An Introduction to Free Fonts

Shouting those two magic words in the right sequence – “Free fonts!” – is sure to grab everyone’s attention. Because, admit it, everybody loves free fonts. However, free is never free just like that. And free is not always really free. It can sometimes become very expensive, and even potentially ruin your business. Lost me? Read on, because all will become clear in the next series of posts.

As I announced just before TYPO Berlin, what comes next will be an adaptation of my presentation Fonts, a Passionate Love Story, or an Abusive Relationship?. It was a loose amalgamation of my ideas about free fonts, commercial fonts, and the perceived value of digital type. Hopefully by sharing my insights on The FontFeed I will be able to clarify a couple of things. To avoid this becoming an overlong article I will publish it as a succession of shorter posts.

Nora Ali drawing type using black and white gouache paint, at the Bruno Maag | Dalton Maag Type Design workshop at the German University in Cairo.

I don’t mind free fonts

The first misunderstanding I’d like to get out of the way is this one. In the past, and specifically on Typophile, I have been quite vocal about free fonts. However – contrarily to what some people believe – I have no problems whatsoever with the concept of free fonts. When discussing digital type, I have the impression many people think they need to take a stance, be it unconditionally pro-free fonts or pro-commercial fonts. This is of course nonsense, as there is room for both, and they both have a reason for being. You can criticise specific aspects of a phenomenon without being completely against it. So don’t paint me as a defender of commercial fonts (or inversely a hater of free fonts). Like Chester once wrote, I simply am “a champion of type design”, regardless of how it is produced or distributed.

Too bad it’s a commercial font. I had no ideas fonts could be copyrighted commercially to be sold for a profit (well I did, but I figured most of them were scams). If they aren’t recognized by the government as intellectual property, then why are they not being distributed freely but rather sold?
Actual comment on the Typophile Type Identification Board

Andreu Balius | TypeRepublic sketching Dsignes during a trek across the Himalayas, Ladakh, northern India.

Fonts don’t just magically appear out of nowhere

Fonts don’t just magically appear out of nowhere. However you can’t blame people for getting this impression. The operating system of any computer comes pre-installed with a decent selection of fonts, readily available in the Fonts menu. Furthermore all text editing and graphic design software packages include an additional amount of digital typefaces. Without having to do anything, from the get-go computer users have a respectable collection of fonts at their disposal. So it is understandable the uninitiated never question where all those “free fonts” come from, and are genuinely oblivious to the fact that designing and licensing type can be a legitimate commercial activity.

I put “free fonts” in quotation marks, because this is of course a misunderstanding. Although they may appear so, these fonts are not free at all. Next post we’ll examine the different types of “free” fonts.

Frederik BerlaenType My Type drawing characters on tracing paper.

Typefaces are designed by real human beings

Typefaces are designed by real human beings. I know this may sound self-evident to most of you, but trust me, some people don’t realise this. Not because they have ill intentions – they just never gave it a second thought. They don’t realise someone has to imagine all those characters, shape them into being, and turn them into digital type. And even when they do know this, they often have no idea how much talent, skill, mastery of the craft, and countless hours, days, months, sometimes even years of hard work it takes to create a successful type family. This changes the perspective completely, and I will address the perceived value of type in the post after next.

Header image: ƒStop 700.009, from Boxed In. Photographer: Halfdark

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  1. I’m really looking forward to the next post

    Posted by santiago orozco on Jun. 22, 2010
  2. Please provide citation for a business being ruined by using free fonts.

    Posted by SBG on Jun. 22, 2010
  3. I think most free fonts (even the medium quality ones) still do a good job for logo design. Think of the “vimeo” logo and several other examples.

    Posted by hvo. on Jun. 22, 2010
  4. With some libraries costing upwards of $1000, it is not difficult to imagine why anyone, especially freelancers, would want to use free fonts instead.

    Posted by ursula on Jun. 22, 2010
  5. This is a very good topic. There are a variety of supposedly free typefaces available – those that come with your operating system or software and those that you can freely download. That is why I have started my FreeFacing section on my blog to show excellent typefaces that you can use without additional costs.

    However, you should always check the license agreement on your fonts before using for a commercial purpose.

    Posted by Sam on Jun. 22, 2010
  6. As it turns out everything mentioned in the comments so far was going to be addressed in one of the coming episodes. I have two particularly tasty stories for you, SBG. ; )

    Posted by Yves Peters on Jun. 22, 2010
  7. I like to think of typefaces as tools for the job. An auto-mechanic would spend money on tools to perform his work, and I see type in the same vein for my work.

    If there is a free typeface that works for a specific application, that is fine – but I always find myself going to the faces I’ve purchased first.

    I think it is good to balance the two, as long as you use what really works for the project at hand.

    Posted by andy. on Jun. 22, 2010
  8. As with all art the it is a question of education and values. Unfortunately the internet has made it very easy for people to get a hold of materials that should be paid for. It isn’t just Fonts, see music industry data below:

    “One credible analysis by the Institute for Policy Innovation concludes that global music piracy causes $12.5 billion of economic losses every year, 71,060 U.S. jobs lost, a loss of $2.7 billion in workers’ earnings, and a loss of $422 million in tax revenues, $291 million in personal income tax and $131 million in lost corporate income and production taxes. For copies of the report, please visit”

    It is all a very serious issue.

    Posted by Mayra on Jun. 23, 2010
  9. I must admit that I’m not in any way against free fonts, in many cases I’m very much in support of them. What does bother me, though, is the people who take extremist positions. There are some who are adamantly against free fonts, and there are also some who are trying to convincing anyone that any fonts (or software) that is not “free” is “bad”. They talk about “free” in context of freedom/liberty, and play the arguments that the commercial products are somehow “against the freedom” or whatever.

    I’m looking forward to your posts on this topic!

    Posted by Adam Twardoch on Jun. 24, 2010
  10. Bring it on Yves! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts :-) for me it’s simply about finding the right tool for the job, so I don’t care if it’s free or commercial.

    Posted by Simon robertson on Jun. 24, 2010
  11. Perhaps free fonts offer the serious student or up and coming designer an opportunity to show their capabilities, so may be worthwhile. In terms of practicality, free fonts found on the internet yield so few that are of any serious use. I support this as an opportunity to enable development.

    Posted by alan jones on Jun. 30, 2010
  12. Just wondering, when can I expect the next post?

    Posted by Randi on Jul. 1, 2010
  13. The next one is quite delicate, so it needs some work. I think you can expect it by Monday. You did see the second installment?

    Posted by Yves Peters on Jul. 2, 2010

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