Free Software Branding Fonts

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 30, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

In 2007, Red Hat released the Liberation fonts -- metrical equivalents of Arial, Courier, and Times New Roman. More recently, however, the trend has been for free software projects to brand with fonts. Since the resulting fonts are professionally designed, they not only add a touch of class to interfaces, but gift free software with some of the best-designed fonts for general use.

Admittedly, these sponsored fonts are short of workday serifs that might be used for body text on a page. However, all of them are ideal for online work -- and, sometimes, give a sense of a project's design priorities, even though most users pay them little attention.

Designed by Dave Crossland in 2010, Cantarell is the default font for the modern GNOME desktop. At first, Cantarell was criticized for weaknesses in its design and lack of support for non-Latin languages, but both problems have improved over the years, and Cantarell has slowly increased its reputation.

By implication, the GNOME project has equated Humanism with design for years in the name of its Human Interface Guidelines. For this reason, you can see a visual pun in the choice of Cantarell, which is formally classified as a Modern Humanist font. That means it is mostly a sans-serif -- lacking hooks at the top and bottom of letter strokes -- but with playful exceptions, such as the partial serif at the bottom right of the "u" and the "a." Square periods and i-dots and round designs for  also suggest a Ggeometric design that in the Twentieth Century was considered the opposite of a Modern Humanist design.

In short, Cantarell is a thoroughly modern font, eccentric but highly usable. I'm probably not the only one who considers it one of the best features of GNOME.

KDE Plasma has always been a kind of opposite for GNOME. So when KDE decided last year to get serious about design, instead of using a Modern Humanist font like GNOME or Unity, it chose a Geometric design. with very regular shapes, naming it after its default theme for icons and desktops.

In fact, Oxygen is very nearly monospaced. Letters like "i" may have their own width, but "l" is given a hook that makes it closer to the width of an "r" or an "s" than an "i. After all, this is the Twenty-First Century, not the Twentieth, and modern Geometrics can have their irregularities as much as Modern Humanist ones. However, with its low ascenders and descenders, Oxygen depends mainly on its regularly shaped letters for legibility.

Vernon Adams has designed Oxygen in a way that is easy to dismiss at a casual glance. But in its own way, Oxygen is as strongly designed as Cantarell and Ubuntu, and more versatile than either. Its light weight can actually be used to make a readable body text.
Fira is designed by Mozilla. Of all the fonts mentioned here, it is the closest to being a traditional Geometric design. However, it is partly humanized by having a variety of different descenders, varying from the short, straight descender of the "q" through the short curve of the "j" and "y" to the flat open knot of the "g." It has both extremely high ascenders and broad letters in general, making it the easiest to read of the fonts mentioned in this article.
A couple of oddities: Fira's medium would be more accurately described as "semi-bold," and, unlike many modern designs, its italic has both slanted and curved letters and is not just an oblique (the regular weight angled).
Fira is not an obviously beautiful font like Cantarell or Ubuntu. However, the more you work with it, the more you are likely to appreciate it -- almost like Mozilla itself, although I am sure that was not a value intentionally included.

Like Cantarell, Ubuntu is a Modern Serif. However, its peculiarities are all its own. Ascenders and descenders (the strokes of lower case letters like "b" or "d" where they rise above the top of letters like "m" or "x," or descend below the baseline that other letters rest upon) have scoops out of their end, making them neither serifs nor sans-serifs. Different bowls are used, so that the enclosed parts of "a" and "b" have different shapes, and the cross-bars on "f" or "t" are on only one side of the ascender. It is a font that is under-stated a the same time that is quietly original.

The Ubuntu font is one of the results of Canonical Software's pre-occupation with desktop design. It was designed and tweaked by Dalton-Maag, a leading font foundry.

If anything, Ubuntu is almost too successful at its main purposes. While suitable for a heading, most of its weights are too dark to be used for any other purpose. An exception is its Light weight, which also emphasizes the clean lines of its letters.

Mint Spirit
Linux Mint does not have a branding font used in all its releases. However, thanks to Hirwen Harendal, Linux Mint does have two unofficial fonts: Mint Spirit, and a more subdued version called Mint Spirit No. 2.

I have never asked, but I suspect that the reason that Mint Spirit was never made official is tht its letter shapes are more reminiscent of an Art Nouveau font than anything practical. Certainly the second version tones down the first considerably -- but also makes it less memorable, perhaps too unmemorable to use.

Still, I can't help thinking that Mint Spirit captures some of the originality of Linux Mint as a distribution. Even the regular weight is so rounded that it seems to be evolving into an italic, with even the arms of the "w" curving slightly, and looking like an inverted "m." As for the capital "M," it occupies so much space as to be outrageous -- and looks nothing like the capital "N," as usually happens in most fonts. Personally, I remain fond of Mint Spirit, and look forward to a chance to use it.

Branding and associations
The one problem with these branded fonts is that using them might seem to be a hidden endorsement of the project whose image they create. Fortunately, though, the associations with software project are weak enough that you can probably use any of these fonts without most readers making the connection.

Some of these fonts, such as Ubuntu, may have been designed with commercial products in mind. However, I prefer to think of them as gifts to the community. Free-licensed fonts are quickly increasing in number, but there are still not enough of them that ones with the quality of these ones can be ignored.

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