Everyday Type

Everyday Type

Why Type Costs Money, pt. 1

May 16, 2011

When we make purchases these days, we naturally consider whether the product is worth the price based on a number of factors: What is the composite cost of the materials involved? What wage were the workers paid who made the product? Did the product have to be shipped to arrive at its destination? What type of marketing or promotion was involved?

This is often an easier task with something like, for instance, a handmade bicycle frame.With a recording, a painting, or a font, however, this is significantly more difficult. To a certain extent, you’re paying for the intellectual property—the artistry and artisanal qualities of the work.

Specifically with fonts, however, the process adds another layer of complexity when you consider that fonts are software. You don’t purchase the font, you purchase a license for its use.

Now, aside from “it’s what the market dictates,” what makes fonts cost what they do?

Mark Simonson Weighs In

Photo of Mark Simonson

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Mark Simonson, creator of the ever popular Proxima Nova (which, as it happens, just saw a great update on Typekit). Mark was able to talk about what goes into the production of fonts and shed light on, to put it simply, why type costs money.

From concept, through research, to drawing, to release day, how long does it take you, on average, to create a typeface?

It’s a complicated question. It really depends on the kind of typeface.

A single simple typeface with only basic language support may take only a few days. Adding an extra weight more or less doubles the time. Adding more weights than that, if I can interpolate, less so. Increasing language support adds yet more time. Italics take longer than an upright. A serif face takes longer than a sans-serif. If I include alternate glyphs, that adds more time. And the larger a font gets, the more weights and styles there are, that all adds the overhead of making sure everything is consistent and works together, more planning, more kerning, so time involved increases even more. Exponentially, sometimes it seems.

For example, I’m working on a family with five weights plus italics, with extensive alternates and swashes, extensive language support, pro features like small caps and different figure styles. There are only four masters (two for roman, two for italic), but I’ve been working on it for three and a half years between other projects. I can only guess how many hours I’ve spent on it—probably in the hundreds.

To be honest, I don’t keep close track of my time when I make fonts. I find it more difficult to work if I have to think about the time. For client work, I work on a project basis and I have a deadline. As long as I can meet the deadline, I don’t really care how much time I spend on it. I do need to have a general sense of how long it will take, so I know I can meet the deadline. (Exception: If I’m doing purely production work [converting a client's artwork into a font], then it might be on an hourly basis.)

On fonts that I initiate myself and sell in the retail market, it probably takes longer just because I have no deadline or budget.

So, generally, the range is a couple weeks to a couple months for a single font. That includes the back and forth with the client, changes, etc. The actual number of hours, I don’t really know.

When type geeks of “research,” we think of looking at type specimens. What else can it involve for you?

Because I’m so aware of (obsessed with) typography, anything I see might lead to something, even when I’m not actively “researching.” I mainly try to be receptive so that I notice things when they come along, rather than studying or researching with some sort of goal in mind.

Proxima Nova Light Display Specimen

Proxima Nova, one of Mark's most popular fonts

Do you decide what price to set on a typeface? If so, what factors influence your decision?

It’s totally based on the market. I try to figure out where my fonts fit in the market in terms of quality and features and price competitively.

If you wanted to make, say, $10,000 on a typeface, what would be the difference between selling 10,000 licenses for $1 and selling 1 exclusive corporate license for $10,000? In other words, why does most type fall in the $20–$40 range?

I think it has settled at the $20–$40 range because it’s a sustainable price in the market. Enough customers are willing to pay that price, and the price is sufficient to keep suppliers in business.

Do you tend to price your type according to the work that went into them, or the current average market price, or both? Other factors?

It totally depends on the market. It has nothing to do with the amount of work. I do try to minimize the work and time I spend on each font mainly so I can produce more fonts.
It’s still too early to tell how it will play out. If the desktop market shrinks because of the web, then it may affect the price of desktop fonts. If the whole model where designers need fonts on their computers changes, then all bets are off.

Are there factors that influence how and when people buy type? For example, are there seasons or months where you can expect more or less type to be bought?

The only thing I’ve noticed is that sales go down during holidays and weekends, which makes sense when you consider that most people who buy when they’re at work.

You were an early adopter of Typekit and Fontdeck. How did distribution through type delivery services affect your thoughts on the pricing of type?

So far, I don’t think it has any bearing on the traditional type market. In a lot of ways, it’s a separate, additional market. Most basic font licenses don’t include web use. It’s a separate cost, one way or another. It’s still too early to tell how it will play out. If the desktop market shrinks because of the web, then it may affect the price of desktop fonts. If the whole model where designers need fonts on their computers changes, then all bets are off.