Interview With FontSquirrel Founder Ethan Dunham

Founder of the mighty FontSquirrel, Ethan Dunham was kind enough to answer a few questions for us recently. Read on to learn the story of how Font Squirrel came to be, what he loves about fonts and how he stays creative. Enjoy folks!

Tell us how FontSquirrel came to be?

In October 2006, I became the frazzled father of triplet newborns. I was a freelance web designer and part-time font designer and made an okay living. One night as I was lying in bed, trying to think up passive income ideas to pay for things like diapers, I had this sudden intense desire to create a font collection website that I really wanted personally as a designer and didn’t exist. I thought maybe I could kill two birds with one stone and earn a little advertising money too. So I rather secretly spent the next two weeks pulling the site together. I mean, would you tell YOUR wife you were building a site called FontSquirrel? The idea of a curated collection was inspired by this book that had recently come out called the “Free Font Index” by Hans Lijklema. I just didn’t want it in a book, I wanted it on a website.

How do you stay engaged and creative?

Frankly I am naturally passionate about building useful things. I would much rather take 20 hours to build a tool that saved me 2 hours of doing a mundane task. As for being creative, it takes two things. First, you have to have a child-like view of the world. There is beauty and delight to be found in the simplest of things. Notice and enjoy them. Secondly, creativity is actually hard work. You must be willing to execute an idea, and then reject it because it isn’t good enough, and then execute it again.

What do you love the most about fonts?

My initial interest in fonts came when I realised what wonderful tools they were. As a young designer, I turned to making fonts to help me with my graphic design. That interest in fonts changed slightly as I began to see them as a way to help communicate more clearly. And really, fonts are collections of beautiful drawings of letters. Who doesn’t enjoy beautifully drawn curves and shapes?

Is there a formal structure for your creative process?

I have tried over and over to organise my routine, and it fails every single time. It just isn’t who I am. Creativity is messy and inspiration comes often at odd times. My biggest takeaway from all my effort at structuring my process is that in order to accomplish anything meaningful, I must think of my time in terms of days, not hours. Real creative breakthrough often comes from long stretches of undistracted, focused time. Web surfing, email and Slack are constantly derailing me from what I know I need to do in order to be effective.

On what project are you currently working on?

I am trying to learn how to effectively manage a team. As a long-time loner, being a manager of people is not my strongest suit. But having a team makes you surprisingly productive.

Name three tools that you use in your daily routine?

1. I keep a very, very long to-do list, and at the top, I pick out 3 or 4 things I need to get done and make that its own list. Then I only look at those 3 or 4 things. This is my stripped down version of a kanban. 2. I tend to think much better by writing than by speaking, so I have a wall of white boards to stand and write at, which really helps me make progress in planning and decision making. 3. Books. While not what you meant when you asked me the question, reading regularly sharpens my thinking like nothing else I do. I buy more books than I have time to read, but they are responsible for some of my best ideas and growth.

Who were some of your most significant mentors?

My most significant mentor was a college professor who refused to allow me to offer half-effort work. She was fearsome, and nobody liked her much. But she instilled in me the process and mindset for creating great work. It is from her that I learned to keep rejecting mediocre ideas until you have something that truly satisfies the requirements in a beautiful and useful way.

What do you enjoy the most about your career?

Honestly, being able to come to work every day, and build things that I think are fun and interesting. I feel like I get to come to work and play. I find that very satisfying.

Tea or coffee?