Fonts are durable, highly-reusable, compact, & high-quality software products which do not ‘bitrot’. Nevertheless, hundreds or thousands of new ones come out every year despite enormous duplication; why? I speculate that designer boredom seems to be the answer: they crave novelty.
2021-04-21–2021-05-04 finished certainty: possible importance: 1
Fonts are a rare highlight in software design—stable, with well-defined uses, highly-compatible software stacks, and long-lived. Unsurprisingly, a back-catalogue of tens or hundreds of thousands of digital fonts out there, many nigh-indistinguishable from the next in both form and function.
Why, then do they all cost so much, and who is paying for them all, and even going around commissioning more fonts?
The casualness of the highly marked-up prices & the language around commissioned fonts strongly points to designers spending client money, largely for the sake of novelty & boredom, functioning as a cross-subsidy from large corporations to the art of typography. The surplus of fonts then benefits everyone else—as long as they can sort through all the choices!
Reading up on design & web typography over the past few years for Gwern.net work, I’ve been struck by how many fonts there are, and how many new ones keep coming out. Who buys all these fonts‽
Fonts accumulate because for the most part, font technology has been quite stable and backwards-compatible so fonts do not bitrot: your TTF from 1991 or your METAFONT file from 1984 will probably still work; Matthew Butterick notes “it’s interesting to think that the fonts I ship to customers today could be installed and used equally well on a Windows 95 machine.” (They may not have all the features introduced since by OpenType, much less the latest fad of “variable fonts”, but they will work.) The software tools for developing fonts are often free, and digital fonts typically require no large capital investment—only time. Typography blogs could easily post a new font every day being launched commercially, and there are plenty of ‘foundries’ which despite being one-man or 2-man shops still have cranked out dozens of fonts, in addition to the endless flow of design/typography students graduating with font class projects they polish up for release, hobbyists, commissioned fonts, and so on. Someone who collects fonts can easily accumulate an archive of ~100,000 fonts1, and this has been true since fairly early on in computing history when large disc collections would distribute ‘free’ fonts (with names like “1001 Fonts”). Despite this, day in day out, new fonts continue to be released, complete with splashy landing pages and breathless descriptions reminiscent of oenophile review puffery. (I have not yet run across a new launch lauding the “oak-like notes” of a new font, but if I did—it’d probably be a “historical revival” of a woodcut font—I would not be surprised.)
Sometimes these launches are amply justified by a specific use: 8-bit computer or coding fonts, anti-forgery fonts like FE-Schrift, Matthew Carter’s Bell Centennial designed for small numbers printed on low-quality paper (or Frere-Jones’s equivalent Retina font for the WSJ) is a good use-case as it requires idiosyncratic features like ink traps, or the unusual design goal of “uniwidth” fonts to simplify UIs. Making an open source version of a font is a perfectly good reason, as most fonts are proprietary and specific purposes underserved by open source fonts. Countless languages are underserved and have hardly any fonts whatsoever, so it makes sense if a tech giant like Google sponsors the creation of a comprehensive multilingual font family like the Noto fonts. The staggering difficulty of creating fonts for Chinese and Japanese, which might require drawing tens of thousands of different versions to cover merely common characters (Source Han Sans has 65,535 glyphs taking up 600MB), likewise explains why there is a permanent scarcity of adequate fonts for them and the release of a new one is an event. Others are experiments or intended for an effect: a font like Clavichord is certainly striking enough, and although you would use it rarely, if you need it, it’s there (perhaps for haunted house decorations), and I’ve seen many interesting fonts be announced (Louche, Hangulatin…). Occasionally, a font is commissioned by some behemoth not because there is any need, but simply to be different—while this leads to farcical situations like “Goldman Sans” (uninteresting aside from the numbers being uniwidth across all bold/italics/roman variants) originally having a copyright license barring the user from criticizing Goldman Sachs, and bespoke fonts are a bit of a fad, the cost is also a rounding error on marketing/branding budgets, potentially useful in intellectual property ways, and removes the need to pay large-scale licensing fees for an existing font, so why not?
But those sorts of considerations explain only a small fraction of the endless drumbeat of new fonts. For most new fonts, I’m left baffled: did the world need yet another Helvetica-like sans font, or another serif font indistinguishable from Garamond? Apparently someone thought it did, and many other people thought they needed to buy it, at handsome prices like ~$100 but sometimes going into the $1000 range with the occasional ‘call us’ price indicating that if you have to ask… (The sheer number means that even typography nerds playing the game of “guess that font” must often throw up their hands.)
So who is buying these other fonts? It is not hobbyists or small-time users, who blanch when they see the price, and how traffic-based licensing makes a font for their blog cost +$10,000/year; they will use an alternative (or just pirate it). It can’t be people who need a unique effect, because most of these fonts do nothing unique worth noting; while we needn’t go as far as the famous designer who boasted of using only 5 fonts his entire career, the universe of available fonts already vastly exceeds what will be necessary for almost everything most designers do (and is so vast that they will be familiar with only a tiny fraction of it anyway). The buying can’t be just to be different, because when even typographers struggle to see any difference, laymen certainly will not (not even subconsciously); and they could easily differentiate themselves from the majority of their competitors simply by not using a Helvetica-like sans font or bland wordmark logos! Nor can we imagine pressure from the CEO or middle-management on the designers to buy these alternative fonts, because they have such strong feelings about whether the ‘g’ should be open or closed, and are deeply knowledgeable about the proper use of tabular vs old-style numerals and the importance of true smallcaps⸮ The academic programs churning out new designers & typographers are unlikely to be major drivers of demand either, as the tuition goes to other purposes and students typically get free or discounted software for coursework—they may be expected to buy at full price during their careers in the usual “drug dealer pricing” strategy, but that is passing the buck. Big publishing houses and periodicals have established font preferences already, for many good reasons, so while they may occasionally buy a new font (and instances like the Obama presidential campaign adopting the Gotham font be a windfall), font foundries are unlikely to be launching all these fonts in the hopes of Random House buying a license.
A good example of the puzzling accumulation of fonts is the “Microsoft Design Team” announcement in April 2021 that they commissioned 5 new sans-serif fonts, to replace Microsoft’s previously-commissioned Calibri sans font used since 2007. What was wrong with Calibri, you might ask? Nothing, really—Microsoft owned it, and it is inoffensive-looking & reasonably well-regarded, fully-featured with the niceties like smallcaps, was designed for computer screens & continues to look fine on them, and no readers were begging for a new sans font. The new fonts are thoroughly bland-looking, indistinguishable from countless other sans fonts; they do not introduce any notable multilingual support, buzzy Variable Fonts optimizations, recherché typographic features, FLOSS licensing, experimental testing (or just drawing on said research), or anything. In fact, the announcement notes that the 5 new fonts will be A/B tested in the future—implying they have not been tested before. (“Ready, fire, aim!”) But the descriptions of why, exactly, Calibri is suddenly unacceptable and must be replaced with fancy new bespoke fonts (and they don’t know which one, even) is revealing in the extent of egocentric phrases referring back to the design team (as opposed to, y’know, the readers or MS customers):
We’ve commissioned 5 new custom fonts—which should be the next default font?..Calibri has been the default font for all things Microsoft since 2007, when it stepped in to replace Times New Roman across Microsoft Office. It has served us all well, but we believe it’s time to evolve…we’ve interviewed the designers of each to help bring their nuances and unique personality to life…
Erin and Wei: After years of Calibri—known for soft corners and narrow proportions—we were craving something very round, wide, and crisp, and the geometric genre felt like the right direction…We’ll be evaluating these 5 directions over the next few months, but we won’t be doing that alone.
That is, the real reason is that they were bored and they could.
We could also mention Twitter’s 2021 “Chirp” font, a slight teak on the nigh-indistinguishable Grilli Type’s GT America/Franklin Gothic (which “strikes the balance between messy and sharp to amplify the fun and irreverence of a Tweet, but can also carry the weight of seriousness when needed”—if you say so); the Twitter designer in charge sounded like he had fun, though, even if it came at such minor expenses as shipping broken new fonts rather than old working fonts… (Also illustrating the problem with change: every change—no matter how apparently minor or well-tested!—risks breaking things, and externalizing costs onto other people, especially users, thereby creating ‘bitcreep’.)
This clarifies the pricing issue as well: font pricing confirms the true customer is designers on expense accounts, with the price calculated to fall under purchasing limits, and that the buying is effectively a fringe benefit analogous to going to conferences or contributing to open source software or writing software in unusual programming languages or publishing research: everyone knows that it is a mix of personal consumption and professional utility.
patio11 notes something interesting about software & software-as-a-service licensing: as one raises the price from $0 to, say, $20, sales decrease even if revenue increases; but that once one reaches a level like $100, sales are essentially constant up to a level around $1000, where sales plummet and it may require active salesmanship. This is because consumers are highly price-sensitive, but corporate sales are not price-sensitive (after all, it’s not the employee’s money he’s spending), up to a ceiling at which point corporations start to require additional paperwork & managerial approval. Hence, if one has a software product (such as a font…?) which is mostly corporate users and which costs $100, one could double or triple the price with minimal effect on sales but doubling or tripling revenue, as long as one doesn’t go past the internal ceilings.
What these designers are buying is what a foundry sample book is selling: possibilities—sure, the new font could make the new design a big success but it probably won’t, and is there for the designer to play with and keep up with new developments and their peers, instead of getting stale using the tried-and-trues. The amounts are too small relative to everything else to clamp down on, doing so would be bad for morale, and it is difficult for managers or outsiders to decide what is a frivolous font purchase (after all, if they did, they’d be designers themselves). And since fonts require so little capital to develop and may only need to support one creator, who will have a whole portfolio of fonts in addition to more conventional freelance work (or who may be creating fonts at a loss for the love of typography), the sales do not need to be that large in any absolute sense either.
From this perspective, we should not be annoyed by the flood of new fonts (except as it drowns out good new fonts), and regard it as a somewhat convoluted corporate subsidy for the arts.
Fonts made 20 or more years ago are still usable on today’s machines. In fact, they make up the bulk of the Monotype and Adobe font libraries. Many remain on today’s bestseller lists. So in fonts, unlike other categories of software, type designers have a peculiar problem: our new work has to compete against decades of accumulated competitors…Furthermore, though in the past I’ve complained about the persistence of digital fonts, it veers toward one of my least favorite arguments: the idea that a creative person has a right to make a living from their work. Sorry, but no one does. The market—though artificial and imperfect—sets the rules. Other fonts exist. Hundreds of thousands, in fact. As type designers, we can either deal with that fact, or find something else to do with our time.
…First, since we’re being candid, most professional graphic and web designers don’t care much about fonts at all. (For instance: Oxford University Press, one of the most respected book publishers, nevertheless sets nearly all its books in Minion, a font that every Adobe customer has gotten free for 20 years.) Second, those that do care about fonts are looking for a low-maintenance relationship, not a lab-monkey experience.