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A Retail Shop That Sells-Digital Typefaces?
by Stephanie Orma

Thus, they went on to a more practical mode: A smaller group of designers including Ibfelt were responsible for the actual design of the shop and making the products. Their main concern was that the store look like a brand and not like some students at a design school were doing it. If this meant buying an expensive neon sign, or the exact right counters and having them specially made, that’s what they would do. From black-and-white checkered floors, to oversized letter graphics on the wall, to big wooden letter blocks, the entire shop is typographically themed.

For the products, they decided to focus on accessories they wished they had in their own design office such as coffee mugs for their meetings, laptop covers for their computers, and high-quality bags for business trips. In addition, the store boasts an array of typographic posters, notebooks and even wine bottles—all beautifully and boldly designed with letters from the Playtype collection.

Playtype storefront, interior and products.

But how to package the actual typefaces in a tangible manner was a whole separate challenge. After much research, they decided to load the digital fonts on USBs that resemble little credit cards to give them an ultra-tactile feel.

On December 1, 2010, Playtype opened its doors. For the first month, everybody in the design agency had a shift behind the counter. Ibfelt adds, “It was funny standing in the shop—we’ve all experienced entering a store and buying a product—and suddenly we’re on the other side, just excited to sell a coffee mug.”

The reaction and support from the design community has been huge. “All the graphic designers just love it. It’s a celebration for the line of work they do,” Ibfelt explains. However, those outside the profession don’t always grasp the concept right away. “You know it is a strange concept,” Ibfelt muses. “But I also think that’s what draws people in. They stop and look, then come inside and ask, ‘What is this?’ And then we tell them all about it.”

Recently, they had a professor from the local university in the shop wanting to buy a typeface. “He knew nothing about typefaces and suddenly there was a typeface shop on street level and he could ask all his questions, which he never had the opportunity to do before. So we’re also educating people about typography, which wasn’t part of the plan—but that’s really exciting.”

One of the most unexpected surprises is that folks have even started buying typefaces as gifts. “It’s really funny!” Ibfelt exclaims. “They stand there for half an hour finding just the right typeface for their boyfriend or girlfriend; it’s a very different present than you would normally buy,” he says with a laugh.

Ibfelt admits starting a retail shop has certainly been a learn-by-doing process for the whole team and a totally different game from running a design consultancy. “We just have to throw ourselves out there, take the beating and make those mistakes. It would have been much easier to just do the Web site. It’s stupid. It’s a stupid idea! It makes no sense at all. It’s just throwing money into the shop, which could have been used for bonuses, advertising or whatever.” Then he adds, “It sure is fun.”

It’s also been a brilliant way for the design agency to position itself on the edge of creative innovation, not to mention garner attention from creatives around the world. They’ve even gained new clients in the process. Ibfelt says, “We bring all our clients and potential clients to the shop and they all love this creative idea. And then they buy a project from us because they see what we're capable of creating.”

Although the shop was originally intended to be open for one year only, there’s a big chance Playtype will extend its stay. And I for one seriously hope the doors remain open for a long time. I mean, where else in the world—other than on Wheel of Fortune—will you ever literally have the chance to say, “I’d like to buy a vowel!” CA Orma
Stephanie Orma ( is a San Francisco–based writer, illustrator and cartoonist. When she’s not writing copy for top creative firms or penning articles for publications like HOW, Entrepreneur and Travel + Leisure, she’s creating humorous editorial illustrations for her greeting card and art line.