Case Study 10: FontShop

With the release of the documentary Helvetica last year came not just a fine film, but the chance for thousands of people to have that rare opportunity to share their love of typography together, out in public no less, and to even drag a few friends along in an attempt to finally prove why type is so interesting. Stephen Coles of FontShop and Typographica (and everywhere else on the web), was one person who needed no convincing. Likely a fan of typography since birth, he lives and breathes x-heights and descenders. We were very fortunate to get the chance to talk with him about the release of FontShop’s newFontStars 2007: Best Type of the Year collection, which was beautifully packaged in Jewelboxing Standard cases.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and about FontShop?

Design legends Erik Spiekermann and Neville Brody founded FontShop in 1990, when the digital fonts were just starting to replace older technologies as the standard for typography. Other retailers have cropped up since then, but FontShop has always set themselves apart with their European aesthetic and rebellious attitude. I was honored when the company invited me in 2004 to join their San Francisco office. As a designer and writer, I have a hand in a lot of the visual and textual image of FontShop.com.

What about your other world, outside of FontShop, at Typographica. How did that get started? And do you do anything other than think and write about type?

My partner in bloggery, Joshua Lurie-Terrell, founded Typographica in 2002 as a sort of informal lounge in which to chat about type. Since then, it’s become more of a venue for long articles about new fonts and typography.

I also think and write about furniture of the ’60s at The Mid-Century Modernist

Before we get too far into this, and in the interest of helping even just one reader so they use the right definitions, what’s the difference between a typeface and a font?

Over the years, the two terms have become confused, but I’m on a crusade to reverse that. My main ammo will be this concise clarification by the astute type designer Mark Simonson: “The physical embodiment of letters, numbers, symbols, etc. is a font. When referring to the design of the collection (the way it looks) you call it a typeface.”

Part of your bio says, “Stephen is currently dating Motter Fermina after breaking off a long and passionate affair with FF Strada.” We found it funny to see someone else talking about type in that way because we do that same thing around here all the time. So what is it about typography that you think makes you/us swoon?

I’ve always been fascinated about the details of everyday life that escape the active attention or conscious scrutiny of the general public. This is type. Its subtle power influences everyone and they rarely realize it.

This is likely a touchy subject in your business, but because FontShop deals primarily in an all-electronic medium, how do you go about dealing with illegal file sharing? Theft seems like it deals in levels of respect, in some degree, so while someone might not feel any guilt, say downloading a Matchbox 20 album, they’ll still go out and spend money on the new Radiohead, because they respect them more. So lengthy tangent aside, is that something that FontShop tries to stay on top of by being helpful and knowledgeable and, in general, but perhaps most importantly, just coming across as a cool company that people want to support?

You will never stop piracy. But those who actually use fonts professionally soon realize that the advice and tech support that comes with a license is as valuable as the fonts themselves. Our expertise is worth the price of the font.

Of course, we also find that designers buy fonts because they respect the work of their colleagues. They believe type designers should be paid for their efforts just like they expect to be paid.

Can you tell us about the FontStars 2007: Best Type of the Year collection? How did you go about picking your favorites of the year?

Like a mediocre album, most font collections tend to have a couple of hits stuffed in with a bunch of duds. We found that even though the price-per-font is lower, designers don’t spring for these compilations because they simply won’t use most of the fonts on the CD. FontStars is unique in that every typeface is new and they aren’t limited to a single foundry. This gave us a lot more flexibility to choose the best new stuff. We made sure it was versatile and practical by throwing in more than one style of each text face and a broad range of display goodies that will meet most needs.

In short, we started by asking ourselves what new fonts we would most likely want to see in our font menu at the beginning of any project.

If you’re at liberty to say without hurting any feelings, were there any that you left out that just didn’t quite make the cut?

There were a lot of great releases last year. Our regret is that we couldn’t include more, but we wanted to keep the price down so it wasn’t out of the reach of smaller studios.

Any font that you’re particularly fond of in the collection? Have you used it for something recently and, if so, what for?

Buxom, old-timey scripts are huge right now, and I don’t think anyone has captured that era of retro jersey and cookie tin lettering as well as Leslie Cabarga with his Casey. It even comes with a set of the underline swashes that were so common in baseball logos of yore.

You’ve packaged FontStars in a Jewelboxing Standard case. Why did you decide to package it using Jewelboxing?

Being a font seller, we’re accustomed to digital goods. We never have to deal with inventory or storage. Using Jewelboxing cases allows us to produce each CD as its sold without sacrificing our professional image.

Any comments you have about the process of putting the cases together, from the design to their assembly?

Separating the perforations on a finished print is just so damn satisfying.

Finally, what’s in store in the world of typography for 2008?

I hope to see OpenType finally take over as the majority format for this year’s font sales. It’s like graduating to CDs from cassette tapes — it’s that much better than TrueType and PostScript.