When Minna Kim Mazza, a Chicago Web site designer, was shopping for wedding invitations, not one of the typefaces she saw shaped the M in her first name the way she wanted. So Mazza decided to hire Joshua Darden, a font designer from Brooklyn, to create a font especially for her invitations.
I felt it would be fitting to have a unique font just for me, that didn’t look like anyone else’s invitations, Mazza said, even if most people didn’t notice that it was a custom-designed font.
Fonts, or typefaces, are the shapes of the letters we read every day–and that most of us barely notice. From newspaper print to the words on road signs, we scan over fonts for information, usually without noticing style. The only interaction most people might have with letter design is when they choose from the 140-plus fonts published by Microsoft Word to design a party invitation, or dignify a resume.
But then there are the aesthetically obsessed, people who sometimes can’t see the words for the shapes. For these few, all the tens of thousands of fonts that designers have created since the birth of the printing press are just not enough. So an industry has sprung up to cater to people and companies that aspire to find ever more ways to write the letters A, B and C.
In an industry once dominated by large type foundry businesses, Darden is one of about 500 independent font designers who are hard at work across the country supplying new fonts to online retailers like MyFonts.com. In his small studio–really a closet-size spare bedroom in his apartment–Darden obsesses over the alphabet, drawing new letter forms by hand.
A vast array of about 30,000 fonts are now available online to be downloaded at a cost anywhere from $6 to $600.
But for aesthetically geared clients–people who are picky about the paint color on their walls and the layout of their kids’ birthday invitations–those offerings may not be special enough.
And they are willing to pay thousands of dollars to get what they want. It’s like hiring an actor to play a part, said Mark Simonson, a typeface designer in St. Paul, Minn., whose baseline fee to design a custom font is $3,000. There might be millions of actors, but there may only be a few that would be right for a role.
Because font design is so costly, artists rarely work with private clients like Mazza, the bride-to-be. But many companies, even small ones, will pay to have unique-looking lettering on their labels, signs and logos. The singers Beyonce and Bjork both commissioned custom fonts for their recording labels.
A typeface is in many ways a visual voice of [who] it represents, said Gary Munch, president of the Type Directors Club, which seeks to raise the standards of typography.
As recently as 10 years ago, it was much more difficult to be an independent designer. Large typographic foundries like Linotype and ITC designed most of the fonts available, and they required teams of people to get the fonts into publishable form.
But in the late 1990s, new computer programs allowed anyone with the time and patience to design a font. By some estimates, online warehouses for fonts, like MyFonts.com, now advertise five new type foundries a month–mostly one-man studios like Darden’s.
Darden says most of his clients have some idea what they’re looking for, but they just can’t seem to find it. Many settled in the past for typefaces that didn’t have the right look at all. Most clients have had laundry lists of why the fonts they were using weren’t right for them, Darden said.
When designing a font, the artist usually begins by sketching a few letters by hand, before using software to make the new font available for download. Designs are often based on historical fonts or on modifications of fonts that already exist.
Font designers draw whole alphabets and number sets and often entire typeface families that contain regular, italic, bold and bold italic versions. The process can take days, months, even years.
Darden recently completed a family of fonts that he named Freight. The set, which took seven years to complete, contains 20 fonts in more than 100 different styles. It is available to buy at Web sites like philsfonts.com and fontshop.com.
There is currently no way for a designer to copyright a font. Font piracy is common, since people can easily copy a font and distribute it as their own. Some designers feel that many of the fonts available to download online are copycats of one another. They hope consumers will develop more design savvy, and look with discerning eyes at the letterings they use every day.
Fonts don’t grow on trees, Simonson said. They’re not made by machines or computers. People make them, and they’re not something to take for granted.
— Andrea L. Gawrylewski – Columbia News Service