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.
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 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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