By John Gruber
Dean Cameron Allen, a 50-ish writer, designer, web-guy, and an all-around rascal, died this weekend in London, U.K. He leaves behind his parents, a former girlfriend and a lot of friends. If the universe feels a little hollow this week, now you know why.
Jason Hoffman, founder of Joyent and a close friend, called out of the blue. He has just moved back from Stockholm, back to the Bay Area after a stint at Ericsson. “Dean is no more,” Jason said. He was fighting to hold back his tears, his voice shaking. I think I heard Jason say that Dean took his own life, giving up on the struggle.
Dean was a magnificent bastard. His death is a real gut punch. I heard about it two days ago, and still can’t believe it. Om’s obituary is simply splendid, capturing the man I knew.
Textism was such an achingly-good thing — an utterly personal website of exquisite writing and beautiful design. Unlike most who came from the print world — and Dean was a mightily talented print designer — Dean loved and truly got the web. He knew it wasn’t an ersatz throwaway stand-in for people too cheap to pay for the print edition of a magazine or newspaper. He knew the web was a wonderful new medium of its own, a glorious playground ripe for anything. Textism was well-paced.
Dean strove for perfection and often achieved it.
Textism started in 2001, a little over a year before I started Daring Fireball. To say that Textism was an influence on Daring Fireball is an understatement for the ages. Fairer to say Textism was the influence on Daring Fireball. I don’t know what DF would’ve wound up looking and reading like if not for Dean Allen, but it wouldn’t look or read like it did and does. For godsake just read his old About page. It’s so good, and so Dean.
On the indie web of the early 2000s, Dean Allen was the man. There’s just no other way to put it. He did it better than anyone, week after week, post after post. And then he just walked away from it. For a while, the long-dormant home page of Textism.com was replaced by a single word: “Retooling.” The thought that Textism might someday spring back to life made me downright giddy.
The closest I ever came to telling Dean what an influence Textism was on Daring Fireball was the following, in an email in 2002, after I wrote to him to thank him for a post on Textism — announcing the release of Textile — that described yours truly as “witheringly talented”:
Textism has been an inordinate influence on me; there is nothing else quite like it, but I wish there were.
Daring Fireball was only months old when I wrote that. We were frequent email correspondents in those days. He was, as you would expect considering his sublime entry titles at Textism, a master of the clever Subject: line. I helped him with the quote-educating algorithms in Textile. He helped me form the basis of Markdown. (I was badgering Dean with a series of “Why don’t you change the syntax of Textile to be more like this and this?” requests. Dean’s response was, more or less, “These are great ideas, but why don’t you just put them in your own thing?”)
A year later, Dean wrote me this:
Date: Fri, 14 Nov 2003 19:38:16 +0100
From: Dean Allen
Subject: Empty Coffee Pot
I really really liked the OSX screen reading essay.
Good job on the Waffle interview: you’re really establishing a Voice. Something most writers can only dream of.
I plan to start corresponding with people again once I get over the guilt of not having corresponded with people while I went through the Samsa-like transformation from someone who got away with pretending the rest of the internet didn’t exist into someone who did not.
(The “OSX screen reading essay” was this 2,900-word exegesis on the improvements to text rendering in Mac OS X 10.3. The “Waffle interview” was this.)
Dean Allen telling me I was “establishing a Voice” is the only compliment about my work that I’ve ever remembered. That’s when I knew that maybe I was actually hitting the notes I was trying to hit.
We lost contact in the years of his self-imposed internet exile. Our last email exchange was over seven years ago. Every few months, though, it would occur to me that I dearly missed Textism, and I’d think to write Dean and tell him so — and to tell him that his offhand compliment in 2003 was still something I thought about all the time. Thinking maybe he’d be pleased to hear that, and perhaps he needed to hear it. I never did.
I wish I had.