Is the font design business profitable for you guys?

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  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 673
    @Kris Sowersby. Thank you for sharing that.  And congratulations.  From what I can gleen (both from private conversations and public statements) your first year sales are way out performing the average among your peer foundries.  Do you have insight into why? 

    I'd be the first to admit that Darden Studio sucks at pounding the pavement pre-release. We tend to be behind schedule when we do release to retail so any requests for early access are just impossible to fulfil.  On more than one occasion we've had interest from large clients and we just couldn't meet the deadline.  Therefore, our first year sales tend to be pure retail and very little from relationships with agencies. But I doubt that's true for many other foundries.  
  • Alex VisiAlex Visi Posts: 173
    Do you have insight into why?
    Let me say this for Kris: how many foundries out there have that level of craft, style and promo materials?
  • John HudsonJohn Hudson Posts: 2,391
    Thanks for writing this, Kris. 
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 673
    edited May 28
    @Kris Sowersby. Thank you so much for all that detail!   I don't want to be glib either but I'm not sure any of that explains excellent first year sales of a new font. That explains successful fonts and it might explain being faster than some of us, but I'm not sure it explains beginning so much faster.  

    Perhaps you're being humble or perhaps you just can't see it.  I really don't know.

    Also, when I said peers I meant peers.  Foundries that produce equal quality fonts that get around the same amount of use as your fonts.  Foundries who's fonts probably make about the same as yours ultimately, just not as quickly.  And other foundries that focus on retail, not the ones that use retail as a dumping ground for failed custom projects.  It's a short list and I'm friends with most of them.  


  • Kris SowersbyKris Sowersby Posts: 15
    No, I’m not being deliberated humble or naive, I’m just trying to be as honest as possible. And I agree with you — I’m not sure it explains the sales either. I think we all know how unpredictable the font market can be. I’ve seen fonts released that I was certain would be winners, but remain relatively obscure. I’ve seen outliers become instantly popular. I’ve seen old digital fonts rise from the graven depths of MyFonts. I’m pretty certain that there’s not a single “font market”, but rather an overlapping variety of markets and customers. I don’t think I expected Mānuka to sell so strongly to start with, but on the other hand it’s not a complete surprise. Maybe this was its peak, and will sharply tail off? You’ll be able to track it next year when we make another 20% donation!

    In general I think you’re right about retail sales as whole — it takes a few years to get a clear picture of sales. It might sit there for a decade and slowly tail off. This is about what we see. Fonts have a long life, and enjoy surprising compatibility and software support (excepting VF which are a shambles). 

    I think we might have been using “peers” in a slightly different context. I was trying to separate out the two different groups and expectations of them, using my own experience to illustrate.

    In light of this discussion, a mate sent me this article about 1,000 true fans:


    It makes good points, especially about connecting directly with fans and taking the whole cut of the sale. I know we’re lucky to exist outside of the main font aggregators and resellers, really. They make bank on the “long tail” — all the niche stuff that maybe isn’t profitable for the creator in isolation. As usual, there’s always more money in owning the pipes rather than the stuff flowing through it. 

    For example, what would Omnes sales look like if every activation from Adobe Type was a direct sale? What about 50% of those activations? I know it’s an impossible scenario to accurately predict, but surely the hypothetical would be revealing?

    There’s lots of interesting ways to get engagement and market fonts these days. Intense microsites like Grilli, a font club like DJR, early acces/beta program like Dinamo, educator/influencers like Lineto/Optimo, beta/lab in-progress like Future Fonts, new licensing models like MassDriver/Lettermatic, rent-to-own like Fontstand, easy free test fonts like almost everyone (highly recommended btw). Compared to the general piracy paranoia and text-as-image foundry site of only 10 years ago… it’s like we’re living in a whole new era.
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 673
    edited May 29
    @Kris Sowersby it’s not impossible at all.  Omnes was released before typekit existed (it was, in fact, the first brand font for typekit).  That means it  predates adobe sync fonts. sales would be significantly lower than they are now.  our relationship with adobe has not in any way reduced our retail sales (which continue to grow year over year and often comes from direct website referrals from adobe) even as the money from adobe pours in. 

    I’m further pretty sure the reason Halyard has out performed my expectations is because it was available on adobe fonts and Helvetica isn’t. 

    We’re not with traditional resellers because they don’t respect licensing. That in no way reflects on distributors like adobe which grant us access to a new customer base while respecting our license. 
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 673
    edited May 29
    Regarding 1000 true fans, I honestly don't see how that relates to our business model.  I agree there's more than one font market, so I can't speak for other foundries.  Our customers are businesses, not people.  Almost none of our licensees use more than one of our fonts (though if you think of licensing as the product they probably have several kinds of licenses).  To the extent this idea works it relates to agencies who propose and advocate for our fonts, but it can never relate directly to sales since they are not the ones making the purchases.  

    Added:  To clarify, we do have a direct relationships with our most dedicated customers.  Adobe facilities direct relationships, actually.  Large clients want to self host fonts or embed fonts in their apps, neither of which Adobe permits and both of which requires a license they can only purchase through us.  Yes, we could choose to allow resellers to offer those licenses and some do.  Under the Darden Studio business model Adobe fonts serves both as a means for customers to find us and also as huge value-add for those customers.  Knowing our fonts are available through Abobe provides customers with peace of mind and greatly reduces friction with their agencies and suppliers.  
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,863
    edited May 30
    I’ve been making a decent living from fonts for 20 years, since e-commerce was introduced, in fact. 
    That was something I got into early, and the typefaces I designed then are the ones that keep selling (more so than recent work). With updates and expansions.
    I upgraded most of them to OpenType—that was interesting, adding features and extra language support—but making them Variable, I find that hard to get excited about, as I’ve moved on, designwise.
  • Jasper de WaardJasper de Waard Posts: 526
    At least one greenhorn type designer is paying close attention ;)
  • Alex VisiAlex Visi Posts: 173
    edited May 30
    So much general marketing advice like 1000 true fans doesn't aspply to typefaces. It's B2B—an agency buys your product becuase it's a tool that they need to do a job. They don't buy fonts becuase they're your special friend.
    You seem to assume that businesses are entirely logical and emotionless machines, which is the case in theory, but in real life companies are made of people making biased and emotional decisions.
    If you're starting a foundry that produces decent quality, familiar looking fonts with moderate promotion, I don't think you'll get far in 2022.
    An interesting fact is that customers couldn’t care less if there’s 1 or 10000000 Helvetica rip-offs. Luckily, their choice is not based on chronological order of the release. They buy the one that happens to be nearby when they need it. The “nearby” can very well mean “that cool foundry launched last month”.
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 673
    edited May 30
    @Kris Sowersby Agreed.  This conversation is for an audience of people who might not identify themselves. 

    Therefore, I think it's a mistake to over value "controlling the pipes." Just for starters, the overhead for a fully independent foundry is high.  Second, this is a much more competitive market than when our foundries started out.  I'm pretty sure that the Darden Studio overhead is equivalent to most reseller cuts, and managing it is time one isn't spending designing.  This seems to be a thing that no one talks about, or at least that no one factors in when they talk about resellers.

    Third, there are many very successful foundries that work with resellers.  It is always a mistake to assume that what works for your own foundry is going to work for others, or even be the best way for others to achieve success.

    Adobe aside (which is more of aquatic mammal in a sea of fish) Darden Studio is with no resellers.  This has nothing to do with the reseller cut and everything to do with licensing.  That's because the Darden Studio business model is very licensing driven, but for a foundry that isn't focusing on the license in the same way I actually think resellers make a lot of sense (assuming a healthy reseller market we don't currently have).  You can have 100%  of a smaller number of sales (and pay a fixed overhead that isn't scaling to your size) or you can be with various resellers who have access to different customer bases and take a cut.  In a healthy market that option made people like @Mark Simonson very successful.

    Regarding Adobe specifically, it's very insulting for you to suggest that I don't know my own business well enough to judge if they are good or bad for it.  You seem to be operating on a lot of incorrect assumptions, probably because you don't ask enough questions.  



  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,468
    One other thing: I was discouraged by my experience in the '90s to even try to pursue doing type design as a career. But when I began to meet people in the early 2000s who were actually doing well in the business, knowing it was possible made all the difference, and inspired me to persist.
  • Kris SowersbyKris Sowersby Posts: 15
    Therefore, I think it's a mistake to over value "controlling the pipes." Just for starters, the overhead for a fully independent foundry is high.  Second, this is a much more competitive market than when our foundries started out.  

    Perhaps it’s a mistake to over value, but it’s also a mistake to under value. I’m not sure the market is any more or less competitive that 20 years ago. There’s more foundries and font options, but on the other hand there are more opportunities and markets.

    I'm pretty sure that the Darden Studio overhead is equivalent to most reseller cuts, and managing it is time one isn't spending designing.  This seems to be a thing that no one talks about, or at least that no one factors in when they talk about resellers.

    I agree — the conversations around running a foundry as a business are few and far between. That would be a good idea for another thread!

    Third, there are many very successful foundries that work with resellers. It is always a mistake to assume that what works for your own foundry is going to work for others, or even be the best way for others to achieve success.

    Absolutely there is. I don’t assume our method is the only way, I’m simply being clear about our approach and reasons for taking that approach.

    That's because the Darden Studio business model is very licensing driven, but for a foundry that isn't focusing on the license in the same way I actually think resellers make a lot of sense (assuming a healthy reseller market we don't currently have).

    Interesting — what do you mean by “licensing driven”?

    Regarding Adobe specifically, it's very insulting for you to suggest that I don't know my own business well enough to judge if they are good or bad for it. You seem to be operating on a lot of incorrect assumptions, probably because you don't ask enough questions.

    I apologise sincerely. Suggesting you don’t know your own business is not at all what I mean!

    However, scrolling back up the thread a bit, you said:

    Don't want to be glib either but I'm not sure any of that explains excellent first year sales of a new font. That explains successful fonts and it might explain being faster than some of us, but I'm not sure it explains beginning so much faster. 

    Perhaps you're being humble or perhaps you just can't see it.  I really don't know.

    I suppose this could be read as equally insulting? You asked about the first year Mānuka sales, I answered as clearly and thoroughly as possible. You push back, insinuating there’s some other secret — and perhaps I don’t even know the reasons for our own sales. To be clear — I’m not insulted, but it’s a pretty weird response.

    FWIW, working with multiple retailers has worked well for me. I decided in the early 2000s to do this after getting burned having a single, exclusive distributor in the '90s. My thinking at the time was to have my fonts available wherever the customers were, rather than making customers come to me. Handling distribution myself was unattractive as it would have meant doing it myself (in addition to making fonts) or hiring someone else to do it. In effect, I hired third-party distributors to do it.

    Thanks for this, Mark! I’ve often wondered about your “everywhere at once” strategy, from my pov it seems to work well for you. It speaks to Joyce’s point about the admin unspoken costs of running a foundry. Am I right in thinking you’ve detailed this elsewhere?

    All the different approaches to selling fonts have tradeoffs, but it's very difficult to compare the tradeoffs, and on top of that, each of us is selling a unique product. I can't go back and see what would have happened if I'd gone it alone and not worked with third-party distributors with my particular library of fonts. With such a small industry, it's hard to do anything but compare n=1 anecdotes. Too many uncontrollable variables.

    Yes, agreed. I have toy with the idea of A/B testing a font release on Klim vs MyFonts. It would be the same font, but named and marketed differently for each platform. That doesn’t erase the variables, but would still be an interesting experiment.

    Going back to James Bridge’s comment:

    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.

    There’s lot of different people and players involved in making fonts. It ranges from people like James who are primarily designers and make the occasional font to foundries like Joyce/Mark/Ray with large catalogues built over decades. Resellers are likely crucial for the occasional designers who maintain full-time jobs elsewhere. Making the transition from occasional designer to fully profitable foundry is very hard, but possible. Because, as Mark says:

    One other thing: I was discouraged by my experience in the '90s to even try to pursue doing type design as a career. But when I began to meet people in the early 2000s who were actually doing well in the business, knowing it was possible made all the difference, and inspired me to persist.
     
    I was similarly discouraged before even starting. Senior designers told me early 2000s, “Why would you bother? There’s no money in type!” And I think this might be an unspoken assumption in the design industry — there’s no money in type. Well, there is. It’s just hard to make, there’s no shortcuts. Maybe getting into the game to make money isn’t the right approach. As wary as I am from the “follow your passion!” crowd, I think most of us got into type design out of sheer passion. Did anyone start a foundry primarily to make money? I certainly didn’t, and am still grateful of the position Klim is in.

    As a sidenote, MyFonts used to say how many fonts they’d sold. By April 2009:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20090416183510/http://www.myfonts.com/

    MyFonts has sold 5,327,488 fonts. If we assume maybe $10 per font… that’s a decent chunk of sales.
  • JoyceKettererJoyceKetterer Posts: 673
    @Kris Sowersby Regarding "licensing driven business model", I'm not sure how to explain what I mean without hijacking the thread.  I guess this is sorta about how I make the font design business profitable?  

    The Darden Studio license is unique in the industry.  It's designed to respond to the fact no one reads software licenses (because they generally don't need to) and so end users of fonts are going to make a lot of good faith mistakes.   The license itself is designed to facilitate what we call "retroactive sales" (I know, it sounds like a euphemism but I really mean it).  

    Our profits have a long tail because of the retroactive sales. So much of what we do is with that in mind.

    Therefore, we are supper crazy careful that the license is always enforceable.  For instance, we still don't sell web and app licenses on the website because if a developer gets a license in their own name we can't enforce it against the client (our new site will deal with this and allow it but for now they go through the office). This was also why I turned down the offer to join TypeNetwork.  Also, the reason we aren't with myfonts is that Monotype issues their own license (covering all the terms, including basic/desktop) when someone buys an "add-on" license. 

    The choice to allow Adobe distribution was not something we did casually or easily.  We were with Typekit early because we wanted to support new technology, but we were one of the last hold outs to add our fonts to sync. When we did, we made only what Adobe calls the RIBBI (Regular, Italic, Bold, Bold Italic) fonts of our top sellers available for a couple years.  When I finally added everything in it was only after several sleepless nights. 


    I was really scared it would cannibalize our sales, just like you imaged it must.  But other foundries had told me sync wasn't hurting their sales, Adobe was about to require all fonts be multi-platform, it seemed scarier to burn that bridge than to give it a try.  Like I said, the risk paid off.  Not only has it not hurt sales for our older fonts but I'm convinced Halyard's fast success is in large part due to it being with Adobe and Helvetica isn't (In cluding Helvetica Now, which was released after Halyard and copied the Halyard family structure priming end users to look for something "like" it).  

    The thing about Adobe is that our business model has always been closely linked to them.  For YEARS after we converted Omnes to otf the descenders were cut off in all MS applications.  We got fewer than four complaints because everyone was using them in Adobe applications anyway. 

    So, by making our fonts available directly through Adobe one of the big things that happens is there's less piracy. It used to be large company might only buy a small CPU basic license from us to test the fonts, then forget that's all they have and spread the fonts around to hundreds of staff and agencies.  Maybe we'd catch it if there was also unauthorised web embedding, but probably not.  Lots of those same companies have Adobe CC licenses.  When a staff member opens a file with our font Adobe searches its font offerings, sees it supports it, and seamlessly syncs it up.  The client is happy, and we get a royalty calculated monthly per user.  It's actually kinda wonderful.



  • María RamosMaría Ramos Posts: 96
    edited May 31
    Insight from a newcomer to the industry to provide a wider perspective. Five years since we started the type foundry adventure. We are not an average foundry and work quite differently from others. Besides type design, we do other things that allow us to keep connected to our local professional community while working with international clients. Our time was never fully invested in the type foundry work. Still, since last year I can make a living only from type design and have some profit to invest. This may change in the future, who knows. I started from scratch after expending all my savings on studying type design and living abroad, all worthed!

    There are so many aspects to consider in the simple question posted here... Type design has been profitable for me from the beginning. If we only speak about money it was hard to live from that the first 3 years, but those 3 years set a good base of connections, knowledge, experience...

    Custom type can be a game-changer for any professional in the type industry. This is a graph about the percentage of retail versus custom type for us. It is true though we only have one retail font in our library at the moment, we haven’t paid for advertising, and only selling on our website. Social media, awards, talking at conferences, teaching workshops, spreading the word, and expending enough time preparing visuals, films and press releases have worked for us so far. 


  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,402
    what does this chart measure?

  • María RamosMaría Ramos Posts: 96
    what does this chart measure?

    Income from retail versus custom sales.
  • Thomas PhinneyThomas Phinney Posts: 2,273
    I take it the yellow bar is retail sales and the white bar is custom work?
  • Alex VisiAlex Visi Posts: 173

    It took me a long time to disentangle my thinking from peers into customers. Type confs and forums like this can be very good for peer camaraderie, professional technical and practical advice. But maybe not for sales and marketing. Once I was obsessed with what my peers thought, their opinions on the fonts I was making, how and what I was writing. They’re the vocal majority on Twitter, making noise about new font releases. Now I don’t care, peers don’t pay the rent. I want my fonts to appeal to designers. I have trusted friends that are good designers and I talk to them, I show them work in progress. Their feedback is always valuable. Sometimes I see a new font release on Twitter getting only praise from peers… and I wonder if it’s the kiss of death. Marketing to peers ≠ marketing to designers.

    Can I ask whether your in-depth blog posts are intended for designers or peers? I always assumed they were written for type nerds, but now when you’re saying this I wonder if there’s a surprise hidden in how many people are interested in reading them?
  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 931
    I think Kris very astutely described the value of “type nerds” in his May 29 post. The people he describes are not necessarily peers (type designers), or even direct customers, but as designers and influencers they have a lot of impact on those who do buy. Of course, focusing on an audience like this isn’t the only way to have a successful font business, but I have seen the proof firsthand while working at FontShop and watching how folks engage with foundries on Typographica and Fonts In Use.
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