Font licensing, webfonts and fair trade

A few weeks ago, I had to advise a design studio on licensing fonts. It is a common practice since different foundries and distributors handle licenses in many alternative ways. What may be complex for us, who work in the type industry, can become a nightmare for font users and design studios that acquire licenses for their clients. Some have made an effort in simplifying font licenses but webfonts is still a case worth discussing.

From all the types of use you can make of fonts, the web is probably the format where we find more differences, both in the licensing model and the pricing. Some articles offer information on the topic and compare the different licenses available. I was surprised to note there is little debate or discussion on this.

In terms of pricing, we can differentiate two main models for licensing webfonts, “pay as you go”—I call it a subscription to be less ambiguous— and “pay once”.

Before writing this article, I wanted to get a first impression of people’s positions so I did a quick poll. The question was simple and plain—with all the ethics implied in the word “unfair”—Do you think the annual subscription model for webfonts is unfair? I acknowledge I positioned myself when formulating the question, choosing the word “unfair” instead of “fair” and offering two affirmative options but only one for disagreement. The results of the voting are almost balanced, 41% think the subscription model for webfonts is fair—not “unfair”—and 59% agree this is an unfair model. A considerable percentage of people (32%) voted strongly on this, thinking the subscription model for webfonts is a scam. Needless to say, when I ask about “fairness”, I consider all the people involved in the trade (font distributor, font author, buyer, licensee and font user). It is impossible to think about fairness if not fair to everyone affected.

I will briefly describe the experience that made me especially reflect on this. A design studio wanted to license a webfont for a client. The budget for the project was limited, having a maximum amount for licensing fonts. They presented the proposal using trial fonts and calculated the license cost to fit the estimate. The project was approved. While buying the font licenses, they discovered the cost for the web was a recurring payment, tying the client to the distributor and exceeding the budget over time. They trusted the platform they often used for licensing fonts and they didn’t check in other places. While studying this case I could confirm the font was also available from other distributors and on the foundry site. If they were acquiring the web license in MyFonts, they had to commit to an annual payment (e.g. one font 37€). Meanwhile, the foundry site and other distributors offer the license as a one-payment purchase (e.g. one font 39$). The price is similar in both cases, which means the subscription model is never cheaper, not even in the unlikely case of using the font only for a few months. Would you consider this fair trade?

Many questions come to mind when reflecting on this. Why do licensees have to be dependent on a platform/company? What if the company goes bankrupt, is sold, or changes the subscription terms? Why make a periodic payment? Are the distributors guaranteeing and offering updates on the fonts or any extra services—besides hosting? If so, does the client need that? Also, some distributors include two options for webfonts licenses, “pay once” or “recurring payment”. In these cases, why is “one payment” so expensive compared to desktop fonts? I would be interested to know the math and reasoning behind this pricing model.

If you ask me, I would say webfont subscriptions are not fair, especially to the user. It makes them dependent on a particular company/platform and very often expend more money over time.

New borders: the working life of Elizabeth Friedlander

I first heard of Elizabeth Friedländer in an article about early female typeface designers. Using some of the typefaces mentioned in the text I decided to prepare a few images for our Instagram account. That personal exercise opened the door to extra information about the names included in the article. There was an exhibition on Elizabeth’s work at the Ditchling Museum (England), and Katharine Meynell had released the film Elizabeth in 2016. While looking for more information about her I also found the book I am writing about today. This book, letterpress printed and bound by hand, was published as a limited edition of 325 copies. A couple of months ago—coinciding with the launch of Women in type—I finally found it online and was able to read it. The University of Victoria Library scanned the pages and made the book available for all.

The book is full of reproductions of her work, not only finished and published projects but also drawings and documentation of her design process. The author tells us about her life’s path, moving from one country to another, and finding ways to nurture her career as a designer. The text includes insightful quotes from personal documents and imagery from the material she carefully preserved, allowing us to know about her work and career through primary sources.

Rough work in Indian ink for different projects

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Visualizing design space in variable fonts

After attending Typolabs a few weeks ago, something kept on rolling around in my mind. Variable fonts—the main topic in type conferences since the announcement at AtypI Warsaw in 2016—was again at the heart of the debate in Berlin. If sliders generated some controversy one year ago, I would say ‘design space’ was one of the most repeated concepts this year. The opening talk by Gerry Leonidas pulled the trigger with a thoughtful presentation: ‘I am now in an environment where the design space is by default way bigger than my ability to imagine it, not just my ability to do something with it’.

Slide from Gerry’s presentation showing a figure that represents a font with three main axes

This figure, included in the presentation by Gerry Leonidas, is the visual representation of a font with three main axes.

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Remember December: Typewriter Wonderland

Things rarely happen the way you planned, that’s is why improvised trips are never disappointing. My visit to the Museu de la Tècnica de L’Empordà last summer was full of unexpected events. It all worked out at the end, but I need a second and less troublesome visit in the future.

Many of you have probably read this thread on Twitter from Marcin Wichary, who is among other things a researcher on the history of keyboards. That’s is how I got to know about one of the most important exhibitions of typewriters in the world.

I was planning to spend a few days in Girona and just before I travelled there, my friend Álvaro, who is also passionate about typewriters sent me a message. He had just moved from Rio de Janeiro to Barcelona and he wanted to visit the Museu de la Tècnica. He suggested going together. It was perfect timing! We would meet in Figueres, the town where the museum is located. Everything fit together until the day of our visit.
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Greetings from Santiago

When ‘Santiago’ is mentioned, many will first think of Chile; however, this Santiago is located in northwestern Spain. Santiago de Compostela has an official population of less than 100,000 inhabitants and is known internationally as one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the world. In 1985 the old town was declared a World Heritage Site and, in 1987, the “Camino” was named the First European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe. There are numerous books written in numerous languages regarding the ‘Camino de Santiago’, so I will refrain from images of the cathedral and other tourist traps.

Signage, an important element of urban landscapes, becomes a particularly interesting topic with regard to environments where the protection of historical buildings is a must. In Santiago, a 2012 sign regulation defines the size, placement, and other features. There is no typographic requirement although it is mentioned that the design must be well-integrated into the historical environment. A better control is needed as many commercial signs infringe the rules and some have just been abandoned. (If we really want to preserve our artistic-historical heritage, we should care a bit more about its maintenance.)

Some old structures for hanging signs in historical builidings stay there even when they don't a function anymore, metal arrows that seem to be leading to nowhere

Some structures, formerly for hanging signs, remain even when they lack a function creating metal arrows that seem to be point nowhere.

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My 2¢: The Spanish Peseta Coin

I often find myself looking at things that go unnoticed or that people just don’t care about. Coins are invisible design items for most people. We often use size and color to differentiate one from each other, but we rarely look at them closely. I have heard once that the design of a stamp was one of the most challenging and uplifting commissions a graphic designer could get. There are probably many more constraints in the design of a coin, but you would agree with me that it would be a really interesting project for a type designer.

I would like to share with you some thoughts on the design of a particular coin, the extinct Spanish peseta. It was the currency used in Spain from 1868 to 2002, when the euro was introduced. As a side note, it is one of the few examples of a coin with a female name. I was able to collect some historical models of the peseta coins which took me to dark times in our country. The coins became a symbol of political power and the images and text engraved on them were used to reinforce the establishment.

The two sides of 5 historical models of the 1 peseta coin. From right to left, peseta from 1869, 1900, 1947, 1975 and 1986

The two sides of 5 historical models of the 1 peseta coin. From right to left, peseta from 1869, 1900, 1947, 1975 and 1986

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