Galano Grotesque by René Bieder — available via MyFonts

Why free fonts often fall flat

The idea of paying for fonts is sometimes a strange one for clients, particularly early stage startups and entrepreneurs. When things are just getting started (and revenue is not yet pouring from the skies) it’s understandable that young businesses want to save on expenses wherever possible.

To us, purchasing typefaces makes complete sense because we’re classically trained visual designers and full-on type nerds. We don’t have MBAs or any other sort of formal business credential. Despite this, we understand the importance of framing our design decisions in business terms to help clients and decision makers understand the importance of paying for effective solutions. Our job is to conceptualize and craft a design that is nuanced, then elaborate the value of things like quality typefaces to the people who write the cheques.

A lot of folks don’t think that much about type. Beyond top-level internet jokes about Comic Sans or bad kerning, there just isn’t a common foundation of knowledge or training. This is completely understandable in the same way that we don’t know how to fly a plane, how to code in Lisp, or how a smartphone can be charged over WiFi (it’s magic, surely!).

Despite most people not having any deep knowledge about the history and best practices of typography, everyone who can read or recognize letters is affected by its forms and arrangements. Arguably, humans spend more time interacting with text in one day than they do with food, music, and family combined. Typeset words saturate nearly every moment of our waking existence.

Each typeface comes loaded with its own unique set of characters that combine to create a specific feeling for the reader. These feelings vary wildly, but every typeface has one. One of the most interesting things about type is that it imparts this feeling on the reader even if the reader can’t articulate it (or doesn’t know what a serif or ligature is).

Harvard Law Review uses the typeface Hoefler Titling in display settings. Other freely available typefaces struggle to present the same balance of elegance and practical legibility. It is the combined effect of these subtle details in words and sentences that create a font’s personality.

Typography underscores all mood in visual design. We consider it to be the soul of visual communication. Put another way: type selection is like the soundtrack to a movie — it serves as an emotional cue; it sets the mood, and is only really noticeable if you struggle to listen for it.

The net effect

So why are quality typefaces and crafted type treatments important for business? Maybe by now you’re starting to get the idea… When it comes to a product launch, new marketing site, business card, logomark, or interface design — there is only one chance to make a first impression. When it comes to a site or product that someone might use again and again, the quality of the type in those designs is central to the user’s experience.

Great experiences and excellent first impressions are of immeasurable value. It’s difficult to put a dollar amount on happy users, sincere referrals, adoring tweets, and other positive effects on people’s lives. The opposite is also true. If a site or product feels generic, unrefined, not trustworthy, or otherwise off-putting, what is the real cost of lost conversions, abandoned browser tabs, or frustrated users?

This is why we encourage clients to accept the cost of font licensing as a necessary investment and an instrumental element of a memorable design. We don’t see the point in a client spending months of their time on an app or site strategy, only to later infuse that product with an inferior typeface that tarnishes the ultimate user experience. A common situation we face is an external development team switching out our carefully selected type choice with a free Google font analog that’s “close enough,” whether out of convenience or for cost savings.

LL Circular used by Spotify is an excellent example of a typeface that is nearly impossible to replace with a free option. None of these Google fonts capture the same crafted, contemporary tonality.

Free fonts may be free, but in many ways they are very expensive. If a font is free, that means it is more common and the design will likely be less ownable by the associated brand. Some companies like Google, General Electric, and WIRED even go the extra step to commission their own custom typefaces to ensure their written messages convey the right feeling. Additionally, if a free typeface was created by an amateur fontographer it will often lack the crafted details, specialty glyphs, and depth of consideration provided by a dedicated professional. These details may seem trivial to the untrained eye, but can lead to an eroded sense of trust for the brand, or otherwise put viewers off with the impression that the design feels generic or unrefined.

If you’re a business owner, or an owner of business decisions, consider this argument the next time you’re contemplating font options, or the next time a creative team asks you to make room in the budget for a terrific typeface.