Why did I start a type foundry?

Why would anyone in his or her right mind start a type foundry now? Well, to begin with, it’s often said that it’s a good idea to start a business in a recession. However, the type marketplace has gotten very crowded—there are more foundries and distributors of type in all sizes right now than at any previous time. Even the pre-machine setting peak of typefounding in the 19th century had a smaller number of foundries by many orders of magnitude. Notwithstanding all of the small foundries, a handful of large distributors dominate the general market, leaving the rest of us scrambling to find ever-shrinking niches. Why not just climb onboard with one of the big players and leave the business side to people who know what they’re doing? Would that be too easy?

At left is the Bureau des Affaires Typographiques (BAT), a foundry formed in 2009 by Bruno Bernard, Stéphane Buellet, Jean-Baptiste Levée and Patrick Paleta. Their website launched in April 2010. At right is The Indian Type Foundry, a joint venture launched in 2009 by Peter Biľak of Typotheque with Rajesh Kejriwal and Satya Rajpurohit.

It’s reassuring to know that we’re not the only ones with this crazy idea right now. There are a number of small new foundries that have just launched, or are about to launch, such as the Bureau des Affaires Typographiques in Paris and The Indian Type Foundry in the Netherlands and India.

At top is the ‘g’ from Schelter & Giesecke Grotesk, as revived in FF Bau Bold. Below is the single-story ‘g’ found in many of the clones of this typeface, including Alte Haas Grotesk and Nebiolo’s Etruscan.

My own particular story begins in 2002, when I released FF Bau with FontFont and got an email out of the blue from Paul Barnes, a designer in London, asking a very specific question about the lowercase g. I can’t find the original email, but it was something to the effect of “Where did you find your ‘g’? I’ve only seen the single story version in the historical sources I’ve seen. Did you make it up?” This was the beginning of a nerdy friendship that turned into a working relationship when Mark Porter, then the creative director at The Guardian, threw us together as a team for their 2005 redesign. This worked out well enough that we continued working together on custom typefaces for various clients, including the Empire State Building restoration, The New York Times style magazine T, and Condé Nast Portfolio, a business magazine that sadly became a casualty of the recession in 2009.

Without really being conscious of it it, several years had gone by and Paul and I were doing most of our projects as a team. What’s more the exclusivity on the Guardian family was soon going to expire and we had some decisions to make. To be honest, I don’t think we have another family like this in us. Designing Guardian, with its 6 components (some still not yet released) covering serif, sans, optical sizes, and even an agate in 4 grades, was a massive amount of work. This could be the foundation of a new foundry—a family that, if we were lucky, would sell well enough to allow us to indulge ourselves in some of our more bizarre ideas.

There are many drawbacks to starting a foundry, though, so we were reluctant to simply go ahead without exploring other options first. I’m not a graphic designer, so the idea of branding and marketing a new library just sounded like a big headache. Dealing with credit cards, tech support, bookkeeping, and talking on the phone sounded like an infinitely bigger set of headaches. Considering the hassles, the potential upsides seemed meager at first. Paul is a great graphic designer, so he was far more positive about the task of coming up with a visual identity than I was. The financial upside seemed murky at best—sure, in theory we’d make 100% of every sale, but how much would we have to spend to get to that point, and to maintain the business? And while the intangibles are nice, like the satisfaction of building something from the ground up, do they really outweigh the headaches?

Publishing with one or more established foundries

I had released families with a number of foundries over the years, and so we looked at our options there, but none of them seemed like quite the right fit for Guardian. We ruled each one out for different reasons. Some were too large, making us fear that our work might be lost in the shuffle. Did we really want to be just 8 of 80, 180, or 1080 families? Others didn’t have enough emphasis on the publication market, or had a specific aesthetic that didn’t match Guardian or much of the other work we had done together. Paul and I have eclectic but very specific taste, and we worried that our distinct point of view would likely be lost in a larger library.

The specific terms of the End User License Agreement – boring but important – were another issue. For example, Paul and I have relatively liberal views on PDF embedding, compared to many other foundries. On this and many other issues (such as web licensing) we would of course be able to state our viewpoints, but the final decision would ultimately be with the foundry publishing the work.

The round alternates in Giorgio Sans are pretty strange, but Paul Barnes took things to the next level with his extensive set of swashes and ligatures in the upcoming Dala Floda, used without swashes in the recent redesign of Creative Review.

Character sets were yet another issue. By working through different standards with different foundries for several years, seeing where my retail fonts were being licensed, and producing custom typefaces for various types of clients, I felt like I had been through an almost Goldilocks-like process of elimination: one foundry’s character set was too big, another foundry’s character set was too small, and I felt comfortable coming up with a character set that would be just right for us, with language coverage for most of Europe, (where the vast majority of our licenses sold before we launched our site) plus various bits and pieces that I think are important for good typography and convenience for the user. I am a firm believer in uppercase punctuation, for example. Being in control of our own character sets would also allow us to explore swashes and alternates in ways that an outside foundry publishing our work might not have the patience for.

Guardian Sans Headline is one example of a family featuring uppercase punctuation that we have published. Characters such as ¿, « and » are raised in all-caps text, in order to look more visually balanced. The Extra Condensed shown here was commissioned by the Vocento newspaper group in Spain and drawn by Berton Hasebe.

Finally, we realized that if we were publishing all of our work elsewhere, our working partnership would end up being a closed system. We wouldn’t have the opportunity to publish typefaces by other designers, like Lyon by Kai Bernau, for example. While it was hard to imagine a long-term future of publishing everything through a single outside foundry, continuing to publish with a variety of foundries didn’t seem ideal either. Not only would this break up our body of work, but it would also mean juggling wildly varying production workflows, character sets, release schedules and contract terms, not to mention the backlog of typefaces in each foundry’s pipeline each time we wanted to release something new.

A foundry in name only

Starting a foundry in name only, licensing through one or more distributors, seemed like an attractive option, and appears to be finding popularity with a growing number of type designers. After all, not everybody is the type world equivalent of Radiohead, able to thrive outside the establishment while making and marketing their work on their own terms. Radiohead self-released their 2007 album In Rainbows through their own website and allowed people to pay whatever they wanted for it. Although the band declared this experiment a success, sales figures were never released and the album did later end up in record stores and on iTunes, so maybe In Rainbows wasn’t necessarily the revolution it was made out to be?

If we signed with a distributor, we would be able to have our own website for marketing and showing our work, and send people to the distributor when they actually wanted to buy a license. We would also be able to come up with our own EULA, as well as standards for character sets, technical specs, and our own release schedule. In addition to our own marketing efforts, we would benefit from the distributors’ expertise with things like advertising and marketing through social media. As we thought more about it, though, we realized that we would just be one of many labels, all jockeying for position, promotion, and attention. Ultimately we weren’t convinced that there would be enough overlap between our priorities and a distributor’s priorities, and if we did decide at some point to sell licenses directly, we were worried that we would end up competing head to head for the same customers. If we already have a good idea of who our potential audience is and how to reach them, why not spend the percentage of each sale that a distributor would take on our own infrastructure and printed specimens instead? This left us convinced that a more formal partnership, and starting a foundry of our own, was the best way forward. The first order of business was a name.

Becoming Commercial

The Barnes & Schwartz Type Foundry was the most logical choice for a name, but seemed somehow… derivative; and It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. And what would it mean when we started releasing work by outside designers? Having already committed to releasing Lyon, because it was too great to pass up, we hated to think that people would assume that, since our names were “on the front door”, so to speak, we had designed the typeface and Kai Bernau wouldn’t end up getting proper credit for the design.

After spending a full week brainstorming, the name Commercial Type came to one of us. It seemed like a perfect fit for what we were trying to do: It’s a little bit Warhol, a little bit Factory Records. We aren’t pretending that we’re artists, and it makes us seem very upfront – almost cheekily so – about the fact that we are making products for sale. Considering the limited commercial prospects of some of our current and upcoming releases, the name takes on a certain amount of of irony.

The Commercial Type logo was designed by Paul Barnes, based on Dala Floda.

It’s much easier to be an “armchair quarterback,” second-guessing everyone else’s seemingly questionable decisions regarding everything from marketing to OpenType features, than it is to deal with the actual reality of budgets, technology, and timelines. Theorizing about how and why things work is all well and good, but putting our ideas into practice is of course the real test, and it’s been a little bit scary, especially where the web is concerned. Paul and I both have backgrounds in print design, specifically publication design, so we’ve had a hard time wrapping our minds around the totally different paradigms demanded by web design. We worked with Andy Pressman and Renda Morton at Rumors, a small design studio in New York, and they did an amazing job of focusing our thoughts so they could be turned into something concrete. While Paul and I can write, it’s not necessarily our biggest strength, so our main concept for the site has been showing rather than telling, devoting as much of the screen real estate as possible to showing the type. And a bigger screen means showing even more type.

All of the specimen images extend past the right edge of the browser window… unless you like to browse at full width on a 30” monitor, I suppose.

Gauging how long it would take to set everything up proved a lot more difficult than we anticipated. We finally launched at the beginning of January this year, but we had originally planned to launch in September 2008. We had no idea that it would take more than 3 or 4 months to define our brand, get the legal stuff all taken care of, design and build a website, finish some fonts, make specimens, and be approved by an underwriter for credit card processing. Who could have predicted that this would take so long, or that there would be so much to learn!? Now that the site is up and running, we have a whole new set of challenges, like putting together advertising budgets and learning just how much marketing strategies have changed since I last worked at a type foundry. The day to day can be tedious at times, but it is never boring!

So to recap, two years ago, Paul and I somewhat reluctantly decided to start a foundry after weighing all of our options, but gained momentum and enthusiasm throughout the process, and even suddenly find ourselves with an office and staff: a type designer, Berton Hasebe, who graduated from the Type & Media program at the KABK in 2008, and in the coming weeks a new administrator and our first ever summer intern will be starting work.

In the end, we wanted control over the context our work is presented in, and felt that this was worth the headaches of tech support, bookkeeping and payroll. We would like to think we have an interesting point of view, and want our foundry to be an extension of this, so we have been drawing on many of our interests and influences outside the sphere of type design, and even outside graphic design, for the design and text of our site and specimens.

The homepage was the most difficult component of the site to design, and we went in circles for over a year before Andy, Renda, and graphic designer Abi Huynh, who also designed our PDF specimens, came up with a simple and elegant way to introduce some motion and color to the site by constantly transitioning through a rotating set of messages.

What I’ve learned

This article is adapted from a talk I gave at the ATypI conference in Mexico City in October 2009. There were a number of recent graduates from type design master’s programs in attendance, some of whom had expressed interest in starting foundries of their own. While I certainly didn’t want to stand up on stage and give advice that may or may not apply to each individual situation, I concluded by talking about some of the circumstances in my career, some of which were conscious decisions and some of which were dumb luck, that I felt had prepared me for starting Commercial Type:

1. I’m really happy I learned the ropes of production and professional practice before starting Commercial Type, both through working at Font Bureau for two years in the early ’00s and through publishing families with a number of other foundries.

2. I’m glad I partnered up with someone with a different but complementary background, rather than another full-time type designer. Paul draws type beautifully, but his background in publication design is probably more important, because it has pointed us toward the vast majority of our good (or at least interesting) ideas. I think this makes our company more than the sum of its parts.

3. I’m happy that I’ve been able to balance retail and custom projects. There’s no better promotion for yourself as a custom type designer than releasing typefaces that people like, and commissions are an excellent source of retail fonts. After all, the client has already proven that there is some demand. Very different sets of skills are used when designing a typeface for a single specific use, versus designing one intended for general use. For example, Guardian Egyptian Text was designed to be used at 8pt on 9.5pt leading on the Guardian’s presses, mainly in columns that are 54mm wide, and was thoroughly tested with their ink, paper and pressmen; whereas Graphik was designed to be used for text or display at a wide range of sizes in newspapers, magazines, and corporate design. I’m glad I get to do some of each, because they inform one another.

4. I’m really happy that Paul and I waited to start a foundry until we had more than one or two families to release. The ups and downs of each individual family’s sales matter less because they balance one another out. Before we launched the website, enquiries tended to come in groups: one week 75% of the email that came in was about Lyon. The week before it had all been about Graphik, and the week after it was all about Publico. This has continued with direct sales through our web site. We are unable to explain or predict it. It’s very mysterious.

5. I’m glad I didn’t have any illusions that starting a foundry would mean I get to spend more time drawing. The business side of things eats up a lot of time, and luckily I don’t hate it. Which leads me to my final point:

Our PDF specimen for the Austin family, designed by Abi Huynh.

6. I’m glad I had time to learn my limits and learn how to delegate. Abi Huynh works with Paul on the graphic design, because I’m a mediocre graphic designer at best. Berton very handily takes care of much of the custom work these days. Rumors did a great job designing the website and found a brilliant programmer to build it. We have a really good accountant and a really good lawyer. This means that, although I draw less than I used to, I still get to draw, because I’ve made it a priority.   

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