First, some kind words for Spoonflower…
Spoonflower, the printer of custom fabrics and showcase/marketplace for indie fabric designs, is a startup that a lot of people love and want to see thrive. By the rules of social marketing and web 2.0, Spoonflower has been doing all the right things. It seeks to fill a genuine need; it engages customers in friendly public conversation; and, most interestingly, it recognizes its customers as a creative community rather than a bunch of passive, isolated consumers. The Spoonflower blog, design marketplace, and weekly contests have fostered connections within this community.
So, what’s the problem?
What do I mean by “Spoonflower’s ten-thousand-numbers problem”? On the one hand I’m referring to something really trivial: some mislabeled color tiles in Spoonflower’s official fabric palette – the Spoonflower Color Map of 3,000+ colors. (Click here to order the Color Map or read more about it.) On the other hand, I’m talking about an issue that goes deep: my sense that Spoonflower doesn’t quite “get” the nature of software and distributed creativity today. One indication of this, to me, is the near certainty that some unfortunate person had to input by hand the 10,800 (mostly 3-digit) numbers printed on the official fabric palette. A needless, mind-numbing, and wretchedly dreary task! I know, because I started down that road myself before coming to my senses and finding an easier way.
Drudgery begets errors
The original error-free source of the 10,800 numbers, as far as I can tell, is the Adobe Swatch Exchange file available here on Spoonflower’s web site. So why didn’t Spoonflower just extract the numbers from this Adobe file instead of having some poor human enter them manually on the keyboard (and inevitably, in the process, introduce a bunch of errors)? Well, to be fair, it’s not obvious how to do the extracting. The Adobe Swatch Exchange format is something of an Adobe proprietary mystery, and it isn’t all that easy to find software for pulling the needed numbers out of the Adobe file. I don’t fault Spoonflower for being stymied. But why didn’t Spoonflower appeal for help to its customers – to the friends of friends of its customers – or, simply, to the Internet at large?
Hope, frustration, and, finally, indignation
The Spoonflower Color Map (and the accompanying Adobe Swatch Exchange file) went up on the Spoonflower site back in March. I was busy then with other things and didn’t notice for many months. But, when I did notice, I was thrilled at the prospect of a large palette colors would print predictably on Spoonflower’s equipment. Finally, after years of waiting! I downloaded the Adobe Swatch Exchange file, downloaded the image file used in printing the Spoonflower Color Map, and ordered a quilting-weight copy of the map. Since I don’t use Adobe products – I run all my computers and do all my work with open-source software – I then faced the same problem that Spoonflower must have faced: getting those 10,800 numbers in the Adobe Swatch Exchange file into a digital format that my software could read and use.
I looked for a solution online, didn’t find one at first, and tried, briefly, to solve the problem by brute force – by manually copying the numbers printed on the Spoonflower Color Map, i.e., typing them one by one into my computer. That’s when I discovered that some of the Spoonflower numbers were wrong – and wrong in a way that reflected human error, rather than any likely computer glitch. That’s when I knew I wasn’t alone in my crazy number-typing predicament. And that’s when I got indignant. “Why should anyone,” I asked myself, “let alone two or more people, be toiling away in the second decade of the 21st century typing 10,800 numbers that came out of a computer?”
A better way: the generosity of the community
Fortified by knowing that I wasn’t completely alone, I went back online and found a great solution: a free open-source program called Swatchbooker created by Olivier Berton, a multi-talented singer who lives in Belgium, collects and shares digital fonts for the Khmer language, and, obviously, writes very useful software. The miracle, generosity, and diversity of the Internet! I was so, so grateful! I used Swatchbooker to create a digital palette file that you can download here. This file contains, in order, all the numbers found on the Spoonflower Color Map but without the mistakes introduced by human error. The numbers are in ordinary human-readable text, and the palette file works perfectly with the GNU Image Manipulation Program (aka GIMP – the free open-source counterpart of Photoshop).
Overcoming the proprietary mindset
Like any other business, Spoonflower has to operate in the real world – a world where the work flow of many fabric designers depends on expensive entrenched proprietary software that’s not necessarily shaped around their needs or budgets. For the sake of those customers Spoonflower has to publish its palettes in Adobe Swatch Exchange format. But Spoonflower could look beyond that particular subset of its customers. There’s a whole world of designers who don’t use Adobe palettes – and, I imagine, at least a sprinkling of software developers who’d like their programs to interface better with Spoonflower’s printing service.
So, Spoonflower, next time you take a really important step forward – like publishing a palette of 3,000+ colors – please do trumpet that accomplishment from the rooftops. And, if you don’t have the means to translate the palette out of its opaque proprietary format, please don’t be embarrassed to broadcast a call for help. Relax! Reach out! This is a golden age for software – for crowd-sourcing, networking, and creative collaboration. People love your company and want it to succeed. You don’t have to sit there for nine months all buttoned up with an Adobe-only palette and an image file on your site that’s blighted with hand-typed errors.
[The image below shows some of the colors in the Adobe Swatch Exchange palette, as viewed in the GNU Image Manipulation Program. There are no color errors because the color data was extracted from the Adobe file by software, rather than laboriously typed by hand.]