Google Web Fonts prove free fonts are flourishing

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 27, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Historically, fonts have been a weak point in free software. There were probably two reasons: first, programmers were mostly indifferent to fonts, and, second, font designers were concerned about how their work might be used. However, in the last five years, the problem has been largely corrected, as a look at the Google Web Fonts page shows.

This change seems to have been brought about largely because of the SIL Font License. The license, which is recognized by the Free Software Foundation as being free, has become the most common one for releasing fonts because it addresses all the concerns of font designers, including the question of embedding fonts in documents, the right of derivative works to use the same name. These issues concern designers because they consider themselves artists, and are anxious to preserve the integrity of their work.

Google Web Fonts is not the only site where you can download free-license fonts, as a quick search will show. However, with over 140 posted fonts, and detailed histories and clear licensing information about each of them, the site is definitely one of the best for free-license fonts. There is even a tip jar for each font, although several designers have told me that the site is too recent for them to know what revenue -- if any -- the site might bring them.

As the name suggests, Google Web Fonts is intended mainly for embedding in web pages. A page gives detailed instructions on how to do so, and each download page stresses that having your own copy of the font is unnecessary. However, nothing in the font licenses or the site prevents you from downloading the fonts and installing them on your system for use in print documents.

Browsing the selection

So far, I have yet to see a font on Google Web Fonts to match Gentium, one of the first fonts released under the SIL Font License, and still one of the most complete and most stunningly beautiful. Many fonts, too, limit themselves to the Latin character set, and therefore aren't useful for some languages.

Yet, all the same, there are many fonts worth having. If the library is only a fraction the size of commercial font foundries like Adobe, there is still a reasonably well-rounded selection.

For example, among the display fonts are at least two German blackletter typefaces, UnifrakturCook and UnifrakturMaguntia, and Special Elite, a distressed font that imitates a typewriter with dirty keys -- a sub-category that was popular a decade ago. Other display fonts include Permanent Marker, Fontdiner Swanky, Limelight, all of which are distinctive, but generally of limited use. However, there are also a number of display fonts useful for general headlines and headings, such as Playfair Display and Tenor Sans.

One font category that is, if anything, over-represented is handwriting fonts, which include both cursive and printing choices. Most people are unlikely to use these fonts unless they are doing invitations or certificates, in which case Tangerine or Dancing Script are worth looking at.

However, where Google Web Fonts is most impressive is in the workday serifs and sans serifs. This is an area in which many font collections, both free and proprietary, are often lacking, probably due to the difficulty of designing characters that might be used for a solid body of text. So, it is very much to the project's credit that it has attracted serious font designers who are interested in this supreme test of their skills.

Among the sans serifs, Cantarell, Ubuntu, and Terminal Dosis Light are all eminently practical. Conveniently, a few of the sans serif fonts have several variants, including a narrow weight and a caption weight -- this last being a recognition that making characters legible at smaller sizes requires more than just shrinking them down. If you look, for example, at PT Sans, the caption weight features letters that are slightly broader and taller than other weights of the same fonts. One or two, such as Quattrocentro Sans, are available in complementary serif and sans-serif versions, making them useful for layouts with headings and long passages of text.

The serifs are especially outstanding in the collection. For those who want a reliable, classic font for block of texts, there are EB Garamond and Old Standard TT. Two based on the designs of Frederic Goudy, Goudy Bookletter 1911 and OFL Sorts Mill Goudy, are also available. Other original serif fonts of distinction include Merriweather, Crimson Text, Radley, and Josephin Slab (which is matched with Josephin Sans).

The one family of fonts that is unrepresented (unless I missed some examples) are monotypes, whose letters are all the same width and that are traditionally used for terminals. But, then, monotypes are rare in any collection, perhaps because of the limitations that they place upon design, so Google Web Fonts is hardly unique in this respect.

The end of the problem

As an occasional graphic designer, when using free fonts, I miss the typefaces designed by some of the great 20th Century typographers such as Adrian Frutiger, Jan Tschichold, or Eric Gill. Unfortunately, much of their work is under license to traditional foundries, and likely to remain so.

However, these absences matter far less than they did a few years ago. If Google Web Fonts proves anything, it is that typographers are as willing to work under the right free license as programmers are (although collaborative efforts are still the exception rather than the norm). The project is not only a valuable resource in itself, but also a place to learn the names of free-license typographers so that you can look them up.

Half an hour's browsing will be more than enough to prove that first rate free fonts are no longer a rarity. The real problem, if your font-fetish is anything like mine, is restricting your browsing to half an hour.

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