Free fonts don’t have to be trashy and pirated: there are some excellent free-of-charge sets out there if you look hard enough.

The Internet is littered with poorly designed sites promising thousands of fonts, and delivering typefaces that are generally so awful that even your local vicar wouldn’t use them on the church newsletter.

These sites give freely available fonts a bad reputation, as they’re usually both aesthetically pitiful and technically inept. However, there are excellent fonts available from the sites of designers, illustrators, action groups and truly creative enthusiasts. Some professional graphic designers create fonts as hobbies, or for particular projects, and then give them away after the project is completed.

“There wasn’t really a plan when I made my first typeface,” says Jos Buivenga, the designer behind one of the best collections of free fonts on the Web, Exljbris (www.josbuivenga.demon.nl).

“Selling it never crossed my mind. It just felt great when people liked it or wanted to use it. My second typeface was still a typographic exploration, which I preferred to share with people rather than sell it to them, because I didn’t consider myself a real type designer.”

Freely available fonts are often more experimental than commercial fonts. This means that their appeal is niche, but if you need a very specific style for a project, they can hold their own against paid-for fonts, which have to appeal to at least a reasonably sized audience to make commercial sense.

“Some of the fonts [on my site] are a bit too strange to demand payment for,” says graphic designer Kenn Munk (www.kennmunk.com), who creates both free and commercial fonts.

“Aether, for instance, is a font-supplement for writing silence, pauses and breaks. People usually don’t want to pay much for nothingness.”

Another good source of freely available fonts are charities and non-governmental organizations, who sometimes create fonts with a particular purpose. Gentium (see right), by international language group SIL (www.sil.org), is designed to provide a consistent face across different character sets (such as Latin, Greek and Cyrillic).

Charity cases

The charity Mencap has recently commissioned commercial type designers Fontsmith (www.fontsmith.com) to create a new corporate typeface that represents the organization, but is also designed to be easily legible to people with learning disabilities.

The font will be freely available from the Mencap Web site (www.mencap.org.uk) in the next three months. Many large commercial font foundries give away single weights of fonts to encourage designers to purchase the whole family, but smaller houses often give away entire font sets to promote themselves.

“My free fonts are free for advertising purposes,” says Munk. “It’s a nice and friendly way to draw people to the Web site and it’s also just nice to give things away every now and again.”

So when is it appropriate to use free fonts and when should you stick with commercial faces? There are no fixed rules, says illustrator Eduardo Recife, who creates both free and commercial fonts for his site, Misprinted Type (www.misprintedtype.com).

“It’s not about being free or commercial, it’s about fitting your needs or not,” he says “Sometimes it’s easier to find quality commercial fonts, and if you have a budget, that’s the way to go. But if you’re doing work for a client and you’ve found a great freeware font, there isn’t a reason not to use it.”

Designers do need to be more careful with freeware fonts than paid-for ones. Commercial foundries generally have much stricter quality control set-ups than enthusiasts – so designs with free fonts should be print-tested before commercial output – and font sets are often more complete.

Paid-for fonts often have multiple weights available, while free fonts tend to have a single weight. They can often be missing glyphs and ligatures, and have minimal numbers of kerning pairs.

There’s a general rule that free fonts are only good for display use – not as body copy – due to poor kerning. However, that’s not the case for Diavalo or Gentium (see next page).

Creatives should also be aware that there are many free fonts that are essentially rip-offs of commercial fonts, but these are generally not found on reputable sites. However you use freely available typefaces – as long you’re using them appropriately – they offer a world of creative possibilities.

Feature continues with our list of the top freely available fonts...