Hey, Where’s the Bar Around Here?

Present thoughts on Future Fonts

I mean that literally and figuratively. Futurefonts.xyz, a new invite-only marketplace that lets people buy WIP fonts, was launched on Tuesday and I gotta say the future looks promising, so cheers to that! At the same time, I have a terrible cold, and since I’m under medication and can’t drink, let’s focus on the figurative bar.

This is the first time in history (correct me if I’m wrong) where graphic designers — adventurous ones at least — can legally get a copy of fonts in progress. Previously, you had to know a type designer or a foundry and be on good terms with them to have access to their unreleased material. This, in and of itself, feels like a huge step in making visible the process, skill, and effort that it takes to design and release a typeface. At the same time, it puts into question what both of those things mean.

Screenshot from Future Fonts homepage

What is a typeface?

To me, a typeface is an idea, and like most ideas, they evolve and change with time. Typefaces, as they existed prior to Future Fonts, were either released or were marinating in someone’s computer collecting digital dust. Future Fonts is a step towards getting people not exactly in the kitchen, but rather close enough where you can get a taste of what’s cooking at whatever stage it’s in. It tries to demystify the process but it doesn’t make it clear that there is one. There are comments and notes after each version gets released, however, there are no clear set of expectations or milestones.

None of the offerings in Future Fonts are bland nor too eclectic, on the other hand, some might be too self-indulgent, idiosyncratic, or just right but not substantial enough. That said, the worst case scenario is that you license a font and you can’t use it because of x, y, or z reasons. Hopefully this will open a line of communication with type designers to include, let’s say, an emdash on the next version. Either way, you’re paying a designer for their work and you get something special, it’s a win-win.

Whether you think the pricing reflects the current, or possible future value of the font(s), is a whole separate issue that needs to be talked about in a separate post. For now I’ll just say that no one has solved that problem yet and Future Fonts pricing is definitely one to keep an eye on. This is because unlike finished fonts, there is no guarantee that your investment will pay off, meaning that the designer may or may not continue working on the fonts, and since the fonts are at different stages of completion, their usability and value are uncertain.

Screenshot from Future Fonts homepage

What does it mean when something is released?

A truism among type designers is that typefaces are works in progress. I think that goes back to the “typeface as idea” thing. We can always keep on kerning, adding language support, more OpenType features, etc.

Without questioning whether a typeface idea is good enough to begin with, or developed enough to be licensed, each type designer and foundry has a set of standards to meet before anything goes out into the world. Standards vary but if you buy directly from a foundry or a designer you can expect some kind of customer support e.g. why does my font look weird on Microsoft Word? Why isn’t the OpenType working on Sketch? etc.

Type designers in general are a passionate and thoughtful group of people, that’s why I love being around them and it’s what drew me to the industry in the first place. I find it interesting that Future Fonts’ only standard is a curated list of talented type designers. However, everything else, much like their concept, is uncertain and evolving. Character sets, drawing quality, spacing, kerning and OpenType features are at many stages of completion. If fonts are tools, how useful is a tool that is not finished? If fonts are instruments, how good is the instrument that is not fine tuned? Is “workable” a new standard for release?

Conclusion

Tobias Frere-Jones once said “Typefaces are solutions and we keep having new problems.” I’m not sure Future Fonts typefaces solve any specific problem because they are experimental in nature. On the contrary, and I don’t mean this negatively, it creates more problems because their typefaces are literally unfinished. As a result, they make more visible the process of type design while helping designers get paid for their work. This makes them exciting in the same way a Kickstarter campaign is exciting, except there are no guaranteed updates or even a deadline for a finished product, just a promise that if there’s enough demand, maybe they will get finished.

For what it’s worth, this is not just the cough medicine talking. This model is genuinely strange and a little confusing, but not necessarily in a bad way. I honestly haven’t seen anything like it and I applaud their bold move but right now it’s hard to clearly see what’s ahead.