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Typography is a huge but often overlooked and underestimated component of effective design, particularly on the web.
Fonts are often sold through foundries, which are sort of like the record labels of the typography world. While many produce their own fonts for sale, they also serve as distributors for independent designers and studios, earning a royalty each time they sell a font.
One new foundry, the Lost Type Co-op, is trying to shake things up a bit. It's billing itself as the "the first of it's kind" to offer a "Pay-What-You-Want Type foundry." Think a font it's offering is worth $50? You pay $50. Don't have any money to spare? $0 is fine too.
This pay-what-you-want model may be new to the type foundry world, but it's not new. Radiohead created buzz around the model when it offered its In Rainbows album on a pay-what-you-want basis. The results were mixed, although given the rampant piracy that exists in the market for recorded music, the fact that nearly 40% of downloaders paid something for Radiohead's album is somewhat encouraging, even if the average amount paid wasn't exactly impressive. Less recognizable names have experimented with similar approaches for physical CDs at events with some success.
So can the same model be applied to a type foundry? Perhaps. Type foundries face a lot of the same challenges as musicians and record labels. After all, there are lots of typefaces offered under free licenses which designers can opt to use in their projects in lieu of expensive alternatives. Throw in knock-offs and piracy, and selling typefaces is a lot like selling CDs in many respects.
But there are differences. The biggest: fonts are usually purchased by professionals, not consumers. Here, it seems like the pay-what-you-want model might be more attractive. Larger design shops can afford to spend big bucks buying up every font ever produced by foundries like Linotype, but smaller firms and freelancers generally can't. So they often turn to free and low-cost alternatives (including knock-off fonts) instead. In an effort to maximize the sales of fonts for the designers they represent, why shouldn't foundries seek better models to find out what the market thinks their fonts are worth?
That's precisely what the Lost Type foundry is doing. Will that guarantee sales? No, but it seems quite possible that if it grows large enough, it could capture sales from the legions of professionals who are unwilling and incapable of paying hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars for font collections. We'll see if the Lost Type Co-op catches on and sparks a trend.