Taking A Second Look At Free Fonts

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Once thought of as amateurish by professional designers, free and open-source fonts have gone through something of a renaissance in just the last few years. The quality of available free fonts has increased dramatically. To be frank, free fonts don’t have a good reputation, and often they are knock-offs of thoroughly crafted, already established typefaces. So is it time for professional designers to take a second look?

First, A Story

Early in my design career, around 2003, I wanted to purchase the font DIN1 for a project at work. My manager promptly dismissed the idea of paying for a font and instead handed me a CD that had “5,000 free fonts” on it, saying “This CD has every font a designer could possibly need. No need to waste money buying fonts!”

I popped the CD in my computer and found a collection of the most horrendous fonts you could imagine. Novelty and “retro” fonts. Spooky Halloween fonts. “Techno” fonts. Fonts with letterforms made up of cats posing in crazy positions. Fonts with terrible kerning, missing glyphs and wonky rendering. Fonts available only in single weights with no italics.

Nowhere to be found was DIN or, for that matter, any font that a professional designer would actually use. Feeling dejected, I ended up just using Helvetica because we actually owned that one.

Fast-forward to 2014. When I hear the words “free fonts,” I still can’t help but picture that horrible CD. But things have completely changed since then, and I find myself actually using free fonts quite often in my projects.

Where Do Free Fonts Come From?

In the past, free fonts typically came from one of two places: amateur designers who created fonts for fun or as a learning experience, and professional type designers who released a single variant of a font family for free as a form of marketing, the idea being that people would come back to purchase the full family once they realized the limited usefulness of a font without multiple weights and italics.

Why Is Having Multiple Weights With Italics So Important?

To set body copy properly, a font family requires four variants: normal, italic, bold and bold italic. A font used on the Web that doesn’t include these four basic variants will inevitably get the dreaded faux bold and faux italic2 treatment generated by the browser, which should be avoided at all costs — in fact, there are3 ways4 to avoid them for good. Other weights, such as light and extra bold, are helpful for creating typographic contrast between elements.

Free Fonts Are Not What They Used To Be

Recently, large companies such as Adobe and Google have been commissioning fonts for open-source projects and releasing them for free on the Web. Professional typeface designers have been getting involved in open source as well, sharing complete font families on Google Fonts5.

Thanks to the open-source community, there are now free fonts available that even typography snobs would be happy to use. The following fonts all have multiple weights with matching italics. They are suitable for headlines as well as body copy, and they render well on screen and at small sizes.

Alegreya

Alegreya6 is an award-winning serif typeface, chosen by ATypI as one of 53 “Fonts of the Decade” in its Letter.2 competition7. It is available for free on Google Fonts, but, sadly, most designers don’t seem to know about it. I hardly see Alegreya used anywhere online, which is a shame because this is a truly great font. Alegreya was designed with printed text in mind, but it is excellent to read on screen as well.

The designer, Juan Pablo del Peral, claims that just as much care and attention to detail was spent on designing the italic as the roman and it definitely shows — the italic style is especially beautiful. I hope more designers become aware of this excellent typeface and that we’ll see it used more widely on the Web in 2014.

Alegreya font sample8
Beef9 uses Alegreya for the body copy on their website, giving it a stately appearance, which contrasts nicely with the use of Avenir10 for headings.

Alegreya font sample11
The beautiful bold italic style of Alegreya is used for a heading on Beef’s job section12.

Source Sans Pro

Released by Adobe in August 2012, Source Sans Pro14 is Adobe’s first open-source font. Its designer, Paul D. Hunt, was inspired by early-20th-century gothics such as Franklin Gothic and News Gothic. To my eyes, Source Sans Pro feels much more modern, a little reminiscent of FF Meta. Its intended use is for user interfaces so it renders very well at small sizes. The font is available in an impressive 6 weights, making it extremely versatile.

Source Sans Pro font sample15
CAST8316 uses Source Sans Pro throughout its website, showing off the diversity of the family; large headlines are set in the lighter weights, while the heavier weights are used at smaller sizes and set in uppercase, creating excellent typographic contrast.

Source Sans Pro font sample17
Plentific18 uses the extra-light and normal weights of Source Sans Pro to create contrast between different levels of headings.

Open Sans

Designed by well-known type designer Steve Matteson and commissioned by Google, Open Sans20 is one of the most widely used open-source fonts on the Web. It is the default font for Zurb’s new Foundation 521 framework and is used on many of Google’s redesigned pages22. I’ve even heard Open Sans described as the “flat design” font. The five weights with matching italics make this humanist sans-serif useful for a wide variety of situations

Open Sans font sample23
Vitor Andrade’s website24 uses Open Sans in a very understated way; the minimal, type-driven design doesn’t draw attention to itself, appearing very neutral and lending focus to the excellent work being featured on the website.

Open Sans font sample25
The light weight of Open Sans is used for the article titles on The Industry’s website26.

Anonymous Pro

Anonymous Pro28 is a monospaced font that I’m surprised so few designers know about, considering it was designed by Mark Simonson29, the type designer behind Proxima Nova30. Monospaced fonts seem to be popular with designers at the moment, and Anonymous Pro is an excellent option.

Inconsolata31 is a much more widely used monospaced font, also available on Google Fonts, but doesn’t include italics, as Anonymous Pro does. Setting body copy in a monospaced font isn’t always a good idea, but in the right context it can give a design a very clean and refreshingly sparse feel.

Anonymous Pro font sample32
Per Sandström33 uses Anonymous Pro at a large size for the body copy on his website, where it works surprisingly well paired with Futura34 for headings.

Anonymous Pro font sample35
The bold weight of Anonymous Pro is used for the buttons on Per’s website36.

Playfair Display

Playfair Display38 is a high-contrast serif designed by Claus Eggers Sørensen. Reminiscent of Baskerville39, it takes its cues from the typeface designs of the late-18th century. Although designed primarily for titles and headings, the three weights with matching italics make it suitable for short stretches of body copy as well. For longer stretches of body copy, Playfair Display pairs very well with Georgia.

Playfair Display font sample40
Playfair Display features a beautiful italic variant, seen in the headings on Boompa Records’ website41.

Playfair Display font sample42
The bold weight of Playfair Display is used on the headings of Digital Abstracts’ website43.

Roboto

Roboto45 has been accused of being a “Frankenfont46” — a mashup of Helvetica, DIN and Myriad. I understand where the criticisms come from, but I quite like Roboto. Updates and improvements47 have been made to Roboto since that “Frankenfont” article, and I think the font works great on screen at different sizes and device resolutions, which is its purpose.

The font feels familiar, yet still possesses unique character the more you look at it. The Roboto family also includes a very nice slab version48 as well as a condensed version49.

Roboto font sample50
I use Roboto on my Type & Grids9351 side project, and the font renders beautifully on high-density displays at small sizes.

Roboto font sample52
Paone Creative53 uses the light weight of Roboto on their blog section.

Lato

Lato55 is Polish for “summer,” and the name perfectly fits this warm-feeling sans-serif. The designer, Łukasz Dziedzic, originally designed Lato as a corporate font for a large client. After the client decided to go in a different design direction, Łukasz released the font for public use. Lato feels very modest and unassuming when set at small sizes in body copy, but the italic variant is distinctive and easily recognizable. Lato is used in WordPress’ latest default theme, Twenty Fourteen56, so its popularity on the Web is sure to increase.

Lato font sample57
Frank Chimero makes elegant use of the hairline weight in his article “What Screens Want58,” setting it in uppercase at a large size, which is needed for such a thin, delicate weight.

Lato font sample59
On AIGA’s “100 Years of Design” website60, a customized “dotless i” version of Lato is used.

Merriweather

Designed by Eben Sorkin62, Merriweather63 is a serif font created for on-screen reading. Its tall x-height and hefty serifs give it excellent legibility. Merriweather is under active development, and improvements are constantly being made. There is also a sans-serif version64 of Merriweather available that makes an excellent companion.

Merriweather font sample65
Dickson Fong66 uses the light weight of Merriweather, which gives his design an elegant look.

Merriweather font sample67
Vtcreative68 show off the light italic style of Merriweather in their footer.

Karla

Karla70 is a grotesque sans-serif designed by Jonathan Pinhorn that is full of character and quirks. Something about it reminds me of the trendy Apercu71 font. The tracking might be set a little wide for body copy, and some of the kerning can be a little wonky, but something about this font makes me overlook those downsides. This is a perfect font to add a touch of personality to your design.

Karla font sample72
Borsch, Vodka & Tears73 use Karla for the short bursts of body copy on its website, and it works really well.

Karla font sample 274
Kalyn Nakano75 shows off the normal and bold weights of Karla on her portfolio site.

Clear Sans

Clear Sans77 is Intel’s recent contribution to the open-source font community. Designed with on-screen legibility in mind, Clear Sans prides itself on its unambiguous character design. For example, the uppercase “I” has serifs added to distinguish itself from the lowercase “l”. This makes it an excellent choice for UI design work where clarity is key. Clear Sans is currently not available through Google Fonts, so designers looking to use this font will need to host it themselves.

Clear Sans Font Sample78
The delicate, light weight of Clear Sans is used for the body copy on the Clear Sans website79.

Fira Sans

Designed for the Firefox Operating System, Fira Sans80 was recently released as a free font available for public use. The font shares many similarities to FF Meta, which makes sense as Erik Spiekermann is the designer of both. It’s rare to find a free font created by such a renowned typeface designer. Fira Sans also includes a monospaced version called Fira Mono. Interestingly, the web font used on the official Fira Sans page is Open Sans, not Fira Sans. You’d think Mozilla would want to show off their new font on their site.

Fira Sans Screenshot81

Other Free Fonts Worth Checking Out

Don’t Rely On Free Fonts For Every Project

As nice as the fonts above are, designers shouldn’t rely entirely on free fonts. Free fonts will never match the quality of the fonts offered by top type design foundries. Budget for professional fonts in every project when possible. Type foundries need the support of the design community to continue innovating and producing excellent fonts.

That being said, if a project requires free fonts, whether due to budget constraints or other reasons, then rest easy knowing that an ever-growing selection of professional-quality fonts are available at your disposal. I continually update a curated list of open-source Web fonts90 in my side project, Typewolf91. You can also follow me @typewolf92 and check out my other side project, Type & Grids9351, which uses many of the fonts featured in this article.

Designing a typeface requires a lot of time, patience and very hard work, and type designers should be rewarded for their work. So if you decide to use a free font, please always make sure to support type designers by purchasing the other fonts that they created or donating to support their efforts.

(al, vf, il)

Front page image credits: Vitor Andrade94.

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/din
  2. 2 http://alistapart.com/article/say-no-to-faux-bold
  3. 3 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/07/11/avoiding-faux-weights-styles-google-web-fonts/
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2013/02/14/setting-weights-and-styles-at-font-face-declaration/
  5. 5 http://www.google.com/fonts
  6. 6 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Alegreya
  7. 7 http://letter2.org
  8. 8 http://www.wearebeef.co.uk/
  9. 9 http://www.wearebeef.co.uk
  10. 10 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/avenir
  11. 11 http://www.wearebeef.co.uk/job/
  12. 12 http://www.wearebeef.co.uk/job/
  13. 13 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/alegreya
  14. 14 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Source+Sans+Pro
  15. 15 http://www.cast83.com/
  16. 16 http://www.cast83.com
  17. 17 http://plentific.com
  18. 18 http://plentific.com
  19. 19 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/source-sans-pro
  20. 20 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Open+Sans
  21. 21 http://foundation.zurb.com
  22. 22 http://www.google.com/analytics/
  23. 23 http://vitorandrade.co/
  24. 24 http://vitorandrade.co
  25. 25 http://theindustry.cc
  26. 26 http://theindustry.cc
  27. 27 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/open-sans
  28. 28 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Anonymous+Pro
  29. 29 http://www.marksimonson.com
  30. 30 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/proxima-nova
  31. 31 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/inconsolata
  32. 32 http://www.helloper.com/
  33. 33 http://www.helloper.com
  34. 34 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/futura
  35. 35 http://www.helloper.com
  36. 36 http://www.helloper.com
  37. 37 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/anonymous-pro
  38. 38 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Playfair+Display
  39. 39 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/baskerville
  40. 40 http://www.boompa.ca/
  41. 41 http://www.boompa.ca
  42. 42 http://digitalabstracts.com/playing-arts-project/
  43. 43 http://digitalabstracts.com/playing-arts-project/
  44. 44 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/playfair-display
  45. 45 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Roboto
  46. 46 http://typographica.org/on-typography/roboto-typeface-is-a-four-headed-frankenstein/
  47. 47 http://www.androidpolice.com/2013/06/29/typeface-teardown-roboto-gets-a-facelift-in-android-4-3/
  48. 48 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Roboto+Slab
  49. 49 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Roboto+Condensed
  50. 50 http://www.typeandgrids.com/
  51. 51 http://www.typeandgrids.com
  52. 52 http://paonecreative.com/category/culture-blog/
  53. 53 http://paonecreative.com/category/culture-blog/
  54. 54 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/roboto
  55. 55 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Lato
  56. 56 http://theme.wordpress.com/themes/twentyfourteen/
  57. 57 http://frankchimero.com/what-screens-want/
  58. 58 http://frankchimero.com/what-screens-want/
  59. 59 http://celebratedesign.org
  60. 60 http://celebratedesign.org
  61. 61 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/lato
  62. 62 http://sorkintype.com
  63. 63 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Merriweather
  64. 64 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Merriweather+Sans
  65. 65 http://dicksonfong.com/
  66. 66 http://dicksonfong.com
  67. 67 http://www.vtcreative.fr
  68. 68 http://www.vtcreative.fr
  69. 69 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/merriweather
  70. 70 http://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Karla
  71. 71 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/apercu
  72. 72 http://borschvodkaandtears.com/
  73. 73 http://borschvodkaandtears.com
  74. 74 http://kalynnakano.com
  75. 75 http://kalynnakano.com
  76. 76 http://www.typewolf.com/site-of-the-day/fonts/karla
  77. 77 https://01.org/clear-sans
  78. 78 https://01.org/clear-sans
  79. 79 https://01.org/clear-sans
  80. 80 http://www.mozilla.org/en-US/styleguide/products/firefox-os/typeface/
  81. 81 http://www.mozilla.org/en-US/styleguide/products/firefox-os/typeface/
  82. 82 https://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Exo
  83. 83 https://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Signika
  84. 84 https://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Arimo
  85. 85 https://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Raleway
  86. 86 https://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Montserrat
  87. 87 https://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Muli
  88. 88 https://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Domine
  89. 89 https://www.google.com/fonts/specimen/Lora
  90. 90 http://www.typewolf.com/open-source-web-fonts
  91. 91 http://www.typewolf.com
  92. 92 http://twitter.com/typewolf
  93. 93 http://www.typeandgrids.com
  94. 94 http://vitorandrade.co/

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Jeremiah Shoaf is a freelance designer from Colorado. He is the curator of Typewolf and creates flat-file CMS themes for his other side project, Type & Grids. He also continually updates a curated list of open-source free fonts.

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  1. 1

    I am so happy to see free fonts becoming so polished and professional. I seem to be an infinitesimal minority here, but I believe that the whole idea of purchasing fonts is ludicrous and that type foundries will thankfully die out soon.

    Paying to use a font is like paying Google to search the web if think about it. It’s good that people are finally realizing that no one wants to pay $20+ for a font that can quite easily be replaced by exceptional freeware, except of course for those “die hard” graphic designers who insist on using only the best and most costly assortments of lines and bigger lines.

    I respect your viewpoint, Mr. Shoaf, but if I hypothetically were to show you three fonts side by side, two purchasable and one free, I wouldn’t be surprised if you couldn’t tell the difference. When you find the time, I would suggest you dig around on the webs and find some of those incredible free fonts I’m referring to. It will definitely challenge your preconceptions. The Behance community is a brilliant place to start.

    I will be heartily and angrily disagreed with, but it is simply the future as I see it.

    4

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