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Taking A Second Look At Free Fonts

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 Link

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? Link

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? Link

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 Link

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 Link

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 sample
The beautiful bold italic style of Alegreya is used for a heading on Beef’s job section.

Source Sans Pro Link

Released by Adobe in August 2012, Source Sans Pro12 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 sample13
CAST8314 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 sample15
Plentific16 uses the extra-light and normal weights of Source Sans Pro to create contrast between different levels of headings.

Open Sans Link

Designed by well-known type designer Steve Matteson and commissioned by Google, Open Sans18 is one of the most widely used open-source fonts on the Web. It is the default font for Zurb’s new Foundation 519 framework and is used on many of Google’s redesigned pages20. 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 sample21
Vitor Andrade’s website22 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 sample
The light weight of Open Sans is used for the article titles on The Industry’s website.

Anonymous Pro Link

Anonymous Pro24 is a monospaced font that I’m surprised so few designers know about, considering it was designed by Mark Simonson25, the type designer behind Proxima Nova26. Monospaced fonts seem to be popular with designers at the moment, and Anonymous Pro is an excellent option.

Inconsolata27 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 sample28
Per Sandström29 uses Anonymous Pro at a large size for the body copy on his website, where it works surprisingly well paired with Futura30 for headings.

Anonymous Pro font sample31
The bold weight of Anonymous Pro is used for the buttons on Per’s website32.

Playfair Display Link

Playfair Display34 is a high-contrast serif designed by Claus Eggers Sørensen. Reminiscent of Baskerville35, 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 sample36
Playfair Display features a beautiful italic variant, seen in the headings on Boompa Records’ website37.

Playfair Display font sample38
The bold weight of Playfair Display is used on the headings of Digital Abstracts’ website39.

Roboto Link

Roboto41 has been accused of being a “Frankenfont42” — a mashup of Helvetica, DIN and Myriad. I understand where the criticisms come from, but I quite like Roboto. Updates and improvements43 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 version44 as well as a condensed version45.

Roboto font sample46
I use Roboto on my Type & Grids8947 side project, and the font renders beautifully on high-density displays at small sizes.

Roboto font sample48
Paone Creative49 uses the light weight of Roboto on their blog section.

Lato Link

Lato51 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 Fourteen52, so its popularity on the Web is sure to increase.

Lato font sample53
Frank Chimero makes elegant use of the hairline weight in his article “What Screens Want54,” setting it in uppercase at a large size, which is needed for such a thin, delicate weight.

Lato font sample55
On AIGA’s “100 Years of Design” website56, a customized “dotless i” version of Lato is used.

Merriweather Link

Designed by Eben Sorkin58, Merriweather59 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 version60 of Merriweather available that makes an excellent companion.

Merriweather font sample61
Dickson Fong62 uses the light weight of Merriweather, which gives his design an elegant look.

Merriweather font sample63
Vtcreative64 show off the light italic style of Merriweather in their footer.

Karla Link

Karla66 is a grotesque sans-serif designed by Jonathan Pinhorn that is full of character and quirks. Something about it reminds me of the trendy Apercu67 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 sample68
Borsch, Vodka & Tears69 use Karla for the short bursts of body copy on its website, and it works really well.

Karla font sample 270
Kalyn Nakano71 shows off the normal and bold weights of Karla on her portfolio site.

Clear Sans Link

Clear Sans73 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 Sample74
The delicate, light weight of Clear Sans is used for the body copy on the Clear Sans website75.

Fira Sans Link

Designed for the Firefox Operating System, Fira Sans76 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 Screenshot77

Other Free Fonts Worth Checking Out Link

Don’t Rely On Free Fonts For Every Project Link

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 fonts86 in my side project, Typewolf87. You can also follow me @typewolf88 and check out my other side project, Type & Grids8947, 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 Andrade90.

Footnotes Link

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SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

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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.

  1. 1

    I’m using Signika for a client’s website in development now, and loving it more and more as I work with it. It’s really legible without having that sanitized look techies love so much. The bold really punches in chunks of body text at 16px.

  2. 2
    • 3

      Vitaly Friedman (editor-in-chief of Smashing Magazine)

      March 12, 2014 5:42 pm

      Thanks Thomas — you are absolutely right! Jeremiah is adding a bit about Fira Sans and Fira Mono right away!

    • 4

      Jeremiah Shoaf

      March 12, 2014 7:09 pm

      Can’t believe I forgot Fira Sans! Great font. The article has now been updated. I’m hoping that Fira Sans will be available on Google Fonts sometime soon…

  3. 5

    How about some free fonts I can actually drop into my Fonts folder and use in InDesign/QuarkXPress?

    • 6

      Robert Dundon "Mr. Bob"

      March 12, 2014 6:07 pm

      Hi Red,

      Actually you can download the fonts from Google Fonts (When you’re at the JavaScript/CSS paste code screen, look for the download button in the top right) as a ZIP file of TTFs.

    • 7

      Jeremiah Shoaf

      March 12, 2014 6:20 pm

      Hi Red,

      Google Fonts actually allows you to download the font files to your computer, so you should be able to install them locally and use them in any desktop app.

      • 8

        Check out SkyFonts ( Makes it easy to manage and sync Google Fonts. As opposed to manually downloading and managing each font.

        Nice article, Red!

        • 9

          Joe and Jeremiah, do you know whether the SkyFonts app works if someone is using a font mgm’t software such as Suitcase Fusion? (In other words, I know one should never have more than one font mhm’t app on their computer… so wondering whether SkyFonts is actually a font mgm’t app or something different, that won’t conflict with that)


  4. 10

    Meh, when it comes to design – you do you. Personally most of these choices are okay but quite boring.

    • 11

      Actually, when it comes to design, it comes down to your client, what they want, and so much more. It has to do with your specific project as well. It really should have nothing to do with “you”.

      I could also write a book about typography itself is, and how free fonts are what they are, and why expensive fonts take into consideration sizing, spacing, kerning, leading, etc. etc.

      Saying “meh” tells me you’re not a designer, not professional.

  5. 12

    Daniel Schwarz

    March 12, 2014 6:09 pm

    Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with free fonts at all. I’m a big fan of using Adobe Web Fonts since I use Edge Code as my main editor, and they’re really easy to implement. A quick note about faux, though:

    I don’t like to overdo fonts, though, so I wouldn’t include multiple versions of the same font. When faux is making things difficult, you can implement font-smoothing techniques and whatnot to make the legibility better:

    text-shadow: 1px 1px 1px rgba(0, 0, 0, 0.004);
    -webkit-font-smoothing: antialiased;
    -moz-osx-font-smoothing: grayscale;
    text-rendering: optimizeLegibility;

    In the case of larger websites, when load speeds are all the more important, font-smoothing makes Arial look much more nicer. Legibility is much better, especially when using a smaller font size.

    • 13

      It depends on your project and what you are doing.

      Display fonts need every single letter kerned, and smaller ones (web, magazine, book) need the help of programs like InDesign to really be able to work out legibility and readability.

      Free/cheaper fonts generally don’t have a lot of work put into them. You have issues with consistency in style with all letters, botchy curves, missing letters, not completely crisp throughout, and other issues.

      You will also encounter issues with commercial use when doing commercial projects with free fonts.

  6. 14

    Great article. I really like how you take time to explain each font’s mood, history and best use.

    The game has really changed. So many quality fonts.

  7. 15

    I end up using free fonts a lot because they’re easy to experiment with and test drive. I don’t mind paying for fonts if I know I want them, but I always feel like I could be wasting my money if I end up not liking it when used in the actual setting rather than just the “preview” on most font sites. I have seen some that let you download and use it for 15 minutes which is definitely an improvement.

    Anyway, this is a great list of free fonts that are mostly new to me. Will definitely be making use of them.

  8. 16

    There are so many good free fonts. Titillium is the one I would certainly add to this list:

  9. 17

    Nice article! Bookmarking this one.

  10. 18

    I recently made a website for previewing Google web fonts on any website. Just choose the elements wich text contents you want to display in with specific font and it will be replaced instantly. Unfortunately the preview just works with the standard font weight at this time. I hope it is useful for some of you:

    • 19

      Nicely done. Too bad the fonts aren’t ordered alphabetically though.

      It could use some work but it’s definitely a great start, thanks!

  11. 20

    Great article, Jeremy. :)

    Ubuntu is also great by the way. :)
    It’s so unique.

  12. 21

    eric mikkelsen

    March 12, 2014 11:50 pm

    Hey guys, I really do love you, and I read smashing all the time, but honestly there is not a single woman on this list. Are there really no women doing any typography we love? Anyways, these are all great pieces of work and I use most of them on a regular basis so I’m just as much at fault. Just thought we could shine a flash light on that.

    • 22

      Jeremiah Shoaf

      March 13, 2014 4:02 pm

      Hi Eric,

      Signika was designed by Anna Giedryś and Montserrat was designed by Julieta Ulanovsky. Both are excellent typefaces. The only reason they weren’t featured more prominently in the article is because they don’t contain italic versions.

  13. 23

    Thank you for this article Jeremiah. I’ve used a few fonts from — you can donate any amount to the type designers for each font downloaded.

    It’s great to find free resources but really important to remember to support the design community by purchasing fonts and other design resources whenever possible — a healthy design ecosystem benefits everyone.

  14. 24

    I actually recently decided on using Source Sans for our company brand and particular our application suite. Budgetary issues aside, the open source nature is a nice sentiment which works with our company culture but visually it strikes a balance between clean neutrality and a little bit of fun. I was impressed by it versatility (not just the amazing weight options) but the fact that we are using it for both print and on-screen work.

    Agree that “free-fonts” isn’t the dirty phrase it used to be… but it still has it’s risks of course like all “open-source” stuff…

  15. 25


    March 13, 2014 1:13 am

    What about the beautiful Linux Libertine Family? Italics, Small-Caps, Open type features — the whole nine yards. It’s not on Google Fonts, but it’s free & open source.

  16. 27

    With a great combination of free fonts, weight, and style, you could come up with so many beautiful typography. That’s said, I might be biased because I’m a big fan of Open Sans and Roboto! I used these on almost all of my projects.

    Great article by the way. Discovered so many fonts I didn’t know were free from this article. :)

  17. 28

    Stephen Coles

    March 13, 2014 7:52 am

    This is a pretty good overview of the high quality free stuff that it is available now. It’s true that there many more high quality free fonts (not bundled with system or software) today. You focus on the Google Fonts commissioning program in your intro, but it’s important to note that most of the multi-weight families of merit were not commissioned by that program, but were funded by other sources (Adobe for Source Sans, Google the corporation for Open Sans and Roboto, Intel for Clear Sans) or were built upon pre-existing designs (FF Meta for Fira Sans).

    My point: building a professional type family still requires hundreds of hours of specialized labor and that labor usually requires significant monetary compensation at some point, if not from the user than from some other entity. I have no problem with open source fonts as a general concept, as long as the type designer is fairly compensated. But right now, most of that compensation comes through corporate commissions, so the commercial font market is still where most of the best publicly available type will be found.

    • 29

      Jeremiah Shoaf

      March 13, 2014 4:13 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Stephen. It’s great to have the input of such a well known member of the type community. I agree with you 100% about the importance of supporting type designers. Hopefully the last few paragraphs of the article addressed that point well enough. And yes, large companies like Adobe, Google and Intel have been behind some of the larger, more complete open-source fonts available.

  18. 30

    Hi Guys,

    great roundup Jeremiah! In case you are interested: A while ago we build a small showcasing site for Google Webfonts…


  19. 31

    Helena Sandberg

    March 13, 2014 9:33 am

    Dear Jeremiah,
    thank you for great input! I can see the light, the world is getting better and better!
    Helena Sandberg

  20. 32

    Adriano Costa

    March 13, 2014 10:38 am

    Don’t forget Lato has a slab serif companion available in 6 styles: Aleo.
    You can download it here ( ) and see it in action here ( ).


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