Loving and hating free fonts

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Fonts are the key to bringing the message to your reader. I will not bore you with explaining you the importance of typography, but I can tell you that I love well designed type and even though I’m not obsessed (ok, a little bit) with fonts and typrography, I hate working with poor “developed” fonts…you read right, fonts are not only designed but must also be developed just like software.

Fonts are SOFTWARE

I’m using the term development on purpose because not many graphic designers know, that the fonts they are using are not “stamps” or “brushes” but are programs – actually written software.

In the credits shown in the font preview you will find not only the foundry and a the year of the release, but also a version number. Don’t think that your font once it is designed is not updated any longer. There is much more behind the characters you see on your screen and paper. I’m talking about kerning, kerning pais, codepages (if not opentype) and much more. Especially opentype has a lot functionality build into the fonts – variants to name just one.

Free fonts = do nothing you don’t need

The available tools for designing fonts spread more and more through the internet in the last years and bringing the self made fonts to a large audience without a foundry is as well possible with little effort. Many of the type designers focus on the graphical aspect, not on the technical – they still produce TrueType and Postscript fonts. They limit themself to the restrictions of this fonts types, because they are easier to build.

The other problem I have mainly with free fonts is the lack of glyphs. I work internationally, that’s nothing unusual this days, and therefore my publications are made in various languages. Sometimes languages I cannot even read. Nearly every language has special characters and you are already guessing it – most free fonts come with the minimum set of extra-English glyphs. Some come with extra glyphs, but you can be sure that you find the glyphs useful for the designer and the language he speaks.

You cannot blame them, designing a font with whole character sets is a tedious and hard job – you want for sure sell a font you spend so much time on it. You put as much work into the font as you like and you need, then you go on to the next project. The same is true for the technical aspect. As long as it works for the designer, it might as well work for the rest of the world.

Why I prefer commercial fonts

So while I understand the viewpoint of the free fonts I do not rely on them in my professional project. I cannot tell you how often I run into strange postscript errors because of some strange fonts. I lost time and money, and my client as well. I had also problems with commercial fonts, but professional foundries have a “hotline” – I called them, send the files and they “fixed” the font. I installed the new version and the problem was solved.

Same thing for the glyphs. A client of mine uses the Helvetica as corporate font. I know some hate Helvetica, but in this case there where no alternative. My clients operates in 70 countries, mainly Europe and Russia, and produces brochures in 17 languages. You  don’t want to have 17 different fonts – you want one that covers all. So they took a special variant of Helvetica from Linotype offering the whole range of glyphs they needed. This font could be used from Portugal to Russia, in Microsoft Office and Indesign. The cost for licensing was little compared to the time “not spend” on changing font, rearranging layouts, codepage issues and much more.

And since it was a commercial font, we could contact the foundry and ask them to make a special “condensed” version for my client. They made it tailored to the needs in little time. This tailor made fonts are interesting and I will cover it in the future in a more detailed fashion.

Conclusion

There are plenty of well designed free fonts out there, some of them are even technically ok. You can use them for your webdesign projects if you don’t need special glyphs. If they show up on your screen they are ok. If you need to do print jobs or want to use a special font for a corporate design project stay away from free fonts. The only exception is, when the free fonts come from commercial foundries and are give-away’s.

Foto by *_Abhi_*

2 Comments

  1. Love the article but I must say that free-font sites have given me little to no trouble and in some cases have provided me with exactly what im looking for. This being the case these fonts should be used in a strictly “display type” purpose for headlines or other large type.

    When it came time to produce them, a simple outlining of the font did the trick! “shift + apple + o” to the rescue!

    • I agree – I use free fonts for headlines sometimes and more often for small screen-fonts. And the “trouble” was for me more the absence of special characters and as long as you know what you are doing it’s legitimate to use any font you like.