How To Earn Money

How can a typeface designer and font developer make a living releasing fonts under the OFL and publishing free information on typeface design?


The common conversations since Napster about how to pay musicians or writers other artists in the age of computer networks is the same as the issue of how to pay font designers.

Fonts are a curious kind of software because they are bang in the middle between functional software and artistic works.

So the business models of Free Software developers are also relevant.

Richard Stallman explores some ideas about this in the 'A new copyright bargain' and 'Three new models of copyright' sections of an interview on OpenDemocracy. These are also explained in his 'Copyright versus Community' speeches; a video of one he gave at Ravensbourne College of Design & Communication in 2004 is available for download (300Mb MPEG4) while a full textual transcript of one he gave at MIT in 2001 is also available. An early Wired Magazine article by Richard Stallman presents similar ideas related to the music industry.

One might contest the relevancy of the referenced views of mr Stallman on these matters, however, since he is neither an artist nor a scholar of either art itself, it’™s socioeconomics or its psychology. He ‘˜has devoted the bulk of his life’™s energies to political and software activism’™. He makes assesments about art being made for its own sake which have been refuted by the Frankfurter Schule in political philosphy and Pierre Bourdieu in sociology to the extent that this notion has all but dissappeared from the academic discourse. Adittionaly, the simple distinction between intrinsic and extrensic needs as made in the Wired article does not reflect the ongoing research in the field of need theory since Maslow 1943.

Secondly, judging from this article, one economic solution proposed by Stallman is for creatives (well, programmers, which he also sees as such) to lower their expectations of income. This might appeal to those who currently do not have income from type as such, because it relieves them of the pressure to pursue this income: but it is highly unlikely that any creative professional who is currently earning an income would settle for less than he or she currently has, or that which he or she sees as possible to attain.

Finally, although Stallman has been instrumental in establishing the Free Software movement, his current role within the movement can be seen as controversial. cf Linus Torvalds Linus' blog: Black and white.

For an alternative analysis of the business model of Open Source, which in many ways is incompatible with that of Stallman, see Eric Stephen Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar.


Some of us would like to point out that it’™s important to understand the difference between money and wealth because the understanding we intutively grasp as children is wrong.

The other thing to consider is that, to earn a living and not starve, you don't need very much money. ,000 USD is enough incentive to do a lot of jobs a lot tougher than font development. So a basic strategy might be to concentrate on earning a base level of money to survive, which isn't that much, and then on wealth creation.

This is indeed the model many creatives follow. It is not the mainstream approach in present societies, in which the creation of financial wealth is the predominant pursuit. Going down a dfifferent road may lead to some social awkwardness along the way. But the turmoil in which traditional economic institutions find themselves goes to show that now is the time (if any) to come up with new models.

Of course you are the only one that can decide which role financial wealth should play in your life. In any case, being a community contributor and being good at positioning yourself with a good reputation will most likely lead to a job, should you want it to.



Release all your fonts to the public, raise 'social capital' - get a reputation and respect - and convert it into real capital by accumulating donations in a 'tip jar' with micropayments (paypal, netbanx, google, etc) from light users, and patronage for continued extensive development from heavy users.

A popular tactic of musicians and writers who earn a living from this model is to sell premium packaging.

  • Cory Doctorow releases his novels as ebooks and sells the 'premium packaging' of paper books.
  • (If you know examples, please add them here)

In the case of type, this might be specimen books and T shirts and posters and so on - the usual promotional stuff that small independent foundries like Underware do anyway to encourage people to pay for authorised copies. The FSF also makes money this way.

The font merchandising idea isn't as silly as it might sound. Ryan Hughes, Emigre and others do font merchandise and Fuse had posters for the included fonts.

The prospective buyers of fonts are other kinds of designers. Designers love great design. For example, there is no technical reason for the Graphic Design industry to stick with Apple kit any more, because they run the Adobe OS. This works faster on Windows and the hardware is cheaper. Today CS3 is being delayed for Vista first and Mactel hardware second. In the last 10 years, since Adobe OS was viable on Windows, the industry has wasted millions of shareholders' money on shiny Apple kit, simply because Apple has (better) designers than Microsoft and Dell, and designers love design.

Social Capital can also be monetised through pre-orders, as demonstrated by the band Marillion.

If this doesn't work out, you can always take on private typeface design work.

Private Hire

Release some fonts to the public to attracting FontSmith/DaltonMaag style corporate patronage to do private work.

This is the most common way that typeface designers earn a living, except at the moment they mainly choose to make fonts available to the public under non-free terms.

If this doesn't work out, you can always get another job.

Another Job

Work another job completely unrelated to design, like many artists have traditionally been inclined to do, might be a bit of a shock to someone aspiring to earn a living from typeface design.

While this is an option, there is a more attractive one:

Typeface design can be advertising for, a time saving resource for, or the subject of, general graphic design work.

Producing or customising fonts as part of design projects, designing typographic layouts or style guides (for publications offline or online), and producing logotypes are all design work that privileges font design and typographic skills.

The freedom of the fonts needn't be an issue in this work, and could even be an advantage. Clients will love you if they don't have to worry about font licensors breaking down their door if they copy fonts to too many machines. I've seen big clients with terrible font hygiene.

So to stretch Free Software revenue models badly, paid design work is installation, maintenance or support for fonts.

A Job

Get a job that pays a salary to design free-as-in-freedom fonts, like:


There are a few Univeristies in the world that may accept postgraduate students for whom funding may be available to do typeface design:

  • Univerisy of Reading, UK

Academic teaching staff in any college may also be able to arrange paid time work on typeface design.

Operating System Developers

GNU+Linux Distributors may hire font developers if they recognise that font developers are another critical role in a fully fledged operating system development team.

Major distributors are:

  • Red Hat (USA, UK, Germany, Australia, India)
  • Canonical (London, Canada, but mostly people at home worldwide)
  • Novell (bought SuSE that was from Germany, mostly USA)
  • Mandriva, Lindriva, etc

Developing fonts for proprietary operating systems has been a very lucrative way for typeface designers to earn a living because their skills are so scarce.

Typeface Designers

Other kinds of (obscure) institutions with Free Software mandates may hire typeface designers.

If none of this works out, you could try a hybrid free/non-free model.

Hybrid Distribution

Raph Levien is proposing to distribute basic fonts as Free Software and advanced fonts as Proprietary Software:

"I may also use this font as an experiment in licensing. I plan to release the "basic" version with caps, digits, punctuation, and unconnected lowercase freely under the OFL (this will include the optically scaled variants as well). I also hope to develop a carefully made connected script which uses OpenType contextual alternates to achieve flowing connectedness, and this version will likely be offered commercially."

Raph commented on this on the mailing list:

"I must say that my foray into this is mostly intended to be an experiment. I don't expect to make serious money doing font work. To me, there is a real question of whether releasing a font for free, or releasing it commercially, is more rewarding, money aside. Releasing two versions of a font under those two conditions is a nearly scientific experiment to determine the answer. Of course, the extent to which the OFLib project gets off the ground can have a profound effect on the results. Given the excitement and activity I'm seeing, I'm much more hopeful than I was a few months ago."

However, its important to distinguish 'commercial' with 'proprietary' and consider the ethics involved.

A font designer could release their font under an ethical and sustainable license like the OFL and at the same time under an unethical and unsustainable proprietary license, but if the proprietary font is more advanced, this is not helping the Free Software movement.

For many years, Ghostscript mitigated this by being released under the GPL 365 days after publication under a Free-for-non-commercial-use license.

Xara is pursuing a hybrid model where the fully functional software is offered to the public as both Free and Proprietary software at the same time, but the proprietary version of Xara will include licensed features like support for Pantone colors, extra clipart & fonts, etc. This is like vs. Sun StarOffice.

The OFL may be used in a similar way: Although the OFL prohibits selling an OFL Font on its own, if you are the original font designer with 100% of the copyrights associated with the font, you can sell a font under the OFL that breaks this clause, because you are not going to litigate against yourself.


Maybe the Open Font License is too liberal to allow type-designers to establish a business on top of it.

  • The 'release early release often' strategy does not really apply to fonts
  • Type-designers cannot capitalize on the volume of licensees
  • Use of fonts by amateur non-designers harm the type-designer's image among pro-designers

Maybe the Open Font Library will dump the already saturated type-market, making type-designer's life even more 'unsustainable'... ;-)

If the Open Font Library develops a quality collection, large corporations will be able to use these fonts on a lot of workstations without paying anything for them, and, if the fonts are 'fresh' and good, design studios will do corporate identity designs and logotypes using these fonts.

This model of "release fonts under the OFL, make money by getting big custom jobs" has a flaw: if more and more fonts are available under the OFL, there would be less and less custom font jobs to do. Custom fonts are commissioned not just because it's good for a company to have an exclusive typographic appearance, but also because it is cheaper to pay a designer to make an exclusive font than to license a proprietary retail font for all of the company's workstations. This model works for Free Software because application software needs to be maintained and occasionally customised - font software doesn't.

Ellen Lupton's Free Font Manifesto presented to the 2006 ATypI also drew a lot of criticism of the Libre/Open Font Movement. Her research was very interesting but there were unfortunate mixups of freeware and open fonts.


Victor Gaultney is a typeface designer paid full-time to create libre/open fonts by SIL.

Dave Crossland is currently working another job, and studying a Masters degree in typeface design, part time. In the future he'll try entrepreneurship, private hire, or a job with a Free Software company.

Raph Levien is currently working another job.

Related Links