Free fonts for the working day

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 30, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Free-licensed fonts are one of the quiet triumphs of free software. A decade ago, the few that existed were poor in quality and selection. Today, they may still be available only by the dozen where proprietary ones are available by the thousands, but that is still enough that a graphic designer can submit professional work that uses only free-licensed fonts. The selection varies from fonts that are meant as substitutions for famous typefaces to original designs with support for a variety of languages.

Digital fonts are dominated by the trio of Times Romans, Helvetica, and Courier. All of these have restrictive licenses, which can cause reformatting problems when Linux users share files with people on other platforms. One solution to this problem is the Liberation fonts released by Red Hat. These fonts are metrical equivalents of the dominant trio -- that is, each of their characters takes up the same space as their equivalents. When someone on another platform receives a document that uses Liberation Serif, Sans, or Mono, they can easily remap the fonts to avoid reformatting.

Other free-licensed fonts are designed to be close imitations of popular classic fonts. For example, the Arkandis Digital Foundry  includes Gillius, an imitation of Gill Sans, Baskervald, an imitation of Baskerville, and Universalis, which is based on Univers. Similarly, you can also download Futura Renner Light, based on one weight of Futura, and several fonts inspired by the designs of Frederick Goudy, the best of which are probably Goudy Bookletter 1911 and Sorts Mill Goudy, available from Google Fonts. Such imitations span several centuries of font design, and are especially handy for those trained in classical typography who are trying to use only free fonts.

Other free fonts emphasize language support, offering vastly more support for Unicode characters than most classical fonts, whose support rarely extends beyond Western European languages. These fonts have been particularly emphasized by SIL International, a Christian academic organization focused on literacy and education, and one of the pioneers of free fonts.

SIL International is also the creator of Graphite, a smart font system that allows applications to use advanced typography features such as old style figures, small caps, and ligatures. Unfortunately, though, most Graphite-enabled fonts are relatively undistinctive designs, like Linux Libertine G and Linux Biolinum, so when selecting fonts you often have to choose between functionality and aesthetics.

Original designs are still uncommon in free fonts, but are starting to emerge. Cantarell, the default font for the GNOME desktop, originally had kerning problems and a lack of multi-language support, but now has a modern, under-stated design. Although designed for on-line reading, it works almost as well on the page. Ubuntu's namesake font has similar virtues, although marred by eccentricities like a partial cross-bar on the "t" and "f" and ascenders of varying heights. Some users might prefer to avoid Cantarell and Ubuntu so as not to be associated with the projects that use them, but both deserve consideration in terms of design.

To date, one of the first free-licensed fonts is also the most distinctive: Gentium, which is based on an award-winning design by Victor Gaultney. This font is an exception to my comment above about SIL International's fonts, since it has both extensive multi-language support and a calligraphic look that causes many users to exclaim over the sheer beauty of its individual characters. Although probably too distracting for a technical manual or non-fiction, it is ideal for personal messages or perhaps fiction.

You can find other original fonts while scanning the Open Font Library and Google Fonts, although the sheer number of fonts soon makes aesthetic judgments impossible, even when you are filtering by font category to reduce the numbers. Still, by taking your time and only considering a dozen or so in one sitting, you can still find small little gems. For instance, my latest discovery is Josefin Slab on Google Fonts, a rare example of a slab serif, a sub-category that is an exception to the general rule that serifs should be avoided in online work. I expect to find many more by the time I have gone through the entire site.

Free-licensed fonts could still do with more variety, but they are thriving to a degree that no one could have expected at the turn of the millennium.

As these examples show, now, you no longer need to run Linux while working with obscure fonts of minimal quality. In fact, many quality fonts are now available as packages in the repositories of major distributions.

True, the technology lags behind. Smart font technology is still rare, and LibreOffice just recently started supporting the OpenType format, while GNOME still does not include a font installer by default.

All the same, free-license fonts have reached a critical mass that was unimaginable a few years ago -- and the future is only going to get better.

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