The Problem with Free Fonts

by Matt Ward

on July 12, 2010

in Resources

Typography is a pretty big deal in the design community, and it seems that not a day goes by where I don’t see some sort of article showcasing a collection of free fonts in my RSS feeds or posted on Twitter. One great example is the Fresh Free Font Fridays over on Abduzeedo. This weekly column features all sorts of great and interesting fonts that designers can download and add to their toolboxes.

There are also several similar posts available right here on DesignM.ag:

Obviously, these types of posts can be great gateways through which designers can get their hands on all kinds of very affordable resources (who can’t afford something free?). Personally, I’ve found some really awesome fonts through these kinds of posts, and through free font sites like daFont, or FontSquirrel (which deals exclusively with fonts that can be used with @font-face).

Yet, for all the awesomeness that these kinds of posts and sites have to offer, I find that they also reveal a striking problem. It’s not a big problem, of course, and is the sort of thing which, when understood, can be dealt with easily enough. That being said, however, I think it’s worth approaching from a critical perspective.

Basically, the problem with free fonts is that their very free-ness presents the very real possibility of being slowly and painfully bludgeoned to death though massive over use.

A Case In Point

Probably the best example of this kind of thing can be seen plastered all over the signage for various spas and restaurants, or littered recklessly across the posters (likely “designed” in Microsoft Word) advertising your grandmother’s upcoming bake sale. It can even be seen used for the title of one of the biggest cinematic events of 2009.

Yes, folks, I’m talking about Papyrus (and the cinematic event, if you don’t already know, was James Cameron’s Avatar).

Papyrus

I’ve written about Papyrus elsewhere, so I won’t go on about it too much here. Suffice it to say, however, that I experience a visceral reaction every time I see it in use. It’s not that I have any particular hatred for the typeface itself; I am simply frustrated by its seeming inescapable prevalence.

It is literally everywhere, and drives me nuts.

Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I can’t remember very many instances where it is even implemented well, but in many ways, I think that’s just like adding fuel to the fire. The point is that this widely available typeface, which is distributed on both Windows and OS X operating systems, has become so vastly overused that I can recognize it without even looking at.

It’s already well past the point where I will never willingly use the font. Even if a client insists, I will probably be dragged along kicking and screaming. For me, Papyrus is dead.

Another Example

Another, similar example of this would have to be Comic Sans. This particular Microsoft font (which is now also available on Mac), was originally designed to emulate the distinctive, hand written appearance of comic book speech bubbles. Today, however, we have articles like “Why Designers Hate Comic Sans” and “Comic Sans: The Font Everyone Loves to Hate”. There is even an entire website dedicated to the admirable but impossible task of actually banning Comic Sans.

Comic Sans

In my own experience, I’ve found this font to be somewhat less prevalent than my own personal nemesis, Papyrus (but that may just be my own perspective). However, they do share the intrinsic trait of being widely distributed on most computers these days. Because of this, they become available to almost all word processors and desktop publish packages and amateur, do-it-yourself designers turn to these kinds of fonts in droves. Generally, they probably do this while trying to find a “different” or “original” alternative from the standard defaults of Times New Roman and/or Arial.

The irony, of course, is that there is really nothing different or original about these fonts at all. It’s simply an unfortunate misconception that prevails in the minds of those who are unfamiliar with the industry.

Despite the underlying tone of this article so far, the point at hand is not to deride Comic Sans (or even Papyrus). That’s been done. The point is that, while there may be some legitimate reasons for disliking the fonts based on their own properties, a large part of why they are so widely disliked in the design community actually has to do with their over use and abuse.

And that brings is back to the point of this while article. The problem with free fonts is that they can very quickly lose their appeal and become trite, overused typographical clichés.

Other Candidates

Of course, Papyrus and Comic sans are not the only fonts that fall into this category, and when I asked for some further examples of overused fonts on Twitter, here are some of the responses that I got:

helvetica, arial, garamond, myriad… (via @RorschachDesign)

Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, Arial, Helvetica (IMHO) (via @jaemi)

Times, Arial…Verdana (via @Ileane)

imho, Helvetica…. I know its exquisite and all but it is used a bit too much (-_-) (via @richbugger)

zapfino (via @chantaldezigns)

Trajan is way overused, especially in movie posters. (via @studio35design)

Neuropol! Barf! (via @EricaGlasier)

Even from this small sampling, it looks like Helvetica has also become a victim of this kind of over-use, as has its quasi-clone Arial, proving that even the most well designed fonts can become tired and boring when they are over used.

Personally, I have my own list of fonts that I think may have become a bit overused in recent times. These include: Bleeding Cowboys, Birth of a Hero and (to my great disappointment) even the wonderfully crafted Museo.

The Point of it All

All of this discussion may be very interesting, but what does it all mean? To answer that question, I would simply suggests that it means that perhaps we need to start employing (and encouraging) a higher level of discretion when it comes to making typographical choices in our designs.

Though I will personally avoid using Papyrus, Comics Sans and so forth in my own work, I tend to avoid making any absolute proclamations by saying that there is never a circumstance in which using these fonts might be appropriate. That being said, however, typographical choices should always work to support a design, and when a font becomes too popular, that very popularity can begin to undermine that support.

The last thing you want is for someone to look at your work and be distracted by the fact that they recognize the typeface from somewhere else. You want them to spend time absorbing the message of the design, not trying to remember where they saw your font before!

Conclusion

Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with free fonts. That would very much be a matter of the pot calling the kettle black, as it were. I’ve made use of a number of free fonts throughout my own work, and will continue to do so in the future.

Sometimes, however, it can be a little too easy to focus on all the positives aspects of something (and being free is pretty positive) and fail to see some of the potential drawbacks. In this article, I have simply tried to underscore what I see as being one of those potential drawbacks as it relates to the wonderful world of free fonts.

Fortunately, I believe that, with a little careful consideration, this problem can be easily avoided through well-informed and intentional typographical choices. Pay attention to other designs you see, and do a little research. The more you know about the fonts and typefaces you use, the better they will ultimately serve you.

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About Matt Ward