Some observations after a typeface hunt

Choosing a typeface today is difficult, simply because one is spoilt for choice now more than ever. Among other things, in the past few days I’ve been busy choosing a couple of typefaces for two different purposes. All in all it was a fun ride in the labyrinthine world of quick brown foxes jumping over lazy dogs. In three occasions I had to declare ‘typeface overdose,’ take a step back, think again about what I was looking for, rest my eyes, and finally resume the hunt. There were moments when I had to remove my type nerd hat and wear the concerned-customer-with-a-tight-budget hat. Moments when I did a bit of role-playing, alternating between the guy who knows what’s behind type design, and the no-nonsense, layman client who’s looking for a Didot/Bodoni alternative and is utterly lost among the seemingly identical variants offered by numerous foundries.

This search process may make you chuckle, but if you’ve ever found yourself in a similar situation, you know things can get boring, repetitive and frustrating rather quickly. This game of switching perspectives turned out to be entertaining during my little typeface hunt, and also useful, I guess, because it got me thinking about a series of things perhaps worth sharing. Now, before I proceed with my scattered observations, I want to stress once again that I’ve accumulated enough experience over the years to understand the work and the process behind type design, and that maybe what I’m saying here has been already discussed ad nauseam in numerous typography forums and circles. But again, it’s also an exercise in different perspectives, so bear with me. I’m also not interested in making specific examples because these are general observations and singling out typefaces, designers and foundries would only be misleading.

Quality and pricing

The layman’s dilemma: This font, offered in its four basic styles (regular, italic, bold, bold italic) costs almost 600 euros. This other font, rather similar to that one, costs 20 euros per style, so a total of 80 euros for the four basic styles. Why this huge difference in price? The cheaper font doesn’t look of a lesser quality to me.

The type designer, the type enthusiast, the type nerd, et similia, are already rolling their eyes and pointing out subtle differences in the execution, in the number of glyphs the two fonts provide, in the number of alphabets they support, in OpenType features, in the licensing options and scope, and so on and so forth. One typeface could be a quick knock-off of a pre-existing specimen made by a team of typography students, the other may be the result of many years of work of a single designer who carefully digitised an 18th Century typeface previously available only in print, making by hand all the necessary corrections to adapt that typeface for display use. I could explain all this to the layman and I’m sure I would still get a baffled look in return. You know, just like when a wine connoisseur is explaining to you the difference in flavour and aftertaste of two different samples of red wine which taste absolutely the same to you.

For laypersons and people who are simply looking for some good typefaces for a project or for their small businesses (I’m not talking about medium and large companies here because usually they have enough resources for these things — meaning people hired to take care of typographic matters, and money to invest in such matters), the world of type can be confusing. I have helped people choose or make informed decisions about typefaces in the past, and I’ve noticed how they approach their search. They tend to apply to typefaces the same evaluation methods they use when shopping for other, more material goods; realise such methods don’t really work; and end up feeling a bit lost. When they shop for clothes and accessories like watches, bags, kitchen utensils, smartphones, computers, and so on, they usually associate high prices with two main reasons (which are not mutually exclusive):

  1. The product is of high quality
  2. The product comes from a popular brand, well known for manufacturing premium products

Sometimes people stumble on an expensive product, but they understand its price tag either because they can immediately appreciate the quality of the product (even when it comes from a company they don’t know), or because they recognise the manufacturer’s brand and they nod and say Of course these trainers cost 300 euros, they’re from Nike. And maybe those trainers aren’t really worth 300 euros but the well-known brand is synonymous with good quality and so that price tag is somewhat justified.

This approach, of course, doesn’t work in the type world largely because:

  • A typeface priced at 40 euros isn’t necessarily of a lesser quality than a typeface priced at 400. There’s an increasing amount of talented indie type foundries and designers producing amazing typefaces, both for print and the Web, at very reasonable prices.
  • While there are prestigious type foundries and type designers producing typefaces of stellar quality, most laypersons have never heard about them.
  • For a layman, assessing the quality of a typeface is not as immediate a process as, say, assessing the build quality of a watch or a smartphone. Some people have learnt to discard ugly free fonts, where the lack of quality is apparent, but once they move to ‘nice-looking fonts’, everything is a blur.

All these factors play a relevant part in the aforementioned layman’s dilemma, and the resulting feeling is that typeface prices are largely set arbitrarily, that certain foundries are simply out of their mind if they expect a single person (as opposed to a business or company) to purchase that typeface family of theirs, priced at 4,500 euros.

Communication

During my typeface hunt, I’ve visited a lot of websites of type foundries (small and large) and independent type designers, and while plenty of them are really well done, presenting typefaces in great visual detail and with luscious effects, I often had the feeling as if I were shopping for devices by only looking at data sheets. In this regard, the best sites I visited were generally those created by small operations and single designers, going the extra mile and trying to communicate something more than typeface characteristics, features, formats supported, licence options, complete lists of glyphs in grid view, and prices.

They also provide information about how that particular typeface was born, the needs they want to fulfil by providing such typeface, best use cases, and so on. In other words, they are trying to speak to the prospective customer in a language he/she understands. They do not assume that all visitors coming to their site are type nerds or experts who already know what they’re looking for and already have the necessary expertise to appreciate the designer’s work, to instantly recognise the quality of the offering, therefore understanding why certain typefaces are more expensive than others.

By contrast, I found big type foundries to lack such communication, in general, relying instead on their prestige and have that prestige ‘do the talking’, which might be understandable — you don’t enter a Cartier shop and act surprised at the insanely high prices of the jewellery on display, and Cartier’s salespersons expect you’re entering the shop because you know about the brand’s prestige and can afford to purchase its products, otherwise you would go elsewhere. But the fact is that not everybody is up to speed on the who’s who of typography and type design. What many prospective customers see are austere, nice-looking fonts with prices they can’t immediately justify. The informed customer may know he or she is visiting the website and perusing the catalogue of a famous type foundry with an impressive pedigree. The layperson may not realise this on the spot.

Of course, when your typeface catalogue consists of hundreds of typefaces produced during decades of operation, it’s impossible to dedicate a lot of room for detailed information about each typeface. Also, many important type foundries may be already satisfied with their business and existing customers that don’t feel the need to be more communicative to sell their products. Still, having some more pages providing essential information to laypersons on how to choose typefaces, how to approach typography both offline and on the Web, how to recognise (and choose) quality products, etc., would only be beneficial to everybody.

The world of typography and type design is amazing, and the more you know about it, the more amazing it gets. I still find places on the Web where, instead of useful advice and information, one gets a good dose of elitism in return. Certain type experts should drop the attitude and have a more educational approach with laypersons who manifest even a tiny bit of interest towards typography. Many complain about the generally mediocre conditions of typography on the Web, but the fact is that the Web is full of personal sites and blogs of people who don’t have a clue about what good typography is, and don’t have a clue as to how they could improve their bland or eye-straining websites, type-wise. There should be more initiatives like Matthew Butterick’s Practical Typography, which has become the first reference I tend to suggest when someone asks me for a good, handy starting point on typography.

The more informed the audience, the better choices they make, because they can appreciate type design, see typefaces in a whole different way, and better understand how to look for quality products when they need them.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!