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A Bad Impression

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I traveled to Las Vegas this weekend for the Market Week conference at the Las Vegas Convention center. The conference was much different from those that I usually attend, and it inspired some thoughts on type licensing that I wanted to share with all of you.

The conference is attended by people in the various fields related to retail shopping and merchandise. Most of the 4300 brands exhibited are manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers of retail goods that you’d buy in brick-and-mortar or e-commerce stores. These span just about every category you can think of, from toys and games to dollar store items. It was like walking into the most innovative Wal-Mart you could possibly imagine.

While roaming the exhibit floors I noticed something that I think presents an opportunity for all of us in the type industry. 

Naturally the exhibit halls were divided into sections containing vendors of similar types of product. As I moved from Gourmet goods to Fashion to Housewares to Crafts I noticed that nearly every section included vendors that were creating personalized merchandise using laser engravings, printing, CNC, or other technologies. 

I observed vendors that would laser-etch an owner’s name on flatware and dish-ware, burn your slogan onto wooden coasters, apply your monogram by the yard to customized silk ribbon, and use any number of other processes to customize an infinite number of other products, all of it using type.

At first I thought it would be interesting to stop at each booth and take an inventory of the typefaces being advertised as available for use by these vendors. 

But I was wrong. That turns out to not be an interesting thing at all!

And you probably already know why: Vendors who offer customization with type of consumer products like toothbrushes, pencils, and plush animal toys are — 100% of the time — doing so with a diabolically uninspired collection of typefaces.

The good news in 2019 is that on your web site you can have almost any font you want. 

But if you want to put a font on a hat, that’s no problem — as long as it’s Century Gothic.

Why should this be? The answer is licensing, of course. The typefaces that we all know and would love to see spooling out of our Brother P-Touch labeler have not been properly licensed for use on these CNCs, engravers, printers, and other devices. 

Traditionally this type of licensing has only been the offered by one or two large companies. And those companies, it seems, have only licensed their own fonts (and a selection that probably made sense in 1985 or whenever these decisions were made.)

The work of smaller foundries and independent type designers — many of whom have type that is very well-suited to craft and other consumer applications — has never been seen in these media. That’s a travesty. I’d like to fix that.

I can’t abide that the entire category of imprinted goods is constrained to this extremely limited subset of typefaces. There is no technical reason for it, and there’s no good business reason for it. It restrains the creativity of both the vendors who create products that can be personalized and the people who buy them. 

I think when we fail to solve these problems, it leaves a mark on our culture. Do we really want to live in a world where the overwhelming preponderance of customized and imprinted goods are created using one of 13 fonts from a selection that was created, I assume, by a bunch of attorneys in a bygone era?

This situation reminds me quite a lot of how it was with web fonts around the time Typekit was created. That started out by getting a bunch of type foundries together to create a library of type that was available for what, at the time, seemed like a pretty marginal and strange new use.

So, maybe we should try that again.

Matthew RechsComment