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by Angelynn Grant

With over 55,000 fonts, has become one of the “long tail” success stories made possible by the Internet and changed the way fonts are sold. The term “long tail,” which describes sites like Amazon and Netflix, was first coined in a 2004 Wired article and refers to the business model of selling a vast num­ber of products that indi­­vidu­ally may sell only in small quanti­ties. At, although stalwarts like Helvetica still appear on the bestseller list, most other fonts, even if they first experi­­ence a quick burst of popu­larity, sell in far smaller quan­ti­ties over time. is an open mar­ketplace that has allowed many struggling type design­­ers to quit their day jobs. Replete with colorful icons, witty prose, useful and customizable features and entertaining news­letters, this site is like a candy counter: Buying type is a fun, visually delicious experience with guaranteed immedi­ate satisfaction.

Launched in January 1999, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bitstream, the first independent digital font foundry and a leader in browsing, font and publishing tech­nologies. Back in the mid-nineties, when people started buy­ing digitized fonts for their desktop computers, most online font stores, especially the big ones, were as inviting and aesthetically pleasing as a driver support page at Microsoft. was, from the beginning, founded on a com­pletely different rationale: Make it easy for customers to find the fonts they need. “Charles Ying, who has served as chair­man of the board of Bitstream since 1997, was the driving force behind the creation of,” says John Collins, vice president and chief technology officer for Bitstream who heads the crack team of designers, writers and code jockeys behind the site. “He pointed out how difficult it was for ordi­nary people to find a font. At that time, most font sites simply presented you with a ‘Click on the initial letter of the font name’—not very useful for newbies. The idea was to create a font site ‘for the rest of us.’ With hundreds of millions of computers in the world, each representing a possible font user, actively sought out the casual user.”

Success, however, isn’t just the result of easygoing text and cheery icons. The crew, spread from Cambridge to Germany to Japan and con­nected through iChat, is always thinking up new user tools. The most impressive has to be their WhatTheFont automatic font identifier, a unique and patented online application that allows anyone to find a font based on an uploaded scan—or at least find the closest matches from the extensive database—all in a fraction of a second. On the rare occasion that it’s one of the few fonts not available through, there will be a link pointing to where you can buy it. And, if these results still aren’t enough, there’s the WTF Forum (yes, they do use that acronym!) where, as the site cleverly puts it, “Cloak-draped font enthusiasts around the world will help you out!”

Another patented feature is More Fonts Like This, which also brings up a list of similar-looking fonts. Rather than using a structure-based algorithm like WhatTheFont, More Fonts Like This uses keywords that are assigned by both foundries and customers, in much the same way users at Flickr tag photos or those at links. is always working on new font-finding schemes, new ways to get customers shout­ing, “Ah! That’s what I’m looking for!” Collins adds, “MyFonts simply has the largest collection of fonts online. So if you need a particular font, the chances are you will find it at And if you just want to explore, the chances are that you won’t miss the font juste.”

And there are other ways pampers cus­to­mers. Since a record of all orders is kept on their servers, if a customer’s hard drive crashes, all previously pur­chased fonts can be reloaded painlessly and at no charge. Customers can view their font purchases at any time and create customiz­able, color-coded albums, a handy method for sorting fonts by client or project. Grant
Angelynn Grant is a Boston-based graphic designer, writer and educator. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, the Art Institute of Boston, Simmons College and MIT. You can e-mail her at In addition, Grant is the host of a jazz program on MIT radio, WMBR.