Joe Clark: Accessibility ¶ Design ¶ Writing

Do font-selling Web sites lack the personal touch?

Author’s note: I wrote this one for Print, but it was spiked because the source demanded anonymity. Curiously, I proceeded with the story only after explaining to Print that the source would deman anonymity.

Quite obviously and to everyone’s untroubled agreement, Web distribution of fonts is the best thing that ever happened to type sales. Every font is available, or seemingly; you can download them right away; you can buy exactly a single from a typeface family if you wish; one-person shops become as viable as Amazon-style font bazaars, the biggest of which is

Except it isn’t all obvious and not everyone agrees. In the pre-Web days, it was perfectly possible to buy fonts. You just had to call up a font salesperson (whom you probably knew), talk over what you needed or think you needed, dictate a credit-card number over the phone, and await the arrival of a floppy disc (an actual floppy disc) or, latterly, a burned CD-ROM.

Like the antiquarian bookstore that is fast disappearing as old books are increasingly sold online, the physical font retailer is staring extinction in the face. But is it just possible that online font sales are extinguishing a range of advantages and capabilities that only the oldschool font stores could offer? A source in the font industry who requested anonymity certainly thinks so.

“As soon as fonts became nothing more than digital files that are purchased online,” the source exclusively tells Print, “you are encouraging people to search online as the first stage in a design project or in the process of purchasing a font. And the first step is to search for the font for free, and then, if need be, purchase the fonts.”

At and the like, “basically the distinction between the professional-quality fonts, the fonts that are supported by the foundries that are selling them, with a sort of guarantee of functionality and a guarantee that the fonts conform to necessary standards, is gone. There is no distinction made on type on on stuff that is essentially home-cooked Fontographer-generated TrueType without the character sets and full accents, et cetera.... The material is not of a quality that would ever have be released by one of the professional large, or small boutique-type, foundries.”

Online font aggregators are “pawning this stuff off as commercially-usable typographic software, with no tech support, no testing, incomplete character sets, and no guarantee that the font is going to be able for legal legitimate license [in] one, two, or five years.”

Laurence Penney of begs to differ. “We’re actually very proud of the tech support we do. We’re doing it quite a lot. We’ve developed a really slick system of handling the incoming tech-support requests, you know, several dozen per day... and if the customer still needs it, we’ll give them a ring. And we get really, really good feedback.... Most customers are getting responses within 20 minutes, I would say. It’s that quick.”

As for the issues of “reduced character sets or not the same outline smoothness quality or the same historical authenticity or things like that, if they’re paying $6 or $8 for a font they really like, we don’t have a problem with that.”

“Fonts were a lot more expensive then,” the source concedes, “and it is a choice that enough consumers have made to make the other way of doing business unviable.” But some customers, Penney responds, will “be guided to the cheaper fonts anyway.” He uses the European design trio Underware (whose fonts include Dolly and Sauna) as a counterexample: The Dolly family’s “entry price is $150, so [these buyers] are not going to go that way anyway; we won’t be talking to those customers and trying to turn them into Underware customers. It’s to our benefit, and our customers’ benefit, if there are some $8 fonts on the site.... A world with more people buying fonts than before is a better one for the industry, we think.”

In all fairness to the online sales outfits, buying your own fonts on the Web works well for typographers with advanced sensibilities and good design knowledge, since they know what they want and why they don’t want something else. But for the untrained or semi-trained customer, the source believes, online sales are useful only in providing a font, not the right font. “I think an art director who diligently goes to [a] type Web site is substantially less well-informed and is much more likely to miss a good solution and to miss new and interesting materials than they were a few years ago when they were getting regular type catalogues and they were in regular contact with an individual who knew them and who knew what they were interested in.”

Penney disputes the premise. “I’m not sure if a site or a friendly font-shop salesman can make a great typographer in a phone call. I’m not sure what things you’re claiming for the font-shop regional sales staff that would result in a better piece of typography.... With four to six staff, we can’t provide a lot of advice on font choices. If they were good customers, yes, we’d be very happy to do it.”

It does seem to boil down to an efficient way to make money: The font bazaars earn by selling fonts in bulk (whether at $8 or $150), and may be willing to provide personalized service to the very largest clients. But this monetary imperative even hurts indie font designers, claims the source, since they “get screwed by having their stuff associated with crap on these entirely mercenary, money-making Web sites....

“If the public is not interested in dealing with a professional retailer who’s making a curatorial selection of products and services who is knowledgeable and provides real information,” the source concludes, “[if] they’re more interested in seeing everything that’s available... and getting a few bucks off to save paying the salary of the supposedly-knowledgeable curatorial professional – fine, that’s the way that all [æsthetic] markets have changed in recent years.”

Updated 2004.11.18

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