Creative Characters & Rising Stars Newsletters

May 09, 2020 email development, email workflows, MyFonts

Font retailers? Who knew?

MyFonts is an online font retailer based in the US. Their massive library of fonts created by independent type designers and small indie foundries, as well as larger well known providers, means that graphic designers rarely need to look elsewhere for the right font for their project. For vendors, the marketplace they developed is a level playing field where the main determiner for exposure is sales success and popularity with customers.

For a while, they were unquestionably the largest operator in their space, but since the mid ‘10s faced increasing pressure from free font vendors, subscription services and other digital asset retailers who also started offering fonts.

My descent into all things email

I started working with MyFonts on their email newsletters in March and April 2010, initially helping their editor (Jan Middendorp) with proof reading, editorial support and graphic content. Within a couple of months, I was handling all production-related tasks; working in the code, preparing html files, compiling the layouts and creating type specimen graphics.

It was this work on MyFonts’s newsletters where I learnt my trade, from balancing audience engagement against driving revenue, to building robust email HTML, to designing efficiencies and creating scalable systems. In one form or another I was anything and everything email for MyFonts.

Free rein

Looking at that time now, I can see that I was incredibly privileged to be able to work in such an autonomous and open environment. For the majority of my time with MyFonts, I was an external consultant, accountable only to my collaborators and MyFonts’ small team of full timers to the extent of getting two newsletters out the door each month, to a high technical, creative and editorial standard. Any improvements or optimisations to the code or workflow were mine to identify, initiate, work on and deliver (or not).

There were three distinct evolutionary phases to my role with MyFonts.

1. Suboptimal workflows

At the outset, I was mainly contributing visual content, proof reading text, and preparing the HTML files for release by duplicating a previous version, copy/pasting in text and image assets, and going through the whole thing with fine-tooth comb looking for missing closing tags and inserting typographic HTML entities by hand.

It was labour-intensive and error prone, but without having worked like that for a good year or so, I doubt I would have seen the potential for improvements and embarked upon the next phase.

2. Substandard tech

Around the start of 2013 I discovered the importance of HTML tables to the world of email. The files I’d inherited and carried on using for two years had been built on the modern web convention of using divs and CSS to control layout. It was only by chance that I discovered that this wouldn’t work reliably, or even at all, in many email clients. It was this moment that set me on the path of really getting to grips with the technical demands of creating, deploying and optimising marketing email. Over the next few years, I implemented sweeping changes to the email production workflow, achieving some significant wins in terms of efficiency and stability.

3. Substantial improvement

The biggest, most significant improvement was to move away from duplicating a previous file and populating new content via copy/paste, to a componentised system based on a PHP templating language called Smarty, that would separate the content from the layout. MyFonts’ lead developer set me up with a basic tutorial, then let me run with it. The application I built took text files and converted them into PHP arrays, which were then used to compile a HTML file from predefined snippets. In one step, production time collapsed from around seven days to less than two.

This led to two important outcomes: our capacity for creating marketing email suddenly rocketed, and we introduced several new kinds of email (principally those driving revenue); and I became intensely interested in improving other parts of the workflow, such as learning about our ESP’s API capabilities and using the command line to perform certain RESTful operations.

This work felt like a massive productivity win at the time, but it had one significant problem. It was my system; it worked for me but I never managed to build it out into a tool that could be used by others. When I think now about efficiency and workflows, building in how others may end up using it is a key consideration.