With beautiful type comes great responsibility

Yesterday I happened to catch a glimpse of a tweet linking to an article titled, The Problem with Free Fonts, and as a typography fanatic I had to click and read. I’m not sure if the article title was a bit misleading, but I was a hint disappointed by the depth of the articles positioning.

[Please note: I have nothing against the article, writer or website. I just felt that the subject needed to be further touched upon.]

To keep things short, the article only went into enough detail to say the problem is that they become “bludgeoned to death through massive over use.” While this certainly holds true, it’s not really the “problem” with free fonts, or fonts in general. Museo, the semi-slab from exljbris is a beautiful typeface, and while they do offer three weights for free, it is still a well-crafted family with close to 400 glyphs, standard ligatures and true italics to support. There is no actual “problem” with Museo. We do see it used quite often, but it’s mostly the misuse, not the overuse, that should siphon concern. If used correctly you can see it is an extremely beautiful typeface. Although, many free fonts can also be extremely beautiful. The trick is knowing how / when to use them, their history, your message and how it’s being stated with the type personality you select.

The first problem

In my opinion, the number one problem with free fonts is that many of us look through hundreds of galleries online and typically choose something that “looks good” and work around that. Not necessarily a wrong approach, however many of these free distributers fail to provide background information / history, the medium which is was intended for (typefaces are typically created with a purpose in mind) and other important information.

As you might have known, I am a huge fan of Typekit. Beyond offering beautiful font licensing on the web, they do a great job of educating the user. As an example, when you are viewing Typekit’s database and come across, let’s say, FF Meta Web Pro, they offer a resourceful About this font writeup:

“FF Meta was originally (1985) conceived as a typeface for use in small point sizes. Against its intended purpose, FF Meta very quickly became one of the most popular typefaces of the computer era. It is used a lot in magazines, from the Normal weight in small point sizes for captions up to the Black version for large headlines. Designed by Erik Spiekermann. More about FF Meta Web Pro…

Without having to dig to deep, we immediately can assume this font is great for body copy (since it reads well at small sizes), it’s easy on the eye (since it’s used in a lot of magazines), and they even let us know that it works well for both captions and headlines — how useful! The standard (non-web) version even provides more in depth background information. Type history should not be overlooked.

The second problem

Typically the next problem is most free fonts only offer one weight and one style. This may serve well for a single headline, but if you are setting type for editorial design this will create a problem when it comes to establishing a hierarchy. Having a full featured typefaces for the job, such as true italics, bold weights, small caps, ligatures, etc. will take you a long way. A huge “no, no” is letting computer software handle bolding and italicizing (also known as faux italicizing and bolding). It’s all about having the right font for the right job.

The third problem

I find many free fonts, if they do have a few extra weights and styles, to be poorly constructed. Quality fonts, for the most part, rarely need to be kerned and adjusted to read and look consistent. Each letterform was carefully constructed and thought-out to work perfectly sitting next to the previous and following character. Many of the free fonts unfortunately do not.

Take Asenine for example. The normal weight might seem fine to many at first glance, however the “wide” version, and two condensed versions seems to be distorted and squished. The font becomes careless in a sense. FF Absara on the other hand, which has an extremely large suite, has various weights and styles that look like each letterform was perfectly and carefully manufactured.

I’m certain many reading this article are agreeing upon the points made above, yet cringing at the fact of buying a font. I’m not saying you have to go out and buy an entire type family. Purchase a single font (at times a single font, weight, and style only cost $40–$60.00 or so) when necessary though. Work it into your clients budget and explain to them the reason you are buying the font you are using for their logo, for example. Help them to understand that this is the best solution because the font was created to work well at very large sizes and very small sizes so it will improve the readability and recognition if the logo is displayed small or large. Explain to them that using this typeface will improve prolonged reading on their blog, minus the eye strain. Not only will you have happier clients that understand the process and reasoning for making the decisions we make, but it will help to improve your portfolio since you will have much better looking samples to show.

Currently the web is moving towards a shift and really showcasing beautiful typographic examples where limitations prevented us prior. Typekit is one of the best $50 a year I’ve spent in a long time. It’s great to see a service that licenses high caliber fonts also provide educational insight and bring true value to the understanding typography. With more ways than ever to bring beautiful type to the web it’s necessary to harness a concrete understanding of type. As the saying goes, “With great power brings great responsibility.”

For me, typography has always been the science of an art form. It requires patience and understanding. Learning as much as you can about type, fonts and its history really goes a long way. “Huge font libraries don’t make good designs, good designers make good designs.” — Sean Gaffney and Matthew Smith, Web Typography & CSS3 Presentation



Discussion and Comments

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  1. Brian says:

    Tim,
    I’d have to disagree on both accounts. While selecting fonts based on look or style that is appropriate for the message, function should also be highly considered and many of the technical factors of a quality-crafted typeface often will not be present with a “similar enough” free font. As the visual learner that I am, I would recommend, if you have the chance, to print two “similar” fonts that were intended for long periods are reading, for example. Often the inconsistencies of the lower quality font will shine through.

    As for the web fonts, services such as Typekit, Fontdeck, WebType, FontFont’s Web Fonts, FontSpring, Typotheque, Kernest, in addition to replacement methods such as sIFR and Cufón, open possibilities beyond standard web safe fonts.

  2. hmmm… I have never experienced any problems with free fonts :?

    anyway, thank You for sharing.. have to be more careful

  3. Ryan says:

    I totally agree with Tim.

    The problem with free fonts is that everyone would look for something with a cliché. I have seen so much ugly free fonts that are not carefully well thought out.

    Massimo’s quote explains it all:

    “I don’t think that type should be expressive at all. I can write the word ‘dog’ with any typeface and it doesn’t have to look like a dog. But there are people that [think that] when they write ‘dog’ it should bark.”
    — Massimo Vignelli

  4. Ryan says:

    Whoops there — I meant that I agreed with Brian.

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello:


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