Rutherford Craze: “The hardest thing is getting the communication right”

Talked to the founder of the Mass-Driver type design studio about doing taxes, making tools, and (not) designing ligatures

April 25, 2024

How and when did you decide to do type design?

I honestly struggle to pick a specific moment, but at some point, I think I was about 14, the idea of designing a font came into my head. I had no idea how to do this and asked my art teacher, and she also had no idea. It went from there. I think I never specifically said that I’m going to be a type designer, but I just always had this curiosity, trying to find someone who could tell me the answer to "how do you make a font’’, which led to me doing a master’s degree in it. Over the way, I discovered that I want to do it full-time.

After graduating from TypeMedia, why did you decide to start your own studio and not going to work for someone?

I’m not always the easiest person to work with! But honestly, I’m quite independent, generally, and always a little bit apprehensive about working in a foundry where I might have to work on projects that I am not passionate about.

Another big part of it was that a foundry seems like a really interesting challenge. As much as I love type design, I don’t love designing typefaces all day, every day. Running a business is a really interesting way of getting to do a whole lot of other things — web design, graphic design, marketing. At the same time, I don’t want to not credit the people that help. The payment side of it is with the Fontdue platform, I have loads of help with specimens and things as well.

MD Nichrome by Mass-Driver

MD Polychrome by Mass-Driver

MD IO by Mass-Driver

What was the hardest part of starting your own studio?

Taxes. I’m not great with paperwork, and I can’t find a way of making myself like it. It’s not like writing marketing copy where I can turn it into a fun challenge.

But longer term, the hardest part about running a foundry is getting the communication right. I don’t really work as a commercial graphic designer and I’m not very experienced in the things that most of our customers do. It can be difficult remembering that if I say that this is an old style Venetian serif, quite a lot of the people interested in buying it probably don’t know exactly what that means. So you have to have this extra step and understand how to talk to the designers in a language normal people also understand.

That’s probably the hardest ongoing thing because for the taxes, I just hired an accountant, and they do it for me now.

How did you come up with the name of your foundry? Wikipedia told me that the mass driver is a space gun.

I’ve always been into sci-fi. There’s a whole lot of different things that you have to think about when you’re trying to find a foundry name. A lot of them are just like, is the font vendor MD available? Is there a domain name available?

I figured any name I picked is going to (in the minds of most people) represent the company rather than the thing that it used to mean. So I just picked a cool-sounding word. I picked something kind of obscure that people wouldn’t really know exactly what it is, and then the foundry can become the meaning of that word in their mind.

1 Mass Driver (from the Star Citizen game)

Why is it important for you to create not only fonts but also tools?

I think one of the things that we can easily forget is that type design is a tiny, tiny industry. There are a few thousand people doing it, and, therefore, there are even fewer people making tools for us. There are two or three or four really good font editors, but, beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot of tooling for making fonts. It might be that you have an idea for a typeface that requires a new piece of software to execute, but because no one has had that idea before, there is no software available. If you look at the whole design industry, you’ll also find that there’s a bunch of tools that Adobe software is missing because they’re not profitable to make.

I’m not working on software that I can sell to people, but I’m making little helper tools that I might only need for one or two projects to patch the many, many holes in the software that we have available as type designers. Once you get into making tools, you realize that making tools is the best thing you can do to improve your design skills.

Did you ever think of making your own type editor?

I did. I have so much more respect for people that make font editors. During TypeMedia, I was really complaining about the options I had. At that point, I didn’t have the knowledge to make my own little scripts and things for Glyphs or Robofont, so I was thinking if these font editors don’t do what I want them to, the solution must be to make a new one. That was hubris.

It was really educational because I learned exactly why I didn’t have the skills to do it. There have been many such examples in my life where I have tried to do a project that is so ambitious that it doesn’t work, but finding out why it doesn’t work is more useful.

2 Tools created by Mass-Driver

You mentioned on your website that you have a number of collaborators. Can you please name a few of them?

At the moment, I’m working with Luke Charsley. We met when we were studying graphic design in undergrad together, and we’re still working together fairly regularly. He has designed the Mono space version of MD System, and he’s just been in charge of the update to MD Primer that added italics last month. He’s a phenomenal typeface designer, a really good graphic designer, and a very good friend.

I’ve also been working with Huw Williams recently, another British type designer and TypeMedia graduate. We are working together on a serif that I don’t want to talk about in too much detail yet, but I’ve teased a little bit on social media. He was really, really helpful. He has much more experience with serifs than I do.

MD Primer

Adorno by Luke Charsley

MD System

Malham by Huw Williams

From all the text-based social media, you’re only present on Mastodon. Why did you choose it over Twitter?

I used to love Twitter. I don’t like the way that it’s gone in the last couple of years. Actually, I’ve been on Mastodon since 2018, but mostly in a personal way. I haven’t had a business account there. It’s quite frustrating to use a lot of the time. But I think that’s the model of social media that we should be using going forward, having distributed small servers that can talk to each other.

Seeing how quickly Twitter managed to go from a thriving platform full of creative people to being this cesspool full of racists made me realize that even if Mastodon is clunky and irritating to use, I would just rather be there and know that it’s not going to do that in one go really quickly.

Is type Twitter still alive, what do you think?

No. Type Twitter was always a loosely-held definition. There were people that were like, definitely Type Twitter. Then there were people that clearly follow Type Twitter, but they’re not really part of the core group. It’s now like there’s, which is mostly nerds talking about Unicode character sets or saying «Oh, your language support is not quite correct, but in a way that I don’t even understand.» I really love that. It makes me feel like I’m learning, which was the thing about type Twitter that I used to enjoy.

Although I have to say it’s a shame that we no longer have that type Twitter-adjacent community so distinctly because Twitter used to be a marketing platform as well. It was a channel for getting people who don’t know you in, showing them your work, and gaining new customers that way. Whereas Mastodon feels a little bit more like a conference. It’s type designers talking to type designers and to really hard-core typographers.

I actually have two questions concerning your Mastodon posts.

Should I be worried?

I don’t know. You’ve posted once that your foundry has been running for four years and you have designed zero ligatures during this time. Why so?

That is true, but I am actually about to ship my first typeface with ligatures. Erik van Blokland from TypeMedia has this great theory that I completely agree with. If you have a spacing problem and you solve it with a ligature, now you have two spacing problems.

If your f and your i clash, you need to draw an f and an i that don’t clash because there are situations where you can’t solve that with a ligature. There are some contexts, like if you adjust the tracking in Adobe apps, where ligatures get disabled, so there needs to be a fallback solution. So why bother with the ligature then? Required ligatures are only necessary if you’re doing a historical design, because the historical shapes of these glyphs do clash, and, therefore, you need ligatures to solve that and keep it referencing the material from the 1700s.

Discretionary ligatures are another thing. If you want to show off like that, that’s okay.

12 Ligatures that were not included in MD IO

The second one is why do you want to migrate from Figma and where?

The reason is this is really the same as the Twitter argument, I don’t like knowing that my design files are proprietary software format that lives on someone else’s servers. I don’t think everything needs to be open source. I’m not against using proprietary software, but the idea that I don’t really own my files and I can’t move them away bothers me.

My issue is I haven’t found a great alternative yet.

You’ve published an article about the first two years of the studio with graphs. Why did you decide to talk so openly about the business process?

I think I wanted to. I realized this back when type Twitter was a thing. James Edmondson from OH no posted a graph. He clipped off the Axis label so you couldn’t see how much money he was making, just showed the graph of sales over time. I was five years behind him or so, but I could see that my bit of graph roughly matched the first bit of his graph. It was so helpful to me in understanding the finances of the foundry over time. There is so little information about this that I just thought maybe my foundry is exceptional.

So I thought it would be useful to share that information because it was useful for me to see that information coming from another foundry. I still think so, I think I’ll do a five-year one because the line has gone up a little bit more and it’s interesting, again, to look at that.

13 OH no Type Company sales (from September 2015 to January 2021). Image: James Edmondson,

14 Mass-Driver sales (from January 2020 to January 2022)

Yet another business question. How did you manage to achieve a one-page user license agreement?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think basically because my license is not very restrictive, there’s a section of legal boilerplate that you need to protect the foundry, but that’s quite short. Then I think most foundries tend to go into maybe more detail than is necessary. Or maybe their lawyers like to add as much detail as possible just to make sure this customer can’t possibly use this font in the wrong way.

People are not in the habit of looking for tiny loopholes in font licenses to save a few euros. I don’t necessarily want to admit this too publicly, but I generally think for people to do that it’s more expensive than just buying a license anyway. I’d rather just make it 95% legally watertight instead of 100% and then make it one page.

31 Mass-Driver licence

Did you compile it yourself or with a lawyer?

I did it myself, but then I also reached out to a bunch of other people including licensing experts, and then a lawyer has subsequently looked over it and given it the okay.

Your prices are only based on the size of the buyer’s company. How did you choose the model of your licensing?

I remember thinking during TypeMedia, «Why don’t people just ask how big the customer is?» Something in my mind went, «Well, that’s so obvious, people would be doing it if it was legal. It must be that there’s some reason you’re not allowed to ask that stuff.» You’re not allowed to sell the same product at two different prices unless there’s another reason. If you’re selling T-shirts, you can’t charge one person more than another. I just assumed that also applied to fonts.

Then Dinamo did exactly this thing that I’ve been thinking about, and I went, «Oh no, you’re not selling the same product, you’re selling a license to one company, and then you’re selling a license to a different company. You’re not selling the same thing at two prices. You’re selling two things at two prices, and it’s completely okay. I should be doing that because it just makes more sense.»

Then I also thought rolling all of the different usage types into one makes sense just because I kept getting inquiries that are like, «I’m making an app, but it’s actually a website. Do I buy an app license or a web license?» Or, «I’m making images that are going to go on the website, do I need a desktop license or a web license?» I kept getting all of these questions and I was just thinking, the reason we have these different license types is because we started selling fonts in the ’90s when there were only desktop licenses. Then when web fonts came along, we just added a new option to allow for that. Then when apps became a thing we added another option, and at no point did anyone sit down and go, «Why have we done it this way?» It’s just evolved into this complexity, and I think it should evolve out of it. I did this in year one or year two of the company. I felt like I could take risks at that point. I figured I should try it, and actually, it’s worked really well.

Have you ever seen someone abuse your license?

It happens from time to time. If occasionally I find something, I will just double-check, did they definitely buy the right license, particularly if it’s a big company. If the work is cool enough, then I tend to let it slide, but I do tend to check up just in case. Once or twice, I’ve had to have discussions.

A year ago you stopped selling MD Eight. How do you decide when it’s time for a font to retire?

In the specific case of MD Eight, firstly, no one bought it, that helped. MD Eight sold more licenses in the month between when I announced I was retiring it and when I took it off sale than it had ever sold in the two years before that. There’s something about introducing scarcity that makes people want to buy things. I don’t want to try and exploit that, but I can see why people do flash sales now.

But really it’s that the one typeface that doesn’t feel thematically fit in the foundry’s collection now. At the time that I designed it, I didn’t have such a clear idea of what I wanted Mass-Driver to represent. Since I’ve released some other typefaces, I’ve crystallized this idea of every new typeface being some new interpretation of an existing idea, like a new take on an old theme, and MD Eight just wasn’t quite that.

MD Eight

Do you keep track of the users of your fonts? Can you name a few favourites?

I do it occasionally. One of my favourite ones is for the KIAF (KIAF), the Korea International Art Fair in Seoul. They’re using Nichrome, and they’re using it huge, all over this convention center. It’s this incredible joy to see your typeface used in a way that you would never have thought of and with such expertise that you’re like, «Yes, I have contributed to something that is far more beautiful than I could have actually done on my own.» I really like that.

KIAF Identity. Designed by Studio fnt

Ещё в Letterform Archive в Сан-Франциско в 2023-м была выставка про граффити, и для её айдентики тоже выбрали Nichrome. Мне было очень приятно, потому что я ходил на курсы каллиграфии в Letterform в 2017-м, когда только готовился поступать на TypeMedia.

The Letterform Archive in San Francisco did an exhibition on graffiti that also used Nichrome, and I really loved just the full circleness of that. I went to the Letterform Archive in 2017 to learn lettering before applying for TypeMedia.

Subscription to Mischief: Graffiti Zines of the 1990s, exhibition at Letterform Archive

What are your plans for the foundry’s future?

I don’t have huge expansion plans. I’m sure I could be a fun boss, but I don’t think I am a good enough boss to want to hire that many employees. What I would love to do is keep making fonts with other people, potentially publishing some other people’s fonts. I really love my job. I really love doing the thing that I get to do, and I don’t want to do anything to really mess that up. I’m very happy with how things are going, and I would just like to continue making typefaces for as long as I can do that.

23 Mass-Driver serif sketch

Do you want to add something?

I get this impression that people think I only do sans serifs. But I am working on serifs, I promise. I’ve got three or four serifs on the go. I’m doing small-cap currency for one of them, so it’s basically done. Serifs take longer, and I’ve never managed to get one out of the gate yet, I just never am quite happy with how they are, but there is one coming in two months!

Rutherford Craze