There are more than 20,000 fonts available on Adobe Fonts, well over 10,000 from the Monotype library, and another 915 on Google. Faced with this dizzying number of options—not to mention the marketing might and visibility of these giant corporations—why would anyone pursue a career as an independent foundry, building small libraries of retail typefaces that can take years to refine and release?
We sat down (well, Zoomed down) with a dozen owners of indie foundries on both sides of the Atlantic to learn more about the business models, triumphs, pitfalls, and most of all: why they chose to be independent.
- Arve Båtevik, Skriftkompani, Norway
- Veronika Burian and Jose Scaglione, TypeTogether, Czech Republic
- Johannes Breyer and Fabian Harb, abcdinamo, Switzerland
- Filip Dědic and Vojtěch Říha, Superior Type, Czech Republic
- Tobias Frere-Jones, Frere-Jones Type, Brooklyn
- Ksenya Samarskaya, Samarskaya & Partners, Brooklyn
- Christian Schwartz, Commercial Type, New York
- Paul van der Laan, Bold Monday, The Netherlands
As with all small businesses, getting established as an independent foundry takes time and patience—more of a marathon than a sprint. A willingness to take risks, to live with uncertainty, and to value making your own path above making a profit (at least at first) are keys to success. Building connections is a painstaking but critical part of the process.
“In the beginning, we would have loved to publish with someone bigger and more established, but there was not the space and the trust and the door we needed to open,” Harb says. Forging professional relationships is difficult when you are a new player on the field. Says Říha, “In the beginning, it’s crucial to get in touch with designers and world agencies, but when you don’t know a lot of people, it’s hard to establish connections by writing them about your new typefaces. A lot of the time, they aren’t responsive.”
Fortunately, type designers have a secret weapon to draw upon: their personal networks in the close-knit and supportive world of design. Many started out making fonts for their own use, sharing them with peers and friends, and building the business one customer at a time. When graphic designers turn to small foundries for new typefaces that haven’t been widely used yet, their work helps spread the word. Growth tends to be an organic process—in fact, several designers featured here didn’t even intend to start a foundry, exactly; it just sort of happened along the way.
Breyer says, “In Switzerland and the Netherlands, our teachers were all running their own one- to four-person studios, so we knew more independent designers than those working within larger structures. The blueprint was already there, and our teachers encouraged us to do our own thing.”
Reliable cash flow can be a tremendous obstacle, but having other client work and just one or two type families that are big sellers helps small foundries build momentum and viability. Scaglione says, “Once you hit a nerve with one of your designs, you have a steady income and that’s important. We had a couple of big custom jobs at the beginning of TypeTogether—really boring jobs, super boring! But they paid the bills.”
Short-term paid work keeps a studio afloat while investing time into the years-long process of building the typefaces. “It’s an unpredictable investment you can never be sure will pay off in the end,” says van der Laan. “Having some client work in the meantime ensures you’ll be able to pay your regular bills.”
None of the designers had a formal business plan at the outset. Paul says, “My only business plan was to survive. I needed dollars! Living in a third-world country, the economy is always a factor.” Flexibility plus trial and error in day-to-day operations play a part in seeing what works and what doesn’t. “Early on, I learned I couldn’t go super deep into a type or creative project and still do all the negotiating and communicating with clients, and keeping track of the schedules; it was too much brain shifting,” says Samarskaya. “I tried hiring business managers until I realized it was easier to hire type designers.”
For independent type designers, creative freedom is a major part of the appeal. “The business model for an independent small foundry is like having a super-niche music label,” says Dědic. “You do one thing to pay the bills, and the second thing you do is to ensure your artistic freedom.” This can mean completing a project only to your own interest level—for instance, opting to build just a few versions of a typeface instead of a whole superfamily. Båtevik says, “One of the motivations for starting my foundry was that I could do a small display font with just one cut. Many big publishers wouldn’t be interested in such a limited font, but if I did it on my own, no publisher could say no.”
Along with creative freedom comes an increased level of responsibility. “The opportunity to be involved in so many aspects of this business (not just drawing the type), plus being able to set the value of your own work, are really important reasons to be independent,” Frere-Jones says. “But it’s kind of a double-edged sword: You get to do all these things, but you also have to do all these things. Depending on how the day is going, that may seem like a very good thing. Or not.”
“Very true!” Burian adds. “Sometimes it feels like a huge mountain of tasks in front of you, with a few big ones and a million little ones. The step by step is not fun. You climb and then you see, oh damn, there’s another one. Like climbing a real mountain, you always think you’re much further along than you actually are.”
A distinct design identity is crucial to the success of independent foundries. Van der Laan says, “The great thing is that you can completely define who you are, how to present your work, and the flavor of it. You’ll create your own audience who come to buy your work and find you when they need more of that.”
So, is it like shopping in your favorite small boutique instead of going to a big-box retailer? Not quite. “Discerning quality for typefaces is not exactly like saying ‘I like these trousers,’” Scaglione says. “When sifting through thousands of typefaces, it’s hard for the customer to discern whether a font is good or not.” And not all customers are interested in the curated selection of type the indies have to offer.
“A few years ago, we got a booth at a stationery show at Javits Center where there were 1,000 different companies selling greeting cards and gifts, and our idea was we have some fonts that would look very nice on wedding invitations and things like that, and these people don’t know about us, so let’s go and meet them where they are,” Schwartz says. “People would stop by our booth and say things like, ‘Your fonts are nice, but we already have our resources for this.’ I had the idea before that design is design, and what we do would suit anybody once they saw it, but really there are so many different kinds of silos, like the greeting card world. It was good to learn firsthand just how separate that world was.”
Speaking of separate worlds, our panel had plenty to say on the topic of underserved markets, or parts of the planet where not enough attention is paid to developing quality typefaces for non-Latin scripts and languages. (Type designers from these markets were invited, but did not join the conversation.)
There are myriad challenges in designing type for Africa’s 2,000+ languages, considering that the continent’s 54 countries were mapped by 19th- and 20th-century colonialism, not by existing communities and ethnic groups. “We want to include more African languages in our typefaces, but the problem we keep running into is the lack of reliable, verifiable documentation about what each language actually needs,” Frere-Jones says. “There are some initiatives about presenting and collecting what these languages need, what the letterforms are, and what the expectations of native speakers are. It isn’t for lack of interest that we don’t include more of this, we just want to be sure we’re following the local rules and expectations.”
Burian says, “There is plenty of work to do on the technical end of typographic usability level. With regards to Africa, there are Latin-based languages, and then you have scripts being used at the same time. Or within one country there are different scripts.” There are regional variations in Yoruba regarding the shape of a diacritic. How would a type designer code a letter in Yoruba that has two or three different possible accents, without any source to provide a definitive answer as to which is most appropriate?
Moreover, “It goes beyond the typefaces themselves,” van der Laan says. “Are the languages supported by the Unicode standard? Is that language accessible in an easy way through a keyboard or other input device? There’s so much that needs to be done before type designers can start making fonts for all the languages in the world. Until companies are willing to put money into hardware and coding development, it’s very hard to make work that is lasting.”
When asked if only deep-pocketed large corporations would have the time and money to support research and development for underserved languages, the group’s overwhelming sentiment was that independent foundries not only can lead the way, but they have a responsibility to do so.
Samarskaya says, “A corporation is always going to be looking at the bottom line; they’re seeking to push out the minimum viable product. Whereas indies are people working from heart and passion, so they often end up raising the bar and setting a new standard. Getting others to start properly addressing underserved communities is only going to come from a lead set by independents. And the only way we’re really going to understand what different countries need typographically is by empowering local designers and assisting the rise of local indie foundries in those regions.”