Columns / Typography

Cold Cash for Hot Fonts

The Business of Designing Type

Allan Haley
First things first: No one gets rich designing typefaces. In fact, until recently, designing typefaces was a pretty good way to lose money. However, both technology and the democratization of typography have made typeface design a fairly decent way to earn a buck.

THREE POTENTIAL STREAMSThere are three ways to make money designing type:

•    Revenue from retail font sales

•    Royalties from Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) licenses

•    Payment for custom typeface design projects

Retail font sales revenue can come either in the form of royalty payments from font foundries such as Font Bureau or Linotype, from font resellers such as or or—if you choose to market and distribute the fonts yourself—from direct sales to graphic designers and other font consumers.

OEM business licensing can also be a source of revenue. In this arrangement, software or hardware developers license your typefaces to be bundled with their products. Although this model was limited mainly to operating system and software application developers and printer manufacturers until a few years ago, there are now hundreds, maybe thousands, of opportunities for OEM font bundling. Cell phones, PDAs, heads-up displays in automobiles, digital cameras, games-any place textual information is displayed-now provide opportunities for font licensing.

Kunstryxed and Felbridge typefaces were designed specifically for mobile device user interfaces.

Finally, designing fonts as part of a custom typeface design project can yield a one-time payment. More and more companies are commissioning custom typefaces for their exclusive use. In fact, demand for custom typefaces is so high that many independent typeface designers are doing more custom work than on spec designs for retail sales.

LET'S TALK MONEYLet's jump to the bottom line: What can you expect from your talent and hard work as a designer of typefaces?

Prices for retail fonts range from free to more than $80 per font. The average price is about $30. If you sell directly to end-users (graphic designers and others who use the font for their own purposes), you keep all the money. If the font is distributed through a foundry or online font reseller, you keep between 10 percent and 70 percent of the selling price. Granted, this is a wide range, but there are a number of variables when a font is sold through a foundry or reseller. First, fonts can be sold on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis. Non-exclusive deals are usually with font resellers and online distributors such as or that can also distribute your fonts. Font resellers generally allow the font provider to set the price of the font and to keep a percentage (from 30 to 50 percent) of that price for their distribution services. A few distributors also sublicense fonts to other font sales outlets. In these instances, the original font provider receives a percentage of the revenue that the distributor makes. So, for example, if the distributor sells the font directly to end-users for $25 and pays a 50 percent royalty, you make $12.50. If, however, the distributor sublicenses the font and allows the sub-licensor to keep 50 percent of the sale price, you would make only $6.25.

An exclusive arrangement usually means that a foundry, such as Monotype, FontFont or Font Bureau, has licensed the type-face. In some cases, this implies that the foundry controls all sales of the font. In others, it means the foundry has exclusive distribution rights, but you may still sell directly to end-users. Generally, the royalty for exclusive arrangements (from 20 to 50 percent) is lower than non-exclusives because the foundry makes a large investment in the development, release and ongoing marketing of the font. Although rare in the current economy, exclusive typefaces may also earn advances against royalties. Advances, when they are available, usually range from $500 to $2,500 per alphabet. In some cases, however, advances against royalties can reduce the amount of royalty provided. For example, a foundry may offer a 25 percent royalty for an exclusive design with no advance, and a 15 percent or 20 percent royalty for typefaces that have been paid an advance against royalties. As recently as four or five years ago, foundries also offered one-time production fees in addition to royalty payments. Unfortunately, these niceties have gone the way of VCRs and film cameras.

Custom typeface design projects are the big-ticket items. Depending on the client, the number of typefaces designed and the required character set, fees can range from a couple thousand dollars up to six figures. Custom typeface design projects are much like any other design gig and vary greatly in scope. Big companies can pay more than small ones. Luminary designers claim larger fees than the general population. Some projects only require the basic alphabet in one weight. Others may call for a complete family suite with a bevy of alternate characters to support many languages.

DESIGN AND INSPIRATION: PROBLEM/SOLUTIONNow that the value proposition has been covered, let’s look at the product. Where do the ideas for typeface designs come from? Most successful typeface designers will tell you that the process of typeface design usually involves solving a specific problem. Whether it is designing a new text face that is space economical, creating a script typeface that mimics 1950s showcard lettering or combining the best attributes of two existing typefaces to satisfy the wishes of a corporate art director, virtually every successful typeface is the result of an imposed design problem.

Egyptian Slate was developed as a new slab serif typeface to complement the Slate design. Opal was drawn to have an Eastern European flavor and to test the concept of a harmonizing script as part of a serif typeface family. JP2 was designed to replicate the handwriting of Pope John Paul II.

Inspiration for new typefaces can be found in many places. Pick up current design annuals and see what kinds of typefaces are used in the featured pieces. Look to packaging, hand-lettering and old type specimen books for ideas. If you are a graphic designer, think about what typefaces would be of interest to you. Look for gaps in the typographic spectrum-then add the missing piece with your design.

GOLDEN RULE OF TYPEFACE DESIGNIf there is a golden rule for developing a financially successful typeface, it is this: Create a design that is both distinctive and versatile. The idea is to develop a typeface that is readily perceived as something new-and yet can also be used in a variety of projects. Actually, this isn't as easy a proposition as it may seem. Drawing a distinctive typeface is only half the challenge; what follows is that the more distinctive it is, the less versatile it tends to be. Standing out in a crowd, by itself, is not good enough to ensure font sales. The typeface also needs to be a design that will be workable in a wide variety of projects.

Technical toolsThere are two standard tools for creating fonts: Fontographer and FontLab Studio. Like any sophisticated design tool, they are relatively expensive (about $400 and $700 respectively) and take some experience to use well. FontLab Studio is the more powerful of the two, allowing for drawing glyphs, kerning, hinting in PostScript and TrueType and the creation of OpenType fonts. Fontographer is adequate for most font development needs of a design studio, but it is not an all-singing, all-dancing production tool.

Quench creates the impression of a square sans serif design, yet it is neither fully square nor truly a sans serif. ITC Nova Lineta also appears to be a sans serif design, yet it is neither fully square nor truly a sans serif. Giacometti Letter has the elongated look of the painting and sculpture of Alberto Giacometti.

THE CAST OF CHARACTERSMaking a font requires more than drawing the caps, lowercase, punctuation and a set of numbers. For most fonts, the minimum number of required characters is about 280. The standard expectation is that a font should contain the Adobe Western 2 character set. Fonts with an Adobe Western 2 character set support most western languages.

Think of the characters in the Adobe Western 2 character set as a minimum requirement. Whether it's ligatures and old style numbers for a text typeface or swash and alternate characters for a display design, almost every typeface can benefit from an enlarged character set. These additional characters will make the typeface more versatile, and more appealing to type users.

PRODUCTION DETAILSThe typeface should also be available in both Macintosh and PC (Windows) font formats. The best way to accomplish this is to produce the designs as OpenType fonts. OpenType fonts can either be TrueType (TTF) based or PostScript (CFF) based. Graphic designers prefer the latter, but embedding in many Windows applications requires the former. Sales of most OpenType fonts are the PostScript-based format.

If the font will be sold directly to end-users or licensed to a font reseller for non-exclusive distribution, you will need to deliver it as a product that is immediately ready for resale. Be sure to do quality assurance checks on all the technical aspects of the fonts you create. Fonts that won’t print or that crash an application will quickly be pulled from a hard drive, and they will certainly make customers think twice about purchasing your products again. Whether they are licensed to a font vendor or you sell them direct, fonts have to be industrial strength.

With exclusive license arrangements, the licensing font foundry will often help create the character set and may even produce the final font files. If the typeface is being added to an exclusive typeface library, the owners of that library will be adhering to design and technical standards. In some cases, they prefer to create the many international language characters for their fonts to maintain a consistent product offering. Some also would rather accept Fontographer or FontLab files instead of finished PostScript, TrueType or OpenType fonts.

PROMOTION, PROMOTION, PROMOTIONSo now your typeface is finished, and it’s distinctive, versatile and drop-dead beautiful. The fonts have been made, and they’re industrial strength. Now you just need to upload the fonts to a Web site and wait for the cash to roll in. Right? Wrong.

Alas, your font will keep company with more than a quarter million other fonts on Web sites waiting for the same cash to roll in. Graphic designers may eagerly await the newest typeface from Matthew Carter, David Berlow and Jonathan Hoefler, but everyone else will need to work pretty hard to get their fonts noticed.

Promotion is key to typeface success.

Whether you sell them from your own Web site or distribute them through a reseller, you will need to promote your fonts. A reseller will announce the availability of your fonts—and may even create release graphics showcasing the designs—but if you want more extensive and ongoing promotion, you will need to do that yourself. If you are selling the fonts from your own site, start by creating showcase images of your typefaces in use. Graphic communicators buy fonts to solve design problems. Show them how your typefaces perform in real-world situations, or tickle their imagination with examples of how you think the fonts could be used. Although A to Z alphabet showings are handy tools that let designers see what individual characters look like, keep in mind that designers are not purchasing a bunch of individual letters; they are buying headlines, subheads, text copy, title pages, captions, invitations and the like, and they want to know how typefaces will perform in these settings.

Downloadable PDF specimen showings of your typefaces are also a good idea. These can provide background information on the designs, offer complete font character showings and even show examples of the type-faces in use.

Next, create meta or keyword tags for each of your fonts. Meta tags are HTML codes that are inserted into the header on a Web page after the title tag. These tags are used to give Web browsers and search engine spiders directions to a Web page. So, for example, if your typeface has military overtones or is a particularly masculine design, then add these keywords as meta tags to the page that displays the font. You can also put the keywords in any background or promotional copy you write about the typefaces. Then, if someone is searching for a typeface that has a military or masculine connotation, the tags will help provide direction to the page that displays your font.

If you are distributing your fonts through a third-party reseller, find out how you can help them promote your fonts. Some use small, square font badges or stamps to display fonts on their homepage. Background information about the individual designs is always welcome. Just remember that you are writing for the Web, so keep the copy brief. You may be able to provide meta tags or keywords for your fonts. If you have your own Web page, but don’t directly sell your fonts there, be sure to include links to the distributors of your fonts.

KEEP 'EM COMINGFinally, continue to create new fonts. One design, unless it is the next Helvetica, will not create much revenue. New designs will keep visitors coming back to your site. Just about every font distributor has a “What's New” section on their site—and these tend to be the most frequently visited pages. A continual flow of new designs will help ensure that your fonts will be highlighted.
 IT TAKES TALENTIn the words of the British type designer Dave Farey, “There are two abilities required to become a typeface designer. The first is application, or stamina. It's slow, grinding work to solve the incidentals and foreign sorts for a type font. The other is talent. There are, perhaps, many talented designers who do not have the stamina, and many mediocre designers who turn out fonts with 400 characters in 144 different weights and versions-that are still boring alphabets.”

The guidelines above are about application. The talent is up to you. ca

Allan Haley is a storyteller and a consultant with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He held the position of director of words and letters at Monotype for fifteen years and has six books and hundreds of articles to his credit. He is a past president of the Type Directors Club and was executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation. 


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