Everybody loves getting something for free. Even on a high-budget project, there’s still the invisible lure of a free font. I’ve known designers who have spent weeks searching the web for that special typeface, the one that will make the rebrand, the new visual identity or that one-off job really sing.
There was a time when free fonts were almost universally awful. They were designed by hobbyists who had no notion of balanced sets, didn’t complete all the glyphs, and didn’t even think about kerning.
This is no longer the case. These days, many up and coming designers are choosing to release free weights or entire sets as marketing for their other work. In an increasingly crowded market, many are also self-publishing their fonts, bypassing the main type houses, and pitching them at just a few dollars. With some of the first digital typefaces coming out of industrial copyright next year, expect to see a slew of fonts appearing on the web, some of them very high quality. Additionally, subscription services such as TypeKit now make fonts available at no additional charge—providing you keep up with your subscription.
The big risk
The problem is, once you (or your designer) have chosen a font because it looks nice and appropriate, how do you know if it’s any good? The samples on the web-page won’t tell you that. Even printing out a page of text may not identify all the issues. Then there’s the question of legality. The website you found it on might say it’s free, but is it really? There are essentially eight areas that you need to check.
- Copyright ownership
- Glyph set
- Price Structure
Who owns the font that you have just downloaded? There are two kinds of checks to make.
First, embedded in the font there should be a copyright notice. Any application you use (like FontExplorer) to preview fonts should be able to display this. Is this copyright the same as the one in the license file? Does it match the website where you got it from. If at all possible, find the copyright owner’s website, rather than relying on a free font site. If you can’t find the font owner’s site, Google the font name and check that no one is claiming copyright on that font.
Second, run a check through WhatTheFont to see if this typeface is too like a commercially available typeface.
The bottom line on copyright ownership is that everything which is created has a copyright, even if it’s not declared. If you can’t find the copyright owner, then, essentially, you can’t use the font. Even if someone is claiming that they own the copyright and are distributing the font for free, if it is too similar to a commercial font, you are taking a risk, unless you’re able to check that the copyright has expired—as is the case with classic fonts such as Garamond, Bodoni and so on.
Many ‘free’ fonts are released as free only for non-commercial purposes. A free font website may not bother to inform you of that. There should be a license file attached with the font download, or a statement placed within the copyright notice. My view on this is that if a font is only available free for private use, just delete it from your system after you’ve downloaded it and discovered this. Many designers who impose such restrictions are later impossible to track down, meaning that you cannot legally use the font in a commercial project. Having any font on your system that you don’t have complete rights to use is a risk—you may intend to only use it for a wedding invitation, but, later on, when doing a commercial project, how likely is it that you will remember that it was ‘private use only’? There are a lot of fonts out there, better to just discard the ones to which full rights aren’t offered.
The other thing about ‘private use only’ fonts is that many designers (erroneously) believe that if they have used copyrighted material in creating their font, it’s legal to release it for free for private use only. It isn’t. A rule of thumb in the design world is ‘if you change three things, it’s no longer copyright’. A lot of designers work to this, but, unfortunately, this is not a proper reflection of copyright. The situation with fonts is complex, and it’s different from the UK to the USA and elsewhere. However, if you’ve used someone’s digital code at all in your font, you are breaching their copyright, unless the license specifies ‘free to modify’. Bizarrely, it’s legal to print off their font, scan it back in, and make your font from that, though you must not use their trademark in naming it.
Basically, ‘private use only’ should set alarm bells ringing. Best to leave alone.
More usefully, some fonts are released ‘free to distribute, free to modify’. These fonts are gold if you are doing brand work. We once did a major rebrand where 400 separate sites needed to be sent the fonts. At typically $99 for a set of four weights, that would have been $39,600—with no guarantee they would ever have installed them. The designer had found a superb font which was not only free to distribute, but also free to modify. This allowed us to embed some special glyphs for that brand.
Some of the higher end free fonts, such as Museo, are free to use, but not to distribute. The owner quite reasonably wants people to download them from his website. Make sure you respect that.
Glyphs are the individual characters. You don’t get this much with the new crop of designer-created fonts, but in the early days of free fonts on the web, many of the glyphs would be missing.
The easiest thing to do when looking at a font is to paste the following into the preview pane on the website where the font is:
This is all the standard glyphs which you would expect for English language typesetting. If you have particular needs, such as the Old English Eth, Yog, Thorn and Wyn, paste those in as well. Check that nothing is missing. If it is, and the license says ‘free to modify’, you could potentially insert the correct glyph in a font-editor like FontLab, but that is going to be a lot of work, even if you have the skills to do it. If the font is only ‘free to distribute’ then you are stuck. Abandon it and go on to the next font.
Be careful with Capitals only fonts. Some of them, such as commercial font Trajan, are magnificent. However, unless you can pair them with something that also has an uncial or lower-case form, they will be useless.
Some fonts, especially ‘authentic’ typewriter fonts, won’t have glyphs that never existed when the machines were in use. Again, this may be fine for an invitation, but the moment you want to describe a price in Euros, put on a copyright symbol or use square brackets, you are stuck.
Check carefully that the punctuation works. I was typesetting a novel in Baskerville — I think the Baskerville that Microsoft distributes — when I discovered that the ’em’ dash (‘—’) was too thin. I was able to reset the whole thing in ITC Baskerville (not a free font) which had better punctuation. However, ITC Baskerville has a higher x-height, and so needed more leading, which meant redoing the layout. If I’d bothered to check before I started, I could have avoided that. It just goes to show that even commercial fonts contain blunders.
What weights are available? For some fonts, such as Helvetica Neue (which is in no sense a free font), there are as many as 51 weights available, ranging from Helvetica Neue 23 Ultra Light Extended to Helvetica Neue 107 Extra Black Condensed, all with their italic or oblique versions.
It’s very unlikely that you will ever need anything like that number of weights (though, obviously, at some point, someone did), but you would normally expect to be able to get a Book, Regular or Roman weight, a Bold or Demi weight, and either an italic or an oblique for each of those. An oblique font is the regular font slanted by a particular angle, usually about 12º. An italic font is a specially drawn italic version, often with close ‘a’s and open ‘g’s.
A font that I like a lot is Candida—again, not in any sense a free font, though free versions are available (but see above). Candida was designed in 1936 by J Erbar, and released by Bauer, which still owns the trademark (which makes me question whether the ‘free’ downloads are legitimate). Candida was issued by Adobe in 1989 and 2002, and, as I recall, came bundled with one of the many versions of Illustrator or Photoshop. Unfortunately, it only has Regular, Italic, and Bold. There is no Bold Italic. I am contemplating creating my own bold italic to go with it (though, naturally, I won’t be able to use the trademark name Candida). In the mean time, if I use Candida, I need to recognise that there will be no bold italic.
This is all fine, but many free fonts exist only in regular and bold. This is almost certainly too little to be useful.
Be careful also of free fonts which are released as free in just one or two or a few weights. The super-family Museo (see above) is one of these. You see Museo everywhere these days. Part of the reason for that is that the designer has chosen to release a very useful set of weights. I actually went ahead and bought the entire set, but most people will do fine with just what is there for free. Other designers are not quite so generous, and you may discover that the font which looks great in the Roman version costs about $250 to buy the other weights you need. At that point, recognise it is not a free font.
Kerning and flow
Hardest to evaluate but absolutely critical is kerning. Kerning (of course you know this) is the adjusted space of difficult pairs of letters, such as ‘AY’ and ‘wa’. In the font definition, every glyph (i.e., a letter) has side-bearings, which set the standard space between it and the next letter. For AY, this would leave a disturbing gap, because of the shapes of the letters. The kerning tables, which are part of the font definition, specify exactly how much the spacing should be changed for it to look right. Kerning was traditionally the hardest part of font design, though there are now commercial services which will kern a font for the designer. There are 516 common kerning pairs, excluding the number pairs from 11 to 100. If you’ve ever wondered why commercial fonts are so expensive, the setting of each of those pairs, individually, may explain it a bit.
In preparing this article, I was astonished to discover that there is no test sheet of kerned text available to download on the web. There are some good sites which allow you to check individual pairs, but if you want to check everything, you’re stuck. Until now. Late last night I downloaded all the words in a large English lexicon (about 354,986 words, since you ask), the 516 common kerning pairs, and constructed a text which uses all of the pairs, which you can paste into a document and use to preview the font. You’re welcome. Note that if you do this in Word, you need to turn kerning ‘on’ in the font menu, otherwise you’re not actually doing anything. Much better to do it in QuarkXPress or InDesign.
Here it is:
Wd. PEASANT FEW, wiggle DOTE LOOK tipping Aorta CRISP Tomato Major DROP; bouquet Ayatollah Jade DOOR Identical BIFF. yelping Looking AQUATIC hurting hyphen foot fishpond muddy or, COOL parking OBVERSE working PAIN YOUTH Meat Bloke BACK, KIDNAP Vane rough STOP. armchair badge Aubade Xanthaline FLAW. grounded anno Acid COIN HAJ. axon Fund aquatic jaffa Kurdish aged CARELESS Tipper Upper always RUM BRIEFCASE Ionic SUPER DRY; dental WOLF: maccaw Iterate Avail whoosh COY: WAIL homes annoying flip, HARDMOUTH vb. Yds helium if, Nave bookcase lawgiver BARGE striving beet hoof cover cliff. common elbow BAY avg. MYALGIC BREZHNEV; OYSTER Pair QUACK mohar Rd Tchad circumvascular L’ABRE convex hoplite blvd. event savvy None Wimp free, Uakari Helium unsung flitting QUEEN flaw human crowd falls, definite selfish cargo Evaluate aeon hydro DARE dapper OFFGOING CLAW; supper hvy ZONE Create Nil haj, ACIDPROOF BOAT AORIST implausible dreamt Fright BARBWIRE Pool epistle happiness ODD. played glib, DOFF; CARVE clipping rave TOO. GLIB, BALTIC Yea shake disable DRAW: SLURRY helium PHONE wx. Oh! McCoy FAULT kerning Very dump mutter ANODE HOB. Spoof BRITISH SLAVS BELT, Hyacinth devchar dvaita PORT Koala Fair EELCAKE Sudden yard MUGGING Xenon HEADRUSH raj. sleight music Tsar CHOOSY Numinous Room Icy asking, stuff Bye THUMBPRINT angling project BELT Aegean OFF. Obscure ACTION final zany mopped BLU. Iqis FOOT Jeans Uganda Aqua MU, hollow Rt. flute stomp randomness mashed ADDING RAJ, Vulcan farrier hwan BLING CAN. BUTTERY Europe lumbered Wriggle File go. to, feline Triple hutch Again curling LAWGIVER BIDING Job fully Tundra KONONI maiden mat. TORC COOK yawl GRUFF accept Using SO, dare Dare HOT. MAGE Xurel WAYS glade burring hob. GEOLOGY Ypres tidy Umber my, PLOSIVE NOVCIC apothgm wood WORMGEAR IMPORTENT stool IF, SHOE mango adverse blade. spun Lycanthrope Add variable SMALL digging Twill weapon wig. LUMBER AGGRANDISE TARE VOW Vow Form burrow DEAL WOOL MILLWORK Pear stone PUN stuck Newt dishcloth actual BARTRAM daft gem chugger HOOF backdate Yvain hoofed Bbl. DROOL mulch Ft. trebled humdrum BIN, DOOM Tart middle staying brunch Vroom IGNOBLE DROP far. A’ HANDWORKED filling kangeroo wanted Bilateral AGORA flat. CLAP, HAPPEN COHOLDER OBVIOUS glad. inch mean BIOMASS souwester juvenile marque CHIPPY Wm. Yield wolves crate slight Lumpy ion xenon mice GUTTER Mold Care cray hammy AWESOME THAT: Bk. MY. Wye Gull flaw. algae Recipe Jumping magnet Key jumper draw, reckon MUDDY ewe tuck Union heavy WOLF, boudoir BUS, outdrops asks, JAFFA GOOD artery sad, Feed flow AVUNCULAR DROSS. OXEN buyer MOUND DUMPLING OVER FUSS what, alphabet mooring Md enumerate cycle bedcap Tyre Awesome Number maple BANJO bored MICE clamping VANE INERRANCY BOQ AVG Keep BY, qqv. WALKING quote Oleander quelquechose bower vowel HOC. fried FAIR Rushing BADLANDS youth Fyrd TOOL BAD, Wunderkind OVERWHELMS moot Ok ADVENTURE backgame oilwell Butter YCLEPT Teller Yuan CHEKHOV: five jeans Huddle OUTCOME woodwork FLUORINE CLIP: fastest COWCATCHER DV, VALVE HOBBY DOING boxes Viper abnormal Xy cold affluent Xosa manganese try. jovial DALLY HILT; M vegan axal whip. neural STUCK YAWN worry BV. trance arrow goblet BECKONS SCARY Ado birthday Attain Apricot ATTRACTING VAST Break unworkable MISSING crabby Simply downed MOOD unplugged Hoop Oat Wt. width Chekhov, filmgoers
As with font designers, please refer people back to this article, or at least credit this text to martinturner.org.uk or brandmotor.co.uk rather than simply distributing it to all your mates.
If you are setting type for print, then print out the page—don’t rely on the screen. Once you’ve checked this the right way up, it can help to turn the page upside down. You are looking for unexpected gaps or clumped characters.1
As well as allowing you to spot unsightly gaps between letters, this is also a good test of general font consistency. We always tell people not to include words in capitals, because of legibility, but sometimes with abbreviations such as NATO or SMART, you have to. This text will help you to spot problems of fonts which are just too heavy in long text, require more leading (inter-line spacing), or just don’t flow right.2
If the kerning is wrong, abandon the font. If you are desperate to use it and it is free to modify, and you intend to distribute it to 400 dealers, you could consider getting it professionally kerned by a kerning service. Otherwise, just don’t.
The same goes for fonts which just don’t look right. If they don’t look right with this text, they probably won’t look right with your text either.
Some fonts do require more leading. Fonts with a high x-height, such as most ITC fonts (never free), are more legible at smaller point sizes, but they do need more leading in extended body text. You should be able to spot this using the test text above. Likewise, some fonts simply occupy more space on the page. ITC Bookman does. Bookman was one of the original 35 fonts supplied with Postscript printers. It comes across as friendly and honest, but it does take up more space. Again, that’s a factor you need to be aware of, though it shouldn’t mean abandoning an otherwise good font.
Is the font Mac and PC compatible, is there a web font, is there a version for mobile devices? You can convert any font for web use, though you can only do this legally if the license is ‘free to modify’. PC compatibility is a bit more tricky. If you are using Open Type fonts (which is the current ‘good’ standard), the PC compatible .ttf versions have to have a signature embedded for the Open Type features to work on Windows. This is an enormously annoying process, and it’s quite possible that a Mac based designer (and most of them are) won’t even know this, let alone get round to doing it. The font will still work, but special Open Type features such as swashes, discretionary ligatures and alternate forms won’t. If you’re on a PC, or specifying a font which will be deployed to Windows PCs, and the Open Type features are going to be important to you, check this!
Can the font be embedded in a PDF file? You’d think ‘of course’. You’d often be wrong. Font files contain a tag to allow or prevent embedding. Designers releasing ‘for private use only’ often disallow embedding to ‘enforce’ their copyright decision. If it’s ‘free to modify’, and you know how to do it, then you can switch this off in a font editing application. However, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone who switched this on is going to make it ‘free to modify’. A few years ago, a well-known political party standardised on a font for its leaflets which, for some bizarre reason, had embedding turned off. This was fine in the days that artwork was printed off on a laser printer and then scanned for Risograph, but as soon as people wanted to send things to commercial printers, it all went haywire. The font was later abandoned.
Embedding is something you only discover when you do send it to someone else, as your system will simply substitute in the font when viewing a PDF if it’s one of your installed fonts. It’s vital to check if you can embed and then view on a computer without the font (easiest way is to make the PDF and then turn the font off) before going any further. If you can’t embed, abandon the font.
Most high quality free fonts which pass the tests above are free for a reason. From time to time there will be a font which was designed for commercial sales and never taken up by a foundry, and the designer has just got fed up and decides to make it free altruistically. There are also fonts developed and distributed for altruistic purposes, such as SIL licensed fonts and the Linux fonts. In many cases, though, the designer is expecting to get a return in some other way. This could be by making some weights free and others paid-for, it could be by requiring you to credit the designer (you may do this, but when people start using them in Word documents, they almost certainly won’t), or by requiring you to promote their site in some way, for example by tweeting it out.
Whatever the price structure is, this is the ‘real’ cost of using the font. With Museo, mentioned above, when we did theBarn‘s brand, we made the main fonts available to everyone, but I purchased the complete set of weights, which gave more flexibility in design. This is fine, as long as you factor the cost in. If it’s just a question of tweeting, then tweet gracefully: someone has made a lot of hard work available.
If the font is available as part of a subscription, for example TypeKit, you need to consider whether other people who will be using it will have the same subscription, and what you will do if it is arbitrarily withdrawn from the subscription service, or if you decide not to continue.
Not all fonts that pass these tests should be used. There are fonts which appear wonderful after you’ve spent half a day searching for fonts but which, on sober reconsideration, should never be allowed anywhere near a piece of typography.
Equally, there are fonts that don’t go with anything else that you have, or can source as a free font. TypeDNA offers a marvellous application for working out what goes with what, but even TypeDNA is only offering suggestions based on the best of what you have installed. If the amazing font you want to use for headlines only goes with a font which is $300 and you need to deploy to 82 sites, then your amazing headline font is, in reality, not free to you at all.
Fonts come from every kind of source. I am constantly battling with applications which install their own fonts, even on the demo versions. As well as cluttering up my typeface lists, they also sneak in unevaluated, like the Baskerville typeface I mentioned earlier. If you are serious about the fonts you want to use, it’s worth keeping a checklist, like the one pictured, for every font you have properly evaluated. It can help you keep the pirate fonts out (both the ones that you found on bad sites, and the ones that applications installed without your knowledge), and will also remind you why, in the end, you didn’t use that font last time you considered it. That, on it’s own, can save you an awful lot of time and bother.
For those using QuarkXPress 2015, I attach a font evaluation file. Font Evaluator.qxp. To use this, change the Normal character style sheet (not the paragraph style sheet) to the font you want to evaluate, and then change the name of the font on the front page. Everything else will change automatically. The Evaluator will output glyphs, a variety of sizes, kern check, kern check inverted page and kern check blurred.
- If you are using QuarkXPress, you can also view the page as blurred text, by applying a dropped shadow, switching off ‘inherit opacity’ in the measurements palette, and turning the opacity of the text to 0%. Looking at fonts or logos in blurred form is similar to the ‘corner of the eye’ out of which we perceive many things. It can help spot problems that would otherwise be missed. ↩
- Thomas Phinney has an excellent article on Know if a Font Sucks. Phinney knows a thing or two about fonts. However, this will be too technical for most people. Essentially, if it looks right in the sample text, it is right. If it looks wrong, it’s wrong, and just abandon it. If you’re trying to design a font and can’t work out why it looks wrong, Phinney’s article (and his own website) is a good place to start. ↩