Try Before You Buy Fonts

There’s something broken about the way typeface licenses work. First, in my dozen or so years of working in professional design studios, I would say that most of those digital environments have habitually ‘pirated’ typefaces — or at least regularly violated licensing agreements — by more or less copying and distributing fonts wantonly. Everyone knows this.

For better or worse, the type industry has chosen not to crack down on this behavior by imposing unwieldy digital rights management or other draconian schemes on the market. Compared to the increasingly onerous anti-piracy measures for traditional application software, little attention is paid to preventing the proliferation of unlicensed typefaces, and by and large most designers enjoy the benefits of such a lax approach. But that rampant piracy has a negative effect: it keeps prices for quality typefaces high, or at least high enough to inhibit frequent designer adoption of new ones.

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.

Right: The Process Type Foundry’s beautiful Maple, which I want to try out for a client, but probably won’t because of the economic risk.

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.

  1. Why can’t designers use pirated typefaces for comps and then buy the final selection? I realize this isn’t an ideal solution, but it has the advantages of being really simple, avoiding DRM, and (I suspect) being well-tested.

    I do approximately the same thing with music… I’ll take music from a friend (or a stranger) try it out, and eventually buy it if I like it.

  2. A lot of the better, newer typefaces are hard to come by via pirate channels. Not that I’ve tried. Anyway, it’s in everybody’s interests to keep this process legitimate.

  3. In my one Pub-Design class, the teacher basically told us that typefaces are pirated to printers, simply because it’s so much easier. On the other hand, she told us that the designer(s) should buy them (her example was a client that requires them to use Din). It’s halfway legitimate this way, but still not ideal for the foundries. From my point of view, part of the problem is that the typefaces are so incredibly expensive. I understand that a lot of work goes into them and all, but nearly a hundred dollars for a single *face?

    I’d say this is a detriment to their business. If I were to start up a design business, there’s no way I’d possibly be able to justify purchasing a face or family just for a single project. And if I start off by not paying, it’s rather unlikely I’ll feel motivated to pay in the future.

    If they’d lower prices a bit, I’ve a feeling they’d actually make more money simply because people would be more willing to pay.

  4. I’m completely with you, Khoi. If there was a feasible way to engineer the loading of a font off a vendor server I know at least one company (FontShop, my employer) that would be for it. It seems like such a far off dream, though.

    And because font software doesn’t work like regular application software it’s currently impossible to enable a font via a key or serial number. The introduction of OpenType made a lot of wonderful things possible, unfortunately this isn’t one of them. Maybe the next font format.

    Seems hopeless, but it’s good to keep talking about it. I know both font makers and users would like to see a system where users could test the quality and appropriateness of a font before buying. The will is there – it’s just a technology hurdle.

    Jordan – Meet a good type designer. Work with them for a week. Do some drawing and some kerning and some testing. Then come back and let us know if you still think fonts should be cheaper.

  5. You should try out Veer’s Shuttleboard. It allows you to make a basic comp (with an online flash tool) and —more interesting— preview typefaces with custom text within that comp.

    I’ve used shuttleboard to get some text in the font I want, take a screenshot and drop it into photoshop. Then get approval from the client, and buy the font. It’s not ideal, but it works.

  6. A similar situation occurs with icon sets. It’s hard to get client approval for purchase when you show them a set of icons with red lines running thru them, totally out of context of the the visual design you are creating for them. And to use the mockup icons in a design means “Photoshopping”-out the red lines or watermark. Unfortunately, I can’t really think of a solution agreeable to both parties since in the case of both icons and fonts, once they’re distributed — they’re out of the creator’s control.

    Veer’s Shuffleboard, however, is amazing. I recently mocked up a logo using a Veer typeface. The client loved it, so we bought the font. For web work, though, Shuttleboard can be abused; the mockup I was able to produce was clean enough that I could have not purchased the font… but I’m an honest guy.

    Ah, if only everyone was completely honest…

  7. While it s wonderful they don’t put drm on the fonts at the same time there seems to be no way to prove you own the font. Some sort of pdf certificate would be nice just so I feel like I have something to prove I bought it.

  8. Fonts are cheap. I’m all with Khoi on this subject of making it possible to try/comp before you buy, but as far as pricing go I think fonts are pretty cheap. I’m may spend a thousand $ or more on fonts each year, but looking at the projects and the total cost, they usually amount for the equivalent of a couple of hours of work, often much less. Fonts can be had for $10 and upwards – large families usually command a larger fee and if not available by weight that’s where the “high” prices come in. Sites such as Veer or MyFonts have OK tools to sample a few lines etc. but watch your time – you may actually spend more by trying out things this way than just buying it right away. If I feel a font may be used successfully in future projects I usually buy it if it’s less than $100.

  9. I was just thinking the same thing over the weekend. I love Process Type Foundty but I’m not going to risk $180 (for the Stratum 1 & 2 families) to try to convince a client to use it. (I’ll probably hack up the pdf charset to do so).

    A probationary two-week trial would eventually find all kinds of ‘cracks’. And so, I think vendors should make better tools for trying out type on their sites – then let us download the results in PDF (text as outlines though). I think I would be willing to pay a fractional fee to many good font vendors for this capability. It’s not perfect…but it would be much better.

    At least Lineto allows one to email the text as images to yourself or others.

  10. I was recently “forced” to purchase a high-end family for a moodboard (luckily the other concepts all relied on typefaces I already owned). And no, the client didn’t go for it. But you can bet I’ll be using a lot of Neutraface in other client designs this year.

    Why don’t foundries provide an EPS with Lorem Ipsum in a flattened vector format? At least then we can have a few graphical samples to add to moodboards and comps.

  11. Underware does even better: their specimens include a CD-ROM with an unlicensed copy of the font, which you are allowed to install for sampling and evaluating the font.

    You’re idea of leasing fonts isn’t only technically complicated, but will also add much more confusion to the already fucked up licenses most fonts are distributed under. (e.g., there are foundries who disallow you from embedding their fonts in PDFs. Other disallow you from making changes to the files; and I remember one license that said “The fonts must not be used without the explicit permission of the X foundry”, which made me wonder if I should give them a call before I select their fonts from the menu).

  12. Such an infrastructure would be much too costly, restrictive, would annoy legitimate customers and get cracked anyway.

    Since all these fonts are going to end up in pirate circulation sooner or later anyway, why not go with a shareware model: “Use these in your comps for up to thirty days for $20, which goes towards the full licence fee.”? The designers who pay for fonts anyway will be happier, and feel better about paying for the good stuff if they’ve been able to try it out first. Clients will have much better comps to choose from.

    Or just shag it and offer free downloads, requiring payment for commercial use. I know it would be hard to convince a type designer who’s spent a couple of years on a typeface to go for this. But the foundries should try this with some of the older classic faces, I bet they’ll find they make as much money in the long run.

  13. “Or just shag it and offer free downloads, requiring payment for commercial use. I know it would be hard to convince a type designer who’s spent a couple of years on a typeface to go for this. But the foundries should try this with some of the older classic faces, I bet they’ll find they make as much money in the long run.”

    This seems like the simplest option. Why bother with complicated licensing schemes? Give the font away, so that everyone will see it and be able to test it out in their designs. Then, when they want to actually sell or publish something with the font, they have to pay the license fee or else face legal action. If necessary, there could be separate versions, the “trial” version of the font could be altered slightly so that it could be distinguished from the non-trial one.

  14. I think remote font activation is absolutely the wrong way to go.

    1. It’ll be immediately cracked, as it should be.

    2. No one will want it. I buy maybe 2-3 typefaces a year, since it’s difficult to sell clients on fonts without showing them in action first. That 2-3 will drop to zero if I have to rely on some remote server to control my fonts.

    3. No matter how widespread font-sharing becomes (and it’s mostly just sharing with colleagues and print shops at this point), a purchased font will always carry advantages—support, updates, guaranteed quality, and so on.

  15. “Jordan – Meet a good type designer. Work with them for a week. Do some drawing and some kerning and some testing. Then come back and let us know if you still think fonts should be cheaper.”

    Right, because the price for an individual copy of a piece of software should be proportional to the amount of work that goes into it, economics be damned.

    If a lower price makes the type designer more money, then that’s the price that compensates the designer the best. Appreciation for the art has nothing to do with getting him the most money.

  16. A lot of the foundry’s will set type for you either as a PDF or as an outline EPS that can be used in comps. I’ve done this a couple of time for project work.

    Seeing from the response above, one of the biggest battle’s will be designers attitudes to type designers & font foundries.

  17. When the iTunes Music Store launched, “experts” said nobody would go for .99 a song. Peer-to-peer junkies said that it wouldn’t detour people from sharing (stealing) music.

    Well, they were both wrong.

    I’m not advocating .99 fonts, but I do think that if they were closer to say $29 USD instead of $79-199 then they would definitely sell more and have less sharing (stealing).

    Most of the designers I know haven’t paid for most of their fonts. They’ve either received them from a printer or from a larger design firm they used to work for.

    I think good design should be rewarded, but a font family that costs around $100-199 is simply too much.

  18. Baseline Fonts offers samples direct from the foundry. Before you purchase fonts, Baseline Fonts will gladly set type for you – like many other online font foundries.

    If you are an accredited agency (or would like to apply for consideration), Baseline Fonts offers a beta agreement and alternate rights management – so you can demo the fonts for prospective clients before purchase.

    For more information, please contact Baseline Fonts : or call (316) 519-9900 8A – 5PM CST for more information.

    *creatives, please note that without your support, there would be little reason for our foundry to exist. at, we appreciate you and are here to help, any way we can.

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