Designer Brian Sooy runs both a graphics firm, Sooy+Co., and also an indie type foundry, Altered Ego Fonts. See Brian’s work in the Sidelines column in HOW’s May issue; in this extended Q&A, he talks about how both parts of his creative business fuel each other.
First, Brian, a bit of background on your design firm, Sooy+Co.: When did you open, where are you located, what kind of work do you do, who are some of your clients?
Sooy+Co opened in 1995; July 2010 will mark our 15th anniversary. We’re located in Elyria, Ohio (west of Cleveland). It’s a great location—central to our regional and national clients.
Sooy+Co is an agency that specializes in positioning, brand strategy and identity and design for nonprofit and higher education clients. Our clients include Lorain County Community College (one of the fastest-growing community colleges in Ohio), Baldwin-Wallace College, Case Western Reserve University, The Cleveland Foundation, Bellefaire JCB (a national leader in adoption and autism services) and Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio. We build brands that people love in print, interactive and web media.
When did you launch Altered Ego Fonts? What prompted you to do so?
I started the type foundry to market my type design work, it was a progression from the many previous years that I was a hand lettering artist. It has been my ambition since I was very young to design type (go figure, huh), and the entrepreneurial side of me always ceases the opportunity to turn a hobby into a business. It’s a trait I learned from my father!
Altered Ego was officially launched on April 1, 2001—many of my peers in the type design community thought it an April Fool’s gag. Prior to that, it was Sooy Type Foundry, which it had been since 1985, the year I released my first PostScript typeface. The change to Altered Ego was to establish a separate brand for my typographic work, separate from my design business, Sooy+Co. Hence the name, Altered Ego®—my audience is different for type and merchandise, so I can be more irreverent, more whimsical, more experimental.
I’ve been a lettering addict since age 12, when—armed with a 1941 Speedball lettering book, a box of nibs and a bottle of ink—I spent countless hours copying the blackletter scripts out of the book. It made it look so easy.
I started distributing fonts first as shareware on AOL (not a great way to make money: out of 1,000 downloads, 11 users paid). I did get some nice fan mail, and realized I could solve visual or typographic problems with fonts. If I had solved a problem, I figured other designers needed a similar solution, and selling the finished font software was a way to make some extra money.
[Adding T-shirts to the mix] was a crazy idea I had at one point several years ago about creating a media brand, apparel, software, publishing (Altered Ego is a now registered trademark) with an online presence. With Café Press, Spreadshirt and other on-demand manufacturers, it solved the supply chain problem—no need for inventory! It’s going to continue to grow as a publishing brand as well, for software and books. I’m even open to licensing it to outside parties as appropriate. The most popular t-shirts are from the American Spirit line, with a simple American flag from AEF America Spirit.
What percentage (roughly) of your business income comes from selling your fonts? Do most of your sales come through your website, or through other distributors like FontShop?
I don’t know if there’s a unit that small that can be measured. For me, the money is definitely in strategic consulting and design, not in type design and type marketing. Most of us who design type are doing it for the love of letters, a few actually make a measurable income from it (but the online marketplaces make it possible). Overall, the community is fairly small. The income varies year to year, the retail fonts have lead to commissions and I do regularly receive inquiries about commissioned work (such as the Lucerna typeface for Tyndale Bible Publishers, used exclusively in the New Living Translation Bible, second edition.) I find the type design specialty to be an effective marketing tool for the design business. I’m designing Blair Enns’ forthcoming book; he asked if I would be interested because of my expertise in type. The design is type only, with handlettering and featuring a yet-to-be released Altered Ego font.
So it’s under 1% of my business income most of the time. But it is worth it, if you read my published articles about my text typeface designs, my greater interest in designing type that makes the Bible easier to read. The rest is just for fun, with the side benefit of earning some extra money.
Do your Altered Ego Fonts typically evolve out of a client project, or are they stand-alone projects? Do ever release your custom font designs for public use?
The AE fonts go both ways. Ledgerhand™ AE was commissioned by National City Bank, and licensed for a five-year exclusive term with an option to renew the exclusive. They opted not to renew the exclusivity for the license, and Ledgerhand AE will be released in mid 2010. This will be the first commissioned/custom work released into the wild by Altered Ego.
Other fonts, such as Veritas™, Eclectic Web™, Lil Milton™ and Verve™ were typefaces that I designed to solve a particular typographic or visual problem, and were completed and made available for licensing.
Designing a font is, I would imagine, a pretty time-consuming project. How do you make time for that work?
It takes an insane amount of time, which I have found varies based upon 1) the age of one’s children, 2) the success of one’s design firm, and 3) the variety of other hobbies one has (I play guitar, which takes practice time and doesn’t involve using a computer—so guitar wins over type design right now), and 4) the amount of volunteer work one does (I’m the president of the board of directors for Second Harvest Food Bank, and worship team leader for our church youth group). The last few years have seen less AE designs, more custom work, more typographic consulting for our branding clients.
Matthew Carter likens the process of type design to watching a freezer make ice. I liken it to fishing… long hours, sometimes with little result.
But it also takes time to market, expand the existing library, research new distributors. I anticipate having one new distributor this year, and releasing Ledgerhand AE and perhaps another hand-lettered typeface design. I have lots of fonts partially completed that I want to release, including my first typeface that was licensed by Chartpak (right before everybody stopped buying transfer lettering). I’ll have AE Fonts on TypeKit before long, as well.
What’s your best-selling font?
From Altered Ego’s distributor channels, it’s a tie between Veritas and Eclectic Web. From the library-licensed fonts (ITC, Adobe), it’s Verve. Revlon used Verve a couple of years ago for the launch of their limited-edition makeup line, LG used it last year for the Scarlet line of televisions, and most the recently Cedarville University Athletics branding relies on Verve. It’s always exciting to see where it pops up, who uses AE Fonts.
Where are your fonts available for sale? What’s the process of getting your font designs distributed through, say, MyFonts.com or FontShop.com?
I have several channels that distribute AE Fonts, based on the licensing: Adobe licenses and distributes Verve, Veer distributes my work under their Umbrella line. Fontshop.com, myfonts.com (and Bitstream), and Monotype (which includes Linotype, ITC, fonts.com) distribute my work directly (although ITC has the rights to ITC Coventry, which I designed). Bitstream sells the Type Odyssey CD-ROMs, which also contain some of the AE Font library.
The process for licensing the fonts are different, again depending on the distributor. Adobe licensed Verve after a very thorough review process, after I had submitted it and several other designs for consideration, many years ago. ITC as well licensed Coventry after I submitted it for consideration. It was released and announced in the very last issue of U&lc.
MyFonts.com is unique in that it is a marketplace that allows anybody who designs type to distribute their work. The idea was to create a marketplace where professional type designers and amateurs could sell their work; MyFonts made it happen. To get started a designer can review the prospectus at MyFonts.com and send an e-mail. It’s definitely the best place to start.
FontShop is a bit more particular, looking for foundries whose work will be of interest to their audience. Although they are making more and more foundries available, I think the larger distributors are trying to include as many foundries as possible,
Any of the licensing arrangements involves reading and signing a contract, some negotiating, and a lot of material preparation, from font formats (thank goodness for OpenType, it makes life much easier now with one format) to support graphics, PDFs, specimens—all the things that help market the fonts.
Any advice for another designer who wants to create their own product line, regardless of what kind of product it is?
I’ve spent the last two and a half years as an entrepreneur consultant with a very successful business incubator. This is the same advice we’ve given to dozens of individuals who’ve some in with great ideas, but no idea of how to make them real. I enjoy running my business almost a much as I enjoy the consulting and design, and without a hard core focus on the business aspect of the product line, you may not be as successful as you would like. And at the core, it’s not a product line, it’s a business idea that needs a business structure.
Find a business incubator with professional business people who have experience in the distribution area/market space you want to venture into. Entrepreneurship is such a huge focus in community colleges and economic development right now, that most major metropolitan areas should have a business incubator. Write a real business plan and marketing plan. Know where you want to be in five years, and make your business choices based on that outcome. If after a year, you’re not making money at your side business, re-evaluate (because if it’s costing you more money to run your side business than what you’re making, it’s still a hobby.) Find people you trust who can ask the really hard questions of you, who can look at your business idea and find the flaws, see beyond your rosy outlook, who can be skeptical and encouraging at the same time.
Even though the web can facilitate certain types of side businesses/product lines/call it what you will there are other things like shipping, fulfillment, manufacturing to consider. When I participated in the Indie Fonts book, I didn’t realize how much time shipping, packing, handling took. I still have a few for sale, but will have to dig up boxes to ship them in (as I had purchased special shipping cartons for the first 75). That’s why I like font software the best.
Focus is critical too, just like in your main creative business. Find a niche and market to it with a brand and product that people will love.
Any advice specifically for designers who want to develop and sell typeface designs?
Please be original; simply copying or modifying somebody else’s work isn’t design, it’s stealing. It’s unfortunate that fonts are pirated as much as music is, and the type community is small enough that we know each other and watch for pirated work. There is always a temptation to open a font, modify it, and call it one’s own.
Watch for upcoming trends, and if you have an idea for a typeface design, that’s when to release it. There’s a learning curve with the software with regard to drawing outlines, but I find that spacing (intra and inter-character, inter-word and kerning) is as important as beautiful letterforms. So start now: Fontshop has a fun online tool called Fontstruct that allows for some experimentation.
Consider how you use type in your own work—that’s how I approach type design many times—if I see a need for a particular look/style, and if I have the time, then I’ll create it. Almost any project can become an opportunity for a new typeface.
Take a good look at the market: what’s going to make your work different, or better, or of interest to the design community? I’m constantly delighted to find out how people interact with my work – such as the grad student who deconstructed Verve as part of a student project.
Ultimately: Try. Fail. Try again. In type design, success is sometimes the result of failure. Veritas started as a really horrible type family (named Ishmael) in the early 1980’s that I completely redesigned, which lead to Lucerna. Now over a million Bibles a year are published using Veritas and Lucerna, and I have a design credit in many of them for that work. If I hadn’t started Altered Ego, I may have never had the opportunity to have such an impact on making one of the world’s most widely-read books easier to read.
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