Casual-Users and the Font Market

An Interview with Type Designer Laura Worthington

We’re all familiar with Myfonts and other digital distributors of typefaces. But who are the customers purchasing these typefaces? What are their motivations? There’s no one better to ask these questions than one of the top selling typeface designers on Myfonts, Laura Worthington.

We discussed how she became a typeface designer, the rise of the casual user market and design considerations for this market.


This TypeThursday Interview is brought to you thanks to our sponsor, Typofonderie.

TypeThursday: Laura, thanks for being here with me.

Laura Worthington: Thank you.

Transitioning from Graphic Design to Type Design

TT: So, for people who don’t know, could you tell me a little bit about how you got into type design?

LW: Oh, sure. My interest in lettering began when I was about nine years old. We studied penmanship in school and I had a teacher who was just amazing at the Italic printing hand. I became fascinated by penmanship. And so from there I really wanted to learn calligraphy and all throughout junior high and high school, I became involved in the calligraphic world.

I designed certificates and lettered wedding envelopes, poems, quotes and so on. By the time I got to the end of high school, everyone’s talking about college and such and I had realized that I didn’t want to be a calligrapher. I had already done enough of it to realize that wasn’t exactly it for me. I wanted to do something more with computers. So my dad brought up studying graphic design. And that appealed to me and sounded like a good way for me to merge my interest in lettering and computers.

I had no idea how long it would take me to transition into this new career. I figured it would take two or three years. But it only took nine months.

I was a graphic designer for quite some time before I got into the type world. And with that I would occasionally do commercial lettering, for logos primarily, but also for headlines and various other projects, but it was never quite enough to really satisfy me.

Back in 2005, I met Charles Borges de Oliveira who is also a type designer and a lettering artist. He had designed a couple of typefaces and was trying to convince me to do the same. So we met up at the college I was teaching at and he showed me some things in FontLab. I went home that weekend and started on my first typeface, GrindelGrove. As soon as I started working on it, I fell in love with it and I decided to be a typeface designer.

This was the beginning of 2010. That was an intense, crazy year. I was teaching part-time, I had several freelance clients and a graphic design contract job about 40 miles from my home. And I was designing type. I had no idea how long it would take me to transition into this new career. I figured it would take two or three years. But it only took nine months.

By June of 2010, I realized that I could make a go full-time as a type designer, so I took three months and I transitioned out of the graphic design world and into the type world. September of 2010 was when I officially became a full-time typeface designer. Sorry, that was a long story!

TT: No! It’s great information for everybody to know the background. My observation from talking to you, Laura, is you have a knowledge about the customers who are using typefaces. What’s your reflection on the industry right now? Who are the customers that use fonts from your perspective?

The Casual-Use Market

LW: You know, I think it’s really been the wild, wild west. If you think about it, the online retail marketplace is relatively new. It really didn’t come about full swing until the early 2000s. And that’s about the same time that people really got into using and recognizing OpenType. Since then I’ve seen a massive change in the marketplace and how people interact and it continues to evolve at a rapid pace.

It used to be that font sales remained primarily in the realm of professional users, that is, those whose daily jobs involve design in some way. But lately, a different audience has come to surface, due to the DIY culture, crafters and the wedding market. I think a lot of things happened to encourage this new audience, this new marketplace, you could call “casual-use designers.” People whose jobs don’t not involve graphic design. Many of them get into type first by using system fonts, then downloading free fonts and then through talking to friends and involvement in DIY communities on Facebook, they realized that there were many more choices out there for purchase.

There’s these Facebook groups that are just enormous, mainly crafting groups that have had up to 130,000 members. They’re really impacting the type world.

Now this new audience has become a huge economic force on the type scene. For example, John Collins from MyFonts did a talk back in 2013 at TypeCon and he discussed these two audiences, the professional users and the non-professional or casual users. He stated that only 0.01% of the US population actually purchases typefaces. And who primarily is this 0.01%? They’re primarily the professional users. I look at that and I think, okay, so that’s an opportunity for 99.9% of the rest of the population to buy fonts and that group will largely consist of casual users. My logic here is that we’ve already largely tapped the professional user market, so it’s this other group that’s going to be the next big influence on the type market. They’re now buying typefaces, in much larger volume than before and they use typefaces for different purposes than professional users.

TT: Could you clarify what their usage is; how are they finding their fonts? It sounds like you have a lot of information from your experience.

LW: This has mostly come to surface through my interactions with Facebook. There’s these Facebook groups that are just enormous, mainly crafting groups that have had up to 130,000 members. So, this group is definitely a force be recognized. They’re really impacting the type world and we’re starting to see more people get into type as a result of that.

There’s been a lot of changes in the crafting world itself that has impacted this group. I don’t know if you ever heard of Silhouette or Cricut? They’re these die-cutting machines that can be purchased pretty inexpensively. You can take a digital image that you’ve created and cut them out on vinyl or fabric ad other things and apply it to mugs or t-shirts and other products. They’re designing and making things for their friends and family or selling their products on Etsy or Zazzle. And a lot of them are really digging the script and display stuff. That’s kind of their thing.

TT: So you think this idea of self-expression is one of the main factors for them?

LW: Self-expression, yes, that’s it! It’s also becoming really common now with the wedding industry too. They’ve had a big impact too. The average bride in the US spends $28,000 now on her wedding. And it’s almost like these weddings have become branded in a way. They now pay a designers to create their invitations and they might pay a calligrapher to letter all of their envelopes and create wedding collateral. Place mats and signs and everything else that kind of goes into setting the stage for a wedding. So there’s been an explosion of interest in calligraphy and I think that it has impacted the design world and everyone else too.

The average bride in the US spends $28,000 now on her wedding. These weddings have become branded in a way.

TT: People have the impression that the Latin world of the type design industry has tapped the market. What you’re telling me is that’s not true at all. There’s apparently other markets, completely untouched, that have a totally new use for type. Would you agree with that?

LW: Oh, absolutely. I should say, it can be a challenge for people who have been in type design or who have been related to that world to see this happening. I’ve talked to people who have noticed the change but they’re not sure where it’s coming from. We focus on the professional user market because that’s been the primary market for so long and it still is. These casual users have really only come about in a big way throughout the last few years.

Developing Fonts for The Casual-User

Another element of change that has impacted this group is the use of Private Use Area encoding. Anytime that you add a glyph that’s outside of a standard character set, such as an alternate, ornament or swash, it’s not going to have a Unicode value assigned to it. So you have to assign one yourself, and it’s actually an easy process to do. I assign these Unicode values on swashes, alternates and such, which makes it so that just about anybody using basic operating system utilities like Font Book or Character Map can access any of these glyphs and bring them into almost any program that they want to use. If the designer does not take this step, then the end-user has to have professional software such as Illustrator, InDesign, Quark and Corel Draw to access any alternates or swashes. It’s surprising how many casual users are familiar with this now and they seek out designs that have been PUA encoded so they can use them with whatever program they’re using for design. Again, casual users aren’t very likely to have professional design software due to expense and the time it takes to learn them. And the catch is that this group is in love with swashes and such, and so the lack of PUA encoded fonts and/or the programs that have native glyph panels is a bottleneck for any progress in further sales to this group.

Casual users aren’t very likely to have professional design software due to expense and the time it takes to learn them. Yet, this group is in love with swashes.

TT: What you’re saying is; in the past, the OpenType features that type designers built in their typefaces, were not accessible to users who couldn’t use advanced programs like Indesign. To design for these casual users, there are certain design and program considerations for the type designer. If the type designer does so, it allows these casual users to use those advanced features.

LW: Exactly, they can’t use the features without professional design software. There’s no way for them to turn on contextual alternates or stylistic sets, but with PUA encoded fonts, they can at least access all of the glyphs. So Character Map and Font Map act as a stand alone glyph panel.

I asked John Collins “How many type encode their type with PUA?” And he replied, “Not very many.” And I think the reason for that in part is because it’s a bit controversial.

TT: Why do you say that?

LW: From what I understand, with text type, it’s probably something that you’d want to avoid. You can run into different problems if you have any specially PUA encoded glyphs and you set text in it, and if you change the font or change the style, it could cause your typeface to turn all wonky — there could be conflict with Unicode causing a different glyph to show up in the wrong place. So it’s something that’s not commonly used in the text world, but in the display world, people are generally using typefaces to set a word or phrase or maybe a short sentence or two. So it’s less likely to cause issues, which is why I do it.

The lack of programs that have native glyph panels is a bottleneck for any progress in further sales to this group.

TJ: That’s very fascinating. Are there other production or design considerations that you’ve had to make for this new audience?

LW: I definitely had to really step up my game on my website especially with my FAQs page. I added in a lot of information about how to do use PUA encoded fonts. How to use the with Character Map, Font Book and a couple of others. I have about four or five different videos and written instructions showing and explaining it. And it’s kind of opened up a can of worms. I definitely have a lot more customer service questions now.

TJ: So another issue is educating people how to use the typefaces.

LW: Yeah. So it’s been interesting. People are starting to ask new questions now. My customers, they’ve become quite savvy about the typefaces that they can use to their full extent and the ones that they cannot. They’re eager to learn and fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to explain how it works.

TJ: This has been excellent, Laura. I think it’s been a great resource for everybody.

LW: I hope I said that clearly enough. I know that I kind of have a tendency to talk around in circles.

TJ: I think you did great. Laura, thank you so much for your time.

LW: Thanks!


Want to hear more of Laura’s thoughts? Check out her talk on Vimeo: Future by Design at The Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD)

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