Dave Coleman, Funkford

“Everything is in progress” was the curiously open-ended statement that heralded the launch of Future Fonts back in 2018. The platform seemed like an unusual prospect: a platform selling experimental typefaces, none of which were finished. The very notion seems antithetical to what we’d expect from the stereotype of type designers as perfectionist types—the sort of people who spend days, months, even years poring over the tiniest of details on a letterform. Why on earth would they want to show—let alone sell—fonts that weren’t just unfinished, but due to their in-progress status, a hell of a lot cheaper than the usual going rate? 

Well, it turns out, for a number of reasons—as its founders, Lizy Gershenzon, James Edmondson of Oh No Type Co., and Travis Kochel, were well aware from their own work at foundry and design studio Scribble Tone. They essentially created the platform for themselves, with the idea spawned by the Kicker typeface they created for Design Week Portland (DWP) in 2012. The specificity of the project meant Kicker needed to be a fairly limited typeface. Its initial version comprised one headline font as well as an inline weight with uppercase, numerals, and punctuation to be used as the festival’s logotype.

Being digital designers ourselves, we were used to releasing things in versions rather than waiting until the end. These versions were still useful, so we started to think about fonts in a similar way.”

Kicker was only completed in the last couple of years—it was still in the works when Future Fonts launched in 2018, though by then it had seven weights including new outline, double line and hairline styles, as well as an extended character set. “Being digital designers ourselves, we were used to releasing things in versions rather than waiting until the end. These versions were still useful, so we started to think about fonts in a similar way,” says Gershenzon.

Designers using the platform set the price of their font and manage the font files and licensing independently; and while Future Fonts takes a cut of sales, that’s pretty much its only involvement other than the font’s initial selection. Future Fonts typefaces are incomplete, and so they retail for much less than usual. However, rather than this meaning a loss for designers, the lower price is still higher than nothing—i.e. what the typeface would be earning its creators in the months leading up to its completion. And that’s assuming it does reach completion. For type designers, working on a font usually means months spent earning nothing from it (unless it’s commissioned as a bespoke brand font of course). Selling fonts as they iterate means the project has a funding stream for longer. As more work is completed and new versions are added, the price goes up, but those who bought it early get it cheapest, with the updates along the way available for free. 

Aside from the trickle of cash, Future Fonts also means the typeface can be improved according the way people are actually using it. The type designers can see the font in use sooner, and as such, iron out any obvious flaws. They also get a better idea of its potential applications, perhaps opening their eyes to nuances or reference points that they’d never seen in their own font but which others have picked up on. The community aspect means that fellow designers and friends will often buy a font almost as a goodwill gesture—to show that they’re behind ya, buddy—and that opens up a forum for honest discussion about what could be done to improve it, and how people would like to see it expanded (perhaps in terms of weights, characters, and so on.) 

This morale boost isn’t just nice to have—it can often determine the life death of a font. Although Future Fonts doesn’t require type designers to finish any given project, the founders say that they know from personal experience that moral (and of course financial) community support can be key to getting the design over the finish line. 

“There’s usually a lot of anxiety in spending years on a typeface, but not even knowing if anybody really wants it or not,” says Gershenzon. “And after investing all that time,  you put something out there and just hope.” That unknowingness is immediately negated if you get to gauge the response from users, as foundry XYZ Type has found in using the platform.

XYZ’s Jesse Ragen has been working on Cedar, a wonky serif typeface, since 2001. It’s been sitting on the back-burner for nearly two decades; but he recently released the newest version on Future Fonts. XYZ co-founder Ben Kiel admits that he and Ragen are both “very particular about the end product that we sell to customers,” but making everything perfect before launch can (as Cedar proves) take a hell of a lot of time. “It gives us a way to gauge where we should be focusing our efforts and what people are more interested in,” says Kiel. With Cedar, for instance, the team got “requests for characters that we wouldn’t necessarily prioritize or think people use as much,” and that kind of feedback proved invaluable in its development. “It allows for more of a direct relationship between the customer and the typeface designer, so we can get feedback pretty quickly,” Kiel says. “We can see when people aren’t quite as into something as we thought they’d be, or they’re into something we might not have expected.”

The fact Future Fonts is a separate entity from XYZ—with its own infrastructure in terms of fees, licenses, and how these change as a font iterates— has also proven liberating. “We wouldn’t want to put things that aren’t finished out there publicly on our site, because that might detract from the other, finished products,” Kiel says. “It’s a venue where we can be looser about things and respond to how people are using the typefaces while we’re working on them.”

“Getting a font in people’s hands early means they’re using it, and that’s income for us, as well more visibility in the community”

The platform is a boon for users, too, since they get access to interesting type styles far sooner than they would with traditional models. The fonts’ newness means they’re very unlikely to have been widely used in existing design work or ad campaigns, so they’re fresh and exciting for designers to pick up and explore. “One interesting thing that we’ve seen is that traditionally when people buy a typeface, they have a specific use in mind,” says Kochel. “With Future Fonts we’ve seen a little bit of the opposite: People will buy it, and then find a way to use the typeface afterwards.” That’s partly because of the affordability of the fonts, and the novelty in buying something so new it’s not even finished.

For type designers, watching how people use a font—and the visibility such projects might get from designers—can mean free marketing. “Getting it in the hands of people early means that they’re using it, and that’s income for us, as well as meaning more visibility in the community,” says Ragan. “When we’re actually done with it and release the full, finished version, we have a bunch of previous projects that have used it that we can point to. People have a little bit more familiarity with it and might be more interested because they’ve seen other designers use it.”

Future Fonts and XYZ agree they’re seeing more students and smaller, independent studios using the platform, but the typefaces still make their way into larger corporation branding work and high-profile publications. Future Fonts typefaces have appeared in Entertainment Weekly and Wired, for instance. “It’s really useful that Future Fonts has a somewhat different customer base than we do,” says Kiel. “Most of the typefaces we sell on our site are fairly conservative, but Future Fonts has a lot more outlandish, ornamental, cutting edge designs that are more experimental. There’s some overlap with our customer base, but it extends us into a different space.”

That space is characterized by more experimental display fonts; but each is carefully selected—only around 1% of submissions make it. The key things the team looks for is finding typefaces it doesn’t already have on the platform—which obviously becomes harder as the platform grows.  “We’re trying to find fonts that are different from other fonts in our library, and we also try to diversify the platform, so bringing in more Arabic fonts and those which support other languages,” Gershenzon adds.

Each is carefully selected—only around 1% of submissions make it.

Future Fonts offers something of a crystal ball into contemporary font trends, since it showcases typefaces that are entirely new. As such, it offers a clear, up-to-the-minute overview of what’s trending in the world of more experimental, headline fonts and the rapid pace of trends. The team sees a lot of variable typefaces submitted: “Designers are enjoying exploring that technology— it lets them create a lot of different variations not only in the weight, but in the letterforms themselves, which is where I find it the most interesting,” says Kochel. 

Other trends they’ve seen over the past year in include more ’60s/’70s vibes a few months back, with a wave of warm, photo-lettering style or psychedelic-leaning designs like Dave Coleman’s Funkford, Ohno Blazeface Italic, and Digestive by Studio Triple—a surprise hit. “When we accepted that we knew it’s a really, really weird design and didn’t expect it to sell like it has, but it’s been one of our bestsellers,” says Gershenzon. It’s since been used across everything from French perfume packaging to festival branding.

The world of type design often feels shrouded in mystery: The jargon around it makes it tricky for many people to understand, and the technicalities of a font’s creation make it seem as much a math puzzle as a creative task. On Future Fonts, each new release within a font is accompanied with “version notes” explaining how far along the typeface is, and tips on how to best use it. Seeing a font in development allows for a transparency designers aren’t accustomed to, which can teach outsiders a lot about the process. “We hope it encourages more use of experimental type and inspires others to give typeface design a try, or at the very least, can help make the world of type a little less intimidating,” says Kochel.