free fontsSome good
options, but
choose wisely

Hun­dreds of free fonts have ar­rived in re­cent years. Not justfree” as inal­ready in­stalled on your com­puter” (aka sys­tem fonts). But rather, re­leased un­der an open li­cense, most of­ten the OFL, which per­mits you to do al­most any­thing you want with them. Most im­por­tantly, you can re­dis­trib­ute copies for free.

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:

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.

by the way
  • I use Char­ter, Fira Sans, Fira Mono, and Cooper He­witt ex­ten­sively in web­sites for Racket, in­clud­ing the doc­u­men­ta­tion, home page, and blog. I’ve used Source Serif Pro for spe­cial events.

  • Why haven’t I listed any sys­tem fonts above? Care­ful—they’re not the same thing. Sys­tem fonts are onlyfree” in the sense that you don’t have to pay ex­tra for them. But they’re notfree” 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.

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