education, but not in design – I did Humanities, and then a Business degree, so I actually don’t come from a classic creative background, and I’m probably not the creative talent in this business. I took a year out before going to university, and wasn’t really all that inclined and motivated to go, thinking it was a lot of time and a lot of money. But, looking back, I can see how, although it didn’t make any difference at the time, it was a foundation that has, 10, 12, 15 years later in my life, made a difference. So, I think you get out what you put in, and if you pick a good course and you do well, it’s gonna be helpful.
Ugh. Pass. Pass on the whole thing. I pass on Justin Bieber.
Contributing to the design community
I think it’s super-important. Super-important. Probably what I didn’t say before is that we were inspired by those that came before. I look around at some of the people in our industry: the guys at Paravel (Trent Walton, Dave Rupert, and Reagan Ray), building things like FitText. It’s super that they did that, and taking out things that have been useful from the work you’re doing as you go along is a great way to make a contribution. Andy Clarke has done a lot of good work as well, with his 320 and Up boilerplate. That was kind of something that inspired us with the Goldilocks Approach. So yeah, I think it’s super-important.
The current state of e-mail
I have a sad face with e-mail. I’ve given up on believing that e-mail is important. Although I use e-mail a lot, as a way of communication, it’s both incredibly valuable, but also fundamentally flawed. I remember days when I used to spend a whole day clearing out my inbox and trawling through everything. When you’re building an early-stage product, I had to shift away from that, as I found that I couldn’t achieve the results that I wanted, in terms of providing direction for the team, and understanding what customers wanted. I just couldn’t do that through e-mail. So I made a conscious decision to just say that I’d spend a limited amount of time every day going through and responding to messages, but if I miss something, I’d rather fail to respond to an e-mail in a timely manner than have someone sitting on my team who needs help, and isn’t getting it. That doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s worked for me over the last couple of years. And also, I learned that if people send you an e-mail and you don’t reply, they will soon ring you or come and speak to you, and so that kinda saved me from the worst of it.
The importance of conferences
So, we’ve talked about this as well. I think it’s essential. I say that as someone who’s a little bit further on in his career – I’ve been working for a number of years, and I can afford to go to a conference if it’s valuable. But even if you’re just starting out, I think that conferences are an amazing way to get insight and hear about what’s happening. The ideas you pick up from these speakers are worth every penny you pay to come.
I still find them valuable. I’m still learning. And this is the thing about web design – It’s a moving target, nobody is ever gonna say “Well, that’s it, I’m done, I’ve learned everything I need to know about the web.” I think part of the price of working in this industry is that you’ve got to be committed to maintaining your skills, and keeping up to date, and talking to people about where the web is going, or you’re gonna fall behind.
I think we forget how fortunate we are that people like Andy McMillan, the guys at Clearleft, and the guys behind Brooklyn Beta, put this huge amount of effort into putting these events on that really benefit the community far more than it benefits them. And look, it’s cool, y’know, to be in Belfast when Build is on. It’s fantastic: you get to hang out with a lot of cool people, and it’s a lot of fun too.