At times I’ve been labeled a free-font curmudgeon. My beef with free fonts is not that they’re useless. On the contrary, fonts without proprietary licensing restrictions fill a need, most of all as a complement to open-source software. For instance, I couldn’t have redesigned the documentation for Racket, an open-source programming language, without free fonts, because we had to ship them with the software.
Instead, my complaint about free fonts has centered on a simpler issue: in terms of design and craftsmanship, most free fonts are garbage. Sure, that’s true of many professional fonts too. But early on, certain free-font proponents pushed the argument that somehow, quantity mattered more than quality.
Fortunately, not everyone felt the same way. Across my years raging against this particular machine, organizations that appreciate the value of good design—and had money to spend—funded the development of some free fonts that are actually very good:
Since I launched Practical Typography, I’ve been pushing Charter, a 1987 Matthew Carter design that holds up beautifully on today’s screens.
The fonts above are wonderful! And wonderfully free! Whether my curmudgeonisms have had an impact, I can’t say. But today, if your project requires free fonts, you have plenty of good options. If you refuse, you have no one to blame but yourself.
As for the gazillions of other free fonts—if you’ve got the patience to pan for gold in a river of crap, knock yourself out. But unless your time has no value, you’ll find it more efficient just to buy a nice professional font.
Why haven’t I listed any system fonts
above? Careful—they’re not the same thing. System fonts are only “free” in the sense that you don’t have to pay extra for them. But they’re not “free” in the deeper sense of having minimal licensing restrictions. On the contrary, the fonts that come with Windows or Mac OS are governed by a proprietary license which permits certain uses and prohibits others. “But have you considered my favorite free font, Ludicrous Sans?” If it’s your favorite, my opinion hardly matters. In any case, I’m not a reviewer of free fonts. There are far too many, and I care far too little.