FontFont Has Never Been More Independent

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News | Jürgen Siebert | July 16, 2014

When the deal between Monotype and FontFont was announced yesterday the internet exploded, wailing and lamenting the perceived loss of independence of the world’s largest library of original contemporary typefaces. Arguments like “FontFont is no longer the last major independent foundry” and “There’s never been a better time – nor a better argument – for independent foundries than now” were retweeted countless times. Maybe it is time to put things in perspective.

Lords and Lady of the FontFonts – the TypeBoard then:
Jürgen Siebert, Neville Brody, Beth Russell, Erik van Blokland, and Erik Spiekermann

In my capacity as a member of the TypeBoard I personally witnessed the fortunes of FontFont since Release 2 in 1991 – including the original FF Meta, Neville Brody’s seminal FF Typeface 6 & 7, FF Dolores by fresh-faced newcomer Tobias Frere-Jones (how times have changed!), Martin Wenzel’s first foray into type design FF Marten, and FF Jacque by Max Kisman who was part of the inaugural Five Dutch Type Designers release too. Last month FontFont Release 67 (!) was announced. I remember many times in the past quarter century when we felt anything but “independent”. The rapid growth of our library and changing font formats cannibalised all of our income in the late 1990s. Our catalogue shrank to the size of a CD booklet, and instead of publishing type specimen posters we had to resign ourselves to sending out mere post cards. The burden for the FontFont Focus booklets published between 1998 and 2001 was braced by FontShop Germany and the small FontShop BeNeLux alone.

There is no denying these were romantic times. We were loved, our typefaces were popular, our print materials became collector’s items. Yet if we are to face the hard facts we must also admit FontFonts did not sell that well. We were treading water for years at end, and many of our type designers suffered with us. The turnaround came sometime around 2004, when word of the aesthetic and technical quality of FontFonts finally started to do the rounds in the marketing departments of large companies. Thanks to our new colleagues at FontShop San Francisco who secured some sizable multi-license agreements, the FontFont headquarters in Berlin finally had room to breathe again. At last a decent marketing budget became available for quality printed promotional materials and a proper website. The international expansion of our sales made itself felt and became the secret of our success.

Lords and Lady of the FontFonts – the TypeBoard, December 7, 2009:
Clockwise from front left: Jared Benson, Andreas Frohloff, Ivo Gabrowitsch, Stephen Coles, Ugla Marekowa, Erik Spiekermann, and Jürgen Siebert. Photo by FontFont.

Now, a decade later, FontFont will immediately benefit from the marketing and sales power of Monotype. Just like many independents in the punk era managed to cross over and teamed up with major labels to get their records in the stores, Monotype will introduce FontFonts to customer groups that we never managed to reach in 25 years – equipment manufacturers, software developers, operating system developers, and so on. Monotype makes almost 60% of its sales in this segment.

What does “independence” in the creative field actually mean? Nothing else than “Power to the artist”, and something like “Priority to good taste”. At FontFont, testimony to these ideals are our fair designer contracts (keywords royalties and intellectual protection) and the independence of our TypeBoard that selects new typefaces. These are our core values; neither is up for debate. Yes, Monotype would like to peek over the shoulders of our TypeBoard and our FontFont marketing team to learn from us, so they can apply this new knowledge to improve the sales and reputation of their other libraries. But the fact still remains that we will continue to develop FontFonts with their fair designer contracts, an unchanged TypeBoard, the same technical team of the FontFont Type Department and an identical, high quality standard; just like we have been doing the past quarter century, but reaching a much larger user base thanks to Monotype’s contacts. The only thing that was lost was an abstract, romantic notion – nothing else. What is gained is the independence to do more.

Header image: Made With FontFont. Photo by Stephen Coles.

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  1. This is a very reasonable explication of what independence has meant for FontShop in the past, Jürgen, and what it might mean in the future. Yes, capital enables things, but this is also why concentrated accumulations of it are problematic: who gets to decide what happens?

    While expressing very well what independence means, in very practical terms, for FontShop, I think you are overlooking what it means to type designers, which is something more than a romantic notion. When I talk with designers who license their work through resellers, the common concerns I hear regard having a say in how their work is marketed and licensed, and the question of who gets to profit from their work. Designers who were happy for Joan and Erik to share in the profit from their labour may be considerably less happy to see their work further enriching the coffers of Monotype, a company whom many see as already too powerful and influential in this business; indeed, a company that Erik himself has in the past characterised as a monopoly.

    I don’t doubt that you and the rest of the FontShop team will continue to do good and interesting things, just as my friends at Linotype, MyFonts, Ascender, etc. have done, and just as my friends at Monotype have been doing all along. There are many good and talented people in all these organizations. And likewise I don’t blame Joan and Erik for deciding that it is time to cash out. But it would be wrong to mistake the sensible concerns of type designers regarding the further concentration of control of the type business as something like nostalgia or romanticism. The larger Monotype gets, the more its actions in the market have an impact on all other foundries, and the more it is able to utilize its capital advantage to monopolize that market the harder it will be for type designers to decide who gets to profit from their labour. The avenues for bringing fonts to market without contributing to Monotype’s bottom line are getting narrower.

    Anyway, I wish you and Petra and Ivo and everyone else at FontShop all the best for the future, both personally and as a company.


    Posted by John Hudson on Jul. 16, 2014
  2. Too much power in one hand is bad, I agree. But I’d rather have that power in the hands of a company that has type as its core business. The real danger comes from Google and their free fonts. They could destroy the market for retail fonts tomorrow if they so wished. And they may well do so in their quest to own as much intellectual property as they can. On our own, a medium-sized label like FontFont has no chance against a giant like Google (or Amazon, for that matter). As long as I can walk without assistance and make my own decisions I shall kick as many asses at Monotype and elsewhere as I have been doing all my life.

    Posted by erik spiekermann on Jul. 16, 2014
  3. Hi Erik,

    Can you please explain this a bit more?

    “The real danger comes from Google and their free fonts. They could destroy the market for retail fonts tomorrow if they so wished.”

    How could they actually destroy the market?


    Posted by Kris Sowersby on Jul. 16, 2014
  4. Kris: I suppose Google could buy Monotype once TA Associates have lost interest.

    Posted by Erik van Blokland on Jul. 17, 2014
  5. Kris:
    They could offer every independent type designer enough money to retire in return for their IP. Only big guys could resist such an offer. Google’s plan is to own all IP on the planet. They make their money from traffic, not from offering creative solutions. The more “content” they own, the more traffic they generate.

    Posted by erik spiekermann on Jul. 17, 2014
  6. Maybe, but in terms of traffic return on dollars, I’m sure there are better deals out there for Google. But then again, these newly retired type designers could live outside too.

    Posted by Eric Olson on Jul. 17, 2014
  7. Speaking of IP: the caption to the opening picture suggests that Made with FontFont or its cover design is by Stephen Coles. For those not in the know: Though I assume Stephen did take the picture (and did a good job) the book was edited by Erik Spiekermann and me, and the cover was by Strange Attractors, under my informal art direction.

    Pleased, and somewhat surprised, to be working for the same company again. :-)

    Posted by Jan Middendorp on Jul. 17, 2014
  8. You have decided about who gets to profit from my intellectual property for as long as our contracts run (too long for my current taste) without me having had a say in it.

    Posted by Yanone on Jul. 17, 2014
  9. @Jan: Fixed.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Jul. 17, 2014
  10. I feel like I need to explain myself better after merely having thrown in bits and pieces. I slowly regain conscience.
    I’m furious.
    Business-wise I even trust that the FontFont designers will benefit from the move. I don’t have the necessary far-sightedness in the industry to judge that decision, but I simply trust, and I trusted you. Though I understand that only a private company can resist selling, which is now too late.
    I find it also very legitimate that you cash out as you reach retirement age after having built a successful and super cool company. But you forget that your company was a special one, that its value wasn’t based on your ideas (alone) and built by fleet of wage-labour assembly-line workers. It was based on the intellectual property of well over a hundred other people. Small parts of the $13M in your pocket is my money. I feel like to some extent I should have been involved in the decision (a bit ridiculous, I know), or at least informed early enough, and I my particular case warned before I signed yet another contract for Antithesis only very few months ago. Do you think I can’t keep a secret? Now I’m locked up in this for too long.
    Here’s why: There’s more to life than business. There’s also ideals. I’m a person of strong ideals and principles. One of them is: I don’t work for capitalism. I used to work for Google and Linotype, as is known, but that was years ago and I was young and I have since developed a stance over the topic. There’s no rule that says that designers must work for anybody as long as there’s enough money offered. Definitions of success are personal ones. I choose. Capitalism is the dark side of the power because it’s knowingly ruining our world. Growth for the sake of growth is the motivation of the cancer cell. That it’s Monotype doesn’t concern me in particular.
    And eventhough I can’t influence who is buying my typefaces, I want to decide on who gets to profit from my work. Here’s my idea on who should profit: You as the owner and founder of the company, all the wonderful employees making my typefaces marketable and marketing them, and myself. Full stop! No Monotype, no Adobe, no Google and no whoever.
    I other words: I’m a lot happier with earning less money from a company that is a private LLC and making extra money with side jobs as it becomes necessary than this. And now I don’t have a choice for many years to come. I have no other typefaces in the drawer to market with somebody else or alone.
    All my writing might come as a surprise to some, but there was never a need to explain myself. I based my decision to work with you on my principles. It was a quiet, personal decision that no one needed to know about. I want to continue to work with FontShop and especially its people, but it’s now against my will against my principles, and that’s tearing me apart.

    Posted by Yanone on Jul. 18, 2014
  11. Truth is Monotype have a murky history of acquiring certain foundries whilst simultaneously decimating others. They may be on a spending spree at the moment but, if history tells us anything, they are just as likely to close FontFont & FontShop down as they are to open it up. Maybe you guys have had enough of the stress of running a world renown typographic institution such as FontFont but please don’t try and kid us that it’s in safe hands and that this hasn’t just been a slightly desperate dash for cash.

    Posted by Michael Bojkowski on Jul. 21, 2014

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