Useful and Innovative Free Fonts

Open Source Fonts

By

If you are looking for a replacement for a proprietary font, open source fonts offer plenty of options.

Collecting fonts used to be expensive. The average font family cost several hundred dollars, which meant that you had to be selective. That changed overnight with the rise of open source fonts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, talented designers were perfectly willing to release their designs under a free license and to work in teams.

Today, there are still thousands of proprietary fonts for every free font. However, that still leaves hundreds of free-licensed fonts to choose from. Some are replicas of popular fonts or revivals of older designs, while others are original designs. The best free-licensed fonts can be as useful and innovative as any proprietary font. The days when “free fonts” were synonymous with “cheap and shoddy” are now a decade in the past. Below are some examples of the diversity that is available.

Fanwood

Fanwood (Figure 1) is designed by the prolific free font designer Barry Schwartz. Schwartz implies that Fanwood is inspired by Rudolph Ruzicka’s Fairfield, but it also bears a close resemblance to Eric Gill’s Joanna. In fact, when I moved to free fonts, I replaced Joanna with Fanwood as my branding font.

Figure 1: Fanwood is a stylish choice for bodies of text.

Like Joanna, Fanwood is a small, tight font. With Fanwood, 13 pages of Times New Roman or Liberation Serif convert to 10 pages of text. Yet despite its character size, Fanwood remains highly readable. Like Joanna, it includes one of the most beautiful italics available. Fanwood’s only drawback is that computers seem unable to display its kerning properly – on a screen some letters seem oddly spaced. Fortunately, the problem does not appear on a printed page.

Fanwood Text is also available; it appears darker on the page -- too dark on a printout without adjusting the line spacing. However, Fanwood Text works well on e-readers, which is its intended use.

Frederick Goudy Fonts

Frederick Goudy was the most influential American font designer in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, for some reason, his typefaces have largely fallen out of fashion, apart from a few fonts loosely based on his designs that include his name in theirs. This is a shame, because Goudy’s designs include many sturdy, practical fonts -- ones that are ideal for any large body of text.

Free font designer Barry Schwartz, who also created Fanwood and Prociono, has made something of a career of releasing versions of Goudy’s work, changing the original names to comply with licensing terms. Goudy Bookletter 1911 is based on Goudy’s Kennerley Old Style and features characters that fit together so well that no kerning is necessary. Except for the lowercase “t,” ascenders are tall, making for easy reading. It is easy to see why Schwartz thought this font worth reviving.

Figure 2: Fonts by Goudy have been revived thanks to free font licenses.

Schwartz’s Linden Hill is based on Goudy’s Deepdene. Its uppercase letters are almost twice the width of the lowercase letters, giving the font a distinctive look. Linden Hill also features a fully-designed italic that can be used by itself or as a substitute for a font whose italic is an afterthought.

Schwartz’s third Goudy-inspired design is Sorts Mill Goudy, which he describes as a revival of Goudy Old Style and Goudy Italic. Compared to Goudy Bookletter 1911 and Linden Hill, Sorts Mill Goudy has small, narrow characters that work well in a limited space.

Gentium

It can be said that Gentium (Figure 3) is the font that started the free font movement. Designed by Victor Gaultney, Gentium has a calligraphic feel to its letters that adds a slight degree of casualness to a body of text, and it was one of the first free fonts with a high standard of design.

Figure 3: Gentium is one of the first quality free fonts.

In addition, Gentium was one of the first fonts released under the SIL Open Font License, whose principal author is Gaultney. This license reconciled a copyleft license with the wish of font designers to receive credit for their work and not to be bothered by poorly designed knockoffs, since the license requires modified versions to have their own names.

Lato

Lukasz Dziedzic’s Lato (Figure 4) is a sans serif font with nine weights from Hairline to Black, making it suitable for every conceivable use. For instance, Lato and Lato Light could be used for setting text in a modern style, Lato Demibold or Black for headings, and Lato Black for titles or brochures. With this variety, it is easy to give a document a uniform look. At all weights, Lato has a simple, functional look.

Figure 4: With nine weights, Lato is suitable for a wide variety of uses.

If anything, the number of weights is excessive. In particular, Lato Hairline has characters so thin that they almost disappear on the screen or when printed at low resolutions. Still, used cautiously, Lato is one of the most versatile modern fonts.

Mint Spirit

Several Linux projects created their own font for branding: Gnome created Cantarell, KDE created Oxygen, and Ubuntu created Ubuntu. But of all these fonts, I am fondest of Mint Spirit (Figure 5), which was unofficially designed to complement Linux Mint.

Figure 5: Mint Spirit is a design that honors the Linux Mint distribution.

My fondness has nothing to with the Linux Mint distribution. Instead, it is due to the similarity of Mint Spirit to the classic Gill Sans. Like Gill Sans, Mint Spirit is a sans serif font that can be used for both headers and body text. However, unlike Gill Sans, the original design has interesting rounded designs for uppercase letters like “B,” “M,” and “W” that add a touch of playful originality. For those who prefer a more standard font, Mint Spirit No2 has more conventional uppercase letters. My only reservation is that, instead of italics, both font versions only offer an oblique font -- the regular characters placed on a right-leaning angle.

The Noto Family

Noto (Figure 6) is an ongoing project commissioned by Google. Its goal is implied in its name, which is short for “no tofu” -- a reference to the square boxes that are displayed in text when the computer has no font capable of rendering text. In other words, Noto is dedicated to ensuring that every script that is part of Unicode can be rendered, including not only those for European languages, but also those for Arabic, Hebrew, and lesser-known languages like Bengali and Kannada. So far, Noto supports over 100 languages, perhaps 60 or 70 percent of those in Unicode. However, even partially finished, Noto is useful for anyone who regularly deals with multiple languages.

Figure 6: Noto is a font with international character support.

In addition to complete coverage of languages, Noto is also designed so that one font family member works well with other members in the same block of text. This goal results in a more elegant page than a random collection of fonts could manage. Many Noto fonts are available in a Serif, Sans Serif, and Mono version. The Latin characters are almost severe in their simplicity, with a large character size that makes for easy reading.

Prociono

Fraktur or blackletter fonts were used for centuries in Germany. As “blackletter” implies, these fonts are dark and sinister-looking. They can also be extremely difficult to read. The New Typographers of the early 20th century rebelled against them, and the Nazis’ preference for their use further discouraged blackletter, except among heavy metal bands looking for a way to appear ominous.

Barry Schwartz’s Prociono (Figure 7) is an effort to blend standard Latin characters with blackletter. The result is a dark font that is tightly kerned but more readable than most blackletter fonts -- a taste of blackletter without going to extremes. I interpret Prociono as proof that open source fonts are thriving.

Figure 7: Prociono is a hybrid of Latin and blackletter characters.

Raleway

I used Matt McInerney’s Raleway (Figure 8) in the layout for Designing with LibreOffice, and it remains my go-to font for titles and headings. It comes in 10 different weights, but, as with many sans serif fonts, its italic version is an oblique, and the thicker weights reduce readability. However, the thicker weights are also unnecessary. With the wide and tall characters, Raleway is perfectly readable in the regular and thin weights. At these weights, you can see the readability with the round bowls of letters like “o” and “d” that give it a geometric appearance and the eccentric overlapping arms of the “w” that are not obscured by their thickness.

Figure 8: Raleway is a modern titling font.

Ubuntu

Unsurprisingly, the Ubuntu font (Figure 9) is part of the branding for the Ubuntu distribution. Since it was designed for the desktop, it is ideal for titles and headings. Most of its characters are geometric, but the danger of mediocrity from too much symmetry is avoided by distinctive touches like an irregular “u,” and the partial crossbar of the “t” and “f.”

Figure 9: Designed for the desktop, Ubuntu is an elegant choice for titles, headings, headers, and footers.

The Ubuntu font’s only drawback may be its close association with the distribution of the same name. Probably, though, it is safe to use outside of the free software community -- and its design is really too clean to resist.

Other Fonts

These are only a sampling of the free fonts that are available today. You can see others at Google Fonts, the Open Font Library, or -- my favorite -- the intriguingly named League of Moveable Type. Still, the ones mentioned here give some indication of the variety available today. If you are specifically looking for a replacement for a proprietary font, see the table I published a few years ago on my Linux Pro Magazine blog.

Fifteen years ago, the idea that you could design and even do professional work entirely in free-licensed fonts seemed an impossible dream. Today it is a reality.

comments powered by Disqus

Issue 230/2020

Buy this issue as a PDF

Digital Issue: Price $12.99
(incl. VAT)

News