by Thomas Phinney
I was planning on making my next post about contextual alternates and features in OpenType. Instead, I’m writing today because I’m really tired, and want to say that one complaint I’ve heard from some font developers is largely true.
Some typeface designers have been saying in the last year or two, in posts on Typophile and elsewhere, that there’s one main problem with making fonts that have tons of typographic features and extended language support. It’s a whole bunch more work to make such fonts. They don’t think they can charge enough extra to make it worth the extra work. Plus, they end up spending more time on fewer designs, and the proportion of their type design time that’s spent creatively is going down. But it’s a general trend, and some feel they don’t have much choice but to go along with it.
Note: if you don’t already know about OpenType, read one or more of the following.
- this post on phasing out Type 1 has a good brief summary
- Adobe’s intro material
- our User Guide
- my more technical article on font formats
So, I’ve been sitting here the last week working hard on my upcoming typeface, Hypatia Sans™ Pro Most of what I’ve been doing is the thrilling, death-defying task of assembling accented characters using composites and mark attachment in FontLab Studio 5. Somewhere along the way, I got a bit worn out, and I am wanting to express my commiseration with my fellow type designers and offer a few thoughts about the challenges we face in this “brave new world”….
First, it really is a lot more work, and if you do these mega-fonts, you’ll do fewer typeface designs. And the extra work is insidious in how it can creep up on you. I started work on this typeface, and I thought, well of course I’m going to do central/eastern European accented letters. They’re easy, right? Most of them are, but they take time. Then there’s our additional extended Latin character set, which isn’t that much more, and my old acquaintance Roy keeps on begging for Esperanto support – just a few more accented letters. And then we’ve started adding Vietnamese to some of our typefaces, too – initially due to a request from SAP for Acrobat. I might as well do that, it’s just more accented Latin. I’m curious to try my hand at Greek and Cyrillic, too. But we’ve recently been convinced that if one does Greek one might as well do polytonic GrekAnd it all adds up. Then I’m doing real designed small caps for them all, adding another multiplier to the total work.
I have, at this moment, 1895 glyphs per font. I will easily break 2000 before I’m done, and that’s before we duplicate all the small caps for obscure reasons I’ll get into some other time. Somewhere around now my brain explodes, leaving a real mess on the dining room table where I do most of the work on my laptop.
At a more prosaic level, the added language coverage is easily going to take two or three times as long as doing a more basic language set (like our “Standard” OT set, which is mostly the old MacRoman plus WinANSI).
The typographic goodies aren’t quite as bad by themselves, but many of them also multiply by the language coverage. Sure, the oldstyle numbers only have to be done once. But one can do small caps for all those languages. Sigh.
Although it is also true that Adobe has scaled back its font development team over the years, these mega-fonts really take their toll on the number of new typefaces one can put out. So a lot of type foundries and especially individual designers are out there asking themselves what they want to do. Of those who are getting really into OpenType, many are spending more time on typographic features instead of language support, because it is more “fun” and also because it is something they can more easily sell to their existing customer base.
Speaking of selling, I feel lucky that I don’t have any tough decisions about pricing these days. Adobe has already set our prices for OpenType fonts, in a relatively simple model. At the single font level, we charge $26 for a Type 1 font, $30 for an OpenType with “Standard” language support, and $35 for an OpenType “Pro” font which has more extensive language support. Some of our competitors are doing some version of “value-based” pricing where the price scales directly according to the amount of stuff in each font. Some individual OpenType fonts are going for $60, $75, or even $100 each based on this model. Although we’re choosing to keep things simpler (and often cheaper) than that, it’s not an unreasonable approach.
For language support, one might hope to recoup the costs through increaesd sales. At least in the long run, having more language support should sell more copies of the fonts into other countries or for people who need multi-lingual publishing. But in the short run, neither we nor most of the small type foundries are getting good distribution into various far-flung countries. And within your existing markets, only a small minority of your customers need support for more languages within the same single font. So what percentage of your customers are willing to pay more for extra language support? It’s hard to decide how much to up the price (if at all). Overall, added language support is not going to pay off very quickly.
One solution is to continue to pull apart your typeface and sell separate fonts by language coverage, even though you are perfectly capable of putting them in one font (and in fact it’s easier to put them all in one font). Indeed, one major type foundry has told me they are doing exactly this as they move to OpenType. I cringe at this thought, both from an ivory-tower-engineering-simplicity point of view, and just thinking about what’s best and easiest for end users. But this approach does let the people who need the different language support pay for it, without charging those who don’t need it. I guess my thought is that the best global solution is to sell one font that has all the language support you’ve got for that typeface design, and charge just a little more for it. The downside of course is that customers who don’t need it are still paying for it. I guess there is no pefect solution.
On the typographic front, it’s a similar story. On the plus side, basic typographic features such as simple ligatures, small caps and oldstyle figures only add, say, 20% to the amount of work to design a typeface. On the downside, advanced typographic features can get completely out of hand. A typeface like Bickham Script Pro can have as many as 20-30 different glyphs for each lowercase character. It’s an insane amount of work. Our own simple pricing model means that Bickham Script Pro gets the same price as any other “Pro” font, even though it was easily 5-10x as much work as most of them.
Will the market pay a price that was based more directly on the amount of work that went into it? I don’t know. For our competitors experimenting with value-based pricing, I wish them luck with it.
So, yes, there are perhaps fewer typefaces, and they’re more work, and it’s hard to figure out how to price them. But now that I’ve taken a break for a while to write this diatribe, I remember again the two things that motivated me to do something like this:
First, the typographic freedom. I kept on coming up with wacky ideas about things I wanted to put into the typeface, typographically speaking. Thanks to OpenType, there was a logical way to include these goodies in the typeface, making my creativity easily accessible in a way it never could have been before.
Second, we really are living in a more globalized era. Whether it’s designers in our domestic markets needing to support more languages for their globally-operating customers, or our fonts seeing global distribution via online sales, our typefaces will be used in ways and places that we wouldn’t have imagined a decade ago. I look forward to some day visiting far-away countries whose languages aren’t supported by WinANSI and MacRoman, and seeing my type in use there.
Now I need to go fix some tildes in my polytonic Greek.