ALPHABITS NO ONE'S PLAYING FOUNDERS-KEEPERS IN THE WILD WORLD OF DIGITAL FONTS, WHERE SELLING FACE IS THE KEY TO SAVING FACE
EVER SINCE RICH ROAT AND HIS PARTNERS AT BRAND Design in Wilmington, Del., expanded their firm by opening a fonts division called House Industries last year, they've watched their semi-legible fonts appear everywhere from MTV supers to a Vanilla Ice album. With a library brewing with pun-laden names-Houseparty features wavy psychedelia-inspired characters, while Housepaint's letters drip like a hastily-applied coat of latex-House Industries was actually started as a "joke" when Roat and his Mac jockey partners mailed out promo cards to 100 art directors. When orders started streaming in they had to scramble to come up with complete alphabets. "There's a voracious appetite for new type," Roat says. If people have the slightest hankering for a new face "they'll just buy it-no questions asked."
While Emigre broke ground with its experimental fonts a decade ago, it's only in the last few years that the use of alternative faces has exploded in mainstream advertising and magazines. Made to order fonts pop up in everything from ads for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to the Bank of England to Nickelodeon. At the current Type Directors Club 40th annual show in New York, "degenerate" and nontraditional faces dominate (see Gallery on page 10).
Cherie Cone, who started the Boston-based specialty foundry Carter & Cone Type two years ago, marvels at the demand for custom faces, noting that some customers snap up every new font her partnerMatthew Carter designs. It seems that "fashions blow through the type world in the exact same way" they flit about the apparel industry, Cone says. With "everyone owning the same 2,000 faces," she reasons that the overexposure of these standard characters has fueled designers' cravings for fresh typographic styles. Meanwhile, Software packages like Fontographer have vastly increased the variety of faces available, making it not only cheaper and faster to produce fonts but cheaper and faster for users to acquire them.
Selections vary wildly from Garage Fonts sold by David Carson and the edgy Dutch designs found in the first issue of FontFont (a juried collection of faces from the U.K.'s FontWorks, assembled by Neville Brody) to the elegant faces of C&C, Boston's Font Bureau or Rick Valicenti's Thirstype in Chicago. Another Chicago designer, Carlos Segura, who launched T-26 last year with partner Scott Smith (see Creativity, March 1994), says he's deluged with orders, something he credits in part to low prices, student discounts and generous royalties to type designers. Still, T-26's popularity amazes him. "This is a total accident," says Segura, whose library of experimental fonts now exceeds 100 and is in demand (thanks to its exposure through online services) in places as far off as Japan, Argentina and Australia.
Most noticeable is the increase in display fonts used in the body copy of ads. For instance, a T-26 font designed by Smith, called Scotty, which suggests a childish kind of scrawl, turned up in the text of an ad for the Toronto Zoo from Chiat/Day/Toronto (see story on page 7 of this issue).
Advertising creatives and designers aren't gorging on these fonts alone. Just about anyone dabbling in desktop publishing is a likely buyer as well. An Emigre hot seller called Remedy is a case in point. A playful character set full of curly Rs and Os ringed with dots, the font appears on everything from the box of a children's CD-ROM game to a local Boston hair salon ad. Rudy VanderLans, co-founder of Emigre Graphics, credits the font's popularity in part to its mainstream expo sure-a desktop publishing guidebook for high school yearbook editors recommended Remedy, and Emigre was flooded with requests.
The major type foundries and distributors are hustling to keep pace with the type craze, joining forces with some of the independent foundries and presenting their work in more inventive ways. Agfa, for instance, just released the first copy of the AgfaType Idea Catalog, which features a selection of alternative faces from foundries like T-26, Treacyfaces of West Haven, Conn., and Boston's the Font Bureau, coupled with a section of type-inspired art from 14 Chicago designers. "Even though in surveys people say they want more text fonts, they're buying up the display faces," says Cynthia Hollandsworth, senior marketing manager at Agfa.
Distribution methods are changing just as radically as the type aesthetic. Thanks to online distribution, new fonts can be in designers' hands in days. Joe Treacy, who founded Treacyfaces in 1984, just started selling his fonts on CompuServe in May, which offers the advantage of downloading fonts at only about $3 for online access and transfer time. In an effort to insure royalties, Red Rooster Type Founders in Philadelphia will soon distribute a CD-ROM called the International TypeFounders, which will offer more than 2,000 fonts from the major independents in the United States and abroad, with the designers setting their own prices. Carson's
Garage Fonts come in at the high range, at $100 per set. A service that combines clip art, fonts and photos is the ITC Design Palette, which the International Typeface Corp. is launching in September. For a monthly fee subscribers will receive a variety of CD-ROMs with offerings from various foundries and stock agencies; selections can be ordered online.
But as new faces are rolled out en masse, some wonder whether the old quality and craft will be lost. Segura says that for every face he accepts he turns away 10. But Thirst's Valicenti opened Thirstype last year with the intention of offering only a select five faces created by a trio of designers: himself; Barry Deck, designer of Template Gothic, one of the original "grunge" fonts seen in RayGun, who's designed a font called Cyberotica; and Jonathan Hoefler, who will release HDF Didot, the face he designed for the refurbishing of Harper's Bazaar under Fabien Baron. "Nobody is upholding the traditions of typographers," Valicenti complains. Just because a font is digital "doesn't mean it has to be bad or sold cheaply."
David Berlow, principal at the Font Bureau, has a more laissez-faire attitude. "In the 1630s people were still cutting horrible typefaces and still making money doing it," he says. "A lot of these faces didn't survive. There's nothing in the world that says if someone's a marine biologist he can't sit down and