is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
The High Cost of Typesetting
Designers face a chicken/egg quandary with new typefaces: to propose a typeface for a project — a logo or a brochure or whatever — it must first be purchased so that it can actually be used in comps that are then submitted to the client for approval. But in order to use a new typeface in a comp, a license for it must be purchased first — oftentimes top-shelf typefaces run several hundred dollars — and it’s difficult to make such an investment without knowing ahead of time that the client will approve of it.
In practice what this means is that designers rely mostly on their existing type libraries, often using the same faces over and over in their work. For designers with limited requirements, this may not be such a bad situation, but for those who regularly seek to expand their visual vocabulary, being economically inhibited from expanding a type library can actually shortchange the end product — a client may not be get the typeface that best suits her particular needs purely because the designer doesn’t already own it.
How to Go Out on a Limb (Not)
In order for a designer to branch out and select new types, what’s usually required is a clearly demonstrable need — a western-themed project may require an engraved typeface, for instance, or a formal project may suggest a blackletter face. These are facile examples because the equation becomes facile; when economic care rules typographic selection, the process is reduced to satisfying the most obvious requirements with the most obvious answers. Unless you have an unsubtle need for a new typeface, it’s hard to make a case for buying it.
In a world with greater generalized typography knowledge, one solution to this would be to create a ‘typeface selection’ phase in projects, where designers work with clients to select the typeface that best suits their needs from the specimens available from type vendors. This provides at least enough assurance for designers to purchase new faces… but the likelihood of getting a client with no hands-on design experience to select a new face from a cold specimen is pretty much zero.
How to Fix It
Which leads me to my opening statement: typeface licensing is broken. We need a way for designers to be able to use typefaces on a temporary, probationary basis, at least long enough to be able to put it to practical, real world use for a client — two weeks, say.
Of course, this would require a wholly new kind of market infrastructure. I’m thinking maybe remote activation of typefaces: buy a two-week license for twenty dollars, and your Mac can “load” the typeface from a vendor’s server and make use of it for a limited time. If you need it for longer, rent it for another two weeks, or apply the twenty dollars toward the price of a permanent license, at which time you would be able to ‘physically’ download a copy to your machine. Such a solution would probably generate millions of new dollars for typographers and distributors in short-lifespan licenses, surely, but I bet it would also spur millions more in permanent licenses.
There are nontrivial technological challenges to such a system, however, and even as it stands, type management on any operating system is basically what you’d call “FUBAR.” More typefaces add more confusion to font management, of course, but so do more type formats and more licensing types, which is what I’m suggesting. But the reward would be well worth the challenges, I think.
And now you know why I use Helvetica for everything I do.+