Take the Confusion Out of Font Licensing: A Primer on Best Practices
Every website and most printed materials require at least one typeface or font family. While mocking up a design, the source or quality of the fonts may not be as important, but when you’re ready for primetime, it is a good idea to understand font license implications. This can save on liabilities and headaches down the road when fonts are public-facing for your own business or a client’s business.
Cost and Budget
In nearly every scenario in life, cost (or associated budget) is a factor. When working with a client, or as an employee of a company, you’re spending their money for them. So we need those dollars to be accountable and spent wisely. Even the largest businesses keep an eye on marketing expenses.
In the eyes of a CFO, spending $500 on design services is no different than spending $500 on font licensing–they’re typically going to be coming out of the same marketing budget. It is for this reason that we need to make sure we’re efficiently specifying and buying fonts for our projects, and we’re doing so in a repeatable, consistent way.
Complete Families vs. Specific Weights
It is a good idea to do a quick calculation of purchasing a specific weight or two against the entire family. If a family contains 20 weights, but we know that the headlines will only ever use Extra Bold, then purchasing the single weight may be a cost-saver for a budget-conscious client.
Desktop and Web Font Considerations
When you are getting a new brand off the ground (or revamping an established one), it is a good idea to strive for font consistency between digital and print efforts. Purchasing both the desktop and web font licensing at the same time will generally result in a discount being applied (sometimes from 20-30% off each).
Sometimes, however, your scenario may call for specifying a different font on the web versus print marketing (if it is a budget-based decision, or simply the inability to utilize a typeface on the web). In this case, be sure to record each within the company’s brand standards for ongoing consistency and as a reference for your design and marketing teams.
Try Before You Buy
Unfortunately, very few font foundries allow taking fonts for a test drive, which can add a layer of complexity in being able to mock-up websites or print collateral with desired fonts, pre-purchase. We do recommend trying out typefaces before purchasing if the foundry allows you to, returning typefaces can be tricky or impossible.
Desktop tends to be straightforward, without significant changes over the years. Many foundries and font marketplaces have moved to a model of selling 1 to 5 seats for a single price, then incrementally increasing for additional seats.
For many purposes, this first tier is nearly always appropriate: it allows for a few members of the client’s marketing team to utilize it, as well as an external designer or two if needed. Larger corporations should inquire with the foundry for their licensing options including exclusivity, or bulk licenses. Sometimes, foundries may even provide a not-for-profit client with a discounted price, so it makes sense to build a relationship with a trusted type of foundry.
Web fonts, however, have a significant variation in pricing structures.
Web Font Implementation
Implementation can be a factor in pricing models. This is generally done in one of two ways, very similar to website hosting:
This means downloading font files, then uploading them to a client’s web server, and linking to them via CSS. This uses the client’s hosting bandwidth to serve them to visitors, though it’s generally not a significant amount of bandwidth at all.
Leaning on a content delivery network (ie: Google Fonts, Adobe Fonts, FontAwesome, and typography.com) means that a third party is hosting the web fonts that are displaying on the client’s site, and that no uploading of font files needs to happen. This also means that if the CDN goes down temporarily, the fonts won’t load properly. The foundry or web font platform maintains control of the actual web font files.
Web Font Pricing Models
Building upon the concept of self-hosting web fonts versus CDN distribution, the typical pricing structures we see are:
This is the model of the popular CDN-distributed Google Fonts, as well as converting a free font from a source like dafont.com via Font Squirrel into self-hosted web font files. No money exchanges hands.
This is the preferred method of paid web fonts for most clients. The catch is that generally, you’re agreeing to a set of maximum page views or site visits per month. Sometimes this is as low as 10,000, or with other marketplaces, the lowest tier is closer to 25,000 or 50,000.
This one is trickier for most clients to wrap their minds around. The premise, similar to “Pay Once”, is that you’re paying for X amount of views, and when those run out, you’ll come back and pay again, or you may just be charged for it automatically, akin to a subscription. The views could last a client a year, or two months, but it’s more akin to a “rights-managed” pricing model for stock photography.
Subscription-Based AKA “Pay Indefinitely”
This can be contingent on an active subscription for software or a platform that offers more than fonts (ie: Adobe’s fonts.adobe.com, formerly “Typekit”), or it can be specific to web fonts only, such as Hoefler’s “Cloud Typography” (typography.com). The idea for both is that as long as the client’s paid subscription is active, the fonts will display properly on the client’s website.
Suggested Process to Use
We find that if you and your team can run through these questions, you’ll likely have the best results with font selecting and purchasing licenses.
- Is there a known budget for fonts?
- Will we (or the client, separately from us) be using these fonts in print and/or on the web?
- What typeface package(s) satisfy the brand standards as well as the client’s needs?
- Does the client have an existing Adobe CC account? This could mean utilizing Adobe Fonts would incur no additional cost for them.
- How much do the suggested fonts cost and what are the licensing terms?
- Have you shopped around for more flexible licensing options?
- Are there coupon codes that can save the client money on these fonts?
It is a good idea to purchase fonts intelligently and efficiently, making sure to not overspend or under-buy. With a repeatable process in place, it makes the decisions easier and easier with time.
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