How do you make a living as an independent type designer?

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Kasper Pyndt
Kasper Pyndt Posts: 32
edited June 27 in Type Business
Hello fellow type designers,

The headline says it all. Type design practices come in many shapes and sizes; Some of the designers I've talked to are working almost solely on custom type while others earn their $ from retail sales, lettering and other things. 

I'm writing this thread as I'm still relatively new in the industry and I'm curious to learn how you – or the ones of you with more experience than myself – found your path in type design, making a steady income doing something that you're passionate about. 

I haven't yet found the solution (if such a thing even exists), but have managed to get by since starting my company in 2018 working independently primarily as a type designer (80% type and 20% graphic design). I've found that branching out has been necessary for me, since I haven't yet been able to earn enough from just custom type and retail license sales. So I've been doing a bit of teaching and freelancing for agencies and foundries in addition to selling retail licenses and the occasional custom typeface.

Happy to receive any insights on this fairly lofty topic. How'd you go about running a type design practice anno 2024? :) 

Kasper

Comments

  • Craig Eliason
    Craig Eliason Posts: 1,417
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    This thread from last year had some insights.
    (Not intending to cut off any new ones!) 
  • Vasil Stanev
    Vasil Stanev Posts: 775
    edited June 20
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    I think two things:
    - the most successful mass products are the ones that tap into people's narcissism. Whatever helps people to show off to the world how fantastic they and what they care about is - offspring, hobbies, shape of the body, substances that go into their mouths - this thing is golden. Find a way/app to marry that to type design.
    - the current global economy is structured in such a way that every ten years or so there is a bust. During greedy bull markets, i.e. growing of the bubble, things are going great, people get engaged, have kids, take out loans, spend. Then the bubble bursts due to some crisis, man-made or not. I can recall three major bust in just a quarter of a century - the Covid19 lockdown, before that the crisis of 2008, and before that the dotcom crash. Other forumites can no doubt recall more. No use cursing the system. Better be prepared for what is bound to happen around 2030, 2040, 20...
  • Typedesigner
    Typedesigner Posts: 41
    edited June 24
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    A successful type design business also includes the right choice of company name and domain name. Many type designers have to think about the right name and the right domain for the foundry. They are often registered too long, too complicated or require too much explanation. KISS is a universal recommendation for the name of a foundry and can also be applied to domains. It stands for "keep it short and simple". A foundry and the resulting domain should be memorable. Keywords that make sense are generally more memorable. Ideally, you can name the domain of a foundry without explaining it and the customer will still remember it a month later. This is the case with typedesign.org or typography.net, but not with johndoegreatfoundry.com.

    The question of whether a fantasy name is better than a generic term cannot be decided at this point. However, if there is no marketing budget available, an invented name is worse. 
    Another aspect is that almost all coveted generic domain names are already registered.
  • Dave Crossland
    Dave Crossland Posts: 1,415
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    @Typedesigner I'm not sure an 'invented' name is bad... What does "klim" mean? Purple cow?

    Kasper, a few other suggestions for further reading :)

    * Nick Shinn (of Shinn Type, near Toronto Canada) just posted an excellent "Money for Fonts: How I made a career designing typefaces" PDF that he shared over in the  https://typedrawers.com/discussion/comment/66407/#Comment_66407

    * Joana Correa (of Nova Type Foundry, in Porto Portugal) made a very nice presentation about her experience undertaking an MBA to advance her foundry business at Typographics 2024 TypeLab. I think the video is online although I don't have it handy.

    * On the topic of "mastery" generally, a very nice short book on this I've enjoyed is Mastery by George Leonard.
  • Typedesigner
    Typedesigner Posts: 41
    edited June 25
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    @Dave Crossland Most customers searching for fonts or type design enter these keywords into Google. That's why it's optimal to have generic domains like typedesign.org.

    For example, fonts.com is short and concise, it is a descriptive term, domain is not prone to typos, domain has a high internet affinity and is perfect for commercial use. This is why Monotype marketed its fonts through fonts.com for decades.

    It is not easy to make a 'invented' name known and optimised for SEO. This requires a large advertising and marketing budget, which most foundries hardly have at their disposal. An 'invented' name is therefore more appropriate for medium sized companies or large corporations. 

    In addition, generic domains such as typography.comtypography.netfonts.comtypedesign.org, etc. are so-called intellectual property that have a certain market value.
     
  • Dave Crossland
    Dave Crossland Posts: 1,415
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    @Typedesigner that seems very old school, to me. I'm not how useful it is to recommend generic domains, given you've said they are already all registered. 
  • Typedesigner
    Typedesigner Posts: 41
    edited June 25
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    @Dave Crossland Each foundry can decide for itself whether it wants to appear under a generic name or an "invented" name. Sometimes good generic domains also become available. In general, it can be said that short domain names are better, such as tdc.org.

    There are many free generic keywords under new domain extensions (new TLDs). 
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,058
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    On the subject of invented vs generic names and short domains: I regularly receive inquiries about purchasing tiro.com, usually from European tyre companies, and occasionally from Iberian gun clubs. :#
  • Typedesigner
    Typedesigner Posts: 41
    edited June 25
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    @John Hudson tiro.com is a great domain name because it is short and generic and the .com domain extension is very popular.
  • John Hudson
    John Hudson Posts: 3,058
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    tiro.com is only a generic domain name for tyres or shooting—depending on language. That was my main point: ‘generic’ names are actually localised names.
  • James Montalbano
    James Montalbano Posts: 92
    edited June 25
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    I named my business Terminal Design 30 years ago. Being located on the "Terminal Moraine" in Brooklyn I thought I was being clever. I still laugh when I see search results that bring one to companies doing designs for shipping terminals.
  • Kasper Pyndt
    Kasper Pyndt Posts: 32
    edited June 27
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    @Dave Crossland Thanks a lot for the very generous input. I think your brief assessment of where I am currently in my career is fairly on point. I've had a few large-ticket custom type commissions, but always through branding agencies who have acquired the client in the first place. I'm not sure if it's feasible for an independent type designer such as myself to acquire commissions directly without a visual identity being sold on by an agency beforehand. That would surely be a rarity, right? 

    I've worked around 6 years doing mostly type — and I've managed — but I'm also finding that I have to do a lot of legwork to gain commissions for bespoke typefaces. Some, if not most, of that legwork includes connecting with agencies who like my work and want to hire me on as a freelancer.

    In regards to making retail fonts that people want to use: I'm working on it :D

    You mention macroeconomic influences and to that I'll respond that the ebbs and flows have felt pretty drastic to me in terms of when people are in the market for custom type. The last two years have in my experience been much more difficult than the years prior (probably due to high inflation) which has led me to focus more on retail, teaching and small-time freelancing (designing wordmarks, small display-type things, font engineering for foundries, etc).

    I guess being "agile" (just to use the most worn-out cliché ever) is pretty crucial in this business. 
  • Thierry Blancpain
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    Just about the foundry naming: Grilli Type is doing fine, and I’m still amazed at our weird name 15 years into our journey. No offense intended, but I would strongly recommend to ignore that advice.
  • Kasper Pyndt
    Kasper Pyndt Posts: 32
    edited June 27
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    Just for the sake of clarity I've renamed the thread to "how do you make a living as an independent type designer" (as opposed to someone being full-time employed at a foundry/agency or someone running a company with employees). 
  • Ermin Međedović
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    As a one-man band, I named Lettermin by merging ‘Letter’ and my name. Initially, I was a bit worried that David Letterman’s lawyers might contact me, but so far they haven’t.

  • Dave Crossland
    Dave Crossland Posts: 1,415
    edited July 4
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    I agree with James' point about effectively networking, to the point of making genuine friendships, with people who will become your biggest customers and word of mouth affiliate marketers; not only for that immediate first order benefit, but the significant second order benefits of learning much more from them about their needs and wants, problems and desires, than you can from cold analysis alone.

    If how to establish professional relationships cold is a mystery, I highly recommend https://homes.cs.washington.edu/~mernst/advice/agre-networking-on-the-network-20050814.html - I came across this book length webpage around age 16 and it had a huge impact on the shape of my work life; something that often arrests attention at talks I've given to high schoolers is that my sisters and I have never submitted a job application, we've only ever found opportunities through our networks. That's not too say school and college grades and certificates are completely worthless, but they aren't as important as their administrators make out. The ideal situation is to have both credentials and competency. 

    Also, I think there's a connection in what Mark says about digital media forming "long tail" powerlaw patterns in big marketplaces, and what James and I are saying about the powerlaw distribution within a foundry catalogue. Even a series of hits will have one noticably ahead of the others; Roboto towers over the other 3. It's fractal, I suppose.
  • Kasper Pyndt
    Kasper Pyndt Posts: 32
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    @Dave Crossland

    I think you're making an important point related to building networks and client bases; Not "applying for jobs", but making genuine connections, figuring out mutually beneficial ways to utilise each other in a professional partnership... this, to me, seems crucial for independent type designers for whom clients are not "coming back" as much as they are for graphic designers where clients may be coming back every year in need of a website-refresh or a new version of their annual report, catalogue, etc.

    I've found that I, in the function of type designer, also need to do quite a lot of "educating" to make prospecting clients aware of what I can offer them. Some may think that type design is always a hugely time-consuming and costly affair and haven't yet realised that type design can literally be optimising a custom wordmark or modifying an open-source font. But still – despite these efforts of reaching out and "educating" – most of the work I've been getting is from people I know from school. Or from someone who knows someone who knows me. 

    Thanks for the link. I'm gonna give it a read! 
  • Dave Crossland
    Dave Crossland Posts: 1,415
    edited July 5
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    Yep. One of the top things, maybe the top thing, on offer from a school, secondary or postgraduate, is the network - not the certificate.

    The best book I've seen on educating clients is https://abookapart.com/products/design-is-a-job and in a roundabout way Google Fonts Knowledge exists for this reason - no one uses things they don't understand, so offering next generation variable fonts for high end typography leads to offering open educational resources, so anyone interested in what text typography is and how to do it can do so. The aspiration is that anyone can gather enough wood to want to cook with gas. It's not all there yet but let's see :)

    It's maybe a different thread, but I'm curious about the details you've educated your clients with, and if GFK is useful in that context too :)