John Gruber

The man behind Apple-centric blog Daring Fireball talks to Oliver Lindberg about his ‘auteur theory of design’, coding for ancient browsers and the future of Markdown, the text-to-HTML converter he created

John Gruber, the influential author of Daring Fireball, gave a talk at web design conference dConstruct in September. Speaking for the first time in the UK, he explained why some projects are doomed to mediocrity, even though they are made by a team of good, talented people. He called it ‘The Auteur Theory of Design’.

“Halfway through the talk I posit a thesis,” Gruber says. “It’s that the quality of any collaborative creative endeavour tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in control of the project. It works in both directions. If the person who makes the final decisions has poor taste, even if you throw talented people at the project, in the long run the result is not going to approach that level of talent. So ideally you want to put someone in control who has great taste.”

Gruber spent most of his half hour talking about the film industry because he feels it has effectively systemised the process of collaborative creative work. The film director used to be more of an administrator who managed the set but today is seen as the author of the film, who is in creative control of every aspect of the film. “For web professionals you can see this in the role of what’s often called a project manager. What you want is a project manager who has an artistic vision for the final website, not just someone who’s there to manage deadlines and act as a human to-do list.”

Dealing with clients

The ‘auteur’ also needs the ability to communicate clearly and an open mind but ultimately it has to come down to the person’s taste. This also affects how you deal with the client. “Speaking from personal experience, having worked as a designer and web developer in the past, I think that it’s often best to limit the client’s creative input,” says Gruber. “If they had that sort of ability, they wouldn’t need to be hiring someone else to do it for them.

“One great example is where you present the client with, say, three directions. There’s the one that you, the designers, know is the best one but you put two more up, so that they can choose, and the client chooses the one that you really hoped they wouldn’t choose. You always think to yourself ‘Why did we even show that to them’?”

These days, of course, Gruber himself doesn’t have to answer to anybody. He’s been writing Daring Fireball full-time since 2006 and it sustains him in terms of advertising revenue (members who pay $19 or more per year also get access to separate full-content RSS feeds). He doesn’t think about the site’s design very much, however. “I haven’t really made any significant changes in a couple of years,” he explains. “The design considerations were, remain and I think always will be to keep it as simple as I possibly can. And to make it absolutely clear where people’s eyes should go on the page.”

Doesn’t he constantly get criticised about the font size – Verdana 11px – though? “Definitely, and that’s probably going to change,” he admits. “I probably agree that it’s a bit small. But especially this year one of the trends has been that web fonts have finally gotten real. I know they don’t work in all versions of Internet Explorer but in most browsers they do. And I’m lucky that my readership is overwhelmingly people using recent versions of Safari, Chrome and Firefox.”

Not surprisingly, Daring Fireball adheres to web standards. On the site Gruber explains that if it looks goofy in your browser, “you’re likely using a shitty browser that doesn’t support web standards”, and namechecks Internet Explorer. He says that if you complain about it, he will laugh at you because he doesn’t care.

I don’t block Internet Explorer or older versions of it but I no longer test in them. It’s very liberating

“My reaction to it has something to do with having done so much commercial web design and development before starting the site and knowing how much time went into making designs work in IE5 and IE6 – designs that otherwise worked flawlessly in all the other major browsers. So I’m just not going to spend time on it. I’m not going out of my way to make anything not work. I don’t block Internet Explorer or older versions of it but I no longer test in them. It’s very liberating. Everybody can’t do that, obviously. But I can because the nature of the audience is such that’s it’s not a significant number of readers.”

Daring Fireball also famously doesn’t allow comments on the site. Gruber says they’d distract from the articles and inherently put you into a skimming mode. Consequently, he doesn’t care for Safari extension DaringFireballWithComments, recently launched by Mac shareware site MacHeist.

Instead, Gruber uses Twitter to interact with his readership. “If you search for @gruber and @daringfireball, you see numerous responses to the things I’m posting every day. And often I write back. It’s great and better than actual comments on Daring Fireball would be. It is a public forum of feedback, forces brevity and also people to stand behind their comments. There is very little anonymity on Twitter.”

John Gruber

Daring Fireball runs Movable Type but Gruber has significantly modified it. The front page, for example, intermixes two separate blogs (the Linked List of interesting links and brief commentary as well as the longer articles). It’s something Gruber wrote by hand to take all the posts and assemble them into one chronological list of HTML.

As Gruber didn’t want to write his articles in raw HTML (which he calls “ugly” and “really hard to proofread”), he also created his own text-to-HTML conversion tool called Markdown in 2004. Inspired by the format of plain text email, it was intended to be as easy-to-read and easy-to-write as possible and turns marked-up text into valid HTML. It’s supported by Movable Type, WordPress and ExpressionEngine and has been implemented in various shapes and guises on the web.

Jeff Atwood, author of the programming blog Coding Horror and co-creator of Stack Overflow, which uses a version of Markdown, recently accused Gruber of bad parenting of his open source project. “It hasn’t changed much at all since when I scripted it,” Gruber responds. “Jeff is entitled to his opinion and he had a good point. There are a couple of bugs that I could probably have fixed in my reference documentation. I think part of Markdown’s success, though – and its still growing-popularity – is that I don’t diddle with it.”

App addition

Indeed, after six years, Markdown is still going strong. A new iPhone/iPad app, MarkdownMail, for example, lets you compose HTML emails with Gruber’s formatting syntax and GitHub uses Markdown for messages, issues and comments. “They’ve changed the syntax a little bit,” says Gruber. “Most of the time, when people have altered Markdown, I tend to think it’s worse but GitHub’s version is better: just a few subtle things about the way that underscore characters work and a few other things. That’s great. But I’m not sure I need to approve everything. It would be foolish to try to figure out a Markdown 2.0 that makes everybody happy. It’s never going to happen.”

That’s not to say that Gruber is never going to update it. He keeps a list of ideas for a hypothetical Markdown 2.0 and hopes that some day he will get around to it. In the meantime, however, when he isn’t recording The Talk Show with Dan Benjamin or making a rare conference appearance, Daring Fireball is all he thinks about.

In 2002, the year Gruber started the blog, he had a list of 10 articles to write. Today he’s constantly jotting down ideas for things to link to and write about and the list grows faster than he can write. Gruber simply enjoys being his own ‘auteur’ and he can’t imagine otherwise any more.