© Genesis Photography

Founded in 1996, Font Diner was one of the first independent font foundries to get into the business of designing and selling fonts online. Over the years, Font Diner founder Stuart Sandler has built the company from a side project, and source of passive income, into a major force in the design and photography world. Today, Font Diner not only designs and sells fonts, but also develops several popular plugins for Photoshop and Lightroom including Mr. Retro’s Machine Wash, Retrographer, and Permanent Press.

Growing Font Diner from a company that only designs and sells fonts online into a Photoshop and Lightroom plugin developer is something that didn’t happen over night. It was the end-result of a lot of hard work, but also the relationships that founder Stuart Sandler built over the years. In fact, over the course of his career, Sandler has found that the relationships that he has built with others, were likely one of the biggest keys to his company’s success.

Origins

When Sandler founded his company back in 1996, he was working as a designer at an advertising agency in in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He had always wanted to work as a creative director in the print world, but in 1996, the design world was changing rapidly. While the print industry was still going strong, the Internet was beginning to gain in popularity. Everyone knew that change was coming but most just didn’t know how.

At the same time, Sandler felt trapped in his job. Back then, there was a feeling in the print design industry that everything had already been done, and Sandler felt as if there just wasn’t a place for him in the print design world. So that is when he began to teach himself web design.

It was during this time that Sandler began to take his interest in typography and fonts more seriously. Back in those days, fonts weren’t available online. Designers would have to browse through books of fonts to find one they liked, and if they weren’t in the books then “they didn’t exist,” according to Sandler.

Back then, most people likely didn’t realize that fonts could be built by anyone other than large companies, but Sandler felt that he might be able to build a business designing and selling fonts online. That is when Sandler had the idea to start his own website, which he still remembers the URL to: www.execpc.com/~diner. It wasn’t long after publishing his first site that he purchased Fontdiner.com, released his first font set, and began to take the idea more seriously. That is when things really began to take off.

The first font set that he released was Doggie Bag, a 12-font set that included the now popular Beer Dip font. Designed using a combination of Adobe Illustrator 3.0 and Fontographer, this first set laid the groundwork for Sandler’s career and business.

After the success of Doggie Bag, Sandler continued to release new font sets, and his fonts started appearing all over the place. When that happened, designers began to send him examples of the work that they had created with the fonts he designed, and he even began to see his work on television, such as for the opening credits for MTV’s The Osbournes.

While it was flattering to see his work being used in such ways, it also made Sandler realize that he would need to start to take the protection of his intellectual property more seriously. If a television network was going to use his fonts for a show, that they would not only need to pay for more usage, but also, since the font was adding value to the show, that value would need to be reflected in the form of additional licensing.

Sandler’s First Conference

In 1998, Sandler attended the first TypeCon, an annual conference “dedicated to the promotion, study, and support of typography and related arts” in Westborough, Massachusetts. At the conference, there may have been roughly 30-50 people in attendance. One of those people was Frank Martinez, who would have a huge effect on the direction of Font Diner for many years to come.

Martinez is an intellectual property attorney that helped Sandler understand the great complexities of intellectual property law. While many young designers might be slightly intimidated speaking to an attorney about this subject, Martinez and Sandler started a dialogue, and eventually Martinez became a great mentor.

The Origins of Mr. Retro

By 1998, Sandler had left the Milwaukee agency where he worked, had moved to Minneapolis, and was working as an in-house web designer for a Minneapolis interactive agency. By 2001, he was working on Font Diner full-time.

By 2004, his fonts were starting to get used in big ways. Sandler was starting to get OEM licensing requests from large companies that wanted to use his fonts. This was great, but at the time, Sandler was beginning to feel nervous. Since he was working full-time on Font Diner, he felt that long-term, he needed to diversify to protect himself, and his company from any volatility in the market. That is when he came up with the idea for Mr. Retro, the part of his business that would eventually produce vector image sets, and Photoshop and Lightroom plugins.

His friend Jeff Griffith from Atomic Magazine put Sandler in touch with an illustrator by the name of Derek Yaniger. Yaniger had produced some beautiful spot illustrations for Atomic Magazine and Sandler thought that a clip art set in the same style would be a great compliment to his Font Diner sets. Their first collaboration became called Snappy Hour Vector Images, and was the first of many vector image sets they released together.

The First “Plugin”

Simultaneously, Sandler began to talk to another font designer that he had become close to named Brian Bonislawsky. While Bonislawsky was also an excellent font designer, he also produced apparel work in his spare time for large amusement parks and national retailers. His apparel work was all produced in a “cool” vintage and distressed style. Sandler was so impressed by the process that he suggested that the two turn it into a product. The result was a set of 60 textures and 2 Photoshop action scripts that could be used to produce the same vintage and distressed look. This became the first version of Machine Wash, their “plugin” for applying distressed and vintage looks to photos and graphics in Photoshop.

The result was a massive success. They had hundreds of orders on the first day but there were some challenges. The Internet wasn’t what it is today, at over 600MB, Machine Wash couldn’t be downloaded over the Internet. Each copy had to be manually burned to CD and then mailed to each customer. Also, while Machine Wash was a big hit, it wasn’t a true plugin because it was just a collection of textures and Photoshop actions. Like many new products however, these initial challenges would be overcome with time and development.

A New Distributorship

With Mr. Retro now on solid ground, Sandler realized that he needed a website where he could sell some of the fonts that were too high quality to release with a set of other fonts. He realized that it was time to start working on a new way to distribute his fonts outside of Font Diner, but he also knew that given what he had learned from Frank Martinez, he could become an advocate for other font designers, and teach them how to protect and license their work. So in 2006, after two years of planning, Sandler teamed up Michael Ibach, a friend from the agency he used to work for, established a new corporation, and launched a company called Font Bros.

Today, Font Bros lists approximately 22K fonts in its catalog and works with over 110 foundries. While initially focused on selling display fonts, Font Bros now sells more workhorse sans and serif typefaces to round out their offerings.

In addition to selling fonts, Sandler and his team also handles OEM licensing deals for many of the foundries that they represent so that the foundries that they work with can continue to design fonts instead of spending days responding to licensing requests.

Product Development

Now that Sandler felt that he was in a much more stable position with the successful launch of Machine Wash and Font Bros, he and his partners went into product development mode and began to produce more vector image sets as well as sell merchandise under the Mr. Retro name, but they also knew that they needed to turn Machine Wash into a fully-functional Photoshop plugin.

They began to reach out to established plugin developers to help them build the next version of Machine Wash. Eventually, they chose a California-based developer. It didn’t take long to realize that Sandler and Bonislawsky were a bit in over their heads. The cost to develop a plugin using a third-party was just too high, and they needed to find another solution. Versions 1 and 2 of Machine Wash were developed by the California company, but by the time they were thinking about version 3, they knew they needed a partner, a partner that would be invested in the success of the product.

That partner turned out to be Maxim Chernousov. Sandler brought in Chernousov to work on the first version of Permanent Press. Permanent Press, now in version 2, is a plugin that they wanted to build to help give digitally created artwork, a traditionally printed look. After the successful release of Permanent Press, which turned out to become one of the strongest release days Sandler can remember, Sandler and Chernousov retrieved the original source code from the California company, and began work on the next version of Machine Wash.

After the development of Machine Wash and Permanent Press, Sandler was approached by Lucas Buick, the CEO of Hipstamatic to produce a Photoshop plugin to create Hipstamatic-style vintage camera effects for the desktop. While that idea never came to fruition, the idea inspired Mr. Retro’s third Photoshop plugin, Retrographer, which was also developed with Chernousov.

The Future

A lot has changed since Sandler first started Font Diner in 1996. When he started, print design dominated the market, and the web was a much different place. Sandler doesn’t need to manually burn CDs to mail to his customers anymore. His products can now be downloaded easily over the Internet, but his customers are changing. In fact, he says that only 30% of his customers from 1996 are still designing professionally today. That means that he has to constantly reconnect with new customers.

The behavior of his customers is also changing. New technology now allows designers to download fonts directly through applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator using Adobe Typekit. While this iTunes-like model hasn’t gained wide acceptance from established font developers, in the future, this might change. In addition, while designers have traditionally been his core customer, with the addition of Retrographer and Machine Wash, he is also seeing much more interest from photographers.

While no one can accurately predict how the market will change in the future, Sandler has shown a talent for navigating the ever-changing design industry by building products that his customers want to use. So as his current core customer begins to change and use his products in new ways, Sandler is prepared to adapt and deliver his products in a way that his users want and need.