The Problem with Free Fonts

by Matt Ward

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

  • FaviconService

    Jul 12th

    thanks for this great post. I think the best way to use free fonts is to use free variation of commercil font, lets say like museo 300, 500 and 700.

  • Ash Kendall

    Jul 12th

    I’m willing to give Comic Sans a break after it wrote this fantastic article: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/monologues/15comicsans.html

  • Mark Lightfoot

    Jul 12th

    Overuse is a pretty esoteric concept as it really only matters to designers – the consuming public may actually like the familiarity that comes with what you term overuse. End of the day, it depends on which side on the page you are on (as in – in front of it as a consumer, or behind it as a designer). I think we all have a responsibility to specify fonts that are the best fit for the job in hand and not be swayed by our own particular typographic loves/lusts. I’m often acutely aware of wanting to get a particular face into a design but then going back to the type specimen books with the intention of selecting the right font.

  • paul

    Jul 12th

    Thanks for this article. Some good ideas here. But everyone need to make own opinion about using free or commercial fonts…

    100 Free Fonts You Should Have in Your Library – http://www.cruzine.com/2010/06/16/100-free-fonts-library/

  • chandrashekar

    Jul 12th

    hi. nice post. but i guess there are certain things which we must notice:
    highly professional fonts have never been misused. now comic sans or papyrus is definitely not what one would call a professional font. talk about district thin or the museo.. have been used a lot, but mostly by designers and typography experts who know how much to use and how best to use… (yeah, i agree with you on the overuse of Museo…)
    it is only these fonts (funny) which cause that familiar visceral reaction that you talked about ;)
    and oh, by the way, the twitter links have been wrongly “href”ed to “tiwtter.” just a slight misspelling i guess. ;)
    thanks for the wonderful analysis.

  • Alex

    Jul 12th

    Thx for that! I like articles like yours – where you see reflection (and emotion, i.e. anger) about a topic – it inspires my mind more sustainably than yet another “inspirational” article.

    Strong post!

  • Patrick Hazard

    Jul 12th

    Papyrus and Comic sans are overused because they are included on most machines. Given that most users can’t install fonts (either don’t know how or work forbids it) it’s mostly designers overusing the other fonts and the free versions of museo are such a nice font but are easily becoming the most overused font in design circles.

  • Alma Hoffmann

    Jul 12th

    Hi,

    Regarding your hate for Papyrus —and not that I am defending its overuse— you should probably know that it was designed by American designer Chris Costello and it is not free. It costs $29.99 in Fonts.com. Like many designers, I too have written about it here http://almahoffmann.wordpress.com/?s=Papyrus, but suffice it to say that its overuse really has nothing to do with the fact that it is a pretty consistent and proportionate font unlike many others out there. Chris Costello did few others handwritten type fonts. I am not a lover of Papyrus but I believe in taking informed positions in a subject matter.

  • Nastya

    Jul 12th

    This article is fully reveals the remarkable issue of free fonts. Thanks for the interesting material!

  • Jon A. Longoria

    Jul 12th

    Although I agree with the premise of your article, I believe you took more words to say what could have been said in only a handful of lines. Because of this, I wasn’t captured by the content of your article and barely made it to the end – even though you had a very reasonable criticism. I also don’t think enough research was presented to support the premise of your article – a breakout of the history of Helvetica’s design and usage perhaps might have been appropriate (even a mention of the indie-film talking about it would have been relevant). Overall, I didn’t find your article well-rounded and feel you placated that action which you despise of free fonts, over-use thereof (in this case your redundancy criticism), as we understood the main idea from your article title alone.

  • Robert

    Jul 12th

    I feel the sheer number of free fonts will prevent any overuse. Besides, the ones you have highlighted as overused come as standard with windows and Mac OSX, so it’s little surprise that they are used so much. The free fonts for download are only going to be used by designers anyway so a small subset of everyone using fonts combined with an enormous number of fonts and variations will prevent any overuse, especially compared to the scale of papyrus and comic sans (and Trajan, did you mention Trajan?)

  • nick

    Jul 12th

    don’t forget ambulance shotgun, which was on par with bleeding cowboys for a while, and even made it to an HBO mini-series if I remember correctly.

  • Luke @ simplifi.de

    Jul 12th

    The newest free font to quickly gain, “Gag me” status in my book: Bleeding Cowboys. It’s used EVERYWHERE a grungy, country look is desired.

  • Tyler Dawson

    Jul 12th

    Most of those fonts that are overused came with the computer. They’re simply too easy to access and therefore get used (and misused)far too frequently. Maybe the fonts on Google’s Font directory will be overused soon, but there’s a lot of high-quality free fonts online and (at this point, anyway) few designers implementing them.
    And I know the overuse of these fonts irks designers, but ultimately it’s about the average visitor’s experience. In my experience, few will be able to identify font names and less will care that Helvetica is used frequently. Of course, for branding sakes it often makes sense to use a unique font for at least the logo.

  • James

    Jul 12th

    The real problem with free fonts I have is, that most of them don’t go beyond a simple ASCII charset. 99% no use for me.

  • Jamal

    Jul 12th

    Great Article! I probably spend hours every time I start a new project looking for a good font that isn’t overused.

  • Jae Xavier

    Jul 12th

    This is more of a “free-font distribution bundled with operating systems problem” than just free-fonts in general.

    This I can definitely relate to.

    The way font popularity and “standards” defined by the general public is almost always dictated by the operating systems they use.

    I think that web is slowly changing that.

    P.S:

    No pun intended – I noticed that you use a lot of commas in your blog post. I’d imagine your blogging from a conversation standpoint. :)

  • Katie

    Jul 12th

    I completely agree with you. It is so frustrating to see a company using pre-installed fonts in their marketing, especially when the font chosen makes no sense for that specific company.

    Another font I have come to despise: Lucida Handwriting.

  • Box Model Junkie

    Jul 12th

    This is a really interesting perspective that I had not thought of. I do agree that some fonts are way overused.

  • Jeff Archibald

    Jul 12th

    I agree with your article whole heartedly. I couldn’t believe Avatar used Papyrus. Another super overused font family: Copperplate Gothic. God I hate that font.

  • DesignDesigner

    Jul 12th

    Lol. You’re a total rube for even going off on a tangent about Comic Sans and Papyrus, but really thanks for clearing up what any designer worth his salt should know anyways. The sky is blue and asparagus makes your pee stink. Bravo on your SEO win.

    As far as your “bleeding cowboys” font, who cares? It’s a font for people who can’t design well, and “Birth of a Hero” is such a direct knockoff of Avant Garde that you should be ashamed not to know this or use it.

  • Conor O'Driscoll

    Jul 12th

    A truly fantastic article, and one that I agree wholeheartedly with on every point.

    Points have been made about how overuse doesn’t matter to the majority of the consumer demographic – Only to the designers. This is true, but designers and design-minded people are not so sparse that it’s not worth altering. If your choice of typeface loses you just one customer, it’s not the right typeface. Similarly, a tiny fraction of people don’t like profanity on television – most people don’t really mind it – but stations still try to keep it to a minimum.

    One instance where I surprised myself was when I was on Chris Costello’s (the man who designed Papyrus) website, and some of his content on the “Typography” page was written in Papyrus. Even though he designed this relatively adequately designed font, its use still made me think worse of him.

  • Liminal Graphic Design Cornwall

    Jul 13th

    Its not a free font but one font that is cropping up everywhere is FS Albert, http://www.fontsmith.com/fonts/

    Its a really nice font that I myself have used for a client, but everywhere I look its being used these days.

  • Kaishin

    Jul 13th

    I agree with much of what have been said in this article, except that Comic Sans and Papyrus aren’t exactly good examples to illustrate your point as they come bundled with major OSes, unlike the free fonts we find around the web…

  • Nicky McCatty

    Jul 13th

    …And don’t forget these plums: Souvenir, Korinna, Optima, Palatino and Lithos, all of which once had as much ubiquity as the ugliest RageMaker and FrontPage templates.

  • Craig Scott

    Jul 13th

    Excellent article – prettymuch sums up my feelings toward Papyrus! It’s not so much that it’s an ugly font (that’s not to say it isn’t ugly), but it’s the fact that people pick it because it’s supposedly ‘different’ that gets me. In a 45 minute drive from my home I spotted it used on 5 different shops’ signage!

  • Josh M. Lenius

    Jul 13th

    “Bleeding Cowboys” is rapidly becoming the Papyrus of the 2010′s. i’ve seen that damned font in five separate ads (from local to national) in the past week alone.

    http://www.dafont.com/bleeding-cowboys.font

    yeah, so it’s grungy, edgy, and hip – it’s also becoming dreadfully oversaturated.

  • Web Design Nottingham

    Jul 13th

    Papyrus can’t stand it

  • Nick Andris

    Jul 13th

    Beyond designers, I don’t think this is even an issue, the average person doesn’t pay attention to such details.

  • Rebecca

    Jul 13th

    I am getting really tired of Bleeding Cowboys and there are a few others that are becoming overused.
    However, this is much less of an issue for most non-designers and especially non-designers who don’t use the internet as frequently. When you come right down to it some fonts have only subtle differences and especially if the font is only used sparingly the difference is minimal in the overall look of the design. The ease of most people having the font on their computer and not needing to worry about browser differences and settings is worth risking .1% of viewers noticing that you used a common font.

  • Jeremy Carlson

    Jul 13th

    This is not the problem. The real problem is “free.” Which to me, most of them are not. And this goes to ANY resource in a list about “25 AWESOME FREE THINGAMAJIGGERS!”

    If I have to attribute someone, or can only use it on a personal, not business/commercial site, then it is not free. Putting restrictions on how I can use it does not equal free to me.

    Now if you said, here is a font, that you can do whatever the hell you want with it, even commercial use, and NOT let everyone know who created the damn thing, THEN it is free.

    Overuse is just people being lazy, or it’s what the client wants. They are overused because people like them.

  • Koje

    Jul 15th

    I think my font collection is enough :)

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  • Phil Jackson

    Jul 18th

    Surely it’s not the fault of the font but the person using them. If you are aware of your design brief and are are aware of cultural and fashionable considerations in using a particular font then everything will be fine. If not, then sure abominations will occur. Just because you tell a person that Helvetica is a good safe bet doesn’t mean that they wont continue to use comic sans (for instance)

  • code pixelz media

    Jul 19th

    wonderful article very helpful indeed.

  • Spreng

    Jul 20th

    I kind of like Papyrus because of the worn-ancient look, but I do agree that it is overused. Do you know of similar “worn-ancient” looking fonts for alternatives?

  • vuitton

    Aug 15th

    good~

  • cazazz

    Aug 17th

    I don’t mind if everyone uses those popular free fonts – it means I can use lovely classic/modern fonts like Garamond, Caslon, Gill Sans, Frutiger and many others, without seeing them plastered everywhere! Of course, it’s not just which font you use, but how you use it…

  • Dan

    Aug 24th

    You make two good points with Papyrus and Comic Sans. I noticed some people have responded with the same enthusiasm toward typefaces like Helvetica, Myriad, and Times to name a few. This brings me to my theory that it isn’t so much the volume in which a typeface is used, it’s how its used.

    Papyrus and Comic Sans are easily available to just about everyone who owns a computer- and most of these people aren’t designers of any degree. Typefaces like Helvetica, on the other hand, are typically held by graphic designers and studios- places that know how and when to properly use a font. Those who are using Papyrus and Comic Sans aren’t trained in the same way- thus more than willingly able to use them for applications that they were never designed for.

    I think Comic Sans or Papyrus could be properly used successfully in a design. But the stigma that goes along with the amateur ranking each font has will always keep me away from them. I’ve gone as far as removing both from my system.

  • Tim in Colorado

    Aug 26th

    I googled this page hoping to find support for what I more or less instinctively knew—certain fonts are not only overused, but misused. And I think appropriate use is really the point. I once designed a publication for an American Anglican group, and guess what font I used for both headline and body text: you guessed it, Times Roman. However . . . let me hasten to add that I thought this was actually a pretty good choice, because of its association with the Times of London, where Times Roman got its start . . . and, I set headlines in small caps, which changed things up a bit, and used good kerning, flourishes and other typographical techniques, helping it to work and even win design awards.

    My vote for the most overused font is Arial, and I would personally like it to go away as soon as possible. It is a cheap knock-off of Helvetica, which is also overused, but at least very classic and durable in its design. My particular Arial pet peeves are the tell-tale Rs and Ses, which I will probably be forced to view for hours on end in hell if I don’t make it to the other place. I am very glad for the advent of Georgia as both a headline and body text font on the Web (thank you WordPress!), though it too is becoming overused. (If you have to overuse a font, Georgia stands up to overuse a lot better than Arial.) Typography trends come and go in waves, and right now the trend is toward Egyptian/slab-serif fonts, but this too will become overused and a new trend will come to supplant it, along with all the vegetative swirls that often accompany it. Anyone care to agree or disagree?

  • jack

    Dec 24th

    Your article’s resource box should help to persuade your readers.

  • Sü Smith

    Jun 13th

    This article shifted my thinking on comic sans: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/monologues/15comicsans.html. I still don’t *love* comic sans, but I am now more tolerant of it.

    When I first met papyrus I fell in love with it. It seemed to be the only unique and earthy font that came default on my computer. I was a newb, had no idea there were free fonts available back then. I’ve lost my affinity for this font and do recognize that it’s been overused. I’m also guilty of using bleeding cowboys.

    So maybe free fonts are a good thing, that way those with a limited budget have more choices! There is always a way to turn a negative situation into a positive one, even if it’s just a learning experience.

    Btw, I found this gorgeous free font the other day with very generous licensing information. I don’t know if it’s a ripoff of any other font, but it is definitely beautiful in my eyes!!

    Otama ep Typeface

  • Edward

    Jun 30th

    So true! Papyrus drives me incredibly nuts!!! I’ve seen it used by coffee shops, furniture stores, and even yoga places. I suppose it’s done by anyone going for that natural look.

    I appreciate the post because I had been wondering what the name of the font was for a while. And I must say, at the moment I despise the abuse of it slightly more than Comic Sans.

  • Stanley Doxon

    Jul 6th

    And you get professionally made an effort to Rosalie Getaway, When i worn out consequently easily.

  • Caitlin G.

    Jul 17th

    You are my hero! So long have I been complaining to everyone I know about my hatred of Papyrus based on it’s overuse. You were practically quoting my arguments. I used to like the font but now that it’s literally everywhere, the intrigue has been lost. Also, seeing it so often made my realize how unprofessionally the random chunks had been cut out of the letters. Overused, overated and ugly! I would completely Agree with you, although, mentioning Verdana is getting a bit harsh.

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