Digestive is a peculiar font. Its ornate, wiggly letters make it look a bit like calligraphy by aliens from outer space. But Digestive isn't just unusual in how it looks. It's also unusual in how it was sold. Thanks to Future Fonts, a platform for selling fonts that are still works-in-progress, Digestive was already gracing magazine covers, concert posters, and even perfume boxes, before designer Jérémy Landes considered it finished.
Like other commercial fonts, it can cost hundreds of dollars to license Digestive if you want access to multiple styles for print, web, and app use. But Landes began selling a single style of Digestive, without some characters, in 2018 for $40 through Future Fonts. The lure: Purchasing the early version would give you access to other styles and characters, when they were completed, at no extra cost; Digestive now comes in seven styles and supports hundreds of characters.
Future Fonts, launched by Lizy Gershenzon and Travis Kochel in 2018, now sells more than 100 font families by more than 50 designers using this model. Not all of them are as weird as Digestive. Phantom Sans, for example, is a pretty straightforward sans serif font. Others, like Zangezi, fall somewhere in between. The prices also vary. Phantom Sans, which is fairly polished and includes multiple styles, sells for $79. Meanwhile, Ampersandist, which evokes the feeling of German blackletter typefaces, is available in only a single style and costs $10. Once you've paid for a font, you get all updates, including new styles and features, for free. The catch is that there’s no guarantee that a designer will ever finish a font.
Even early-stage fonts available in few styles or without extensive character sets can be useful for graphic design projects, says Bijan Berahimi of FISK, a Portland, Oregon, design studio and art gallery. He used Future Fonts typefaces extensively in client projects before being hired by Future Fonts to produce an exhibit for the company. Some projects require font families with a wide variety of styles and characters. "But if I'm just looking to type out a musician's name and only need six characters, I don't care if a font doesn't have a question mark or lowercase," he says.
WIRED recently licensed the font Carmin, and Funkford showed up in our fellow CondéNast publication Bon Appétit. Entertainment Weekly, London Fashion Week, and Thrillist have all used Future Fonts typefaces.
"The low prices make it easy to buy for a project that doesn't have a huge budget," Berahimi says. That's especially important for design students who Berahimi says often rely on pirated fonts instead of shelling out for commercial licenses.
For type designers, offering a steep discount for a work-in-progress font is a way to test the market, helping them learn which designs are worth pursuing. "It's also very liberating that you can publish an unfinished font and see if people like it, how they use it, and what their needs are," says Zangezi designer Daria Petrova. "It is a great source of inspiration, and you can work in your own rhythm without being bound to contracts or deadlines."
A type designer could spend months or years designing a new font. You need to draw hundreds of individual characters and perfect the spacing between characters. Popular fonts, such as those preinstalled on your computer, typically come in four styles: regular, bold, italic, and bold italic. But commercial font families often include dozens of styles, covering multiple weights and widths. That's a big investment of time for a product few people may ultimately want.
James Edmondson, founder of Ohno Type and a partner at Future Fonts, often posts typeface designs he's working on to social media to gauge interest. But he says the number of likes something gets on Instagram isn't a good indicator of how well it will ultimately sell. "It makes a difference when people are voting with actual dollars," he says.
Kochel says that’s why he and Gershenzon founded Future Fonts. The pair run a Portland design firm called Scribble Tone, whose clients include the annual Portland Design Week festival. They designed a custom typeface called Kicker for the event and thought it would be useful for other designers, even though it wasn’t complete.
Landes briefly sold early versions of Digestive through his website before bringing the project to Future Fonts. "I have no idea what I would have done if Future Fonts weren’t there," he says. "I’m not sure that people would have waited for it to be ready if I hadn’t released it early on Future Fonts."
Edmondson doesn't think selling prerelease versions of his fonts, like Covik Sans Mono and Obviously, through Future Fonts has hurt sales of the final version. If anything, he says, it’s helped build awareness. Petrova says being on Future Fonts brought her work attention that would have been hard to attract on her own.
Edmondson says Future Fonts has attracted a community of designers as diverse as their typefaces. “The best thing about the type world is that the people in it aren’t out to make a quick buck,” he says. “Yes, we’ve got bills to pay, we’re trying to make money. But everyone is making their art in their own way. They get to make their own call about how much is art and how much is business.”
Gershenzon and Kochel attribute some of Future Fonts' success to the company's selection of typefaces. The pair initially planned to allow anyone to sell fonts through the site. But Edmondson, who curated the initial offerings, talked them out of that idea. The team now carefully vets each submission to ensure that it fits the adventurous yet professional vibe, and to ensure they don't offer fonts that are too similar to each other.
But the team does hope to open Future Fonts to more designers. "I feel like we're excluding people," says Kochel. "I'm not comfortable being a gatekeeper; it's the hardest part of the job."