State of the question
The literature on type foundries is not extensive. Although the theoretical studies I summarize here help us understand how type foundries emerged after the digital revolution and hint at the present and future of the industry, a more recent, thorough examination has not been undertaken until now.
12In the context of this study, the terms “foundry” and “type foundry” specifically refer to companies created and mainly controlled by designers, including both small foundries and more established companies such as Emigre, Font Bureau, or FontFont/FSI. Also included here are branches of graphic design studios that sell retail type.“Foundries” and “type foundries” are companies that design, produce, and sell fonts directly and/or through font distributors. This terminology was carried over from metal type production into the digital era.In the first version of this report, the term “independent” was used in conjunction with “type foundries”. Most font labels today are independent entities, not owned by larger conglomerate businesses, so the phrase seems increasingly redundant.
3Type designers who rely on other foundries for visibility, sales, and promotion are not, for the purposes of this study, considered to be running foundries. Additionally, this report does not include in its scope the Monotype corporation, as well as other “major” companies owned by Monotype — including Linotype, ITC, Ascender, and Bitstream. Adobe, Microsoft, Apple, and Google, which also produce type, are not, for the purposes of this study, considered foundries.Lupi Asensio. Email. Barcelona, November 14, 2011. [FontShop/FSI and its FontFont label are now also owned by Monotype. This report was completed before their acquisition in July, 2014. — Ed., Sep. 23, 2015]
A handful of theoretical studies written between 1992 and 2001 help contextualize the subject of my report, providing an account of the digital type industry after the digital revolution of the 1980s.
4In his article “The Digital Wave”, Robin Kinross described the changes wrought by this revolution, prompted by the introduction of PostScript technology. Kinross focuses on the downfall of the metal and photographic type industry, with some exceptions that hung on or found niches in the market. Meanwhile, software and computer hardware companies like Adobe and Apple were on the rise, accompanied in their ascent by small foundries such as Emigre, the Enschedé Font Foundry, and FontShop/FontFont, which worked from the desktop.Robin Kinross. “The Digital Wave.” Eye, Summer 1992.
5A few years later, most type activity was indeed coming from individual type designers and small foundries. This trend toward an independent small-scale activity is explained in writer and curator Emily King’s extensive investigation into type design in London, the Netherlands, and the East and West Coasts of the United States between 1987 and 1997. Her work was sparked by a desire to understand the circumstances behind the proliferation of new typefaces at the time.Emily King. “New Faces: Type Design in the First Decade of Device‑Independent Digital Typesetting (1987–1997)”, 1999. Republished by Typotheque, 2005.
King chose those places as visible centers of typographic activity. Emigre and the Adobe team (made up of Carol Twombly and Robert Slimbach) were active on the West Coast of the United States and were influenced by their location, which functioned as a center of technological innovation. In Boston and New York, David Berlow and Tobias Frere-Jones from Font Bureau, Matthew Carter from Carter & Cone, and Jonathan Hoefler all worked around typographic identity, closely linked to the well-established publishing industry of the East Coast. Within London’s small-scale creative businesses, other type designers and foundries took advantage of advances in technology. King examined the work of Neville Brody, Jonathan Barnbrook, Adrian Williams, and the duo at The Foundry (Freda Sack and David Quay). Finally, in the Netherlands, King turned to prolific type designers Gerard Unger, Martin Majoor, and the collective LettError (created by type designers Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum), who were encouraged by a culture with a high appreciation for graphic design.
King concluded that type design had become a “financially insecure business”. It was hard to know in advance if a particular typeface would sell; if it did, software piracy could be an impediment to that reward. King added: “There is now very little investment in new type design, and for the most part it is the designers themselves that fund the development of new faces.”
6Building on her initial investigation, King explained the situation of the type industry at the turn of the century in a 2001 Eye article, in which she pointed out that the excitement of the late 1980s and early 1990s had quieted down, with the realization that typefaces were more complex to make than many designers had first thought, back when technology had made it relatively easy to experiment. Meanwhile, as most traditional type firms were reduced to “venerable labels attached to static libraries” (with the exception of Monotype, which continued to grow under the name of Agfa Monotype corporation), software companies were no longer the “white knights” of typography. King went back in time and explained how Adobe’s aim to increase the audience of print and design activities, plus the great success of their PostScript types between 1989 and 1991, were brought to a sudden halt by the 1992 recession. A decade later, the focus was on developing complex type technology such as OpenType. Meanwhile, Microsoft invested in fonts for the screen and hinting — but they bundled the screen fonts with their browser, using a similar distribution system to the one of the typesetting era.Emily King. “Digital Type Decade.” Eye, Summer 2001.
Along with large software companies and type distributors, independent digital foundries continued to multiply. Again, their primary threat was piracy and competition from “larger companies who sold type in cheap packages.” Small foundries used different strategies to deal with these problems; Enschedé opted for quality and high prices, while others such as Dalton Maag and Hoefler took the route of custom type. Adapting to technological developments was another issue and, within small foundries, OpenType was “not happening yet”. But King speculated that maybe once that happened, another outpouring of innovation could take place.
7Deborah Littlejohn’s “Golden Age” figures among more recent articles on the subject of type design (both formally and as a business). In 2009, Littlejohn asked various figures in the type sphere if they believed that this was a particularly good period for type design. She suggested that type design had become a global industry, “where boutiques shine alongside their larger, more established brethren.” She added, though, that the most significant departure from the past seemed to appear within type design practice rather than in the design of the letterforms themselves.Deborah Littlejohn. “Golden Age.” Eye, Spring 2009.
Indeed, a number of the contributors to her article applauded the advancements in technology and accessibility, and the growth of the industry. British type scholar Catherine Dixon mentioned the facilitation of international font browsing and the online representation of foundries, especially the smaller ones. She also referred to a time of consolidation, in which foundries were calmly returning to previous digitizations to complete and enhance them with OpenType features. Nicole Dotin of Process Type Foundry, pointing to Kris Sowersby and his foundry Klim as an example, explained how great technological advances in the field (personal computers, font-editing software, and the web, among others) have made this the age of the type designer, who now benefits from accelerated business development. Type designer Sibylle Hagmann, however, remarked that the writing of OpenType features, as well as quality control and final font production, can require collaboration with experts.
In spite of technological advancements, many contributors regretted the lack of experimentation in typeface design itself. Catherine Dixon cited homogenization; Mr. Keedy, a CalArts teacher since 1985, talked about the “new Dark Ages”, while Alfredo Triviño, Director of Innovation at News Corporation in London, pointed out that “the more democratic the tool, the harder it is for true innovation to emerge.” Littlejohn concluded that “perhaps type design’s success as an industry makes it its own enemy.”
While typeface design itself is not the subject of my study, it was interesting to discover that business development and formal type design evolution do not necessarily go hand in hand. Still, there is no doubt that analyzing a typeface’s originality involves a bit of subjectivity. Typographica’s annual reviews, which started in 2004, might be a good place to form one’s opinion on the matter.
8The French typography scene was the subject of the publication Graphisme en France 2009–2010, featuring interesting contributions around type design by Michel Wlassikoff, author of Histoire du graphisme en France, and type designers Jean-Baptiste Levée, Peter Biľak, and Thomas-Huot Marchand. In spite of the book’s focus on France, Biľak’s contribution is relevant, since his comments apply to the industry in general, beyond the French scene.Peter Biľak. “Methods of Distribution: Digital Fonts and the Global Market.” Typotheque, 2009. First published (in French) in Graphisme in France 2009/2010.
Making reference to and agreeing with Deborah Littlejohn’s claim, Biľak looked more closely at the topic of distribution. He explained how, first with the democratization brought about by the digital revolution and then by the web, artists were partially liberated from their distributors.
Biľak pointed out how current font distribution is not so far removed from physical distribution. For example, despite being among the most generous foundries, FontFont offers royalties of only 20 percent of the retail price, the other 80 percent being spent on the distribution process, international marketing, and advertising. [In 2014, FontFont’s royalty percentage was raised to 30 percent. — Ed., Sep. 23, 2015]
“Working through a large distributor means access to a wider audience, though at the cost of a smaller share of the retail price. Having direct contact with consumers guarantees a full share of the profit, but not a broad client base.” — Peter Biľak, Typotheque
When choosing either to self-distribute or use other distributors, the trade-off is obvious: “Working through a large distributor means access to a wider audience, though at the cost of a smaller share of the retail price. Having direct contact with consumers guarantees a full share of the profit, but not a broad client base.” Some type designers, such as Xavier Dupré, would rather distribute their work through other foundries than set up their own, avoiding related tasks such as dealing with consumers or marketing matters, while Jean François Porchez prefers the advantages of dealing directly with his customers, and offers complete versions of his typefaces exclusively on his website. The energy invested in distribution can vary, too: André Baldinger admits that distribution is important, but is more interested in the type design process, while foundries such as Underware have a more embracing and creative attitude toward distribution.
Lastly, Biľak touched on the issues surrounding data distribution: the challenges of illegal file-sharing and the reluctance of foundries to allow font storage on servers for web use.
9One publication about small-scale foundries that I’d like to mention quickly is the Indie Fonts series, published by P-Type Publications in 2002, 2003, and 2007. These books function solely as typeface specimens of roughly twenty foundries each, but do not offer much insight into the type industry beyond corroborating that the first decade of the century witnessed a proliferation of small designer-led type firms and that, consequently, there is an abundance of typefaces to choose from.Richard Kegler, James Grieshaber, and Tamye Riggs. Indie Fonts 2: A Compendium of Digital Type from Independent Foundries. Buffalo, N.Y.: P-Type Publications, 2003.
10Type Navigator: the Independent Foundries Handbook by Jan Middendorp and TwoPoints.net specifically takes on the subject of “independent” digital foundries. It became available in September 2011, after I had embarked on this study, and confirmed that this subject was one of interest and currency. It showcases more than fifty foundries chosen on “a loose set of criteria: variety in stye and focus, quality, originality and overall ‘interestingness’” and ends with a useful list of foundries.Jan Middendorp and TwoPoints.net. Type Navigator: The Independent Foundries Handbook. Berlin: Gestalten, 2011.
The book’s preface was valuable for me to look at because it presents, in broad strokes, an actualized view on the state of the industry. It starts by pointing out type’s popularity today: “Type is the subject of hundreds of publications each year, it is a favorite among design students and is a theme of even more conferences and seminars.” The web and social networks have helped make this trend even more visible, but distribution has been the most drastic change that has allowed many type designers to venture out on their own, creating one- or two-person foundries.
Another aspect touched upon is the broadening of the customer base beyond design professionals: “Managers of small companies, scrapbookers, amateur designers of leaflets and invitations” are interested in using special typefaces for setting text.
11The authors also compare today’s type world with the music world. Both have in common “majors” and “indies”. Most “major” foundries have been bought by Monotype (Agfa type division, ITC, Linotype, Ascender, FontShop), while practically all “indie” foundries are generally run by small staffs, regardless of the foundries’ influence and size of their libraries. It is therefore hard to differentiate small and large companies in the digital age; perceived size no longer relates to the number of employees or products.While it is true that nearly all indies are very small companies with 1–5 employees, three of the more established digital pioneers — Dalton Maag, Font Bureau, and Hoefler & Co. — now have staffs of 15 or more.
Indie foundries are generally run by small staffs, regardless of the foundries’ influence and size of their libraries. It is therefore hard to distinguish between small and large companies in the digital age; perceived size no longer relates to the number of employees or products.
12Notably, the publication explains that a foundry can take different forms today. It can be a branch of a graphic design studio selling typefaces that were once custom (e.g., A2-Type); a graphic design company such as the one run by Jonathan Barnbrook, who has managed graphic design and regular type production; studios orbiting around one or two talented type designers like LucasFonts or H&FJ; and also companies specializing in custom type that offer their fonts for retail once the exclusivity period is over, like Dalton Maag and Fontsmith. In addition, small foundries sometimes publish work by other designers; TypeTogether and Typotheque are good examples of this.Tobias Frere-Jones left Hoefler & Frere-Jones in 2014. The company is now known as Hoefler & Co. — Ed., Sep. 25, 2015
The book’s preface also touches upon distribution. It lists and describes large and small distributors, and concludes by mentioning foundries that have chosen to sell exclusively — directly from their own site without the aid of a distributor. This approach seems to happen more often in England, the Netherlands, Germany, and, especially (true to tradition), in Switzerland.
Foundries and webfonts
13In 2011, an article by Jack Yan, CEO of Jack Yan & Associates and cofounder of TypeRight, looked at the future of webfonts and foundries’ response to this development, while touching upon intellectual property issues.Jack Yan. “New Dawn.” Eye, Spring 2011.
The article quoted Thomas Phinney (then of Extensis) and Ivo Gabrowitsch (then FontFont’s marketing director). Both foresaw an increasing relevance of webfonts, responding to web designers’ demands, and fonts for mobile devices, accompanied by a slow decline of desktop fonts. Phinney warned foundries about keeping up: “‘The revenue from fonts for print usage is in a slow but inexorable decline … those foundries who do not come up with a business model that deals with the Web and e-books, they are dooming themselves in the long run.’”
Yan cited Typotheque, which established a webfont service before the appearance of Typekit, as an example of a foundry that had been keeping up with these changes. Others, such as Dalton Maag, have been forced to respond. They now offer webfont licenses as part of their usual desktop fonts. However, Maag is concerned about the piracy issues posed by WOFF and EOT embedding.
“The type design game is going to get even more complex,” Yan added. Manual hinting is a specialized and time-consuming task; Maag pointed out that foundries need to make a considerable investment in webfonts. The choice is not easy: Phinney explained that foundries can either invest now in manual hinting, which will become obsolete in a few years, or wait for Windows users to migrate to new browsers. Still, not everybody is worried about manual hinting: Richard Rutter, cofounder of Fontdeck, trusts auto-hinting, helped by some outline tweaking to do the job. Meanwhile, since Yan’s article was published, foundries like Font Bureau, Hoefler & Co., and Typotheque have gone a step beyond mere hinting by drawing new type specifically optimized for the screen.
While Maag worried about the deterioration of shape details due to the adaptation to this new media, Gabrowitsch predicted richer and more innovative type design. Yan concluded that “the technical skills demanded may well force some level of consolidation in the type industry, or at least greater cooperation with those who specialise in preparing fonts for online usage.”
14This may recall Zuzana Licko’s 2002 prescience about the increasing complexity of type design. In her case, the discussion was about OpenType: “Much of the interesting type design work these days is being done by individuals. However, the next phase of sophistication, OpenType, may once again take the manufacture of type beyond the reach of independent type designers. The complexities of designing huge character sets are extremely time-consuming, with diminishing returns.”Rhonda Rubinstein. “Interview: Zuzana Licko” Eye, Spring 2002. (Republished by Emigre.)
Desktop font syncing
15Another recent issue that may affect type foundries directly is desktop font syncing, as explained in the article “Library Subscriptions: the Future of Fonts? Shall We Sing or Cry?” Back in 2011, Adobe acquired Typekit and, in May 2013, announced that the whole Typekit library would be part of the Creative Cloud product. The post explains that this may be great news for users, but for font makers it can raise questions around piracy, lessen the perceived value of type (due to a relatively low subscription price which gives access to a large library of fonts), and increase the contrast between “major” and “indie” labels, as popular indies are unlikely to participate in library subscription models offered by Adobe (Creative Cloud) and Monotype (SkyFonts).Stephen Coles. “Library Subscriptions: the Future of Fonts? Shall We Sing or Cry?” Typographica, May 8, 2013.
The first step of my work process consisted in familiarizing myself with the material written about the subject. This material was available online and in printed form. As previously mentioned, the publication Type Navigator was launched after my project had already begun; I subsequently fine-tuned my study according to the information provided by the more recent publication.
The information gathered from these sources, complemented by additional print and online resources, helped me shape the information displayed in the Timeline. These sources were also useful in making the criteria used in the Census more precise, as well as in defining aspects I thought would be relevant to explore in the Analysis of the report.
In the Census part of the study, a comprehensive list was generated from three existing lists (two available online and one in print) and adjusted according to chosen criteria. Specific data was then compiled through the use of online resources (notably foundries’ and font vendors’ websites), email communication with the foundries, and information found in Type Navigator. Visual representations were then generated from this information.
Finally, I drew on email correspondence and in-person and phone interviews to collect primary information for the Analysis of the report. When I was unable to reach certain foundries, I gathered complementary information from articles and interviews relating to that particular foundry, both online and in print.Next Section: Timeline