Plug and p(l)ay: the Adobe Creative Suite plugin as marketing channel

As the craze for fonts and typography reaches a fever pitch, foundries are going to all-new lengths to sell their target audiences—designers—right where they live: in Adobe Creative Suite. And just which programs within the Creative Suite the foundries choose to make their pitch is truly telling. Not to mention, potentially unsettling.

Extensis blazes a trail in comping with web fonts

Extensis' Web Font Plug-in

With big names like FontFont and Monotype only recently entering the in-Creative-Suite sales race, it can be a bit hard to believe that a dark horse like Extensis—best known for their popular font management software Suitcase Fusion—was the first out of the gate.

But believe it or not, the little digital foundry that could truly did beat the big boys to the starting line, releasing their un-inspiringly named Web Font Plug-in months before two of the biggest names in typography.

The Web Font Plug-in offers Photoshop users the ability to comp with actual Extensis web fonts, not to mention the huge library of Google web fonts, making it a versatile tool with a voluminous selection. So long as your only interest is web typography, that is. For, like Google’s font service, Extensis doesn’t offer fonts available for print.

In a way it’s no true surprise, considering that Extensis has rather staked its claim in the web font territory with its WebINK product, the Font Dropper tool, and the delightful FontFuse, where you can try web font pairings and compare them with others’ confabulations. Extensis, unexpectedly born in Portland, Oregon (hardly a tech Mecca), specializes in the digital side of the typography equation, so their trailblazing in tying the comp work to the digital realization seems sensible enough. (Yes, Oregon, I’m going to hell for the obvious analogous verb use here.)

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see two more-or-less venerable heavyweights of the typography industry duking it out over territory another corporate entity discovered.

FontShop does web fonts for PhotoShop

FontShop's PhotoShop Plugin

What’s in a name, the Bard notoriously, and rhetorically, asked. Well, in this case, a curious symmetry. And more, of course.

FontShop International, well-known for everything from its founders (Erik Spiekermann and Neville Brody, two of the biggest names in typography) to its FontFont shop—and hey guys, FontFont is a way better name—stepped up to the plate second with its FontShop plugin.

(Are we noticing a trend in boringly named plugins yet, folks?)

Despite its sophomoric appearance on the scene, the FontShop plugin does offer a certain sexiness: the ability to comp with FontShop fonts. As the makers of what may well be dubbed “the new Helvetica”—Meta and Meta Serif—FontShop brings a lot to the plate in terms of unique and yet highly functional fonts. And as a distributor, they can offer a lot of classic faces too. That’s something Extensis’ WebINK can do too, if to a lesser extent, but you won’t find any propriety FontShop faces or families in the former’s catalogue. Plus, as the major players behind the emerging web standard for web font file formats—WOFF—you know FontShop has a keen understanding of what it takes to make a font work on the web.

For full disclosure’s sake: I don’t have CS5 yet, so I haven’t yet taken either of these plugins for a spin. But once I upgrade, I guarantee I’ll be installing them both, and weighing their merits (cough!) face to face.

But what’s really interesting to me …

You know that old saying, “Put your money where your mouth is”? Yeah—it’s that both Extensis and FontShop are backing the web font horse here implicitly. After all, Photoshop’s the de jour program for web design; notoriously not a fine print typography tool. But ideal for comping, mocking up, and producing assets for the web to give people an idea of just what they’ll see when they fire up their favorite browser. Not so Monotype.

Monotype opts for an InDesign plugin

Monotype's FontGazer plugin

If you’re at all into typography, you know Monotype is a behemoth of the industry. A kind of old behemoth. And that age shows—sometimes positively, as in the enormous breadth and depth of their font catalog, and sometimes negatively, as in the design of their website, which, even with the recent intervention of Jeffrey Zeldman and his studio (discussed here), still looks old, ugly, and unwieldy.

But they’re not too old to grok the value of this new plugin sales channel thing. Interestingly, they’ve decided not to come in third in the race, but first (sort of), by designing their plugin for InDesign, the definitive print design tool for anything longer than a single page. In a way this is yet one more sign of their venerability: in riding the new wave of sales generation, they’ve chosen to do it old school. Like an actual kahuna ritualistically curling on a hand-carved wooden board.

I know, I know, print (unlike punk) is not dead. And hallelujah for that. But still, Monotype is clearly not fully ready to embrace customers using their web font hosting service or facilitate their web design workflows. It’s as if they figure, “Well, the brand picked their identity fonts for print, obviously they’re going to use the same for the web.” And that’s not an unreasonable assumption, especially in an age where brands can have even their bespoke fonts hosted by a third party.

But it sure doesn’t make those brands’ web comping work any easier.

A new sales channel for a new golden age of typography

All sniping at Monotype and speculation about the ways sales channels reflect the companies that choose them aside, the really interesting thing about all this is the essential method itself. In a way this is almost as creepy as contextual advertising (you know, the email from Starbucks you get a minute after you ask Siri about a local café?). Maybe even creepier. After all, the Adobe Creative Suite is to most designers what any writing implement is to a writer. It’s their tool, sure, but it goes deeper than that—it’s the tool they rely upon to translate their internal visions to life. It’s how they express who they are.

And now there’s the equivalent of advertising within them. (Once you opt in.)

The smartphone revolution did something similar. Once upon a time, a phone was a tool you used to keep in touch with long-distant friends and loved ones. Now, it still does that, but it’s also laden with ads. And not just the kind you get bombarded with in your browser of choice. Now they’re in your apps. The tools you use—granted, through the genius and hard work of others—to get shit done.

Once upon a time, the programs you have on your desktop were sacrosanct. Inviolate oases of ad-free space where you could focus on the job at hand: getting shit done. Right now I’m writing, and as flawed a tool as Microsoft Word is at getting that job done, it is doing a fine job of partitioning off the million available distractions this mighty machine of a computer offers. No Flash-powered ads, no pop-ups, pop-overs, flyouts—nothin’. I can relax, focus, and write.

But the advent of advertising channels like plugins make me wonder: Will I someday be subjected to ads right here in Word? Will FontShop and Monotype notice that some writers like fonts too!?

I know. I’m getting a little alarmist here. And I don’t mean to sound like I’m totally down on these methods of generating leads. Like I said earlier, I’m probably going to download all three of these plugins once I get CS sufficiently updated to handle them, if for no other reason than to see what they’re like. Plus, you could say that throwing shopping ability into a productivity tool like the Creative Suite is a great way to kill two birds with one stone: I can design something with just the face I want and buy it, all without leaving the program, without disconnecting from the tool to go online. Fairly cool. And as a marketing professional myself, I can’t help but admire the ingeniousness of this approach.

On the other hand, CS is a place to get stuff done. But more than that, to create. I don’t want to be shopping there. Even if I’m still in my creative tool, I’m disconnecting with it in order to consume. Email marketing is often lauded as being the most intimate way to market to people, but adding an extension to the very programs people use to complete their work? That’s sly.

2 comments

  1. You really should actually try the plug-ins. There are some rather immense differences in functionality and usability. Not that ours is perfect, by any means; I’m just saying that it is an important basis of evaluation for all of these offerings.

    1. I certainly will download all three when I have the time to give them a proper spin. And will certainly blog about the experience. It wasn’t really my intention to compare anything other than their essential purposes, and to extrapolate a bit on what the appearance of such tools might mean for the future. (By the way, loved your presentation at TYPO SF; was disappointed you didn’t have time for the whole.)

So, what do you think?