Here’s a niche business: designing fonts

Matt Desmond
MinnPost photo by Steven Pease
Matt Desmond: “I just know what looks good to me.”

Inspiration for Matt Desmond’s latest font struck him while browsing vintage Russian weaponry at a Minneapolis gun show.

There he came upon an artillery box of bandoleers featuring a font from a bygone era. The typeset was hastily stenciled and spray-painted blue. Gritty and original. Just his style.

An iPhone picture, and a few-clicks-of-a-mouse later, and a font was born.

“My inspiration usually comes from historical sources,” Desmond said. “History has pretty much been pillaged. So there are fewer and fewer typefaces from history that have not already been converted to a digital font.”

Font creation software such as FontLab’s Fontographer and FontLab Studio have captured the vast majority of fonts, he said, so coming up with anything new takes ingenuity and a keen eye.

Desmond, 31, has created or revived more than 50 fonts since 1996, for both commercial and individual use. While he does create wholly original designs, oftentimes he uses vernacular signage, old hand-painted signs and urban decay as a font base, and gives them a modern touch-up.

This south Minneapolis “font cowboy” is one of only a handful (fewer than 100 in the nation) making their living designing specialized fonts. He said he’s one of five he knows of in the Twin Cities involved in this “small, specialized niche” of graphic design.

Retron is a partially connected script created by Desmond in 1997.
Retron is a partially connected script created by Desmond in 1997.

Admittedly, Desmond is probably a better snowboarder than graphic designer. And he said he is not great at geometry, but has closely studied classical proportions. Proportion separates a masterful font from a “for sale” sign, he said. 
“Fonts are like little machines where every letter has to work in tandem with every other letter,” said Desmond, whose business is called MADType. “That’s why for ‘sale signs’ are always so bad.”

Archivist and revivalist
While Desmond took design classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, his is a profession that largely can’t be taught in a classroom. However, he has gone so far as to scour University of Minnesota and Massachusetts Institute of Technology archives, ultimately finding, tweaking and reviving a 15th century Italian font now known as “Venicia.”

As a font designer, he also plays the role of archivist and revivalist. Naturally, his home office reveals an affinity for first edition books, vintage cameras and rare 8mm video cameras. But it’s also laden with scanners and light tables which Desmond uses to reincarnate full sets of letters and symbols, often designing a 256-character set by hand.

Desmond has spent the last decade learning how to build a niche business with no tried and true model. However, when Desmond begins to explain the more technical aspects of font design — such as matching cap heights to x-heights, font licensing and getting paid via a Web site — you begin to understand that being a font-maker also takes patience.

ER9 is a futuristic typeface Desmond designed in 1999.
ER9 is a futuristic typeface Desmond designed in 1999.

“It can take up to two years to develop a single font,” he said. “A font is a build-up of ideas to the point where something just clicks.”

His decidedly dated work (modern typesetting dates to the late 19th century) has nonetheless made an impact on everyday popular culture. Desmond’s custom-made fonts have been contracted or licensed for use by American Eagle, Virgin America and he did this font for Nike, which adorned Ronaldo’s 2006 World Cup jersey, among others.

His own handwriting has adorned a Grand Casino billboard, and his “Stomper” font, which he created using a Fisher Price stamp, has been licensed by Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew and Flying Dog Beer, where it is featured alongside a Ralph Steadman painting.
While seeing your fonts everywhere is nice, like any artist he is faced with the problem of tracking down those who use it without a license. 
“You can’t do anything about [illegally downloaded] MP3s, and there’s really nothing I can do about my fonts,” he said. “Sometimes it is not so great to be popular.”

Nice surprise
Desmond said that, in the font business, you never truly know where your next meal is coming from. But when it arrives, it can be a family feast or a single-helping meal.

He cited the examples of (license-based) retail fonts. An outlet can license up to five licenses per computer for only $30. While that sum may seem small, Desmond also said he recently checked his bank account to find a nice surprise: A Czech telephone company had bought 1,000 licenses — providing him a $9,000 boost to his checking account.

“I was like, ‘Is this real?'” he said with a smile. “OK!”

Stomper was an instant hit when it was designed in 1997. But the residual checks from that font have allowed Desmond to explore his other passions: film-making and photography.

Chank Diesel — the Twin Cities’ best known font designer or “alphabetician,” as he prefers — first learned of Desmond when he saw a skateboarding video he had done on his site. Diesel, an avid skateboarder and font designer, was encouraged by what he saw.

“Matt has a multifaceted personality,” Diesel said in a nod to Desmond’s quality multimedia work. “He has a good design sense, plus, of course, good fonts.”

Stomper is a rubber stamp font Desmond created in 1997.
Stomper is a rubber stamp font Desmond created in 1997.

Like Desmond, Diesel has made much of his living designing corporate fonts, but he said the Twin Cities’ design scene is a natural breeding ground for niche specialists.

“There’s this greater design community with all the ad agencies and design firms downtown, and the natural byproduct are the specialists,” Diesel said. “We do look over each others’ shoulders, and that’s a very unique thing to do.”

Diesel said font-making is an art form, and Desmond does it well.

“[Matt] has been working on his font work for a long time and it just keeps getting better, I’m sure.”

In 1998, Desmond was part of a three man, Minneapolis-based digital design foundry, Test Pilot Collective, where his fonts blossomed. At the beginning of his career Desmond was fairly prolific, but lately his output has been waning — now down to only two or three fonts a year. This is due, in part, to poor corporate sales and because his thoughts on what is good have changed.

“I just know what looks good to me,” Desmond said.

But nothing gets Desmond’s creative juices flowing like surplus Soviet guns-n-ammo.

“It’s just that spark of creation that’s tough to find,” Desmond said. “But when you find it — it’s pretty amazing.”
Steven Pease is a freelance writer based in St. Paul.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jason Walker on 03/09/2009 - 11:49 am.

    There’s a website called where you can design your own fonts. Doing it will make you appreciate the time it takes to develop a font!
    Also a great movie on the subject is “Helvetica.” Came out maybe a year or two ago.

  2. Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/09/2009 - 02:01 pm.

    Another interesting article on the subject was published last year in the NY Times sunday magazine. They covered the long history of standardizing the typeface on highway signage.

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