People Collective: a different type of experiment

Published:  May 7, 2011
People Collective: a different type of experiment

To support People Collective’s Sauerkraut type project, head here.

Type licensing for online use is a notoriously hot topic among designers. There’s no quicker way to divide a room full of type nerds (real or virtual) than to drop ‘web licensing’ into the conversation. I’ve been involved in many a heated discussion with both friends and strangers online about the issue, most of which end with no clear resolution – if they end at all.

It’s a complicated situation, as online use comes with the ability to track usage of a typeface, and allow for foundries or font libraries to charge accordingly. FontShop posted this about the licensing of its web fonts last year:

“While standard desktop fonts are licensed by the number of users or workstations using the fonts, Web FontFonts are licensed by the average page views per month of all the domains within the licensing organisation. There are three simple licence levels: up to 500,000, up to five million and up to 50 million page views per month… A page view in this case is defined as a request to load a single page on any of your sites that use the licensed Web FontFonts. A refresh or a click-through would count as a page view.”

This model breaks up the licensing of a typeface into two areas, one for print and one for online. With the print licensing, you pay per licence and are allowed to produce as much printed material as you wish with a single licence. Under the web licensing, you pay per page view, where sites with higher traffic are paying more than those with less. Although not all foundries follow this model1, the principle is something that should be questioned. Applied elsewhere, your favourite text editor would be priced according to whether you were writing articles for print or online, with the price of the online licence then depending on how many people view your article. It’s an interesting situation, considering that a higher number of page views doesn’t necessarily translate into a higher return.

As with any piece of software, there are hours of hard work that go into making a commercially viable typeface, with additional work required for legibility at small sizes when used online (commonly referred to as ‘hinting’). A popular type foundry recently mentioned on Twitter that it spent over US$22,000 last year having 12 fonts hinted. These development costs are usually covered by the foundries and then recouped with licensing fees over a number of years. This, for us, posed a question about whether or not there was another way to go about funding type development – one that didn’t include a licensing fee, but where the designers were still compensated for the time taken to make the typeface.

Last year, we contributed $25 to help fund the development of an open source alternative to Facebook. The project was initiated by four students from New York University, who had set out to raise $10,000 with which to cover their time and living expenses for the summer. They did this with the help of Kickstarter, an online service that lets the public pledge funds towards a project they would like to see developed. After seeing and using the service, Colin and I started thinking whether or not it would be possible to fund the development of a typeface the same way and, if so, how this could be an interesting experiment trying out a new font development and distribution model.

We set about looking into public funding a little further and sent a loose draft of the concept to Kickstarter for feedback. After a little bit of discussion and going over the idea with them in more detail, they gave us the go ahead to start the project with them. Up until this point, the majority of this had been quite up in the air and mostly speculation, but once we were officially able to use Kickstarter, we started fleshing things out a little more, which began with working out which typeface concept we were going to use.

With a number of half developed typefaces on hand, we decided to put the decision of which one would be our Kickstarter project to the public, posting our three favourites to our blog. We gave a brief rundown and history of each, and also included an overview of what our vision was for them. Most were just sketches with a few quick vector character examples, so a little more detail was needed to help illustrate what we were planning for each typeface. It was about this time we started to get some feedback about the concept as a whole, which was a little mixed. As to be expected, the idea of designing a typeface in the public eye threw some people, but we were surprised when we received an email from type designer Dave Crossland, who had been thinking about doing almost the same thing. He was now not only working for Google and commissioning typefaces for its web fonts service, but also working on a new business model for graphic and type designers, which includes a libre licence2 for digital font distribution.


We had initially started this project with the hope of exploring a new method of font distribution, but talking to Crossland about an open source licensing model for digital fonts was an interesting and exciting development. We shared the idea that another distribution and licensing model for fonts was possible, and it was good to read and hear his view on the matter. He was also very encouraging and supportive of the Kickstarter project, which was great for morale and made us all the more enthusiastic to get everything underway.

By this time, we had set up a poll on the blog and had a clear winner as to which of the three typefaces would be used as the basis for the project. We’ve since been working out the rewards for the project (Kickstarter likes to offer contribution options with rewards for each) and have booked in 1 to 31 April this year to run the funding round. We’ve yet to see whether we’ll get any further in this little experiment, but, either way, it has been a great little exercise and thoroughly enjoyable so far. Hopefully, if things go as planned, you’ll be reading about future developments here.

To support the project, head here.



From desktop magazine.

1. Commercial Type allows online usage of its typefaces with the purchase of a regular licence, as long as this is done with technologies that embed the type files into the web page, such as cufon or sifr.
2. Dave Crossland’s libre licence proposal is available to read online at

All images copyright People Collective.

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