Free Fonts: Technical And Artistic Quality

What comes next may sound biased to some readers, yet I simply can’t help it – it’s the reality of the situation. The vast majority of the free fonts out there are – to put it mildly – of inferior quality. And although a very small percentage is fit for professional use, statistics tell us you’ll more likely stumble upon – to put it mildly again – less successful creations. Because most free font websites are cluttered uncurated swamps, there is no quality control at all. An additional problem is that you don’t even know what you’re downloading. Is it a genuine free font? Or could it be an unauthorised clone, a pirated and renamed commercial font, or a stolen proprietary face? If this seems trivial to you, maybe read through my account of the tragic Hadopi story.

So proceed with caution. Here’s a list of things you definitely need to check when picking a free font for a design.

Artistic quality of the design

Say whatever you want, but the vast majority of the offerings on free font websites are poorly designed. Most of them are well-intentioned efforts by students, amateurs, and beginning designers. You may know what an “a” is supposed to look like, but digitising that “a” using Bézier curves is another matter entirely. To use a metaphor – I can perfectly describe the different parts of a shoe and know how they fit together, but I couldn’t make a shoe to save my life. Very often the design of free fonts suffer from typical beginners’ mistakes: awkward proportions, poor thick-thin contrast, missing optical corrections, clumsy transitions from curves to straight lines and inversely, ill-balanced and misshapen letter forms, … we can go on and on. Before using a free font, make sure to carefully evaluate the complete character set for quality and consistency.


I didn’t do anything to improve the spacing and kerning on the sample above; this is the font used “out of the box”.
The popular freeware font above is a perfect example of a poorly drawn typeface. It may seem acceptable at first sight, but examining the design more closely reveals its many flaws. Besides the fact that the overall design tries hard but ultimately fails – that lowercase “e” and “g”! –, the actual drawings of the glyphs are littered with mistakes. To pick just one character – you can see the bottom of the bowl of the “a” is too high (no optical correction), the lower left part of the curve flattens unexpectedly, while the top left part has a nasty bump. Both the thinning at the top of the bowl, the spot where it joins the stem, and the weight progression in the top arc are very awkward. And there’s another bump where the straight line transitions in the top curve.

Read more about type design on Unzipped:
An Introduction to Type Design | The Type Designer as Artist
An Introduction to Type Design | The Type Designer as Craftsman

Technical quality of the drawing

Of course tastes vary. I myself quite like awkward if it is done well, like Christian Schwartz‘s delectable Los Feliz, modelled after vernacular signage found in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. And the whole grunge movement thrived on DIY aesthetics – think for example of Barry Deck‘s imperfect designs which were very popular in the late nineties, or the carefully balanced inconsistency of Mr. Keedy‘s eponymous typeface. Personally I think there is a world of difference between voluntary and involuntary awkwardness, but truth is we can discuss about this until we are blue in the face.


Los Feliz was inspired by amateur lettering, and professionally digitised.


This free font is a true amateur design. Personally I think there is a world of difference between this one and Los Feliz, but I don’t expect everyone to agree.

However – disregarding matters of taste – technical quality can be assessed objectively. Professional fonts are well digitised, with economic and efficient outlines that adhere to the rules of sound construction. Many free fonts feature glyph shapes with superfluous vectors and node points, faulty combinations of elements, stray points, incorrect overlaps, bad connections, … These technical flaws can cause the files those fonts are used in to behave erratically, and produce errors when processing said files (export to PDF, output on film or direct-to-plate, integration in Flash, …). The font is automatically substituted by a system font, certain characters disappear, counters are filled in, accents are displaced and show up in the wrong spot, spacing is shot to hell causing characters to overlap, … all kinds of problems whose precise origins are difficult to track down, and solving them usually takes a long time and a lot of trial and error. Unfortunately this type of technical flaws is very difficult to detect for the layman. The only advice I can offer here is to run a bunch of tests beforehand, like converting text to outlines, doing test prints and conversions, and so on.

Available styles

Professional text faces always include all the necessary styles, and often many more. On the other hand, if you want to use a free font for text applications, first you have to consider if everything needed for producing professional text setting is included. Most free fonts are single fonts, not families. Is there an italic style available? Is it a properly designed italic, or merely a mechanically slanted roman? If a bold is included, was it artificially boldened? Is it bold enough, or too bold? Do you need an even heavier weight? Are the glyph shapes clear enough to remain legible in small sizes? And what about small caps and different sets of figures? It is of utmost importance to ask yourself these questions up front. This way you’ll avoid painting yourself in a corner when you notice halfway the production that the font you selected is inadequate. The available styles are very easy to check; however you need a trained eye to assess the quality of italics and bolds.

Read more about type weights and styles in Styles, Weights, Widths — It’s All in the (Type) Family.

Comprehensiveness of the character set

When acquiring professional fonts you can sleep on both ears. They will include both upper and lower case*, numerals, a complete set of punctuation, ligatures, mathematical symbols, and at least cover all North, West and Southern European languages, and often Central and Eastern European and Turkish, and sometimes even Greek and Cyrillic.
* A small numbers of display faces only have capitals.


FF Kava started out as a free typeface called Kaffeesatz, published by Yanone in 2004 during the early stages of his type designing career. When it transitioned from free font to commercial font, the character set more than tripled from 203 glyphs – which already is impressive for a free font – to 747 glyphs. Read the complete story and try it out in FF Kava With Extra Flavour.

Free and shareware fonts however are often restricted to the standard 26 letters of the alphabet, figures, and only the bare minimum of punctuation marks. It is quite common that suddenly you realise you can’t type that French name or that German idiom, nor put a ® next to a brand name nor a € next to a price, or that some punctuation mark is missing. So the first thing you need to do is go over the complete character set – for example in the “Glyph” window in Adobe Illustrator or InDesign – to see if everything you need is included.

Read more about the value of full families and complete character sets in FontShop’s Type Selection: Beyond the Look of the Letter.

Spacing and kerning

Strictly speaking anybody can draw letters – admittedly one typeface will look nicer than the next. However most people don’t realise the quality of a font is in large part defined by the “nothingness” between those letters – its spacing and kerning tables. Without proper spacing and kerning it is merely a random collection of glyphs, not truly a font. Spacing a font well is a painstaking, demanding, and time-consuming activity, and professional fonts also include hundreds of kerning pairs for all the exceptions. Proper spacing and kerning ensure that every single letter combination, every single sequence of characters – as diverse as they may be – are perfectly spaced, so that the text is well balanced and perfectly readable. And this is where almost all free fonts are found lacking.

The message here is again – do extensive testing if you want to use a free font. Set several blocks of text in different point sizes, and “feel” the rhythm as you read. Try to detect stuttering, gaps, anything that hinders the flow. And be prepared to do a lot of this if you want to stick to free fonts, because it will take some time before you find a properly spaced and kerned one.

Header image: Lab by Rodolfo Clix

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21 Comments:

  1. Such an informative article! Thank you :)

    Posted by Corie on Jul. 20, 2010
  2. very nice article. i never noticed a lot of this. was wondering if you could then suggest some good free fonts? if there are any ..

    Posted by arun on Jul. 20, 2010
  3. Excellent checklist, Yves. Thank you, this is an instant classic. I wish Jürgen would translate the series on free fonts to German.

    Regarding the question about the genuineness of a free font: when in doubt, post a sample of it on the Typophile Type ID Board. The folks there will tell you in no time whether it is actually (based on) a commercial or proprietary typeface, or not.

    One quibble: No, you can’t ‘sleep on both ears’ when working with fonts – no matter if it is an amateur freebie or a professional one. After all, fonts are complex pieces of software, created by humans. There is always the possibility of a bug, or an overlooked exceptional case. You need to carefully examine the characterset and the kerning, among other things, and test your tools before you can get started.

    Posted by Florian on Jul. 21, 2010
  4. One quibble: No, you can’t ‘sleep on both ears’ when working with fonts (…)

    Agreed, that was a bit of an oversimplification, but it is in 99% of the cases. You catch my drift.

    was wondering if you could then suggest some good free fonts? if there are any ..

    There must be, but honestly I can’t be bothered. I prefer working with professional, trustworthy tools. The problem with free fonts is that you have to trawl through such an amount of total en utter crap until you find free fonts that meet the minimum quality criteria. Then you still have to test them and hope nothing pops up once you’ve started using them … My take on it is that the time and effort you spend on free fonts negate the fact that you didn’t have to pay for them (if they’re genuinely free – see the previous episode).

    It’s like with everything – if you let a professional do the work, you yourself can save the time to do what you really like and make money to pay that professional. It usually saves you a lot of time and frustration.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Jul. 21, 2010
  5. Very helpful indeed. While several writers touch upon spacing, kerning, and character sets, this was the first article that I came across that mentions abrupt transitions, flattenings, and bumps.

    Loved the idea of showing the objective lenses of a microscope.

    Lastly, while it is fair enough to say that you can’t be bothered to look at free fonts, I wonder whether you’d like to take a look at Linux Libertine.

    What is “sleeping on both ears”? The idiom escapes me.

    With best wishes,

    Yateen

    Posted by Yateendra Joshi on Jul. 21, 2010
  6. FontShop now has high-quality free fonts from Hannes von Döhren (HVD Fonts) and Jos Buivenga (xljbris). Nowadays even Ascender (Microsoft sublicenser) offers this type of free fonts.

    Posted by Henk Gianotten on Jul. 21, 2010
  7. What is “sleeping on both ears”? The idiom escapes me.

    Oops, I thought this Dutch idiom existed in English as well. It’s when you can rest assured, as opposed to having one ear poised to catch anything suspect.

    Posted by Yves Peters on Jul. 21, 2010
  8. What disturbs me even more than crappy free fonts is crappy paid fonts. The lower price regions on websites like MyFonts are full of these. As I’m not a professional designer, but rather a typography-minded researcher who likes to use something different than Times and Arial in his boring reports, I just don’t have a thousand dollar budget to spend on licenses. I still wouldn’t mind paying, let’s say, $100 for a personal license to a properly designed 3- or 4-weight family (regular, bold, italic, optionally bold-italic). I don’t need 5000 glyphs and all kinds of swashes. Just give me the basic characters, common ligatures, and well okay, small-caps in the regular weight would be nice. I hoped the FF Offc series would jump into this niche, but apparently they are still high priced.

    The internet is full of free and cheap crap, and there’s plenty of expensive stuff for professional designers, but what about ‘normal people’ with a slight sense of style? Except for Jos Buivenga’s work (which is great, by the way) and a few others, there’s really not much going on here.

    Posted by Sander on Jul. 21, 2010
  9. I think that there are a lot of bad free fonts out there, but there are also some really beautiful ones. Font Squirrel, for example, provides a really wonderful selection of free ones. A lot of times they’ll let you know when you can download commercial type as part of a free offer (MyFonts.com often does this).

    Posted by Lauren on Jul. 21, 2010
  10. What a very informative and expertly written piece. So true of many of the type designs available at the moment. You could even say the same of the design in general. Just because you have a computer and a mouse doesn’t mean you can design! Cheap surface graphics ruin this industry. Design with no thought or substance is tarnishing good design as a whole.

    Posted by Tom McCrorie on Jul. 21, 2010
  11. @ Sander
    You should check out village fonts. They have some nice and fairly cheap ones!

    Posted by gesbenst on Jul. 21, 2010
  12. I thought the example you provided looked fine.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You may think that letter a is ugly, but used in the right context would look great.

    Posted by Vince on Jul. 22, 2010
  13. As someone who likes to collect good free fonts, I have to agree that most free fonts are not worth the time spent looking for them. There are a few diamonds in the rough, however, so for the sake of those like arun who are wondering about good free fonts, I’ll list the ones I’ve found.

    One of the best free fonts is mentioned in the post, Yanone Kaffeesatz. While the newer FF Kava is a paid font that is supposed to supersede Kaffeesatz, I think that Kaffeesatz still stands up pretty well on its own. One of the things I appreciate about it is that it’s casual but somewhat restrained; it has a bit of clean elegance, while Kava went a bit further in the casual direction. It has a pretty decent character repertoire, and a good range of weights, making it fairly versatile.

    Another good family is Gentium, though it is still a work in progress. Gentium is intended to provide complete coverage of all Latin-based character sets and diacritics, as well as Greek and Cyrillic, in order to provide free fonts that cover all minority languages that use Latin-based alphabets but which may use some more obscure letters, diacritics, and the like. As it’s still a work in progress, it comes in two versions, Gentium and Gentium Basic; Gentium only has regular and italic faces, but covers the whole set and includes kerning, while Gentium Basic has bold and bold italic faces, but a more limited repertoire.

    I also appreciate the Droid family of fonts, commissioned by Google for their Android platform. They are just a basic collection of Sans, Serif, and Monospace, intended for screen, but I’ve come to really like Droid Sans as a sans-serif for the screen.

    Fontin and Fontin Sans are also quite nice free fonts, from Exljbris. They also make some other fonts that have some free variants, some paid, like Museo. Graublau Web is another example of that model; a good, free font, but you can get more styles by paying.

    Posted by Brian on Jul. 23, 2010
  14. @arun

    There are a quite a few foundries now giving away some of the weights and styles in a super family for free. Usually you’d get the regular face and and an italic or bold from foundries like exjlibris (museo for example) for free and when you want to get more advanced you can pick the extra weights and styles as you need them.

    Just look through the free typefaces on MyFonts and Fontshop etc… and check out the type foundries linked to from there to see if they know what they’re doing.

    Posted by Robert on Jul. 26, 2010
  15. Agree, agree, agree. Esp. with commenter who says: “this was the first article that I came across that mentions abrupt transitions, flattenings, and bumps”.

    One instance however I can see a free font being used is for single instances of web copy — such as a blog header, a caption or tag line. Sometimes a bit of playfulness can overcome the necessity of perfectionism.

    Posted by Nils Geylen on Jul. 27, 2010
  16. Excellent article, Yves, and all points that one cannot make enough to students and designers alike – in particular, the spacing and kerning, which contribute so much more than most designers are aware of to the overall look, color, texture, and professionalism to a font.

    Posted by Ilene Strizver on Sep. 21, 2010
  17. Bravo.

    Well put, and valuable analytic advice.

    Of course, one can’t blame the fontsies, since all the rage in the 90s was for fonts that looked like crap.

    Not a few of the rock-star font designers now worshiped by the license paying graphic design professionals started out making useless garbage without a clue about Bezier inflection points. Of course, since they were already graphic design rock-stars, everybody loved them. (qv Emperor, Clothes, None)

    In fact, I find I have more respect for the earnest amateurs who don’t know how to make a decent Bezier transition (although they aren’t making type, of course. The difference between fonts and type is worth examining more closely) than for the hotshot “Font Directors” scanning letterforms off washroom walls for their next extremely-important-beyond-anything-else-we-small-people-could-imagine mega-marketing blast for a multi-national corporate materialist consumerist campaign.

    Just my two humanitarian cents. Sorry, Yves, it’s not meant to diminish your very apt and important points!

    :-)

    Peter Fraterdeus
    “Rumors of the Death of Typography have been Greatly Exaggerated” (1996) http://bit.ly/cppGYr
    alphabets.com
    slowprint.com
    semiotx.com

    Posted by P Fraterdeus - Slow Print Letterpress on Sep. 21, 2010
  18. Thanks, Troubleman! Well written and explained piece!

    ChrisL

    Posted by Chris Lozos on Sep. 21, 2010
  19. It’s always great to hear from someone with knowledge and confirm what I’m seeing when I look at free fonts. That said, as a book designer I enjoy looking through free fonts when I need specific styles for book titles or chapter/article headers. Most of the time I’ll modify the font quite a bit. I’ve never used a free font for text and your article cites all the reasons why.

    Thanks for listening!

    Posted by Judith Krimski on Feb. 26, 2011
  20. “I really appreciate the kind of topics you post here. Thanks for sharing information that is actually helpful. Good day!”

    Posted by Handwriting expert on May. 4, 2011
  21. I’ve several question to you personally, compose to people I don’t e-mail

    Posted by telexfree ecuador on Mar. 8, 2013

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