Familiar faces

Typography has been affected by changes in technology almost more than any other discipline. Fay Sweet talks to some of the industry’s leading characters.

When it comes to type, more is probably less. In the past couple of years the market has become crowded with new faces. Increasing numbers of designers are churning out fonts in the hope that one will become an overnight success and will deliver fame and fortune.

But they’re well advised not to give up the day job; the industry is in turmoil. Some of the biggest players appear to have lost their way and are trying to reinvent themselves. Others have turned cannibal – Agfa last month gobbled up Monotype – and in the rush to sell at knock-down prices, concerns are being raised about the quality and usability of many new designs.

What is most surprising is that the cut-throat, bargain-basement, stack-’em-high mentality should have found its way into the rarefied stratosphere of typography. The problem is that digitisation ushered in such massive change, not just in working methods but also in delivery and dissemination of the finished product, that the industry was taken by surprise. The possibility of cheap type production led the big established manufacturers into a price-cutting war that they now seem to be unable to escape.

“They’re trying to build bigger and bigger libraries containing as many fonts as possible and are selling them off cheap to guarantee high turnover, but this is completely counterproductive where standards are not maintained,” says David Quay of small design and publishing house The Foundry. “Unlike the old days when there was development money or production fees to help a designer refine the face, the big type houses now expect to buy the complete design on disk and ready to go. That way, they can bundle together a load of new faces and sell them really cheaply. It’s now possible to buy whole libraries for next to nothing.”

Quay reckons that this continual price undercutting has a double drawback – it means diminished returns for the designer and it has the effect of devaluing the faces. “We have taken back most of the agreements from dealers which were handling sales of our faces and manage just about all of our marketing and retailing now. We want to keep prices at realistic levels to maintain our investment in quality and keep a check on licences. I believe that if someone has paid a decent price for a good working face, they’re less likely to hand it around for friends to take copies.”

In this ruthless, margin-cutting atmosphere, designers are missing out all round. “No one should believe they can make a quick fortune from type design. Even in the Eighties, big new faces were more likely to make reputations than money,” says Quay. “The best fonts take years to establish, and turning something round really fast will achieve nothing.”

Erik Spiekermann, creator of one of the most successful modern faces Meta, agrees that all good things take time. Meta was conceived in the mid-Eighties and officially launched in 1991. “I reckon it takes 100 hours to complete one decent weight and that a workable face of four weights must take at least 400 hours. And, if you’re talking about a corporate face, which has to be put before committees, you can treble the time spent. It can take five years before a face gets noticed, and even longer before it really takes off. For example, Meta is only just being discovered in the US. And so, unless you are very lucky, you’ll have a long wait before you get a return on all the time you invested,” says Spiekermann.

He says that a good deal should secure the designer around 20 per cent of the retail price, but adds that when this is seen in context – the US retail price can be as low as $29 (17) per face; in Europe it’s $59 (35) – it’s no fortune.

Along with running design company MetaDesign, Spiekermann is involved with the publisher FontShop International. “We are at the end of an era with the big type houses disappearing, and in their place we’re seeing the rise of the small houses – FontShop International is now one of the biggest. The digital era has made a huge impact on the industry. In the Seventies, the launch of a new face was a big event. It would take years to develop and when it was ready there would be a big press conference and the face would appear in all the magazines. Now they’re turned out every day,” he says.

But Spiekermann doesn’t have a problem with the flood of faces on the market. “There are never enough and I don’t care about the bad ones because I don’t have to look at them or use them, but what I do mind are the ‘TJs’ or type jockeys – those people who put existing faces through a filter, sample them and then turn out fonts using other people’s outlines. I’ve even had some submitted to FontShop International using my own outlines,” he says.

This massive shake up of the industry has, of course, had an impact on the individual type designer. Adhering to old-fashioned skills and values (he produces early sketches using pencil and paper and completes full character sets), but adopting new business practice, designer Jeremy Tankard is one of the latest breed of type creators who has opted for independence from the big producers. He has recently established his own business, which produces new faces and he also offers design expertise wherever type is used.

Tankard is acutely aware of how the business has changed. “There was a time when type designers developed their fonts with the big houses, with a constant dialogue as the designs progressed. But now few producers want to get involved in that time-consuming and costly process,” he says. “Most faces can take up to two years to draw and test and revise – they have to be able to work on different input and output systems, on paper and on screen. And so the major manufacturers have evolved into retail houses. Adobe is one of the few which enters into a dialogue with the designer and sends back work with a full critique for corrections to be made.”

Tankard aims to create one new face a year and will add this to his collection, which he markets and sells himself. In some instances, fonts are available exclusively through the designer. However, a few are also sold through the bigger houses. The new face Bliss, for example, is available direct from the designer or through Agfa. Tankard recognises that the role of the big houses seems to have changed irrevocably. “The old ways of working have gone and the big houses now seem to have found their new role mainly in retailing, it’s a job they can do effectively because they have such comprehensive mailing lists of regular buyers,” he says.

For the big houses, Robin Nicholas, head of typography at Monotype, says he is always on the lookout for new faces and sees nothing wrong with the proliferation of designs on sale. “Our aim is to provide customers with as full a range of fonts as possible,” he says. “And where it is required we can also create bespoke faces for a client – this is something we did recently for British Airways, for example.” He also says that investment is available for developing faces which show promise. “We have a small panel of people who look at new designs and assess them for their technical merit and whether they are good, innovative designs. The norm now is to buy a face when it is finished, but occasionally we will help the designer with development,” he says.

Nicholas agrees that it has become increasingly difficult for the big houses to secure volume turnover. “Because there are so many faces it’s difficult for designers to make much money from sales, in fact I know that some have taken to marketing their own,” he says.

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