Use Data to Help You Sell More Fonts

An Interview with Mary Catherine Pflug of Myfonts

Thomas Jockin
Jul 30, 2016 · 13 min read

This week on TypeThursday, we spoke with spreadsheet lover Mary Catherine Pflug. We spoke about her interest in type design, data, and her upcoming presentation at TypeCon about font purchasing behavior.

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TypeThursday: Mary Catherine, thanks for being here for TypeThursday.

Mary Catherine Pflug: Thanks for having me. Happy to be here!

TT: I rarely get to have conversations with people who not only make fonts but who are also into the spreadsheet magic that I personally find is over my head. It’s really great to have you here to talk here on TypeThursday. I want to learn more about you. What’s your deal?

MCP: Sure. I’ll give you a quick origin story. For high school, I went to a fine arts boarding school. While there, I quickly became frustrated — at the end of every semester, all the work I had created would just end up sitting in my parents’ basement, not going out into the world, not having an impact on anyone. So I gravitated towards graphic design, and later type design once I was introduced to it. When I made my first typeface (I was 18) new doors were opened for me. The typeface went out to the world, on MyFonts and all the other distributors. It actually sold, I could send it to people, I could see it used on things, and I could physically see money coming in from it. This digital intangible thing produced so much more tangible results than any of the physical art I had produced. It was really exciting for me and really got me thinking about a lot of other things related to design, especially business and the way digital products interact in a market. So from there, I went to a liberal arts college instead of art school, and majored in international business. I kept thinking about all these business concepts I was learning about in a way that related to the type community. I had gotten really involved in the type community through TypeCon and observed the different challenges that designers were facing related to marketing, pricing, licensing, and distributing their products. Hearing people discuss these issues really made me want to learn more about all of this and do it in a very data-centric, metric-focused way.

TT: Your comment about the tangibility of type design is interesting. You’re making an item to be used by other people. There’s an exchange happening there. Is that’s something that makes you really excited about type design?

Creating typefaces is an inherently social endeavor and requires interaction between type designers and the people who use typefaces.

MCP: Oh, totally. There’s the stereotype of type designers sitting in their studios all day, alone, making typefaces. It’s seen to be a kind of solitary, librarian-esque work. I feel that a lot of graphic designers feel disconnected from type designers and the type community. That’s true in some senses, but also not true in others, because at its core, creating typefaces is an inherently social endeavor and requires interaction between type designers and the people who use typefaces. Whether it is obvious or not, this interaction is always done at some level — it has to be in order to sell products. And I think that the more it is done, the more success type designers will have.

TT: That then makes me curious about your decision to go to school for business. Would it be fair to say there’s something about metrics and measurements made you decide to go to business school instead of going to a traditional art school?

Making spreadsheets is an art form in and of itself.

MCP: Yes. There was a lot more I wanted to learn, too, besides just art. The only other forms of art besides graphic design that I really cared about was ceramics and film photography. Looking at colleges, it was tough to find one with type design programs and be able to get a broad education. Knowing I wanted to branch out and learn more, liberal arts seemed to fit, except for the type design component. I thankfully had a type design mentor, Neil Summerour, supporting me. He told me to do whatever I want, and that if I wanted to make another typeface, I would have access to him and could work and learn new things remotely. So knowing that I had a mentor and a way to keep learning about type while doing other things, I confidently pursued a non-arts education. Luckily my liberal arts education was incredibly diverse; I did a minor in art history and the pre-law program, so I have all the prereqs to do law school, if I decide to pursue that in the future. I really got a well-rounded education, and produced more fonts along the way. During my business studies, I became really nerdy about spreadsheets and now spreadsheets are my favorite thing. So then it all came full circle — Making spreadsheets is an art form in and of itself.

TT: Why do you say that?

MCP: Because Excel is a magical thing. There are tons of possibilities to make lots of things happen. You just have to know the codes to do it. When you make something — this includes laying out magazine pages or other forms of graphic design — the challenge is always keeping it simple in order to get a point across and organizing it to be clear for the viewer. But with Excel, if you can make it interactive, it also becomes an incredibly useful tool where you change one cell and the whole thing changes… it’s just beautiful.

TT: So would it be fair to say it’s a way of structuring knowledge.

MCP: Yes, you’re structuring knowledge, but then you get the added benefit of making that knowledge do things. I never thought I’d be passionate about spreadsheets… that’s such a ridiculous thing to say. But it’s not a surprise with my background; being very detail-oriented and neurotic about making typefaces. So now it seems like a natural thing for me to be a nerd about.

Speaking of spreadsheets, currently I’m really excited about my thesis and sharing the results of the project at the upcoming TypeCon. Not only did the Font Purchasing Habits Survey produce some very interesting results, other components of the thesis allowed me to use the business models that I had learned during my business education (including some cool spreadsheets!), applying them to this creative industry. It all revealed some really interesting things that could help type designers, foundries, and distributors connect with their consumer in more meaningful ways and thus better sell their fonts.

TT: I’d love to hear more about the thesis. What is in it?

MCP: Well, the first part of the thesis provides an overview of the different aspects of the font industry related to marketing, distribution, licensing, legal issues, and then some more specific analyses related to the largest companies involved, a classification of the foundries involved, and some of the trends happening that we see in font promotional lists. So all of those different aspects were attacked from different angles, and I used a lot of business models to do so.

TT: What were some of those business models that were used?

MCP: One of the models I used a few times in the thesis is a competition analysis. For one type of competition analyses, you must determine important variables, collect information about many competitors, and score those competitors based on their performance within each variable. A more structured type of competition analyses model is the Porter’s 5 Forces, where industries are evaluated by looking at five specific categories: threat of new entry, threat of substitution, supplier power, buyer power, and competitive rivalry. Another useful model is the DuPont analysis, which uses a company’s public financial information from their annual report to determine key ratios to show a company’s performance in a simple, straight-forward way. This is useful to evaluate a company you may wish to invest in and these ratios can be compared to other companies in the same industry to see how the company stacks up. Another model used to evaluate businesses (of any size) is a SWOT analysis, which looks at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Sometimes you have to create your own models, so I created a system to provide a visual picture of what the font industry would actually look like as a two dimensional map (see below). That was fun because it was all about creative problem solving. There’s many different types of individuals selling their products in this market, and many foundries sell in multiple distributors, so it really made me think about how all these entities interacted. At first I was thinking about circles overlapping, or lines connecting circles to different places, like a spider web. Then I ended up coming up with this solar system-style model where the distributors were the rings around a central entity (Monotype-owned distributors). And then people and foundries could span multiple distributors or only exist within the Monotype sphere.

TT: So in your general overview, you first looked at the general market, then you looked at individual companies with that market interplay with each other.

MCP: Correct.

TT: What did you do next?

MCP: That information set up where I was going with the survey. From that information, I was able to see some of the trends that were happening, in marketing, licensing and with the way these foundries and distributors were interacting with each other. So my survey was informed by all of this — it showed me what questions I needed to ask.

TT: Who would be an example of people you asked these questions to? What drove the questions?

MCP: I made an educated guess and assumed that people who would be taking my survey would be graphic designers, font designers, design educators, and other creative professionals. I am involved in AIGA so I was thinking about that diverse group when I created the survey. To come up with questions, I looked at fonts that are/were doing well, key studies, so-to-speak, of successful fonts. I wondered what made them so successful, then drilled down each possible reason for the font’s success. Looking at the MyFonts, FontShop, and lists, (like Bestsellers, Hot New Fonts, etc.) to see what fonts were actually on those lists caused me to think about the things people may or may not be reacting to that made those fonts successful. So the success of those fonts drove questions related to marketing.

TT: And the purpose of the survey was to sort of parse out what made those fonts successful?

MCP: Right. And it had a lot of other important components — questions related to the prevalence of font sharing, illegal font downloading, font use in general, where people buy their fonts, what they look for in fonts, the ideal price they wish to pay for fonts, and the discount that would make them buy a font that they like but do not need. There were some interesting insights related to emotion versus function in fonts. There were so many questions I wanted to include but I had to narrow it down as much as possible since no one likes taking a long survey! I also asked demographic questions, and I was able to use that data to see how different demographic groups responded to each question.

TT: Can you give an example of that? That sounds very interesting.

Males and females actually behave quite differently in the market.

MCP: Some interesting things were revealed related to gender, and people’s responses to the questions about fonts having genders.

According to my survey, people do think that fonts have genders. I’ll talk more about that at TypeCon. Also, males and females actually behave quite differently in the market. Here are some examples: Men are willing to pay significantly higher prices than women for fonts. Women check out promotional lists first when shopping for fonts significantly more than men do. Men consider webfont usage and licensing when making recommendations for clients significantly more than women do. Women are more likely than men to buy a font if they see it used on hypothetical products in marketing promotions created by type designers. Men are more likely to purchase a font if they see it has won an award. So these are just some examples, there are so many more significant findings about gender! It’s just incredible… I had no idea that so many specific questions, broken down by male and female responses, would actually produce statistically significant results, meaning that they were actually things that were notable.

TT: For those who may not know statistics well, what would statistically significant mean?

MCP: I’m using the software SPSS. When you have a data set, there are so many tests you can run depending on the data type. An example is independent sample t-testing. You have a Likert scale question (responses varying from agree to disagree) and then you have a demographic question, with two variables (for example, under the age of 30, and over the age of 30). So you use the software to see the response to the particular question, split between the two variables. There is usually some difference in responses, but you don’t know if it’s actually significant until you look at the p-value in comparison to the alpha, or significance level. That number shows you if you should make any conclusions from the differences. In statistics, the alpha is usually set at 0.05, or 5%, so if it is less than this it is generally accepted to be not a result of chance, but an actual correlation. An alpha of 0.05 means that there is a 5% probability that random chance could explain the result. All of this requires that you have samples of an appropriately large size (for example, I couldn’t make conclusions about individuals’ behavior who stated that their primary business is illustration, since that sample size was too small.) Many of my results were 0.000 (0% probability of random chance) and I also had a lot that were around 0.015 (1.5% chance). That’s a really simple explanation — it gets more complicated with null hypotheses, etc.

TT: After you did the overview and after you got the data from the survey with some very surprising findings from it, what was the next thing you did?

Combining business ideas and models with the business of making and selling typefaces just seemed like a pragmatic and fun thing to do.

MCP: After the survey, I wrote an overview of some highlights of the results that may be useful for someone selling fonts, and I plan on revealing more in my talk at TypeCon. But then after that, I decided to extend the thesis to include a practical application the results from this data. So I worked with Neil Summerour and he gave me access to the past sales data from a font from 2007. It is an older font; it still sells but not nearly as well as a newer font would. I analyzed how it performed in the past in different distributors, past marketing strategies used at the time, the panel design that was used at the time, created a competitor analysis for this font family and other fonts that are now available. From all of this, I created a marketing plan for the update and re-release of this font family to the market using the information I learned about the prices people wanted, the discounts people would need, and other marketing components. To inform my decisions about this marketing plan that I put into place, I predicted potential sales and looked at the sales trends from each distributor. With this particular font (and this may not be true for all fonts) MyFonts produced steady sales throughout the life of the typeface, whereas other distributors sold very, very well the first two years and then completely flattened out. Looking at the sales data causes me to have the hypothesis that every distributor would produce a different sales pattern. That may vary depending on the font designer and other variables. I’m looking forward to figuring that out. I’m really excited, in the future, to look at more fonts and more past sales data to see if these trends are different between font styles, font types, month released, designer, and when a discount is offered. There’s so much more to learn!

TT: You were able to make business decisions about selling and distributing type based on rational and repeatable data, correct?

MCP: Right. So from my past experience — my very, very limited experience making and selling typefaces — the marketing that was put together wasn’t based on data. It was an educated guess, looking at trends currently happening, deciding how you want to present the font, creating panels that may or may not work to help sell it based on your limited, singular understanding of the market. But with this research, it can now be more of a science. Being able to identify a specific group that purchases your products, then tailoring your promotion and marketing to them, to me feels like a no-brainer. Combining business ideas and models with the business of making and selling typefaces just seemed like a pragmatic and fun thing to do. Plus, I got to make cool spreadsheets.

TT: I agree. This has been a great conversation. I’m going to be at TypeCon myself, so I’m looking forward to hearing all the details about it. Thank you so much for your time.

MCP: My pleasure. See you there!

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