Type on Type

I’m writing this on a bus to New York City. A last minute getaway with my wife. After admiring the winter scene that also distracts me when I’m behind the wheel, I realize that I can make something, right now. With my laptop actually on top of my lap, the options aren’t quite endless, but my list is big. I could make some new songs. Try and write a novel. Design and develop a website. Ultimately I choose to work on a few fonts. I love letters. I can’t not play with vectors, I’ve tried.

So I have two very different things open in Glyphs right now. My typeface Grandstander (I’m adding more weights). And the soon to be released League Mono. One of these is only available on a few websites (including my own) and costs $25. The other is an open source contribution for The League of Moveable Type, therefore free, and can (and will) be redistributed by countless other websites. Some of those websites will make money via advertising (like fontsquirrel and dafont). Or embedded in for-profit websites, apps (like Over), projects, etc. Both typefaces took about the same amount of time. But I work quickly and I’m really happy with how everything has come together, and in my opinion they are ready.

Last week Facebook hit me with a “memory” of my blog post from exactly one year ago. At that time I was excited that I had reached over three million downloads of my free fonts. So I crunched numbers for the past 365 days, having a nicely documented previous set of data to work with. What was revealed could be mind-numbingly boring for some people, but as a hustling type designer, it felt like quite the opposite for me. The numbers had obviously increased, with my free/open source typeface Ostrich Sans gaining almost 1 million more downloads over the year. But last March I did something interesting even for my free fonts, that I had never done before: I put them in my shop with a “pay what you can” option. Trust me, when I did this I was realistic in my expectations that very few people would insert a value greater than $0. I was right, but I wanted to know how right.

And so here we are for the three most popular of my “free” offerings: Katahdin Round, Nonesuch, and Didactic (currently offline). Combined, those three were downloaded for free from my website over 4,000 times. However, 149 additional people downloaded them and paid whatever amount made sense to them. That turned out to be an average amount of $5.27 (Nonesuch was the winner here, pulling in a dollar more per paid download than Didactic). It’s worth noting that Southpaw and Juju Combo were downloaded for free over 2,000 times, but only amounted to 8 combined “sales” (4 of Southpaw at $3.87 avg. and 4 of Juju Combo at $7 avg.). While my fonts racked up over 300,000 downloads on DaFont, I received almost $300 USD (the most to date, per year, “from a nice DaFont visitor”).

Obviously if the goal was to make more money from these typefaces I should have made the minimum more than $0. I have said in the past that if everyone who downloaded Ostrich Sans had paid half of a dollar, I would be a millionaire. But that sentiment is silly and false based on the most simple fact here: free stuff gets downloaded by the tens, and hundreds of thousands (millions in the case of Ostrich) and paid stuff (also known as products) are literally a tougher sell, even though the quality can be exponentially better. I’m sure that simply creating a checkout process on my site has discouraged at least 50% of free downloads. And that’s fine. The main reason for me to have a cart system (and collect email addresses) is to let people know when I’ve made an improvement that is now available. If you haven’t downloaded Ostrich Sans since it was released in 2011, you’re missing out on some much needed updates (like kerning :p).

The bus I’m on just took a pit stop halfway to our destination, and yet here I am working the unpaid and maybe paid creations that pay my bills. I’ve “made it” as a type designer, barely, but it feels good. Still, I’m here with two files open, one that will likely be downloaded thousands of times for free on the day of its release, and one that might be downloaded for a few bucks, several hundred (or a thousand if I’m lucky) times over its entire lifetime. I’m loving the “5”s I’ve drawn in each of these, by the way. The fact of the matter is that I might not even have anyone looking at my work and even considering paying for a product had I not given away Blackout or Ostrich all those years ago.

We joke about “exposure” as a form of payment, but it’s easier to reword as “experience” (which if is successful, will also get you exposure). What you make still involves time spent honing your craft, and ideally doing something you love. It’s a lot easier to justify experience/exposure work for yourself rather than a client (or worse, a client you don’t even have). Right now I’m working on something I love, something I’m making on a bus because I enjoy it and would do it anyway, and will give away in hopes that if you like it you may one day explore (and buy?) my other stuff that I also loved making. Free tools and resources have to be available for everyone, with no strings attached. I would have had a harder time getting started in graphic design without software, fonts, brushes, tutorials, templates, etc. that other people have donated (or at least came with a free trial).

So as I package these up, get them ready for the world, and start my next creation, it helps to look back at what has already happened. Even though numbers only tell part of the story, I’m glad I recorded them a year ago, and again now. I have no idea what things will look like next year, but I know I’ll keep making new things, and keep improving old ones.

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Hatcher at Wilburland