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How Simple Can Fonts Be?

January 2020

Eight years ago, JTD released its first typeface and I wrote our first license. A lot has changed since then — our license, however, was not one of those things. It had the occasional update but it was in need of an overhaul.

This history of type design is a history of simplification for the user: A job that was once done by trained monks in medieval monasteries was transferred over to Gutenberg’s press. Eventually, the hand setting of type, letter-by-letter, gave way to stereotypes, which allowed full pages to be set quickly. From here, the Linotype and Monotype machines sped things up even more. Then phototype showed up and another jump was made. Finally, digital type. Even digital type has seen its share of change: from separate “expert fonts” with their hacked-together support for features and language support, to fonts with multiple writing systems and automatic contextual features (and maybe variable fonts?).

This not-100% accurate history of type is what lead us to wonder how things could be easier now. Looking at the current state of things, it’s easy to see where the bottleneck in simplification lies: font licensing. Licensing is a complex subject. In some ways, it has to be, as it has to cover everything in a legally-binding manner. Despite this, we think there is room to maneuver.

Nearly every time we would speak with design studios in our native Philadelphia, we would hear some of the same concerns: “We’d love to use different type but we understand the licensing for the type we have and don’t want to complicate things.” or “we just can’t afford the licensing for our usage situation.” Licensing

With these concerns in mind, we took a look at the industry as a whole, to see how these problems were being solved elsewhere. The first place we looked was licensing. What we found was the model we were using seemed to be the most common: offer desktop and web fonts separately, with the base price for both about equal. There were a few other models we found, from bundles which offered a discount for the web font, bundles that discounted the desktop font, some with much more expensive web fonts, and some with both webfonts and desktop fonts in the same package for the standard price normally given to each individually.

It was this last model that interested us the most. It seemed to line up with our idea of simplifying the process of understanding type (at least in a technical sense — typographically speaking, you’re on your own). A cursory look at the landscape of the design world also made this model more appealing. It’s rare that a branding project excludes either print or web requirements, and we know budgets are not always large — with every service chipping away its little portion of the pie.

With the first step figured out —combining desktop and webfonts into one standard license — we had to look at the next step: how are web fonts dealt with? Again, our research showed our practice at the time was pretty much standard with the industry; we offered a tiered license, based on monthly visitors, with each license good for one domain. There were, however, a few other models out there. Some offered an unlimited number of views, some with monthly renewal agreements, some with terms that must be negotiated between each client, and some with an unlimited number of domains.

Again, it was this last option that seemed to fit our creed. The idea here was that if a single desktop license could work for an unlimited number of print projects, why couldn’t a web license work for an unlimited number of websites? I’ll admit I was a little hesitant to use this model but it seemed like the right thing to do in order to help our users understand and use our typefaces.

Now, we are keeping some limitations in: our basic license only covers five computers, but, unlike before, they don’t have to be in the same physical space. We realize that, in 2020, remote working is indeed a thing (we do it ourselves) so that line had to go. We are also placing a cap on the number of monthly viewers for our standard web license: 500,000. based on our research, this number seemed perfect for most people to host their webfonts with the standard license and forget about them — never worrying about if they’ve violated the license. Also, if you do exceed that number, it would have to be for a period of two months before we’d have to add an upgraded license, so there is a little room to maneuver.

Pricing

Having figured out a plan for our licensing, our attention changed to pricing. Again, we looked at the industry and found it was all over the place. The most expensive single weight of a typeface was over 160% more than the least expensive option (this excluded discounted fonts, fonts on popular resellers, and the few outliers at the top of the range). It was hard to find a justification for this range; since we were only looking at single weights, this ruled out the cost being attributed to large families. The character set made little difference either, just as many of the lower priced families offered the same or more language support and features as the higher priced families. It seemed as though it all boiled down to exclusivity.

For us, exclusivity is not a priority. We are focusing on building a foundry based on the quality of our work with fair compensation for our efforts and the ability to provide continuing support for our typefaces. With this in mind, we’re keeping our base price effectively the same while doubling the value in combining desktop and web fonts. At $50 per weight (with significant discounts for families), our base price is on the lower end of the spectrum while still allowing us the keep the lights on.

We’re not done

A license is a living document and we are continuing to look for ways to improve ours. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please reach out — we would love to hear from you.