Tracking Bill Hill


Interview in Communication Arts Magazine

Some people sew, some golf, Bill Hill relaxes by follow­ing large wild animals through the mountain range behind his house. Hill is just not a cubicle kind of guy. The man who invented ClearType with Bert Keely finds that ideas appear in his primed mind when he’s out following something, tracking in the wild.

Hill believes that tracking came before reading, that human­kind developed sign-recognition skills in the wild long before any­one touched a stylus to wet clay.

To “read” the story of an animal’s flight before us, we inter­preted broken twigs and hoof-prints as little metaphors—as signs that something had happened in this place. Hill tells us that reading came first, that we knew how to track and that’s what gave us the idea to create strings of reproducible signs. We essentialized signs to form alphabets.

It is this kind of thinking that made me want to know more about the way Hill thinks. I wanted to know his thoughts on his own creative process. I started looking for him. He wasn’t as easy to find as you’d think.

His Microsoft e-mail in-box was filled. His phone redirected to reception. After a few tries a nice reception person told me that I might try to get a response from the man who invented on-screen reading by sending a letter to Microsoft, which they would try to get to him. I envisioned a receptionist on the top of building 21 launching a carrier pigeon with a Microsoft wing band. This must have been just at the time he was leaving Microsoft, but how was I to know?

I got on my blog and begged him to surface. I went through Facebook and LinkedIn. All tracks seemed to fade into acrid sand. A few weeks later, hopeless, I e-mailed my editor. She found him in one day. Some people are just good at finding shy creatures. When I sent him my questions, he responded instantly. Here they are:

CA: What do you consider the three biggest design-related challenges you’ve had to face and solve?

Hill: A) Figuring out—with Bert Keely—how to take the low resolution of the computer screen in relation to print on paper and improve it using software alone. ClearType was a real innovation that surprised everyone, including us, by how big an improvement it was.

B) Working out how to use everything the human race has learned about creating readable type in the 550 years since Gutenberg and adapting it to create readable text on computer screens.

C) When I worked at Aldus Europe, figuring out a system to allow animated interactive demos of products to be localized at low cost into many languages. One part of the project involved learning the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and creating two Russian screen fonts—something I’d never done before. Software engineers at Aldus warned me that what I was trying to do was impossible.

CA: As far as you can track it, how does your mind solve problems?

Hill: I have to focus intensely on the problem. I disappear for a few weeks and work at home, so there are no distractions. Occasionally I might surface and bounce ideas off the right people, but you have to be very careful about choosing them. The kind of people who can brainstorm and not get into ego-driven arguments are essential. But it’s essential you limit even this type of contact—you have to stay inside your own head as much as you can.

First, there’s a research phase. I find everything that might possibly be related to the problem Im tackling and read it, looking for ideas. I make notes in the margins, of ideas and connections, as I’m reading. (The books I’ve read in this way become incredibly valuable. I never loan them to anyone because the annotations are pure gold and you can never reproduce the same state of mind you were in when you reread the same book later.)

This phase is about jamming as much information into my head as possible. For instance, when I was tackling how to make eBooks readable, I read 12,000 pages of books, journals, magazine and newspaper articles and research papers in a month. I totaled it up afterwards, just for fun.

You’re looking for connections and ideas all the time. You keep rehashing everything you’ve learned, and hope that pieces of it begin to stick together. There’s usually a “break­through moment” when the whole problem crystallizes. That always happens when I’m doing something else, like taking a walk in the woods.

CA: Do you think this kind of creativity can be learned?

Hill: Yes, I think it can. You have to learn to read—a lot—and to sift the gold nuggets as you go. Spending time in the natural world, but in the right state of mind, helps enormously.

I have a couple of techniques I was taught by tracker and wilderness awareness expert Jon Young that are a huge help.

CA: Did you train yourself to think the way you think, or is it the luck of the draw, or the result of outside influences?

Hill: It’s a bit of all three. I learned to read when I was three or four, and my parents encouraged it by buying me an encyclopedia set. By the time I was ten or twelve, I was reading about seventeen books a week (borrowed from the local public library; I got library cards for my whole family, and used them all so I could borrow eight books at a time).

I don’t know whether that was the cause, or whether it was the luck of the draw, but my IQ tested at 158. And that amount of reading certainly exposes you to lots of outside influences...

CA: What is the big, hairy problem you’ve got in the back of your mind right now—should you like to share it?

Hill: How to help the human race transition into a new age of information design. We’ve been designing information display for 35,000 years (first cave-painters). The first question a designer had to ask is “What is the size of space I have?” The answer—a cave-wall, a block of text on Trajan’s Column, or a page of People magazine—drove all subsequent design decisions. That’s what I call The First Age of Design. Now we have to move into the Second Age of Design, when we design infor­mation without knowing the size of the display on which it will be read, yet it must look great and read well on any display: a PC, a phone, a living-room TV, etc. Solving this problem will require new technology and new tools for designers. And designers will have to rethink the way they work.

CA: You basically invented reading-on-screen. What do you hope will happen with that technology?

Hill: I hope reading on screen will become as comfortable and easy as reading from paper and, in fact, will be much better. It is absolutely possible, and it will definitely happen. We’re still in the very early phases of reading-on-screen. We’ve had 550 years since Gutenberg to develop techniques and tech­nologies to create a great reading experience on paper. It will take a decade or two yet before the screen experience first equals, then overtakes, paper.

CA: Some people fear the demise of books. How do you weigh in on that one?

Hill: What’s a book? What’s a newspaper? They’re not about paper, but the information and ideas they contain. I think we’ll see more “books,” because they’re easier and cheaper to publish. But we absolutely do need to see the right business model emerging so people who create ideas and information can be properly rewarded and get a return on the investment of time and effort they make creating it.

CA: Your blog’s “Digital Declaration of Independence” asserts “every human has an equal and unalienable right to the means to create, distribute and consume information.” And yet you are a big fan of Amazon’s Kindle, which puts distribution into the hands of a very small group and reading only into hands that can afford a reader. How do you envision solving these problems?

Hill: I deliberately drew a parallel in that “Declaration” with the United States Declaration of Independence. That asserted that all men were created equal and had certain fundamental rights, but it took more than 200 years before the U.S. could elect a black President.

It was a great document, because the men who created it realized its purpose was to serve as a beacon. You can’t climb the hill all at once—but someone has to stick a flag on the top and say: “Here’s where we have to go!”

The Kindle is a transitional device. When the first pocket calculators appeared, they cost hundreds of dollars. Now you get one free when you fill up at Exxon. But Kindle is helping to drive digitization of hundreds of thousands of titles. It’s “good enough” for now, but devices need to get better and cheaper. We’re not at the top of the hill yet, by a long way.

Hill tells a story about tracking a cougar to her den. As I remember it, she wasn’t there. He got nervous. Cougars dont like to be disturbed. They’re solitary animals, and live far way from human habitation. Hill got down out of the mountains that evening and went home to his house, miles out of her range. As the sun was rising the next morning, he happened to look out the kitchen window to the ridge behind the house. She was sitting there, watching the house, outlined by the sun’s first rays. The tracker had become the tracked.

Perhaps that’s the way creativity works. It’s a conversation between you and the problem. It’s a conversation between a mind like Hill’s and the complexities of communication in our time. Sometimes he tracks the cougar. Sometimes the cougar tracks him.


© 2011 Natalia Ilyin. First published in Communication Arts Magazine.