#MCM: Micah Rich
People may not necessarily always link an online venture to the freedom of creativity, but for Micah Rich, the two go hand-in-hand. Micah is a New York-based web developer and designer who has lent his talent and passion to several web projects all while starting quite a few of his own. Although every project Micah takes on presents an opportunity for growth and experience, one project in particular holds a place near and dear to his heart. Serving as a Robin Hood figure for the internet-savvy millennial generation, he founded The League of Moveable Type in 2009; it is the first open-source type foundry of its kind, and has been used by huge companies like Forbes, NBC Universal, and Rolling Stone, and even has a cameo in The Hunger Games. It serves as a cache of online fonts collected from countless designers and is free for anyone to use in digital design projects.
“It’s the thing that I have worked on the longest, and I basically started it just when I got out of college,” says Micah, who never expected the company to grow as much as it has. “It was kind of just thrown together and then someone featured it [on their blog] and we were like, ‘Okay, this is a thing now.’”
Right now The League is still a small business, but Micah is focusing his energy into making it more sustainable. “It’s one of those things that even when I burn myself out and have to walk away from for a couple of months or something, I end up coming back to it still.”
Could you give me a bit of a rundown of how you’ve gotten where you are today and how your passion for web design started?
"I went to art school actually for filmmaking, initially. I was always kind of into design, just like playing around with it, and ended up getting into motion graphics in college, which was kind of between the two things. And then I moved colleges in the middle and found myself in Los Angeles where there was an actual industry for motion graphics, and it was way too intense for me. I mean, it just seemed like far too much stress for how much I loved it. And I guess I had always sort of just also messed around with websites when I was a kid, you know, like hacking together MySpace pages and stuff. And so my senior year of college I guess is when that kind of all got started where I was like, you know, I’m the only person in this art school who has messed around with HTML, and everybody needed portfolios and stuff and suddenly I found myself doing it more. And so my senior year of college I roped a couple other design students into a project with me for our senior thesis. We ended up wanting to make a web application, like a social network which was centered around sharing good deeds. It was like a very noble social network idea. We did a bunch of design work for it and then we were like, ‘Dude, like, we have to build it and none of us know how to program’ and I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll learn.’"
Right now you’re working on The League of Moveable Type. Could you tell me a bit about that and how it got started?
"So the backstory is that right after college I got a job for, like, a couple of months and didn’t love it so I ended up quitting to make my own company with one of the designers that I did that senior thesis with. So we made, like, a design development company [called] A Good Company, which I thought was really funny at the time. It was the very beginning of 2009, like, January 2009, and was just at the point where browsers were starting to have the technology to be able to use more than like five or six web-friendly fonts. Like, they were just beginning to let you import fonts and use them, but there were no fonts that you could actually do that with because all the type designers were like, ‘No, people are gonna steal our shit, we’re not going to let you actually use our fonts.’ And I guess having for myself that develop mentality where everything that I built was pieced together from open-source programming pieces, I was like, ‘How is [open-source] not a thing in typography?’ And I remember coming across this forum post on, like, a typography form where there was someone saying, ‘Hey, is this a thing? Like, I’m a student, I can’t afford to pay five or six hundred dollars for this awesome font, and I kind of want to learn how fonts work and have something to use. Is there any such thing as open-source font?’ And all the type designers were like, ‘How dare you? Like, that is our livelihood. You’re ruining our industry just by asking that question. Get that out of here,’ and I was like ‘That’s insane, you guys are crazy. I’m gonna start that.'"
My business partner at the time, Caroline Hadilaksono, designed a font in a class in college and was like, ‘I don’t care about this, like, I think I did a good job, but you know, this could be open source. I’m not going to sell it or anything.’ And so we started with that and asked a couple of other students that we knew and just posted [the fonts]. I feel like we posted maybe three fonts or something like that, I can’t recall exactly, but like some big, important typography person featured us on their blog and suddenly lots of people saw it and it became a thing and other people started contributing fonts and we met a handful of other cool designers, and I guess that’s the story of how it got started.”
You take on a lot of other projects as well, so how do you know which ones are worthwhile? Do you even know which ones will be worth your time or do you kind of just take whatever opportunity comes your way?
"I’ve certainly done both, but I think at this point I have been doing random internet-related projects for, I don’t know, eight or nine years or something, and I think at first it was just, ‘Hey, this seems cool. I have the energy to do it, why not?’ And over those eight or nine years or however long it’s been, I burnt myself out a million times and took on projects that were bad ideas in the end or whatever. I think at this point I have done my best to try to study business as much as I can. I don’t think that’s my natural instinct but I find it really interesting just figuring out what people want to pay for, and so I guess at this point it’s a combination of a small amount of experience of, like, seeing a bunch of projects go nowhere or bomb, and also trying to learn from the people who seem to know what they’re talking about. And I think maybe the tiny other third piece is I think naturally I’m a very empathetic person. I have always been good at trying to see something from someone else’s perspective, and I think that’s probably sort of what’s lead me to design. I try to come at it from the perspective of, ‘Would this help someone who needs it?’ And that empathy, I think, has carried me a long way."
You took a teaching position at General Assembly and now your offer mentorship programs, so education is a big part of your work, right? Why is it so important to you? Does it go back to being an empathetic person and wanting to help other people when you can?
"Definitely. I think personally, for me, that’s a lot of it. I think far more than I should I end up caring about other people more than I care about myself, and suddenly I was in that opportunity to teach that class. I was in LA at the time and General Assembly was just looking for a teacher and they were desperate and needed someone real fast, and I was like, ‘I could maybe do that.’ And it ended up sort of being like a positive outlet for that part of my personality where I give more than I should, where that’s kind of what I’m supposed to do. It was a really nice outlet for me to give and feel a reward for giving, and I guess to see all these people who started not knowing anything and then, like, a few weeks in we’re building crazy awesome stuff that I would never have dreamed of. I mean, it was a ton of work, but I think that empathetic part of me got to glow a little bit."
I’m also curious about the creative process when taking on new projects. When I think of web development I go straight to the technology aspect, but I’d like to know how much of it is creatively driven.
"I think until you’re doing it you don’t really get to see that it really is creative. Like, you’re inventing a thing from nothing. There’s a lot of logic and research and uncreative things that you have to do to be able to be creative first, but that goes for anything, right? Like, you have to learn how to paint before you can start making awesome paintings. And I think once you have some foundation on how to do it, it ends up being really fun and creative to be developing because you made a thing that didn’t exist before. That in itself is pretty awesome. The end that you get to is probably a thing that only you can do because you’re using your brain to get there. So, you know, it seems very similar to other creative endeavors in that way. The technical code stuff is no different from the technical artistic stuff or the technicalities of writing or anything else."
If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
"Any of my friends who read this are going to say, ‘Yeah, of course you said that,’ but I would really love to have dinner with Tim Ferriss. He’s a really smart writer, and he wrote one of my favorite practical books that I read in college, The 4-Hour Workweek. It’s kind of a flashy title but it’s a how-to from his perspective of how to make a company and more importantly, I think, a life that isn’t focused around having a day job and working and exchanging time, really. It was sort of his how-to guide on that, designing the life that you want. A lot of people think they need to make a million dollars and realistically you don’t need a million dollars to live like a millionaire. That’s a very rough summary but that book influenced a lot of my perspective in how I’ve approached projects and life and moving around and the type of person that I want to be. So I think it would be really awesome to, like, actually meet that dude."