It’s strange to think that Syke, one of The Northern Block’s most objectively impressive typefaces, hadn’t until this year achieved a single desktop sale. Originally – and, as founder Jonathan Hill admits, perhaps naively – this font began life through an ill-fated ‘experiment in independence’. To determine the appeal of anonymity, the Syke typeface was made distinctive in design, and rendered purchasable solely through The Northern Block’s website. Jonathan, as usual, is frank about the outcome. ‘Turns out, a typeface always has to earn its reputation before it becomes exclusive’, he explains, adding that Syke’s re-release onto third-party distribution networks, loaded with regular and italic free-weights on top, ‘is finally generating the attention this typeface deserves.’
Looking back at Syke’s initial release in 2016, Jonathan reveals that ‘[we] did get one substantial sale through The Northern Block from a corporate investment company.’ But he adds that given the amount of time and energy expended on Syke’s design, this was a disappointing result. Building upon what Jonathan appreciates as ‘the guiding mantra of Google Fonts’ – who deem good typography an exercise in readability and adaptability – The Northern Block’s aim for Syke was to provide wide-ranging functionality. It was intended to give desktop users and digital media hacks something of an edge: exercising a legible flair that wasn’t quite as exhausted as Helvetica. Jonathan openly admits that ‘one sale just didn’t satisfy [us]’, and that strategic overhaul would be necessary.
While Syke’s new-found success is clearly worth celebrating, Jonathan is keen to stress that, more importantly, the experience drove home hard-truths for The Northern Block. For one thing, it became undeniable for Jonathan and his team that distribution networks have an immense role in advertising small foundries’ diverse, geometric creations. Platforms such as MyFonts, FontSpring and YouWorkForThem often have monthly viewing statistics in the millions. Though their monopoly status can be challenging for small-scale companies striving for that all-important independence, ignoring their market dominance can be equally fatal.
Syke Type Family, 2016.
‘So, we took it all in good faith’, Jonathan tells me, ‘and learned from it.’ It wasn’t all bad news. That singular sale - for wholly unexpected, investment-related purposes – had verified at least one of The Northern Block’s typographic hunches: that there were, indeed, always customers on the hunt for something definitively niche. But it was the commercial sustainability of an exclusive approach which the experiment firmly discredited. ‘I got the sense that exclusivity was sort of an elitist understanding of the type-industry’, Jonathan says: ‘it spoke to this idea that we, as a company, wanted to be in control of all the processes. It wiped out the spontaneity and the shared-responsibility that comes with wider distribution. I’ve realised that the market goes against that sort of thing.’
Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t a time and place for exclusivity. Some of The Northern Block’s typefaces are found on their website alone; but these, Jonathan assures me, are fonts which have ‘real clout’ - fonts which have earned their stripes. Take Eund: this typeface was only made exclusive after its adoption by Disney for Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ merchandise copy. When a typeface is in this privileged position, exclusivity becomes a powerful weapon: one that makes sense to yield. ‘These are the exceptions to the rule’, Jonathan explains. ‘It’s something we’ve only realised through brazen trial and error.’
I ask Jonathan, then, if he’s depressed about any of this. Are small foundries, like The Northern Block, concerned that their businesses rely – to a large extent - on third-party distributors? Is there something disheartening about realising that visibility can often come at the price of individual control? His reply is unequivocal: ‘no, not at all. We work to a strategy that maximises what these networks can do for us. Clout-based working is the way to go. These networks, hopefully, are simply stepping stones. If not, we adapt. We keep doing what we love, and we trust that the right customer will pay the price.’ Pardon the pun, but it seems The Northern Block are actually pretty psyched with the way things are going - as they should be!
Purchase Syke Type Family here.