Free Fonts Are Getting Better, But What Does That Mean?

I’m continually astonished by the downward trend in the value of design paraphernalia. We’ve seen massive shifts in the stock photo business where those assets now cost little or nothing—and companies like Unsplash can raise millions of dollars in venture capital to give away stock images for free.

Perhaps less pronounced, for now, but still worth watching is the trend towards free in the marketplace for type. Every month I get an email update to Typewolf’s Definitive Guide to Free Fonts, an excellent, comprehensive handbook of the best offerings in the market. Each new edition adds more free fonts, and watching this activity month to month is fascinating. Jeremiah Shoaf, the designer behind Typewolf, surfaces the best of recent releases, but even amongst these the quality can be varied. Some are quite well executed while others are merely passable.

Still, there seems to be something happening here. In 2014 Shoaf himself wrote this in an article for Smashing Magazine:

Once thought of as amateurish by professional designers, free and open-source fonts have gone through something of a renaissance in just the last few years. The quality of available free fonts has increased dramatically.

When I emailed him to ask about his feelings now, three years later, he stood by those comments. “We are seeing more and more free font releases that are suitable for professional design,” he said. Shoaf pointed to several examples of high quality releases from just the past year or two, all of which are superb, admittedly:

Infini. A calligraphic sans-serif that was selected as one of Typographica’s favorite typefaces of last year.

Free Fonts and Typewolf

Space Mono. A monospaced typeface designed by Colophon Foundry.

Sample of Work Sans Font

Work Sans. A sans from Wei Huang inspired by early grotesques.

Sample of Work Sans Font

Cormorant. A refined Garamond created for display use rather than text like traditional Garamonds.

Sample of Cormorant Font

Given the quality of these examples, the question inevitably arises whether their kind will diminish the market for paid typefaces. In Shoaf’s estimation, the opposite is in fact happening: free fonts are effectively raising the bar for typography in general, at least on the web, and stoking demand for more distinctive, paid fonts. “I think free fonts and commercial fonts can co-exist peacefully,” he says.

Whether that is true or not is hard to verify, but it seems clear that the labor and expertise that goes into producing the very best typefaces will never be compatible with a market that assigns a value of zero to fonts in general. We’re not at a disruptive juncture yet, but I hope that as this evolves, we find a way to square the introductory value of free fonts with the richer quality of premium fonts.