Learn how Laura Worthington developed her career from a freelance graphic designer to becoming a typography designer.
When people ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them that I design typography, I get all kinds of responses, ranging from, “what are fonts?” to “that’s cool – can you make a living doing that?” and everything in between. It is an unusual profession, and how I got to this point contains an interesting and fortuitous series of events.
It all began when I was nine years old. I learned penmanship in elementary school, but not the typical cursive that was traditionally taught.
Our school was part of a pilot program that taught italic print instead – the theory was that italic print was just as aesthetically pleasing, but because it’s an unconnected style, it’s easier to read as it takes a bit longer to write and doesn’t have the tendency to become an illegible scrawl. At the same time that I was learning this hand, my mother was taking a calligraphy class, and I saw that there was a parallel between the style of calligraphy that she was learning (Chancery) and the handwriting style taught in class. I thought it was beautiful and set out to teach calligraphy to myself.
Throughout school, I honed this craft, as a hobby and also as a profession. I lettered certificates, wedding envelopes, lettered poems and more. When it came time to go to college, my father suggested I get into graphic design as a way to further this interest of mine and merge it with the digital realm.
I was a graphic designer for 15 years prior to becoming a typeface designer. During this time, I found as many opportunities as I could to create custom lettering, but it was never enough to satisfy my love of typography.
For several years before I transitioned into this new field, I knew that this is what I wanted to do, but many things stopped me. I was primarily concerned with making a living, having a mortgage and bills to pay. Could I make ends meet as a typeface designer? Also, how would I get started? I was already so busy in my design career that few hours in the day remained to start something that was fairly risky.
Enter my friend, Charles Borges de Oliviera.
We both had the same graphic design client as freelancers and became friends. He had designed several successful typefaces and encouraged me to do so as well. After years of discussing this, I finally bit – and invited him to visit me at the college I taught at part-time, where we exchanged information. I taught him what I knew of DreamWeaver, and he taught me some skills in FontLab.
That weekend, I was completely inspired by this interaction and set forth to design my first typeface. Even before publishing it, I knew that this was most definitely my calling, my purpose in life. I figured it would take a couple of years to make the transition from graphic designer to typeface designer, but it only took nine months.
I made the leap from graphic to typeface design in 2010, and what a year it was! I thought my early twenties were a tumultuous time, working two jobs and going to school full-time, but it was nothing compared to 2010. I was teaching design and typography part-time, working a part-time graphic design contract job forty miles from home, handling a dozen freelance design clients and designing type. There were many days where I didn’t know if I could make it through and I had to dig deep to push myself to keep going. But I knew there was an end in sight, and that the end-game for me was the day I could be working full-time as a typeface designer.
In June of that first year, I had a big hit with my font Origins. The sales from it had eclipsed anything I had ever made in a month from graphic design and by then, I was at the end of my rope so I took a leap of faith… and for the first time in years, started saying no.
This was a big deal to me. As a freelance designer, saying no was the kiss of death. In my experience, if you say no to a potential client, they may not be back to ask a second time. If I said no to an existing client, and they needed work done, they’d invite other people in to finish the work and you ran the risk of diminishing your role. Saying “no” was something I seldom did. So, it was very freeing, albeit scary, to use those words.
I started by not accepting new work and over three months I helped my contract client hire another designer, I started shifting my regular clients to working with my design colleagues, and – I’m proud to say – I got a few designers’ careers off the ground by giving them my book of business.
The light at the end of the tunnel was bright, and then, I almost died.
Yes, you read that right, I almost died. Seriously…
For several weeks in August, I had been feeling run down and I came down with a wicked cold. That’s all I thought it was. But, it turned into something more.
On September 1st, I woke up in a coughing fit. I felt like I was drowning with a wet, hacking cough. But I kept going about my day as usual.
I drove out to meet up with a business coach to help get me started on my exciting new career change and to spend one of my last days at my contract job, tying up loose ends as I was in my last week there.
Around 4pm, I felt so exhausted that I had to leave work early. When I finally made it home, my chest and arm started to hurt. The pain accelerated rapidly and I had my husband take me to the hospital.
As soon as the nurse took my vitals and saw that my heart-rate was 198 bpm (the normal rate being 80 bpm) they rushed me into a room. At first they thought I had a blood clot in my lungs. It turned out that I had pneumonia. But, not just regular pneumonia. I had MRSA pneumonia.
MRSA is a staph infection, also known as the flesh eating bacteria, and it was in my lungs. How it got there is unknown, but 28% of all people who get it die from it, usually within the first 48 hours.
I fought for my life during the next few days, and it took months to fully recover. But talk about timing! I had been pushing myself so hard that my body had finally given out, right as I was about to make that final step.
In my first year of full-time typeface design, I focused on my recovery and on designing type. I took a full year off of any commissioned work and anything else that was outside of my goal of type design.
It was wonderful. I would wake up in the morning, whenever I felt like it, rather than by an alarm, and worked according to my own schedule. Typeface design ended up being exactly what I needed on so many levels. It’s allowed me to live my life the way I want to and to work with letters every day, which has been a lifelong passion of mine.
Getting to the place I’m at now as a typeface designer was a challenge. Working for myself and rarely having clients and commissioned work means that almost everything is self initiated. I develop the designs, name and price them, have all of the promotional materials developed, market them upon release and so on.
You have to have the stomach for the ups and downs of this business. Some designs are successful, others, not so much – and you never really know for sure what is going to be well received. Taking risks is a regular part of business, as is dealing with disappointment and riding the high of a successful release. Reading the market and its ever changing needs is another important factor in becoming a full-time typeface designer. It goes beyond picking up on a trend and reaches deep into the realm of technical issues and understanding how customers use your fonts.
In the last six and a half years, many things have changed in my business except for my absolute love of lettering and type. What I love about display type is that it provides an outlet for creativity and personal expression, allowing you to interpret the message behind it at a glance, and that it is the epitome of visual communication.
Early in my new career, I would receive dozens of emails from customers wanting to use my fonts to their full capabilities, by being stymied by the lack of software programs out there that made it possible. They would need to purchase a program such as Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, CorelDRAW or Quark Xpress to do that. These programs were cost and time prohibitive to learn for many.
I thoroughly researched what could be done to circumvent this issue and stumbled upon Private Use Area encoding (PUA). PUA is adding Unicode values to swashes, alternates and ornaments, any glyph that is outside of the standard character set. With PUA encoding, customers could now use operating system utilities, such as Character Map on a PC or Font Book on a Mac to access any glyph in a font and bring it into virtually any program on their computer.
This opened up an entirely new audience to me, who were very grateful they could now use my fonts to their full extent without having to invest time and money in a professional software program that they’d be using primarily for a hobby.
I developed videos and written instructions on the process and now have user guides that are full of information and character showings as another way to reach my audience.
I’m always on the lookout to find new, better and innovative ways to create my designs and present them to my customers. After all, we’re all in this together – the makers of design tools and of those who use them.