Is the font design business profitable for you guys?

James BridgesJames Bridges Posts: 38
edited May 7 in Type Business
Is the font design business profitable for you guys? I have converted a few of the typefaces I have designed for movie, book and game titles that I created in the last 30 years with font designer partners. Most are big, bold display fonts based on logos or titles that I created. We are not selling very many fonts. Maybe our work sucks. Maybe there are way too many fonts already out there.

Comments

  • Dave CrosslandDave Crossland Posts: 1,166
    Where can we see your work?
  • No - at least, not if I were to place a realistic value my time. I run a part-time, one-man foundry and started making fonts in the 1990s, offering them for sale from 2005. Some of my output has been mediocre but I know that some of it stands comparison with the best. I derive a modest but unfortunately dwindling income from sales. Rightly or wrongly I put this down to market saturation and my own lack of marketing effort.

    A few miles from me in London is a highly successful font business that boasts a team of forty: type designers, font developers, creative directors, software engineers and support staff. They don't mention their marketing team - modesty clearly prevents this. Their answer to the question would probably be 'Yes, the font design business is profitable'.

    I draw this conclusion: simply offering fonts for sale is not enough to generate sales, let alone profit. For a font business to be profitable a foundry needs to indulge in energetic brand building and promotion to achieve exposure. I suspect that successful foundries like the aforementioned, in common with a variety of modern companies, commit increasingly significant resources to promotion. The success of a product is not necessarily an indicator of quality, nor is pricing a deal-breaker.

    For me, lack of profit is a disappointment but font design is more obsessive compulsion than profitable business. I can live with that.
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 658
    edited May 7
    Speaking for myself, finding success as a foundry is catching lighting in a bottle. It is possible to be successful without being like the foundry (I assume Dalton Maag) @Nicholas Garner describes.  I run a small foundry with a small library and we're notoriously terrible at "energetic brand building and promotion".  We just quietly have really good fonts, a really good license, were on the ground floor with Typekit, and we are able to punch above our weight. 

    Objectively we are successful.  But I am very aware that we got lucky.  It might be timing.  It might be Josh's personal charisma that gave us a boost 17 years ago when he started the company, I honestly don't know.  
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 658
    PS - I'm sorry if that came off as a humble brag or false modesty.  
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,241
    A lot depends on what you mean by “the font design business” for the rest of us.

    There is:
    1. designing typefaces solo or creating your own team, whether for the retail market or eventually/also commissions (but of course, getting those just starting out is very hard)
    2. working for a foundry owned by somebody else. This may be less original design and more production or related work.
    3. working for a related entity, which might be type design or more design-adjacent. Even more likely to involve a range of work.
    Some situations are in-between or a mix. My current main gig is… mostly in the third category, with a bit of the second, I think? Currently my main gig for Google has been, taking a regular weight of icons designed by somebody else, figure out what it would mean to vary the weight, grade, optical size (that already partly defined), and do an animated fill axis (fill variants were previously defined, but not any more) then do those  for 2000+ icons. With a few more issues and surrounding work, but that is most of it. With one to two people working for/with me.

    Is that type design? Qualified yes? Before that there were three of us doing a 4-axis variable font, which had a regular weight based on Bank Gothic. That was definitely type design. A commissioned font gig for Google. Still have some finishing touches to do on that one so it can ship.

    Then I am doing a bunch of forensic font gigs as well.

    Going solo and not being a company employee has been great for me financially, after the first few months—and continues to improve so far.
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 658
    @Thomas Phinney, to split hairs a bit... I think it's easier to get custom work than it is to produce a retail font that earns the same amount in a year that you could make from the custom project.  Admittedly, I'm choosing between a very hard thing and an extremely hard thing.  

    However, once you do the extremely hard thing that retail font will probably radically out perform the earnings of the custom project.  This is why some of us choose to focus on retail.  It's also why so many can't or don't, the shorter term guarantee of income is very seductive.   
  • A lot depends on what you mean by “the font design business” for the rest of us.

    In terms of the original question I would think that only the entities that sell fonts or font services, whether individuals or companies, would qualify in terms of standing to make a profit as such, these being the copyright holders or publishers, that is to say the product owners or the service providers. While many people may derive income from the font business, income is not the same as profit. It would be like asking a salaried shop assistant whether the retail business is profitable.

    Furthermore, in order to establish profit you need to establish costs and I don't suppose the thousands of individual font makers have anything but the vaguest idea. Undocumented days or even months can slip by when a font demands attention. It's unlikely that many font makers can identify the point at which their costs are covered and profit kicks in. The idea, of course, is that sales will continue long after development effort is a distant memory. I wish.

    More hair splitting I know, but the distinction is relevant.

  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,241
    A lot depends on what you mean by “the font design business” for the rest of us.

    In terms of the original question I would think that only the entities that sell fonts or font services, whether individuals or companies, would qualify in terms of standing to make a profit as such, these being the copyright holders or publishers, that is to say the product owners or the service providers. While many people may derive income from the font business, income is not the same as profit. It would be like asking a salaried shop assistant whether the retail business is profitable.


    “It would be like asking a salaried shop assistant whether the retail business is profitable.”

    You probably don’t mean to be offensive or insulting here. And yes, of course the profitability of a business is a separate matter from the personal profit/loss of its employees.

    - if the ultimate owner of the work is a company that is not really in the font design business, does that mean the work doesn’t even count? And the hundreds of people who have been commissioned to make open source typefaces?
    - There are a ton of other contractors and folks working on a project basis on fonts. Many of us are doing font design. And in many cases we choose to do it this way precisely because it makes more money (and/or more reliable money).
    - For individuals, “making a profit” is a totally separate issue from owning the material you have made. Being commissioned to make a typeface that is then either owned by another entity or is open source does not mean somebody is not in “the font design business.”
    -  the “salaried shop assistant” analogy is misleading. Just because someone does not own the fruits of their labors does not make them a low-level employee whose work requires no special skills. And a significant portion of the people doing this make a better living than a “salaried shop assistant.”

  • Thomas Phinney said:
    You probably don’t mean to be offensive or insulting here.
    No comment. And the idea that salaried shop assistants do "not own the fruits of their labors does not make them a low-level employee whose work requires no special skills" comes from you, not me. I would never suggest anything of the kind.

    Thomas, you have successfully expanded this thread with a number of interesting observations. You make the point that there are many ways of being involved in and making money in the type design business which is undeniably true. I do not suggest that your comments are off topic - they usefully expand the issue.

    My own intention was to ensure that the spirit of the original question was not lost. James Bridges has a range of fonts for sale, is experiencing poor sales and wonders if anyone can offer any general observations as to why. I don't suppose they can, but any comments on the state of the font design business from the point of view of those trying to sell their own fonts would presumably be welcome. He couches his question in terms of profitability which is why I started picking at it.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,241
    You have placed my quote in a quite different context than I intended, making it seem nonsensical. Perhaps I was unclear. The quoted phrase was referring to the analogy you were making, and was about the difference between salaried shop assistants and type designers who do not own the fruits of their labors.

    Aside from that, I do not want to push this thread further into this alternative discussion.
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 658
    edited May 9
    @Nicholas Garner. I feel like I've sorta come sideways at @James Bridges question.  To be more explicate, probably the reason his fonts aren't earning what he'd like is one of three things:

    1.  Quality (as he mentioned, but i've not seen his stuff so I don't know)
    2.  Heavy Display.  (These fonts can do well on volume but each one will only be used in a limited way by a few customers.  sometimes you hit the jackpot with a big client, usually not)
    3.  Fashion. (All things being equal, some things still make no money because they aren't cool right now.)


    Some other possible reasons:
    a) these fonts were all made for specific clients and converted.  maybe they don't have broad enough appeal, or maybe they need more technical refinement for the retail market
    b) it's only a few fonts, maybe the only way this sort of catalogue can do well is if there was more
    c) we don't know where the font licenses are being sold but it could be they aren't in the right spot for them. Fonts are like jewelry stores, they do better when they cluster together with similar stuff.  

    Additionally I can say that lots of people do make a good living from fonts.  But also lots don't.  Some of it is luck.  Some of it is that you really do need to specialize it in. Also, retail releases need research so you know what is missing in the market and what you can contribute that will be original.




  • FontfruitsFontfruits Posts: 35
    Is the font design business profitable for you guys? I have converted a few of the typefaces I have designed for movie, book and game titles that I created in the last 30 years with font designer partners. Most are big, bold display fonts based on logos or titles that I created. We are not selling very many fonts. Maybe our work sucks. Maybe there are way too many fonts already out there.
    There is definitely a bit of 'font saturation' happening out there nowadays....I think it's just getting harder and harder for buyers to sift through everything to find the 'good stuff'. The best thing to do ( I think)  is to just keep trying to get as many eyes on your typefaces as possible, like social media, and paid advertising ( although I don't do the latter personally - not yet anyway).
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 658
    @Fontfruits, I think the best thing is to be on Adobe fonts which, i know, isn't available to everyone.  For now Adobe has the only curated collection of reliably "good stuff".  It's even possible that Adobe is functioning as a catalogue to people who don't have subscriptions, since they can browse the library.  This can and should change but until someone else comes in with a large curated library there's no other way.  Our top referrals are from Adobe, Typewolf and Fontsinuse.  You can tell from that list that users are trying to browse lists of fonts that they can rely on to point them to quality.
  • I'm doing pretty well as a one-man foundry, but not well enough to quit my day job. And having been at this for almost 30 years now, I've seen a bunch of ups and downs. 
  • James BridgesJames Bridges Posts: 38
    Thanks Oliver! Me and my partner are not ready to post font samples and ask for critiques at this point but maybe down the road. I was mainly interested if you guys can make a full-time living doing this. I'm a graphic designer not really a font designer.
  • KP MawhoodKP Mawhood Posts: 260
    @James Bridges

    From what I understand, it's a difficult time to get started. If you have an existing library of high exposure typefaces (movie, book, game titles) this may help to set you apart.

    You mentioned you are not selling very many fonts:

    1. What is your existing business model for selling fonts?
    2. Which business models are you exploring / most interested by?
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