Future Fonts — A Marketplace for Unfinished Typefaces
We get a sneak preview with the team behind an innovative new way of creating and selling fonts
We speak to Lizy Gershenzon and Travis Kochel from Scribble Tone along with James Edmondson from OH no Type about their vision for how to empower type designers to experiment more, take more risks — and get paid for it in the process.
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Ulrik Hogrebe: Welcome Travis, Lizy and James — super excited to have you here. You are working on a pretty interesting project called “Future Fonts” which is — and please rebuke me harshly if this is an inaccurate comparison — kind of like a Kickstarter for type.
But before we dig into the depths of that, maybe you’d like to talk a little bit about you as a team and where the inspiration from the project came from?
James: Go ahead T-bone!
Travis: Lizy and I started thinking about this a few years back, as a way to get some of our in-progress typefaces out there and as a way to get some feedback from the market during the process. Instead of waiting till the typeface is complete and released in to the world. We didn’t really do much with it until this past summer, when we started thinking it could be fun to open it up to other designers, and create more of a marketplace and community.
James: Yes, so the idea is for type designers who are working on a font to upload some specimens on to Future Fonts — and go into detail about how complete it is, and where they see it going. They’d include things like the extent to which the character set, metrics, kerning etc. are completed, and set a price. From there, people can buy it, which gets them free updates in the future. Buying early gives users the option to save some money, while supporting the development.
Travis: Ha! Exactly — good point. We should have mentioned that to begin with!
So we had been kicking these ideas around and then we saw James doing his awesome 50 days of unfinished fonts project, and thought he‘d be the ideal designer and use case for the platform. So we asked him to come on board and help with the branding and messaging of the project. Lizy and I are good at digging in and building stuff, while James is awesome at building a voice and a community. Working together, I think we’ve been able to really divide and conquer allowing us really push what we’re good at.
There is nothing more fun than starting a typeface, and for that reason, it’s easy to pile up a ton of ideas over a few years. Some of them deserve to be dusted off, and some of them definitely don’t, but maybe that’s for other people to decide, not me.
James: Yep, I totally agree. A lot of people and foundries have been trying to figure out the best way to do a something similar. Various experiments like Ghostlines, which is a way of subscribing to a typeface’s development, and offering feedback. And Swiss Typefaces has their “lab” for more experimental ideas that cost less than traditional retail typefaces.
I think what sets Future Fonts apart is that it can be a marketplace — a sort of common ground for type designers and type users to exist together and communicate. For me it solves the problem of what to do with my folder of unfinished stuff. There is nothing more fun than starting a typeface, and for that reason, it’s easy to pile up a ton of ideas over a few years. Some of them deserve to be dusted off, and some of them definitely don’t, but maybe that’s for other people to decide, not me.
It’s kind of weird how we treat font releases like they’re still cast in metal. We wait until they’re perfect, and there’s an enormous pressure to make sure there aren’t any mistakes.
Lizy: Also, coming at it as a designer that uses type, we have used typefaces with very limited character sets on brand work. Type is a design tool that can be useful long before the final release.
I think our creative processes are more exposed because of social media, github, etc. and we are more familiar with the idea of software being released in versions. With all that in mind, it just seems like good opportunity for Future Fonts to be new platform to release type.
Travis: Yeah, it’s kind of weird how we treat font releases like they’re still cast in metal. We wait until they’re perfect, and there’s an enormous pressure to make sure there aren’t any mistakes. I think we’re trying to relieve a bit of that, and make it a place designers can feel safe to take risks and experiment with ideas.
Ulrik: Can you talk about the pricing and the commercial side of things a bit?
Travis: Essentially the designer is selling a version of the typeface. They make some updates, describe what’s new, and upload the new package, and keep iterating. After each version, the price would go up a bit, although we’re leaving the exact pricing up to the designer.
Lizy: There is no commitment to finish the typeface. The designer establishes goals in the beginning of the project, but they are not required to finish it. The customer is buying the version as it is. If they update it, the customer gets free updates along the way.
Travis: With that in mind, we do plan on vetting the designers and typefaces pretty thoroughly, especially in the early days. While we want to encourage new designers to be a part of Future Fonts, we want to make sure anyone putting work on here is serious about their work, and that if their project got a fair amount of backing, they would continue to work on it.
Ulrik: So where are you in the process at the moment?
James: I came on later in the project, after Travis and Lizy had been working for a few months already. Like Travis said, I’ve taken over as the graphic designer, Lizy is head of UI, and Travis is development, and lately T-Bone has been sending over some pretty exciting early versions of the website for us to play around with.
Travis: We’ve got a working prototype, with most of the core functionality built. Lizy’s been focusing on ironing out the rough spots in the interface. I’d say maybe a few months to go? It always ends up taking longer than expected though. In the meantime we’re also starting to recruit designers to come on board so we can launch with a nice catalog.
James: Yeah, the recruitment is a super crucial part of the process. We want to represent a diverse cross section of folks and champion designers and work that we love.
Ulrik: Cool. So on the flip side of that, how does a designer judge that their typeface is ready to be put on Future Fonts? What should they be thinking of if they want to apply?
James: It has to be useful to someone, but as Lizy mentioned earlier, the state at which a typeface becomes useful can be extremely early. Maybe having just having numerals is good enough for Future Fonts. Most likely, a full alphabet would suffice. That’s something that can be drafted in a day or a weekend, so we are excited about the potential for people to play.
Travis: I think James summed that up well. It really depends on the intentions and target use of the typeface, and we’re going to be keeping a close eye on what goes on Future Fonts. We’ll probably revise the ‘minimum requirements’ once we see how people are actually using it a little more.
The feedback mechanism is something that is very interesting to us. (…) We’re hoping it can help bridge the gap between the makers and users of type.
Ulrik: What are your thoughts on the feedback mechanism between type designer and type buyer?
Lizy: The feedback mechanism is something that is very interesting to us. We’re hoping it can help bridge the gap between the makers and users of type. It is something we have considered since the beginning. At this initial stage, I think it will be a better tool for the near-professional or professional type designer, and not necessarily for the super naive beginner.
However, even if you are not an expert I think it will be a helpful educational tool for type users to get a better sense of what design considerations go into a typeface (e.g. spacing, hinting, etc.). I think things like setting type can be intimidating at times, and hopefully by making the process more transparent, it will help better educate designers on how to use type.
James: As an educator, I feel that the best learning happens in a classroom, around other students that are enthusiastically studying the same thing you are, so I’ll usually advocate for that. However, the idea of a “classroom” is changing.
Travis: Yeah, in the future I can see a lot of opportunities to build out an environment that’s better for complete beginners, but I do think this has the potential for anyone to learn regardless of level.
Ulrik: I think it’s a great idea. And definitely a great resource for the entire type community. Speaking off, is there anything you need from the community now?
James: Just to subscribe for updates, and join when we launch! That will probably be the hardest part.
Lizy: The response has been really exciting so far and we feel really fortunate to have support and friends in the type and other creative industries. It definitely helps us keep focus and momentum as we build it out.
Ulrik: Ok, thanks everyone. I don’t want to take up more of your time. Any parting words for our readers?
James: Just that I love Travis and Lizy, and they’re super fun to work with. We are in the golden age of type design, but still we are only scratching the surface at what can be done. I hope Future Fonts can encourage people to have fun with type.
Lizy+Travis: We love you too James! This has been a really fun project so far!
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